The nearest snow is sixty miles away from here

The First Four Notes, by way of a slightly unreliable narrator (me) will be on The Diane Rehm Show today. In the words of our unofficial national mantra, check your local listings.

Also, the book has spurred another bit of thoughtfulness, this one courtesy of Eileen Reynolds and the L.A. Review of Books. Concrete and chromium adorn ya!

Raise a glass

Happy 242nd birthday to Ludwig van Beethoven!
It is the process [of creativity] that motivates every human activity, from the Sunday Sermon to the Happy Hour at the local bar. Only the consciousness of the fact differs. If you know it incredibly well you write Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. If you refuse to even consider it, than cocktail hour may be your most important experience. This is not to suggest that Beethoven's cocktail hour might not have been momentous.

—Keith Jarrett (liner notes
for Concerts, 1982)

By the time I get to

A reminder that I will be in Phoenix, Arizona tonight, December 12, at 6:30 PM, talking with T. A. Frank of Zócalo Public Square. (Click that link for details.)

Also, The First Four Notes has recently attracted notice from the Washington Times and Bookforum. Thank you!


The First Four Notes and its author have had a busy week. On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of reading (and manhandling the keyboard) at the Greenwich Library; thank you to everyone who came out, especially in far-from-ideal weather conditions. Then, yesterday, my that's-a-great-face-for-radio tour continued with a visit to WBUR's Radio Boston, which you can now listen to on their website.

There's also a brief interview with me in this week's issue of The Phoenix; many thanks to Debra Cash for making my thoughts sound coherent and linear. Not easy!

If that still isn't enough Ludwig van for you, then do come out to the People's Republic of Cambridge, Massachusetts tonight, November 30 at 7:00 PM at the Harvard Book Store for another reading.

All is Bright

"A Fifth of Beethoven," played by the St. John's Steel Band. For a Christmas Eve service! Good tidings.


Attention has been paid to The First Four Notes in recent days by both the Columbus Dispatch and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel—the latter listing it among "100 Books for Holiday Gift-Giving" as one of "6 books about old guys and their music," which made my day.

Also, a reminder that I will be appearing at the Greenwich Library tonight, November 27, at 7:00 PM, to talk about the book. Some pounding of a piano may also come to pass, if that is any enticement. Fair warning: the pounding will be done by me.

Something In the Air

I had the great pleasure of being interviewed on various things Beethovenian by Robert Siegel for NPR's All Things Considered, and the equally great pleasure of having that interview birdsmouth joined to the eloquence of John Eliot Gardiner in yesterday's show. You can listen here if you missed it the first time around.


December 21, 1808 was the day before the premiere of Beethoven's Fifth. Probably the most dramatic thing to happen that day was a battle: the Battle of Sahagún, in which the 15th Hussars of Great Britain (also known as the 15th Light Dragoons) defeated the 1st provisional Chasseurs à cheval and the 8th Dragoons of Napoleon's army at the town of Sahagún, in northern Spain. British forces, under the command of Sir John Moore, had crossed into Spain in order to boost Spanish insurrection against French occupation. The Corunna Campaign, as it came to be known, resulted in some initial successes for the British, but, unknown to them at the time, Sahagún would be the high point of the campaign; Napoleon had already slipped into Spain at the head of another army ("I start at once," he wrote Josephine, "to outmaneuver the English"), and the British were soon engaged in a disastrous wintertime retreat to the coast, only escaping after being forced to fight one more skirmish as they waited for their ships to arrive. Moore was casualty of that last fight, remaining alive long enough to know that the French had been driven back and that his remaining troops had finally set sail.

The retreat did net the British one more prize: Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, commander of Napoleon's IV Corps. Napoleon reported to Josephine:
[Lefebvre] took part in a skirmish with 300 of his chasseurs; these idiots crossed a river by swimming and threw themselves in the midst of the English cavalry; they killed several, but on their return Lefebvre had his horse wounded; it was swimming, the current took him to the bank where the English were; he was taken. Console his wife.
Lefebvre, who escaped from Britain in 1811, returned to Napoleon, remaining in his service through the Hundred Days; he was wounded at Waterloo. After the Bourbon Restoration, he went into exile in, of all places, Alabama—the Vine and Olive Colony, a short-lived and ill-fated attempt by a group of former Bonapartists to create a small plot of French agriculture in the midst of the American south. In 1822, Lefebvre was finally allowed to return to France, but his ship sank off the coast of Ireland, with the loss of all aboard.

Also on December 21, 1808, the United States Senate passed the Enforcement Bill. The bill gave the Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, sweeping (and, in the opinion of the bill's opponents, unconstitutional) powers to enforce the embargo on French and British ships that had been imposed the previous December. This, too, was a result of the Napoleonic Wars, with both France and Britain trying to interdict American shipping to each other, and the U.S. trying to maintain neutrality. A series of provocations—primarily by the British Royal Navy, who had taken to boarding American ships and pressing American sailors into British service, and, in the case of the Chesapeake affair, actually firing upon an American ship—had led to calls for military action. Jefferson, riding a wave of popularity and legislative control, preferred and pushed through the "peaceful coercion" of an embargo.

But Jefferson's implementation of the embargo was widely regarded as heavy-handed and a violation of the spirit of small government espoused by his own Republican party. His opposition, the Federalist party, was primarily based in New York and New England, the states most burdened by the embargo. As a result of the embargo's unpopularity, Federalists had made substantial gains in the 1808 elections, even as Jefferson's fellow Republican James Madison won the presidency.

The lame-duck session's passage of the Enforcement Bill was, for the Federalists, the final straw; as Henry Adams put it: "Hitherto the tone of remonstrance had been respectful; under cover of the Enforcement Act it rapidly became revolutionary." Thomas Pinckney, the Massachusetts senator who was the party's hard-line standard-bearer, promptly began to try and organize a confederation of New England states to resist the embargo—a confederation that would have amounted to a de facto dissolution of the union. The pressure eventually got to Jefferson and his administration, and the outgoing president signed a bill lifting the embargo. It was hardly a balm; in fact, replacing the embargo with a policy of strict non-intervention did little to appease the Federalists—New England states would continue to periodically consider secession throughout Madison's presidency—and, by upping the ante from embargo, it began an acceleration of tensions that would result in the War of 1812.

The same day the Senate voted on the Enforcement Bill, Jefferson welcomed a delegation of Native Americans—Miamis, Potawatomis, Delawares, and Chippewas—to the White House. It was one of a series of such meetings Jefferson held over the last months of his presidency in order to try and convince the Native Americans not to turn back to the British (who, after all, still controlled Canada) as allies. But Jefferson's December 21 message to Captain Hendrick, chief of the Delawares, made the power asymmetry and the condescension the tribes were faced with particularly blunt:
The picture which you have drawn, my son, of the increase of our numbers and the decrease of yours is just, the causes are very plain, and the remedy depends on yourselves alone. You have lived by hunting the deer and buffalo—all these have been driven westward; you have sold out on the sea-board and moved westwardly in pursuit of them. As they became scarce there, your food has failed you; you have been a part of every year without food, except the roots and other unwholesome things you could find in the forest. Scanty and unwholesome food produce diseases and death among your children, and hence you have raised few and your numbers have decreased. Frequent wars, too, and the abuse of spirituous liquors, have assisted in lessening your numbers. The whites, on the other hand, are in the habit of cultivating the earth, of raising stocks of cattle, hogs, and other domestic animals, in much greater numbers than they could kill of deer and buffalo. Having always a plenty of food and clothing they raise abundance of children, they double their numbers every twenty years, the new swarms are continually advancing upon the country like flocks of pigeons, and so they will continue to do. Now, my children, if we wanted to diminish our numbers, we would give up the culture of the earth, pursue the deer and buffalo, and be always at war; this would soon reduce us to be as few as you are, and if you wish to increase your numbers you must give up the deer and buffalo, live in peace, and cultivate the earth. You see then, my children, that it depends on yourselves alone to become a numerous and great people.
In New York City, the original Grace Church, at the corner of Broadway and Rector, was consecrated on December 21, 1808. (The current church, at Broadway and 10th, would not be consecrated until 1846.) That evening, at the New-York Theatre, the pioneering American impresario William Dunlap presented his adaptation of August von Kotzebue's Die Versöhnung, called Fraternal Discord, as a benefit for distressed seamen (much of the the distress, one can surmise, resulting from Jefferson's embargo). Despite poor weather, Dunlap reported receipts of $1177. Kotzebue was the most popular—and critically-reviled—German-language playwright of the time. Beethoven wrote incidental music for two of his plays, King Stephen and The Ruins of Athens, and composer and writer, at one point, briefly considered collaborating on an opera about Attila the Hun.

Straw Man

A recent commercial for the ampm chain of convenience stores, found across the Western United States. Other Beethoven-5-based commercials are discussed in Chapter 7 of The First Four Notes. Fun fact: in the early 50s, Bobby Darin and Don Kirshner (the man behind the Monkees), then both working in the advertising industry, pitched a jingle based on the Fifth to promote a German airline company. They were, not surprisingly, turned down.

Dome of Spheres

Happy Hallowe'en from Ludwig van Beethoven's skull! The photo was taken by J. B. Rottmayer in 1863, when Beethoven's remains (and Franz Schubert's) were exhumed under the auspices of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in order that they might be reinterred in more suitably monumental fashion in Vienna's Währing cemetery. (In 1888, the Währing cemetery having closed, the Gesellschaft would upgrade Ludwig yet again, to Vienna's Zentralfriedhof, where the body resides to this day.) The skull is incomplete—at some point (probably in 1863), someone (probably Gerhard von Breuning, son of Stephen von Breuning, one of Beethoven's friends and biographers) removed two bone fragments that are now in the collection of San José State University's Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies. Also, at some point (probably during Beethoven's autopsy in 1827) the ossicles, the bones of the middle ear, were also removed, and subsequently disappeared. (The saga of Beethoven's skull was traced by William Meredith in the Summer/Winter 2005 issue of The Beethoven Journal.)

Richard Wagner, in his 1870 book on Beethoven, in language reminiscent of Romantic consdierations of Beethoven's deafness, pointed to the size of Beethoven's skull as proof of his privileged access to an interior world of inspiration:
It used to be held as a physiological axiom that for high intellectual endowments a large brain should be enclosed in a thin delicate skull, to facilitate an immediate cognition of external things; nevertheless, upon the inspection of his remains some years ago, we saw, in conformity with the entire skeleton, a skull of altogether unusual thickness and firmness. Thus nature guarded a brain of excessive delicacy, so that it might look inwards, and carry on in undisturbed repose the world contemplation of a great heart. This supremely robust constitution enclosed and preserved an inner world of such transparent delicacy, that, if left defenceless to the rough handling of the outer world, it would have dissolved gently and evaporated[.]
Over at Soho the Dog, Arnold Schoenberg (who figures prominently in chapter 6 of The First Four Notes) offers his own holiday contribution.

The Squeaky Wheel

Despite recent progress in identifying genes underlying deafness, there are still relatively few mouse models of specific forms of human deafness. Here we describe the phenotype of the Beethoven (Bth) mouse mutant and a missense mutation in Tmc1 (transmembrane cochlear-expressed gene 1). Progressive hearing loss (DFNA36) and profound congenital deafness (DFNB7/B11) are caused by dominant and recessive mutations of the human ortholog, TMC1 (ref. 1), for which Bth and deafness (dn) are mouse models, respectively.
From S. Vreugde et al., “Beethoven, a mouse model for dominant, progressive hearing loss DFNA36," Nature Genetics vol. 30, no. 3 (2002). The significance is that both the Bth mutation, which the authors describe, and the previously discovered dn mutation occur on the same gene (Tmc1), which has a known human homologue (TMC1). In other words, the degeneration of cochlear hair cells, which leads to the gradual onset of certain kinds of deafness, has a genetic basis that can be modeled in the lab. “Beethoven," the authors conclude, “may thus provide insight into the factors needed for long-term survival of hair cells and may increase our understanding of the hair-cell degeneration assumed to be associated with progressive hearing loss with ageing (presbyacusis) in a large proportion of the human population."

Font of Trivia

The font on the cover of The First Four Notes is called Humboldt Fraktur. Created in 1938 by German designer J. A. Hieronymus Rhode, better known as Hiero Rhode, it was one of the last new blackletter fonts to appear in Germany before the Nazi regime mandated a switch to Roman fonts, partially because blackletter would impede communication with newly-occupied territories, and partially because Adolf Hitler was annoyed by it.

Humboldt Fraktur was named for the Prussian explorer, naturalist, and writer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), whose accounts of a 1799-1804 voyage to the Americas made him one of the most celebrated scientific celebrities of his time. Humboldt was present at the unveiling of the Beethoven statue in Bonn in 1845, at which the royal family and other dignitaries were situated behind the statue, such that, when it was unveiled, Beethoven seemed to be turning his back on them. Humboldt, the story goes, smoothed over the faux pas by noting that Beethoven had always been ill-mannered anyway.

The cover of The First Four Notes was designed by Peter Mendelsund, whose visual acuity is rivaled by his writing.

Toronto the Good

The Globe and Mail assesses The First Four Notes as one of fifteen must-read non-fiction books this fall.

Five-String Symphony

James McKinney, flatpicking at fate, with Becky Jeffers on bass. Based on an arrangement by Larry McNeely. (Mike Iverson does a clawhammer translation here.)

They got a crazy way of loving there

In The Kansas City Star, Steve Paul highlights the upcoming release of The First Four Notes, flatteringly categorizing it under “high culture."