Feb 2nd 2013

Da-da-da-DUMB

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one of the most arresting of the Romantic period creations but this has not prevented commentators from writing “roaring cataracts of nonsense” about it. Those choice words from the late English critic and musicologist Donald Tovey came to mind as I picked up Matthew Guerrieri’s new book “The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination” (Alfred A. Knopf, 359 pages, $26.95). 

Intriguingly-titled, yes, but a fair question arises: Is this book more roaring nonsense? 

The first four notes of the symphony, da-da-da-DUM, certainly make an impression, as Guerrieri details in 50 rather wordy pages the abuses and allusions this musical figure has suffered outside the concert hall. Some are memorable, some are dubious.  For example, I have trouble hearing Beethoven’s quartus paeon (three shorts and a long) in Martin Luther King’s “I have a DREAM”. The rhythm is all wrong.

The problem with this book is that halfway into it the reader is still unsure what it is about. It is certainly not about Beethoven, nor did I see much imagination in it. Frequent tangents take the reader far into the clouds. Do we need to be reminded that Sir Thomas Beecham’s grandfather used to make laxative pills? I had to plow, and finally scan, to get to the end. Might it end up like a Stephen Hawking book, acquired by many, read by few? 

In a nutshell, Guerrieri is addressing the Fifth’s relationship with the 19th century German philosophers, a well-trodden path for specialists but bordering on the arcane for everyone else. Fate, destiny and possible meanings of the four notes are examined in detail. Every Beethoven reference in Hegel is exploited to some cosmic purpose.  Abstract chapter headings don’t help – Fates, Infinities, Earthquakes.

As Christopher Hitchens once said about Jean-Paul Sartre, I was soon fed up with the “panoptic bloviations”. 

The fundamental problem is that the first four notes remain an enigma, and therefore a difficult idea difficult to shape into a book-length discussion.  He uses words such as “perhaps”, “maybe” and “I wonder” to protect himself. Guerrieri discusses Charles Ives’ Concord sonata which he says collects “every varying interpretation” of the four notes, “profound and trivial, sacred and profane, feral and tame, indefinite and infinite”. I am confused.

Indeed, the four notes prove too narrow a subject, and so Guerrieri’s story widens to include the impact of the entire symphony. Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Kant, Swedenborg, Nietzsche, E.M. Forster, E.T.A. Hoffman and Isaiah Berlin weigh in. By the middle of this survey we are exhausted rather than enlightened. 

The text remains turgid despite Guerrieri’s occasional stabs at lively prose, but most of these efforts misfire. He writes: “Hegel’s discussion of Essence is one of those places where he really earns his reputation for obscurity. When Hegel warns the ‘The theory of Essence is the most difficult branch of Logic”, it’s kind of like hearing Evel Knievel say that a ride is about to get particularly bumpy.”

I turned the page when I read: “Beethoven’s music is a lot like Steve McQueen’s acting … physically dynamic, emotionally inscrutable, stoically cool.” 

Guerrieri is a critic for the Boston Globe but wants us to believe in his scholarly credentials. To wit, he bolsters his text with 466 bibliographical references and 35 pages of notes, some untranslated from the German and French. Was this a mind dump or was Google behind this research?

Reaching into his newspaper vocabulary, he boosts his prose with dissonant jargon such as mission creep, from the get-go, a line in the sand, cherry-picking and chin-scratchers (philosophers). He was a bit off key with “groovy”, which went out with the Beat Generation.

Hidden amid the bloviations are some lucid passages, too.  He showed promise with his explanation of the Romantics vs. the giants of the Enlightenment. “The Romantics were dedicated to bringing back into art the inexplicably sublime, which they thought had been bled out by the Enlightenment’s excessive rationality… (They) drafted the most singular and dynamic thing around – Beethoven’s Fifth.” 

To me his best passage is saved for the epilogue, a five-page description of the disastrous first performance of the Fifth in 1808, described by Johann Friedrich Reichardt as a “large, very elaborate too long symphony”. During rehearsals, Beethoven “pounded with such ferocity that he knocked the candles from the piano”, Reichardt wrote. The players refused to continue unless Beethoven was banished from the hall. When questions arose, concertmasters carried hand-written notes to him outside for clarification.

Guerrieri is effusive in his acknowledgements to people who helped. Among them him was The New Yorker’s Alex Ross, a fine music writer in his own right. Ross not only “vouched for the author”, he reviewed drafts of the book. In return Ross raises the effusion stakes by providing a back cover blurb praising Guerrieri as “brilliant, impassioned and witty”.  And then we go right over the top: “A bit like Beethoven himself, Guerrieri finds a cosmos in four notes.”

Well, a blurb is only a blurb.




 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."
Jun 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Research we’ve done, which looked at 37 adults with type 2 diabetes, found that over two weeks, prolonged sitting was associated with high blood sugar levels. But we also found that when people stood up or walked around between periods of sitting, they had lower blood sugar levels. Other studies have also had similar results."
May 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Paul Van Doren's legacy lies in a famous company, and in his advice to young entrepreneurs to get their hands dirty, and to know what goes into making what they are selling."
May 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley." .... " Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."