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A TIME Magazine Top 10 Nonfiction Book of 2012
A New Yorker Best Book of the Year
Los Angeles Magazine's #1 Music Book of the Year
This revelatory book of music history examines what is perhaps the best known and most-popular symphony ever written—and its famous four-note opening. Reaching back before Beethoven’s time, Matthew Guerrieri uncovers premonitions of the opening notes in the rhythms of ancient Greek poetry and the music of the French Revolution. He discusses the Fifth’s impact when it premiered, tracing the artistic, philosophical, and political reverberations across Europe to China, Russia, and the United States, from Romanticism to ring tones, from propaganda to pop. This fascinating piece of musical detective work is a treat for music lovers of every stripe.
“Spectacular. . . . [A] kaleidoscopic account. . . . With a quick mind and wit, [Guerrieri] traverses two centuries of musical culture, literature and politics with uncommon authority. . . . We can use more commentators and advocates . . . like Matthew Guerrieri, who can restore a sense of beauty, wonderment and profundity to classical music. The First Four Notes brings back into memory many unfairly forgotten musicians, writers and scholars whose work would otherwise continue to drift into obscurity. . . . This book should serve as an inspiration to look, listen and read further.” —The Wall Street Journal
“A formidable act of intelligent scholarship and imaginative connection-making.” —The New Yorker, Best Books of the Year
“A pleasure. . . . Enormously entertaining, endlessly informative. . . . Guerrieri is a friendly, chatty guide.” —The Boston Globe
"Matthew Guerrieri is a brilliant, impassioned, and witty observer not only of music but of the entire cultural landscape surrounding the art. A bit like Beethoven himself, Guerrieri finds a cosmos in four notes." —Alex Ross, author of Listen to This and The Rest Is Noise
“How do four simple notes—da-da-da-DUM—inspire everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mao Zedong to the Nazis and the Allies in WWII? Guerrieri uncovers everything you’d ever want to know about Beethoven’s most famous symphony, from its composition in 1808 to its disastrous premiere through its more recent incarnation as a rallying cry for both discotheques and cellphone ringtones.” —Los Angeles Magazine, #1 Music Book of the Year
“With the omnivorous curiosity of a polymath, Matthew Guerrieri follows [the first four notes’] path through cultural history, from their humble beginnings . . . to their eventual canonization as the great opening of the quintessential great symphony. And, of course, to their cameo as background music for Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever.” —TIME Magazine, Top Ten Nonfiction Book of 2012
“Guerrieri’s spare exegesis strips away some of the rhetoric around the piece, by providing a concrete inventory of the musical elements that have often inspired overwrought and imprecise description. . . . Lively detail. . . . The ultimate test of the book may be in what its readers hear when they put it down and reach for the nearest recording of the symphony, ready to listen anew.” —Los Angeles Review of Books
“Fascinating. . . . [Guerrieri’s explorations] will coax anyone into giving a fresh ear to the symphony.” —The Columbus Dispatch
“New and intriguing. . . . A treasury of such information. But the allure of this book is not the factoids that will delight trivia lovers, but the encyclopedic biography of the Fifth Symphony, starting with its origins, tracing its development and, most important, charting interpretations of it over the past 200 years. . . . [Guerrieri] is as adept at tracing philosophical arguments and their transformations as he is at tracing musical history. . . . Not least of the pleasures of this book is the lucid and often sprightly prose.” —The Washington Times
“An enjoyable and at times surprising cultural history of those first four notes from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. . . . Guerrieri is an affable guide who writes with genuine enthusiasm and patience about the Fifth and the ranging material on philosophy and aesthetics he amasses.” —Bookforum
"Music’s most memorable da-da-da-dummm touched off a cultural and intellectual ferment that’s ably explored in this sparkling study. . . . Lucid, breezy prose. He makes the muzziest musico-philosophical conceits accessible and relevant, while tossing off his own intriguing insights—'Beethoven’s heroic music is a lot like Steve McQueen’s acting'—with the flick of a baton. The result is a fresh, stimulating interpretation that shows how provocative the familiar classic can be." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)