About the book

The First Four Notes is a revelatory work of music history, examining in depth what is perhaps the best known and most popular symphony ever written and its four-note opening, which has fascinated musicians, historians, and philosophers for the last two hundred years.

The book reaches back before Beethoven's time to explore what might have influenced him in writing the Fifth Symphony, and forward into our own time to describe the ways in which the Fifth has, in turn, asserted its influence. It uncovers possible sources for the famous opening notes in the rhythms of ancient Greek poetry or Revolutionary-era French spectacles. It traces the Fifth's impact in Europe (where the piece claimed admirers from Bismarck to Trotsky), China (where it became a pawn in the Cultural Revolution), and the United States (where it was adopted by both Transcendentalist dreamers and Gilded Age plutocrats). It shows how the Allies and the Nazis competed to claim the symphony's propaganda value in World War II. And it pursues the Fifth's continuing echoes through popular culture. Altogether, a fascinating piece of musical detective work—a treat for music lovers of every stripe.