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

Feb 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "In an increasingly polarised political landscape, we see differing political views challenged, not through debate and discussion, but through tribal behaviour. We often consider the groups that we belong to as worthy of empathy, respect and tolerance – but not others. What’s more, recent research has identified that we reward our leaders for being naysayers – negating, refuting or criticising others – rather than empowering them."
Feb 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "All of which is to say that the Communist Manifesto is not a historical relic of a bygone era, an era of which many would like to think we have washed our hands. As long as workers’ rights are trampled on, and children are pressed into wretched servitude; as long as real wages stagnate, so that economic inequality continues to grow, allowing wealth to be ever more concentrated in the hands of the few – then the Communist Manifesto will continue to resonate and we will hear the clarion call of workers of the world to unite, “for they have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” "
Feb 4th 2020
EXTRACTS: "In my many visits to Michael’s studio I have had the opportunity to observe his process up close and over time.............."Armageddon Yacht (2019)". The name is derived from a term that US sailors use for an aircraft carrier. Power and violence are recurring themes in Anderson’s work – and no less here. With irony and wit he questions our contemporary assumptions and illusions about power. The central image of three models sipping martinis on a yacht presents us with an idealized vision of Western luxury and decadence, privilege and wealth."
Jan 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: " For the first time in over two decades a painting by Marc Chagall will be going up for auction in Israel. Tiroche Auction House will be hosting the Israeli & International Art auction on January 25th – featuring paintings by a number of Israeli masters, including Reuben Rubin, and Yosl Bergner. The highlight of the evening however is Chagall’s Jacob’s Ladder (1970-1974), a theme to which the artist would return at least a dozen times in paintings and drawings."
Jan 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Between 1940 and 1942 Charlotte Salomon, a young German-Jewish artist, created a sequence of 784 paintings while hiding from the Nazi authorities. She gave the sequence a single title: Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?). Viewed in the 21st century, Salomon’s artwork could be considered a precursor to the contemporary graphic novel, creating a complex web of narratives through words and images."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering. The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Lautrec had a genius for representing people. He would rarely paint any other subject. When he looked at a person who caught his interest, not only their appearance, but seemingly also their personality would magically flow from his hand, fixing a moment of their life, and his, on a piece of cardboard or canvas."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2010, Great Britain generated 75% of its electricity from coal and natural gas. But by the end of the decade*, these fossil fuels accounted for just 40%, with coal generation collapsing from the decade’s peak of 41% in 2012 to under 2% in 2019. The near disappearance of coal power – the second most prevalent source in 2010 – underpinned a remarkable transformation of Britain’s electricity generation over the last decade, meaning Britain now has the cleanest electrical supply it has ever had. Second place now belongs to wind power, which supplied almost 21% of the country’s electrical demand in 2019, up from 3% in 2010. As at the start of the decade, natural gas provided the largest share of Britain’s electricity in 2019 at 38%, compared with 47% in 2010."
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Owing to these positive developments, many were lulled into thinking that modern advanced economies can run on autopilot. And yet economists knew that market capitalism does not automatically self-correct for adverse distributional trends (both secular and transitional), especially extreme ones. Public policies and government services and investments have a critical role to play. But in many places, these have been either non-existent or insufficient. The result has been a durable pattern of unequal opportunity that is contributing to the polarization of many societies. This deepening divide has a negative spillover effect on politics, governance, and policymaking, and now appears to be hampering our ability to address major issues, including the sustainability challenge."
Jan 2nd 2020
In September 2018, Ian Buruma was forced out as editor of The New York Review of Books, following an outcry over the magazine’s publication of a controversial essay about #MeToo. A year later, in a conversation with Svenska Dagbladet US correspondent Malin Ekman, he reflects on lost assignments, literature, cancel culture, threats to freedom of speech, and the state of liberal democracy.
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "I have long been troubled by the way so many believing Christians in the West have either been ignorant of or turned their backs on the plight of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim. Right​-wing Evangelicals, under the sway of heretical theology, are so blinded by their obsession with Israel that they can't see Israel's victims. Other Western Christians simply just don't know or about the people of Palestine. I find this state of affairs to always distressing, but especially so at Christmas time, since the Christmas story we celebrate not only took place in that land, it continues to define the lives of the Palestinians who live in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. "
Dec 19th 2019
EXTRACT: "Although there have long been farmers and merchants who specialised in growing and selling seeds, it wasn’t until the 20th century that people started talking about seed production as an industrial process. Thanks to changes in farming, science and government regulations, most of the “elite” seed that is bought and sold around the world today is mass produced and mass marketed — by just four transnational corporations."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Dehydration is associated with a higher risk of ill health in older people, from having an infection, a fall or being admitted to hospital. But an appetite for food and drink can diminish as people age, so older people should drink regularly, even when they’re not thirsty. Older women who don’t have to restrict their fluid intake for medical reasons, such as heart or kidney problems, are advised to drink eight glasses a day. For older men, it’s ten glasses."
Dec 12th 2019
EXTRACT: "A decade ago, I wrote The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. This month, a fully revised Tenth Anniversary edition was published, and is available, free, as an eBook and audiobook. The chapters of the audiobook are read by celebrities, including Paul Simon, Kristen Bell, Stephen Fry, Natalia Vodianova, Shabana Azmi, and Nicholas D’Agosto. Revising the book has led me to reflect on the impact it has had, while the research involved in updating it has made me focus on what has changed over the past ten years"
Nov 27th 2019
EXTRACT: "Jay Willis at GQ reports that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said on Fox and Friends that Trump is God’s Chosen One. He said he told Trump, “If you’re a believing Christian, you understand God’s plan for the people who rule and judge over us on this planet and our government.” Perry also said that he had written a memo for Trump about how God uses imperfect people, comparing Trump to biblical figures such as Solomon, Saul and David, who were also flawed. This evangelical discourse that a providential God controls political power goes back to old West Semitic Religion"
Nov 7th 2019
Extract: "The PSA test is done using a small amount of blood to detect raised levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA). Yet, despite its relatively low cost and ease of administering, it is not offered for routine screening in many countries, including the UK. This is because a significant proportion of those testing positive have no disease (a false-positive result), slow-growing cancer that doesn’t need treatment, or positive results caused by a relatively benign condition, such as a urinary tract infection. Detecting prostate cancer early is important and saves lives. But many of those identified by the PSA test as having elevated levels of the antigen could potentially undergo painful treatment with significant life-altering side effects, which were unnecessary. Also, up to 15% of men with prostate cancer have normal PSA levels (a false-negative result), meaning that many men would receive unwarranted reassurance from this test. Guidelines in most countries, therefore, note that the possible benefits of testing are outweighed by the potential harms of over-diagnosis and over-treatment, making it unsuitable for screening everyone."
Nov 5th 2019
Extract: "Ken Loach’s film, Sorry We Missed You, tells the harrowing tale of Ricky, Abby and their family’s attempts to get by in a precarious world of low paid jobs and the so-called “gig economy”. But how realistic is it? Can Loach’s film be accused of undue pessimism?"
Nov 3rd 2019
Extract: "Travel to Prague, Kyiv, or Bucharest today and you will find glittering shopping malls filled with imported consumer goods: perfumes from France, fashion from Italy, and wristwatches from Switzerland. At the local Cineplex, urbane young citizens queue for the latest Marvel blockbuster movie. They stare at sleek iPhones, perhaps planning their next holiday to Paris, Goa, or Buenos Aires. The city center hums with cafés and bars catering to foreigners and local elites who buy gourmet groceries at massive hypermarkets. Compared to the scarcity and insularity of the communist past, Central and Eastern Europe today is brimming with new opportunities.......In these same cities, however, pensioners and the poor struggle to afford the most basic amenities. Older citizens choose between heat, medicine, and food. In rural areas, some families have returned to subsistence agriculture."
Nov 3rd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Genetic clustering has existed in all past societies. People have typically been relatively genetically similar to others nearby. But most of this was because of limited mobility."........."But in the 19th and 20th centuries, people started to move about more. Societies opened up geographically, and socially. This new mobility has created a new kind of clustering – what the American author Thomas Friedman called a “great sorting out”.".........".....this is now visible at the genetic level too."