The opening phrase of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one of the most widely recognized in music. It has mystified musicians, historians and philosophers for 200 years. Music critic Matthew Guerrieri says it’s “short enough to remember and portentous enough to be memorable.” Listeners agree it says something powerful and profound, but none can agree on what that might be. Guerrieri considers what could have influenced Beethoven when he wrote those four notes. And he describes how the motif has been interpreted around the world and throughout history. Join Diane and her guest for new insights into the music, the composer and the Fifth Symphony’s lasting influence.


  • Matthew Guerrieri Music critic for The Boston Globe and responsible for the classical music blog, Soho the Dog.

The First Movement Of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony

Read An Excerpt

Excerpt from “The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination” by Matthew Guerrieri. Copyright 2012 by Matthew Guerrieri. Reprinted here by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved.


  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony" has come to mean many different things to people across the world since it premiered in 1808. Its themes of struggle of triumph inspired revolutionaries in France, China and Russia.

  • 11:07:14

    MS. DIANE REHMAmerican transcendentalists loved it and both the Allies and the Nazis used it as propaganda in World War II. Music critic Matthew Guerrieri of the Boston Globe has written a biography of the masterpiece, specifically its celebrated opening.

  • 11:07:34

    MS. DIANE REHMThe title of his new book is "The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination." Matthew Guerrieri joins me in the studio. We'll welcome your comments and questions. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, it's good to have you here.

  • 11:08:04

    MR. MATTHEW GUERRIERIGood morning, it's very nice to be here.

  • 11:08:05

    REHMMatthew, what in the world got you started on these first four notes of the "Fifth"?

  • 11:08:13

    GUERRIERIWell, actually, what got me started on it was an editor at Knopf named Marty Asher who was the original editor of this book and it was his idea. He thought that even just the opening, there was enough there to get some sort of book out of it.

  • 11:08:30

    GUERRIERIAnd we ended up connecting and I think he was right in, to an extent that even he didn't expect, because once I started sending him chapters, I think he realized that it had gotten even farther afield than he had imagined, so.

  • 11:08:47

    REHMYou said it was kind of like falling down a rabbit hole.

  • 11:08:51

    GUERRIERIAbsolutely. It's just one of those sort of little cultural artifacts that -- and even just the opening, the whole symphony, the symphony as a whole definitely, but even just the opening, it's one of those cultural artifacts that so many people have felt the need to say what they thought about it or felt the need to try and explain it.

  • 11:09:07

    GUERRIERIYou can just pick any path and start following it and following it and following it. And to me, that was the whole fun of doing it because that's the sort of subject that I like best where you can go off in any number of directions.

  • 11:09:21

    REHMMatthew, you've listed eight interesting recordings of the "Fifth." We're going to hear kind of a montage of those and then we'll talk about them.

  • 11:10:04

    REHMI thought there were even more than that. Was there one in particular that you were interested in?

  • 11:10:15

    GUERRIERIWhen I was writing the book, not so much. I was very much trying not to have a favorite because I really didn't want that to become sort of the subject of the book and start sort of having recordings compete with each other. Since I finished the book, the one that actually I have gone back to the most is the last one, which was the rather sour sounding chord that we heard and that's by a group called The Portsmouth Sinfonia, which was sort of a British avant garde performance art experiment in the early '70s.

  • 11:10:51

    GUERRIERIIt was an orchestra made up of people who didn't know how to play their instruments and they did an entire recording of classical favorites, including, of course, Beethoven's "Fifth." And what I love about that recording is it is completely contradictory and fractious and mixed up and yet it's that piece and no other one.

  • 11:11:08

    GUERRIERISo to me, now it sort of sounds like the book to me because it sounds like all these different echoes just sort of gathered up into one place and sort of crammed together.

  • 11:11:18

    REHMWhat about Liszt's transcription?

  • 11:11:22

    GUERRIERILiszt's transcription is one of the more interesting artifacts of this because it says so much about both music consumption in the 19th century and then how we've started consuming music about a century later because he did it mainly -- there was a great tradition in the 19th century of taking these symphonic works or operatic works and sort of compressing them into a piano format so people could play them at home. And so Liszt's, of course, is far too complicated for almost any but the most accomplished of pianists to play.

  • 11:12:00

    GUERRIERIBut it was sort of in that spirit, but it became a curiosity for a while, but then about 100 years later or so, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould recorded it and sort of -- it became, in that case, a statement of sort of the relationship of the pianist and the soloist to the symphonic tradition.

  • 11:12:22

    GUERRIERIIn essence, he was sort of taking over this piece of the symphonic tradition as a soloist's prerogative, which is actually very much sort of a 20th century view of the virtuoso.

  • 11:12:33

    REHMLet's hear it.

  • 11:13:04

    REHMI'd love to know, wouldn't you, how Beethoven actually felt about the "Fifth"?

  • 11:13:13

    GUERRIERIYeah, we think he liked it. The one time somebody got him to express an opinion about his symphonies he actually said he liked his "Third Symphony" more but the "Fifth Symphony" was fairly famous even in his own time. I think towards the end of his life there are some indications that he got tired of people asking what it meant.

  • 11:13:34

    GUERRIERIThere's a very story that turns up in a couple of places where somebody asked him what the first four notes meant and he said, they meant you are too dumb, or in other tellings of the story, something slightly more profane so it's one of those things. We have this story -- the main story everybody knows is that supposedly Beethoven said that the opening of the symphony represented fate knocking at the door and once you scratch the surface, you realize this is a story that is almost impossible to track down.

  • 11:14:11

    GUERRIERIIt came from a man named Anton Schindler who was Beethoven's secretary for a time and also one of his early biographers and he's sort of notorious in musicological circles for being a completely unreliable chronicler so no one really knows whether that story is true or not. It sounds a little too clean for my taste, but we don't know.

  • 11:14:33

    GUERRIERIBut I think the fact that we don't know is actually what made the story so popular because you could freely adapt it to whatever nuance you needed it to support.

  • 11:14:41

    REHMHis works have been so closely analyzed. Why is that?

  • 11:14:48

    GUERRIERIWell, there are a couple of reasons. It was during his lifetime the perception of composition changed. Before then, musicians and composers, they were considered, you know, it was an honorable profession. They could even be celebrated. But during Beethoven's lifetime, the German Romantics, in particular, got their hands on music and they elevated the status of the composer to something that was much higher than it had previously been.

  • 11:15:23

    GUERRIERITheir mascot for that was Beethoven because he was the greatest composer around so all of a sudden we have this body of work that people were considering much more important than they did before so that was one reason that he started to be analyzed much more closely.

  • 11:15:38

    GUERRIERIThe other reason is that unlike a lot of composers, all of his sketches, or at least most of his sketches, survived so we can actually go and track the pieces as he reworks them and reworks them and reworks them through his sketch books. So it's just -- we have data unlike somebody like Mozart who -- we have this image of Mozart as sort of, you know, just getting music beamed directly into the head.

  • 11:16:02

    REHMComing into, right...

  • 11:16:02

    GUERRIERIBut a lot of that is just because all of his sketches were destroyed after he died so we didn't have anything to look at, whereas Beethoven, it's almost all there. It's scattered in libraries all over the place, but you can go and we just have this enormous quantity of data to be analyzed.

  • 11:16:18

    REHMMatthew, do we know what was going on in Beethoven's life at the writing of the "Fifth"?

  • 11:16:26

    GUERRIERIWell, it was a rather fraught time for him. He was coming to terms with the fact that he was going deaf. When he first realized he was going deaf, he had tried to keep it a secret. He had just arrived in Vienna. He was trying to make a career as a composer and a pianist.

  • 11:16:45

    GUERRIERIIn the book, I talk about the fact that he may have just been afraid that this would undermine his attempts. One of the things that I didn't consider at the time, but now which I think might be just as important, was he didn't want people to know he was deaf or going deaf because he didn't want to be perceived as a novelty act, sort of like, oh, a deaf composer.

  • 11:17:05

    GUERRIERIIt's interesting, but I think his ambition was beyond that so he really wanted to be taken seriously as a composer and as a musician before he would let that information out. But the "Fifth Symphony," it's a time when he's really coming to terms with it.

  • 11:17:21

    GUERRIERIAnd there's an interesting note he wrote himself around this time where he tells himself, let your deafness no longer be a secret, even in your art.

  • 11:17:37


  • 11:17:37

    GUERRIERIAnd there has been some speculation, in particular by a musicologist named Owen Jander, that the Third Movement of the "Fifth Symphony," the scherzo, when it comes back -- and it comes back in this really unusual orchestration which is very sparse and very spare. And Jander has suggested that that is Beethoven trying to communicate to the audience what it feels like to listen to a piece of music as your hearing is going.

  • 11:18:06

    GUERRIERIAnd it's a great idea. It's one we can't really prove one way or the other, but it's a fascinating idea that at the time he was writing this piece, he was starting to really, you know, bring these elements of his own life into the music.

  • 11:18:24

    REHMMatthew Guerrieri is a writer, pianist, conductor, composer and music critic for the Boston Globe. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, we'll hear more of Beethoven's "Fifth" and the music behind it. Stay with us.

  • 11:20:06

    REHMAnd if you've just joined us, we're talking with Matthew Guerrieri. He is the music critic for the Boston Globe. He is also in his own right a pianist conductor and composer. His new book titled the "First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination." I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

  • 11:20:49

    REHMHere's an email saying, "I saw a travel show and a bird in the alps sings those first four notes from Beethoven's Fifth."

  • 11:21:21

    REHMWhat is that bird, Matthew?

  • 11:21:23

    GUERRIERIThat bird is the yellow hammer and if you can -- if you hear it it's just a bunch of repeated notes and then a longer note which sometimes is lower. Sometimes it's higher but usually it's lower. And there was a story in Beethoven's time and it somewhat persisted that he meant the opening of the Fifth Symphony to represent -- to be sort of an evocation of the song of the yellow hammer.

  • 11:21:50

    GUERRIERIAnd this is one of the most interesting things that I learned writing the book, but I already sort of knew this story. It usually gets mentioned in passing before we get onto fate knocking at the door because people think that's much more interesting. But unlike that fate story the birdsong story was around during Beethoven's lifetime. It was mentioned by an acquaintance of his in one of his obituaries. And it was also mentioned by another composer and pianist named Carl Czerny who was a friend of Beethoven. And he said, yes this is where he got it.

  • 11:22:23

    GUERRIERIAnd what's interesting is it faded from view largely because as the world became more modern this seemed like too trivial a source, that he was just, you know, imitating a bird at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony. But what's really interesting is that during Beethoven's time and knowing what we know about the things that Beethoven was interested in, he actually wouldn't have considered that a trivial source for the symphony.

  • 11:22:48

    GUERRIERIWe don't know if that's really what he meant but if the story is true, Beethoven would've actually considered that a rather noble and honorable source for the symphony because he was fascinated by a particular type of science and philosophy at the time called naturphilosophie, which was very prevailing among German intellectual life. And it was this way of sort of organizing all of creation into these grand logical and we now know largely ridiculous hierarchies. But they didn't know that at the time. They took it very seriously.

  • 11:23:25

    GUERRIERIAnd one of the interesting things is there's one particular very intricate set of hierarchies that was done by a German thinker of the time named Lorenz Oken. And we know that Beethoven had at least passing familiarity with him. And if you go back and look at it he has all these nested five-part hierarchies of nature. And he very crucially ranks birds just below humans because of the birdsong. Because it's...

  • 11:23:53

    REHM...the voice.

  • 11:23:54

    GUERRIERI...because they have a voice and they're communicating something.

  • 11:23:55

    REHMYeah, right.

  • 11:23:57

    GUERRIERISo the idea that, you know, this story is actually a really plausible one was one of my favorite things I learned right in the book.

  • 11:24:07

    REHMWhat about the possibility that it could've been inspired or could've been, in your words, the byproduct of an ancient Greek toastmaster's trip?

  • 11:24:24

    GUERRIERIYeah, this is highly speculative, but I think it's really interesting because the rhythm of the Fifth where it's three short and one long in...

  • 11:24:33


  • 11:24:35

    GUERRIERIYes. In Greek oratory, that's known as a quartus paeon, which is its particular -- it's a metrical foot. And all the people in ancient Greece and ancient Rome who wrote about basically public speaking and poetry and oratory, they all talk about this particular foot as something very particular because it lets you be poetic, because it's poetic rhythm. But when you recite it, it doesn't sound nearly as much like poetry as other meters. It doesn't have that sing-songy quality.

  • 11:25:10

    GUERRIERIAnd so they said it was a great way to sort of make your poetry have the force of, you know, a speech of an appeal to the jury or an appeal to the crowd. And we know that Beethoven did know a lot of classical literature but it was almost all in German translation as far as we can tell. I don't think he knew Latin or Greek beyond sort of church Latin enough to use that. But the idea that even if by accident that he had sort of stumbled onto the same thing that, you know -- because the Fifth Symphony does have that quality that these Greek analysts were talking about.

  • 11:25:52

    GUERRIERIIt's very forceful and it's very rhetorical but it does fall into these regular beats almost obsessively throughout the piece but it doesn't really grade on the ears the way a different rhythm might.

  • 11:26:05

    REHMTwo questions. First, how old was he when he wrote this?

  • 11:26:11

    GUERRIERIWell, he started it around his mid 30's and it was premiered in 1808 just after his 38th birthday...

  • 11:26:19


  • 11:26:20

    GUERRIERI...assuming that the 16th is his birthday, which is a little iffy but that's when he celebrated it so...

  • 11:26:26

    REHMAnd do we have any idea why he went deaf?

  • 11:26:33

    GUERRIERIWe don't. The modern diagnosis of his deafness would be sort of tinnitus that gradually progressed. Because the symptoms he describes are very consistent with that. And so it starts off with just a ringing in the ears which gets worse and worse and worse. And eventually it reaches the point where, you know...

  • 11:26:55

    REHMIt blocks.

  • 11:26:56 blocks and also it -- before that point it also reaches the point where loud sounds actually cause physical pain, which we know is something that Beethoven complained about. What's interesting is that tinnitus in most modern guidelines for diagnosing and treating tinnitus are very explicit about the role that stress plays in both its onset and in the perception of its severity. And certainly Beethoven, one of the most stressful people of all time, if we believe all the stories about him, he was someone who was very easily worked up. And also had come from an incredibly stressful childhood.

  • 11:27:38

    GUERRIERIHe had an alcoholic father and family life was very difficult. His father pushed him to be a child prodigy at a very early age. And so again it's pure speculation but perhaps there is a connection there between both the onset and the severity of his deafness and...

  • 11:27:59

    REHMIs there any indication of physical abuse?

  • 11:28:07

    GUERRIERIThere is some. Whether those stories are true, whether they contribute to it it's difficult to say. But we know he came out of an abusive family and we know that that affected his personality for the rest of his life.

  • 11:28:23

    REHMAll right. I want to ask you about the hold of which you write a great deal first. Let's hear an example.

  • 11:28:54

    REHMTwo very different recordings.

  • 11:28:56

    GUERRIERIYes. So you can hear there's a hold or a fermata on both the fourth and the eighth notes of the symphony and that's something -- it's -- the conductor can hold out that note for as long as he or she sees fit. And those two recordings are kind of at the extremes. The first one is the Berlin Philharmonic. It was conducted by Arthur Nikisch. And that was recorded in 1913. It's one of the earliest -- it's not the earliest but it's one of the earliest recordings we have of any complete symphony.

  • 11:29:29

    GUERRIERIAnd then the second one is John Eliot Gardiner conducting in very much a historically informed style. So you can hear they're much, much shorter. The Nikisch holds are very, very long. And then Gardiner's holds are very brief. And that sort of is in keeping with the fact that Nikisch -- the Nikisch recording is sort of the tail end of musical romanticism. During the 19th century the fermatas sort of got longer and longer as conductors and interpreters tried to put more and more meaning into the symphony.

  • 11:30:07

    GUERRIERIAnd probably the most extreme version of this is Richard Wagner who when he talks about how you're supposed to conduct the Fifth Symphony is basically describing holding out the fermatas until you've squeezed every last drop of blood from them. It's a very old testament. But we know that actually with more research into performance practice of the time that was something that was added after Beethoven's death.

  • 11:30:31

    GUERRIERISo now we've returned to sort of a more modest and -- maybe not modest but a more sort of efficient use of the fermata. So it's not -- it's contributing more to the forward momentum rather than just stopping the entire thing in its tracks for this grand dramatic moment right at the beginning. I think there's validity to both approaches, depending on what you're trying to bring out of the symphony. If -- because really the fact that there are these holds right at the beginning, even though it's starting off in a fast tempo, was kind of unusual for the times. So it's sort of an indication of Beethoven's sort of pension for pushing the boundaries of what we think of as the classical style.

  • 11:31:14

    GUERRIERIBut also you can do too much and I think in the sort of historically informed practice of maybe being more efficient with them, actually you get more forward momentum at the beginning. And sort of, you know, the rollercoaster starts going a little bit faster.

  • 11:31:32

    REHMDid he ever conduct it himself?

  • 11:31:37

    GUERRIERIHe did. He conducted it at the premier and I think he conducted it a few times after that.

  • 11:31:42

    REHMAnd how was it received?

  • 11:31:45

    GUERRIERIAt the premier it was not received particularly well. But that's also because he had not done himself any favors. It was premiered as part of a concern that he himself put on in late December. And even by the standards of the time -- and the standards of the time were for fairly long concerts -- this was an extremely long concert. And the story is he was going to put the Fifth Symphony last on the concert. Also on the concert the Sixth Symphony was premiered and the Fourth Piano Concerto was premiered, along with a couple of other pieces.

  • 11:32:19

    REHMWow. Wow.

  • 11:32:21

    GUERRIERISo he was going to put the Fifth Symphony last and he was worried that if he put the symphony last people -- you know, their attention would've faded. So his solution to that problem was to write another piece and add it on at the end. So this was an incredibly long piece -- incredibly long concert, excuse me. It was in a very cold hall. It was wildly under rehearsed. So there was -- the concert itself was not great.

  • 11:32:48

    GUERRIERIThe one review we have of the concert in a journal actually very, I think, wisely said, well it's such an interesting piece that we can't really have an opinion on it until we hear it again. So they sort of put it off.

  • 11:33:00

    REHMNot yet. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Lots of folks talk about its C Minor key. Does he actually owe that to Mozart?

  • 11:33:19

    GUERRIERIIt's interesting. He -- the pieces by Mozart that he particularly admired -- there's the Piano Concerto in C Minor that was one of his favorites -- certainly I think influenced Beethoven's fondness for the key of C Minor. But really in his C Minor works, and it's so prevalent in certain types of Beethoven's music, that musicologists can talk about Beethoven's C Minor mood and everybody knows what they're talking about.

  • 11:33:47

    GUERRIERIHe really sort of made that key his own. One of the things I looked up when I was writing the book was looking up sort of in musical guides and musical textbooks previous to Beethoven's time, they used to talk about keys and sort of give them characteristics. And C Minor is actually -- it's considered sort of this very gentle key and it's sort of this very melancholy key. And -- but once Beethoven sort of gets his hands on it all of a sudden we see in all these musical guides that no, now it's this key of great force and it's this key of great drama.

  • 11:34:23

    REHMYeah, hardly gentle.

  • 11:34:24

    GUERRIERIAnd so Beethoven in large part really changed that because he would reserve C Minor for the pieces where he really wanted to make a strong statement.

  • 11:34:33

    REHMAnd the question of how fast this piece is played really can influence how the listener experiences it.

  • 11:35:05

    REHMNow that said, 108 beats a minute?

  • 11:35:09

    GUERRIERIYes. That is at -- that is John Eliot Gardiner again and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, which is -- I think that's the most fun orchestrate name to say in the world. But that is at 108 beats per minute, which is the metronome marking that Beethoven put on the symphony. Of course he didn't put it on the symphony until about almost ten years after he wrote it because when he wrote the symphony the metronome hadn't been invented yet.

  • 11:35:35

    GUERRIERISo again, this is another feature of the symphony in which we have this piece of data about it. And we're not quite sure how much stock to put in it because by the time he was putting metronome markings on all these, going back and retroactively doing this he had progressed to be more or less completely deaf. And so people have been wondering ever since, it's like did he really mean it to go that fast? Because as we can hear, it sounds astonishingly fast, almost like a cartoon.

  • 11:36:04

    REHMI would think some musicians would've said this is impossible.

  • 11:36:10

    GUERRIERII think there was some evidence for that because certainly throughout the 19th century, based on what little evidence we have because there were no recordings yet, people didn't quite get it that fast. And then once we do have recordings it's very few, very few recordings really get back up to that tempo. And that's really until the advent of the early music movement. Before then the only conductor who really took it at 108, and even then only on occasion was Toscanini who of course took everything very fast.

  • 11:36:43

    REHMSo what is the last recording or the latest recording we have of it and at what speed?

  • 11:36:54

    GUERRIERIWell, the latest recording I know is John Eliot Gardiner and his group have just rerecorded the Fifth and it came out recently. And again, this is at 108. A lot of orchestras that are not early music specialist orchestras, they don't use period instruments, they're not sort of really putting historically informed practice at the forefront are not quite getting that fast. However, over the past, you know, 20 years it's gotten faster.

  • 11:37:21

    REHMMatthew Guerrier. He's writer, pianist, conductor, composer and music critic for the Boston Globe. His new book is titled "The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination." Stay with us.

  • 11:40:02

    REHMAnd we have many callers. Let's go to Boston, Mass. Good morning, Lawrence. You're on the air.

  • 11:40:12

    LAWRENCEGood morning, Diane and Matthew. Because Beethoven's birthday was last weekend the classical music station near Boston, WCRB, played a lot of Beethoven. And one was the "Horn Sonata, Opus 17." It's not much of a sonata for the horn, but Beethoven just writes completely wild music for the pianos to play because he was the premier pianist of his generation, if not of all time. And the left hand there is a da, da, da, dah. And it might be the first appearance of that theme, which also comes up in the "Appasionata Sonata."

  • 11:40:45

    GUERRIERIIt might be. That's true. I remember I had to play that horn sonata once and that is about at the limits of my skill as a pianist. But it's interesting that the da, da, da, dah figure may have been something that Beethoven picked up from French Revolutionary-era music because if you go back to the composers of the French Revolution, they're using it all the time.

  • 11:41:10

    GUERRIERIAnd so Beethoven, who knew a lot of that music, at least in score and he certainly admired a lot of those composers, especially Cherubini. That may have been something that he borrowed from them and then sort of made his own. But, yeah, I think "Opus 17" would be pretty early on. So that may in fact be it.

  • 11:41:30

    REHMHere's a question by an email, "Did Beethoven write the first four notes? And did those then inform the rest of the symphony? Do we know what movements he wrote first?"

  • 11:41:49

    GUERRIERIIt's a little tricky to say. We think he wrote the first movement first or least he had the idea for the first movement first. The earliest sketch we have for the "Fifth Symphony" is actually about the first 16 bars of the first movement. And he jotted it down in short score. It's a little different from the final piece, but it's pretty close. Whether he was already sort of working on this idea before he jotted that down, we don't know. It might be in a sketch that no longer survives.

  • 11:42:22

    GUERRIERICherani, who was one of the sources for the yellowhammer story, he also said that Beethoven used to improvise on that theme just for fun and just at the piano. So it may have been something that he had been playing with for a long time, but the first sketch we have of it is actually a fairly substantial chunk of the opening of the first movement. And then immediately, a couple pages later in the same sketchbook, he's starting to adapt it into the scherzo movement. And you can see how he's already had the idea of having this motive work its way through different musical moods.

  • 11:43:00

    REHMAll right. Let's go to St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Chuck.

  • 11:43:05

    CHUCKGood morning, Diane and good morning to your guest. And I just would like to say that these four notes have inspired many people, including Samuel Morse and the development of the International Morse code. In Morse code the three short notes, then one long note indicate the letter "V". And during many of the films made about World War II you would often here a "V" sent in Morse code. And it would indicate victory and it was used by the British many times. And it's just one of those things, every time I hear it the first four notes I always think the letter "V".

  • 11:43:53

    REHMAll right. And let's hear one minute propaganda broadcast from the 1940s on exactly this.

  • 11:44:06

    COL. BRITTONThis is Colonel Britton speaking. All over Europe the V sign is seen by the Germans and it's beginning to play on their nerves. They see it chalked on the pavements, penciled on posters, scratched on the mudguards of German cars. Men salute each other with a V sign, separating their fingers. Now there's a V sound. Morse is the universal language of telegraphy. And here is the letter V, the sign of Victory in Morse.

  • 11:44:39

    COL. BRITTONHave you got it? When you knock on the door, there's your knock.

  • 11:44:47

    COL. BRITTONWhen you call a waiter in a restaurant, call him like this, Hey, Gasson (makes noise). Well, there's the V sign in sound. Your sign. The sign of resistance to tyranny. The sign and rhythm of a great European army which will one day sweep the Germans away like straws in a flood.

  • 11:45:11

    REHMPretty powerful.

  • 11:45:12

    GUERRIERIYes. You can hear, just at the end of that excerpt, that was the original version of the sort of "V" for victory call sign that the BBC used for propaganda broadcasts into Europe, just on a drum. And it was some time after that that somebody at the BBC realized, oh, you could use Beethoven's "Fifth," the opening of Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony" as well.

  • 11:45:36

    GUERRIERIAnd it was one of the most sort of successful hijackings of culture of all time because it took this essentially and greatly celebrated piece of German culture and completely turned it against the Germans, to the point where there are stories of--by the end of the war when the BBC would send out a propaganda broadcast, which of course would start with the first four notes of Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony," they would precede it with a warning to turn down your radios so that people wouldn't hear Beethoven's "Fifth" and think that you were listening to a treasonous broadcast in Germany.

  • 11:46:13

    GUERRIERISo it's a rather amazing job of that. The connection with Morse is a little bit of a mystery. It seems so obvious that he would take the opening of the "Fifth Symphony" and make it the symbol for V, which of course means five. And we know Morse was a great music lover, but if that really was the inspiration for it he never said. One of the things I did learn when writing this book was that Morse code itself, had a bit of a priority controversy in that there were many people who thought that it was Morse's assistant, a man named Alfred Vale, who actually did the bulk of the work inventing Morse code.

  • 11:46:52


  • 11:46:53

    GUERRIERIAnd then Morse took credit for it. So maybe we should thank Alfred Vale for being clever and code-savvy Beethoven fan.

  • 11:47:05

    REHMAll right. To Indianapolis. Good morning, Greg.

  • 11:47:10

    GREGOh, hi. You know when Raymond Leppard was the music director here, he had a series in which he'd analyze a piece and then they'd play it. And the first one they used was Beethoven's "Fifth." And I don't know if the guest is aware of this. I know that they put out the Indianapolis Symphony on the air things that goes out all different places, but this must go back all the way into the '90s, but I don't know if he's heard any of these broadcasts.

  • 11:47:44

    GUERRIERII haven't heard those ones, but I have heard some others, especially recently. I know for a time the Chicago Symphony was doing a very similar thing which they would put online. And then of course there is a series of both television shows and an online component to that that was done by Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony. And it is interesting. Either first or early on they always hit Beethoven's "Fifth" because I think they think it's the one piece that everybody will know.

  • 11:48:14

    GUERRIERISo if you want to sort of start to understand what it means to analyze a piece of music it's best to start with something that people know. It's also a piece that lends itself so well to analysis, although there is a bit of a sort of chicken and an egg problem because if you look at sort of the patterns and the styles of music analysis and music theory, since the "Fifth Symphony" was written, a lot of them seem to be designed to privilege the place of the "Fifth Symphony" as a great piece of music.

  • 11:48:50

    GUERRIERISo we almost see the theory following the assumption that this is a piece that we need to celebrate for its theoretical greatness.

  • 11:48:57

    REHMAnd of course, even into modern-day music, we hear Beethoven's "Fifth."

  • 11:49:52

    REHMSo here is Beethoven, clearly ahead of his time, in terms of music. How do you think he'd react to hearing that?

  • 11:50:07

    GUERRIERII'm not sure. I think probably--it's hard to tell with Beethoven because sometimes he seems so easy going about it, sometimes he seems so enraged that someone would dare play his music in a way that he didn't see fit.

  • 11:50:23

    REHMHe didn't approve.

  • 11:50:25

    GUERRIERIThere's a very interesting passage in one of Friedrich Nietzsche's books, in which he imagines sort of bringing Beethoven back from the dead. And asking him, sort of like, what do you think of how people play your music and what do you think of the uses to which people have put your music? And he imagines Beethoven saying, well, that is neither Beethoven nor not Beethoven, but some third thing. But Nietzsche's Beethoven ends with a little bit of warning, which is basically it's your music now so be very careful what you do with it.

  • 11:51:00

    GUERRIERII happen to love all these sort of pop versions of Beethoven's "Fifth." It lends itself really well. Of course the Seminole one was the first one we heard, which is the Walter Murphy disco version, which is actually just a terrific record for what it is. And then what's interesting, if you go to that last little example we heard, which is a mash-up of the Walter Murphy single with Kanye West. It was done by a pair of DJs out of San Francisco called "A Plus D."

  • 11:51:31

    GUERRIERIIt's interesting because it's terraced. It's a step away. They're referencing not only Beethoven's "Fifth," but they're specifically referencing the disco version. They're referencing our memory of it. They're referencing the fact that it was used in "Saturday Night Fever" so it's almost like even this adaptation of it has now taken on a life of its own that in some small way recapitulates the fame of the "Fifth Symphony" itself.

  • 11:51:58

    REHMAll right. And to Hooksett, N.H. Good morning, Ricky.

  • 11:52:04

    RICKYHi, Diane. I'm a big fan of your show. Love your work.

  • 11:52:07


  • 11:52:09

    RICKYI had a question, speaking from like a world view, in your research, sir, have you come across any countries or cultures that because of Beethoven's involvement with the Nazi party--I don't want to say his involvement with the Nazi party, but you know what I'm saying, the use of his work with the Nazi party, are there any cultures or areas of the world where Beethoven is still considered kind of a faux pas or maybe just something bad?

  • 11:52:37

    GUERRIERINot that I know of. And in fact, really Beethoven was--other cultures actually made great efforts to sort of separate Beethoven from that. My favorite example is in France, because France came to Beethoven a little late, but once they came they really went for him full force. And French culture is one of the great Beethoven-loving cultures of all time. And so once World War I came along -- and even before then because France and Germany had been at odds for so long. France had started spreading the story that Beethoven really wasn't German. That he was actually, ethnically Belgian because his ancestors had been Flemish.

  • 11:53:21

    GUERRIERIAnd so they said, oh, no, he's really Belgian. And then they were okay with it. So it's unlike a figure like Wagner or to a lesser extent, a figure like Richard Strauss. Even the cultures and the countries who were being sort of oppressed and affected by German ambitions made the effort to separate Beethoven from that and carve out a privileged place for him in their own culture.

  • 11:53:48

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And from Christopher in Birmingham, Ala. who says, "A couple of years ago I heard the Alabama Symphony Orchestra perform all nine Beethoven Symphonies, it was difficult to hear the "Fifth" with fresh ears. Are there any tips the author has about listening to familiar works with a new perspective?"

  • 11:54:23

    GUERRIERIIt is extremely difficult. And Beethoven's "Fifth," it's extremely difficult. The two things I found that help is, first of all, just avoid it for a long time. I stopped listening to the "Fifth." And I made a point to avoid going to concerts that had it for a few months after I finished the book. And once I came back I was able to hear it a little bit fresher. You can seek out interpretations that are a little more extreme than you're used to.

  • 11:54:45

    GUERRIERIWe heard the Gardiner recording, which is faster than a lot of people are accustomed to. It's a little hard to find, but there is a recording that Pierre Boulez conducted with the New Philharmonic Orchestra around 1970, which is extremely slow, which is a recording I've grown to enjoy a great deal just because it changes the experience enough that it feels like I have a little bit of that freshness again. But it is extremely difficult.

  • 11:55:11

    REHMWell, I have so enjoyed talking with you, listening to this music this morning. I think people will really be taken by your book. Thank you, Matthew.

  • 11:55:27

    GUERRIERIThank you very much.

  • 11:55:29

    REHMMatthew Guerrieri. The book is titled, "The First Four Notes." Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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