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Beethoven's Famous 4 Notes: Truly Revolutionary Music

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Beethoven's Famous 4 Notes: Truly Revolutionary Music

Music Articles

Beethoven's Famous 4 Notes: Truly Revolutionary Music

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now a new book, a new recording and some old instruments, all addressing the most memorable phrase in music.


SIEGEL: Matthew Guerrieri has written a book about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. It's called "The First Four Notes."


SIEGEL: Guerrieri writes about how Beethoven's piece resonated with revolutionaries and Romantics, German nationalists and anti-German resistance fighters. So many people have found so much meaning in just those first four notes, Matthew Guerrieri says we really don't know all that much of what Beethoven meant by them.

MATTHEW GUERRIERI: The most common story that is told is that Beethoven allegedly said that the opening of the symphony was supposedly symbolizing fate knocking at the door. And this is probably an invention of his biographer, although we can't really tell.

The other story going around, at the time that Beethoven wrote it, was that he had gotten the opening motif from the song of a bird. And that story just sort of fell away as the fate symbolism took over. But in Beethoven's time, and to Beethoven, that actually would have been a fairly noble way of getting a musical idea.

SIEGEL: I want you to elaborate on something you write about the Romantic era, which really is of the early 19th century. And you write at one point: The Romantic era never really ended. And later you say: Every time a singer-songwriter is praised for projecting autobiographical authenticity, every time a movie star expresses the desire for a project that is, quote, "more personal," every time a flop is subsequently re-categorized as a before-its-time masterpiece, all these are reverberations of the bombshell of Romanticism. And one of its pre-eminent delivery systems was Beethoven's Fifth.

GUERRIERI: Yeah, I think that the Romantic era is another thing that we just sort of take for granted, because they've kind of always been there for us. But it's amazing how many of these ideas were new around the time that Beethoven was writing music. The whole idea that music picks up where language leaves off, which is pretty much a cliche nowadays, that was a very specific Romantic idea and it's one that's lasted.

And also, the idea that the artist is somehow more privileged in accessing these things beyond language, in accessing the sublime, in accessing glimpses of the divine - however you want to characterize it. And a lot of the ideas we use to talk about music are these Romantic ideas.

SIEGEL: In your book you recommend a number - I think it is eight great recordings of Beethoven's Fifth. We found some of them and then added some others. Here's a montage just of the first four notes as rendered by several different conductors and orchestras in recordings.


SIEGEL: Some of those promise a fairly different piece of music from the others.

GUERRIERI: Absolutely. The two things that have been argued about more than any other technical aspect of the opening, I think, are the tempo and there's a fermata that Beethoven stuck in the opening.

SIEGEL: Explain what that is.

GUERRIERI: A fermata is - it's sort of an indefinite hold. It's something the conductor can hold onto a note for as long as he wants.

SIEGEL: But the question of tempo relates to a very interesting story you tell in the book, which is that the metronome was an invention of Beethoven's day, that he didn't have access to it when he was writing his early symphonies. But later, he actually comes into contact with it and loves the device.

GUERRIERI: He loves it. He immediately buys one. He immediately sits down and starts going back over all his old scores and putting in metronome markings. And he picked a tempo for the Fifth Symphony that even today sounds really, astonishingly fast.

SIEGEL: The setting that he decided was 108 beats per minute. You have a metronome app on your smartphone?


SIEGEL: Let's hear it.


SIEGEL: That is one fast symphony.

GUERRIERI: Yes, I mean da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da. So very, very fast.

SIEGEL: So fast, so hard to play, Matthew Guerrieri says, people have been theorizing for centuries about why Beethoven might have mismarked his own symphony. A broken metronome? Advancing deafness? Nobody knows.

Here's one other story that Matthew Guerrieri writes about those first four notes. In World War II, the anti-German resistance in occupied Belgium needed a simple graffiti symbol. A Belgian came up with the letter V. It stood equally for victoire, victory in French, and freiheit or freedom in Flemish.

GUERRIERI: And once that V idea got back to the BBC and they wanted to start using it in their overseas broadcasts. It was at the BBC that they had the idea of combining it with the Morse code for V, which is of course three short and one long. And somebody at the BBC realized that, well, that matches Beethoven's Fifth. So they could start using that as a little tag to symbolize that this was going to be a pro-Ally, propaganda broadcast from the BBC.

SIEGEL: This was signal tone, from 1940 at the BBC, played on a timpani.


GUERRIERI: It was done by a very famous percussionist of the time named James Blades. When he recorded it, he later wrote that he had imagined it being the same thing as Drake's drum, which is this mythical drum in British history from Sir Francis Drake. And the legend is that it will sound at times of national crisis in the hearts, and perhaps the ears, of patriotic Englishmen.

SIEGEL: Well, Matthew Guerrieri, thank you very much for talking with us.

GUERRIERI: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Matthew Guerrieri's book is called "The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination."


SIEGEL: This is a new recording of the Fifth by John Eliot Gardiner's Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique.


SIEGEL: The Revolutionary and Romantic Orchestra, Eliot calls it, or the ORR for short.


SIEGEL: They play what John Eliot Gardiner calls transitional instruments, not baroque but not modern. The strings are gut; the bows curve inward.

JOHN ELIOT GARDINER: The primary expression comes from the bow. And expression is made with the bow with the right hand, not with the left hand.

SIEGEL: The horns are valveless.

GARDINER: It's got a much rawer and a much more mellow sound than the modern horn, I think.

SIEGEL: The woodwinds?

GARDINER: They have a specific timbre which distinguishes one instrument - a flute from a clarinet, and an oboe from a bassoon - more differentiated than you'll find in a modern symphony orchestra.

SIEGEL: The timpani are played with hard wooden sticks on calfskin heads.

GARDINER: So there's a much more percussive edge than the plump, plusher sounds of the symphony timpani.

SIEGEL: The result is an orchestra that sounds less homogenized, with less of a velvet texture than an orchestra of modern instruments.

GARDINER: I call it much more multi-stranded, multicolored that you hear. It's like looking at the weave of a carpet when you can see all the different strands, the different colors, woven one upon the other, rather than meshed and blurred.

SIEGEL: Listening to the orchestra's recording, I was just struck that I've associated all these years, original instruments with...

GARDINER: Vegetarianism?

SIEGEL: Well, with a kind of a softer, not quite so robust sound.

GARDINER: But that's a misunderstanding of - not on your part but on the way that so often these instruments are played in a very bland, precious way. And it's the opposite. To me, they're much more visceral. They're much more emphatic and much more kind of human, in a way, than the more sophisticated mechanisms of modern orchestras.

SIEGEL: And in using these instruments for you, I mean, what is the...

GARDINER: What's the goal? To me, it's not an end in itself. I've never been somebody who treats these instruments as though it's a kind of antiquarian stunt. To me, they're an entry point, a point of entry into a different sound world from the one that we hear all the time.

SIEGEL: As for the tempo of John Eliot Gardiner's new CD, his first movement of the Fifth Symphony runs just six minutes and 39 seconds. The famously fast conductor Arturo Toscanini took seven minutes and 13 seconds for one recording. At the other end of the scale, in 1970, Pierre Boulez and the New Philharmonia Orchestra played the opening movement of the "Fifth" in nine minutes and 14 seconds. So Gardiner and the ORR are speedsters.

Well, this time I played him my metronome app set to Beethoven's ultrafast notation.


SIEGEL: Can an orchestra play the opening movement to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony at this speed?

GARDINER: With difficulty. It will tend to come through as a mishmash. But it suggests urgency, doesn't it?

SIEGEL: Sure does.

GARDINER: I mean, the way I approach the Fifth Symphony opening movement is via the French Revolution, which Beethoven was very caught up in at the time, and the music associated with the French Revolution, and that particular hymn Rouget de Lisle, which has these words, (speaking foreign language). I will die, sword in hand, for the rights of man and for the glory of the revolution and the republic.

And if it is in some sense a coded message of music without words, then you've got an entry point to the Fifth Symphony. It doesn't have to be fate knocking on the door. But it can be (speaking foreign language) that gives it a rhetoric and excitement, which I'm sure is implicit in Beethoven's notation.

SIEGEL: John Eliot Gardiner was in New York City for performances this past weekend of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and his "Missa Solemnis." You can hear the performance of the "Missa Solemnis" on our website, His new CD is "Live At Carnegie Hall: Beethoven's Symphonies 5 and 7."


SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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