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 Current Affairs

Dec 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: "Just looking at explicit debts, the figures are staggering. Globally, total private- and public-sector debt as a share of GDP rose from 200% in 1999 to 350% in 2021. The ratio is now 420% across advanced economies, and 330% in China. In the United States, it is 420%, which is higher than during the Great Depression and after World War II."
Dec 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: "The Conservative leadership must stand up to the party’s extremists, and it must do so sooner rather than later. If moderates cannot defeat the hardliners by the next election, and the outcome turns out to be as bad for the Tories as recent polls suggest, they will find they have the same fight on their hands in opposition. --- Conservatives must never underestimate the importance of their moderate supporters. If the Party continues to disregard centrists whenever the Brexiteer right stamps its feet, it may find itself out of power for a long time to come."
Nov 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "....young voters did reach the polls they voted overwhelmingly for Democrat candidates across the country. According to reports, 63% of 18- to 29- year olds voted Democrat and 35% voted Republican in the House of Representatives elections. Voters between 30 and 44 split their vote between the two parties, while older voters tended to vote Republican."
Nov 24th 2022
Nouriel Roubini: "Central banks are in both a stagflation trap and a debt trap. Amid negative aggregate supply shocks that reduce growth and increase inflation, they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they increase interest rates enough to bring inflation down to 2%, they will cause a severe economic hard landing. And if they don’t – attempting instead to protect growth and jobs – they will be left increasingly far behind the curve, leading to a de-anchoring of inflation expectations and a wage-price spiral. Very high debt ratios (both private and public) complicate the dilemma further. Raising interest rates enough to crush inflation causes not only an economic crash, but also a financial crash, with highly leveraged private and public debtors facing severe distress. The resulting financial turmoil that intensifies the recession, creating a vicious cycle of deepening recession and escalating financial pain and debt distress. In these circumstances, central banks will blink. They will wimp out in the fight against inflation, in an effort to avoid an economic and financial crash. But that will lead to a higher permanent inflation rate, while only postponing the arrival of stagflation and debt crises. In other words, central banks in the United States, Europe, and other advanced economies have only bad options."
Nov 13th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Today’s autocrats wear staid business suits and pretend to be democrats, and that has been sufficient to grant them access to high-level meetings in Davos or at the G20, where they actively recruit former Western politicians, lawyers, public-relations consultants, and think tanks to make their case in the West." ---- "....whatever the weaknesses of Western democracies, they still command a degree of soft power that their autocratic competitors could only dream of. Democracy remains popular around the world – among citizens of both democratic and nondemocratic countries. That is why modern dictators pretend to be democrats." ---- "....there is no shortage of criticism about how the US and Europe function. But that itself is a product of the press freedom and political opposition that one can find only in democracies. But actions speak louder than words: Immigrants from around the world are eager to come to Europe or America, whereas few are trying to get into Russia or China."
Nov 9th 2022
EXTRACT: "In conventional macroeconomics, an economy’s longer-term growth potential is determined by the sum of labor-force and productivity growth. If one of those factors slows, the other must accelerate. Otherwise, long-term growth suffers.  China is in serious trouble on both fronts. An unsustainable one-child family-planning policy –subsequently changed to a two- and now three-child policy – means that the working-age population is declining, and Xi’s speech at the 20th Party Congress suggested that already-strong productivity headwinds are likely to intensify. "
Nov 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "First and most obvious – it has happened before. And in an historical sense, it has happened relatively recently, with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 rightly considered a seismic event in world politics. The rub is that nobody predicted the end of the USSR either. In fact, it was confidently assumed in the West that Mikhail Gorbachev would go on ruling the Soviet Union, until the hard-line coup that failed to topple him (but left him mortally wounded in a political sense) made that view obviously redundant." ---- "So is it speculative to talk about a future Russian collapse? Yes. Is there evidence it is imminent? No. But in many ways that’s the problem: when authoritarian regimes implode, they tend to do so very quickly, and with little warning."
Oct 25th 2022
EXTRACT: " But in celebrating the CPC centennial, he [XI left little doubt of what those challenges might portend: “Having the courage to fight and the fortitude to win is what has made our party invincible.” A modernized and expanded military puts teeth into that threat and underscores the risks posed by Xi’s conflict-prone China."
Oct 8th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Recent inflation news from the eurozone’s largest member, Germany, is particularly alarming. In August, producer prices – which measure what is happening at the preliminary stages of industrial production – were a whopping 46% higher than in the same month last year. Given the long-term correlation between the growth rate of producer and consumer prices, this suggests that the latter could soar to 14% in November. Price stability – which is supposed to be the ECB’s uncompromising goal, per the Maastricht Treaty – is no longer perceptible" ----- "Since the 2008 global economic crisis, the ECB has allowed the central-bank money supply to increase twice as fast, relative to economic output, as the US Federal Reserve has. Of that growth, 83% was the result of the ECB’s purchases of government bonds from eurozone countries. With those purchases – which totaled an estimated €4.4 trillion – the ECB pushed interest rates on government bonds to around zero. This spurred countries to disregard European debt rules and accumulate debt at a breakneck pace."
Oct 7th 2022
EXTRACTS: "While some Russians have opposed the attack on Ukraine from the outset and publicly protested against the mobilisation that has just been declared, others, on the far right, feel that Russia is holding back too much and are increasingly calling for total mobilisation, the carpet-bombing of Ukrainian cities, and even the use of nuclear weapons." ----- "Will the Kremlin be able to channel the growing warmongering zeal? In view of the intensity of the rhetoric of the various wings of the Russian far right, backed recently by several Putin allies including the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, it is doubtful: whatever the outcome of the war in Ukraine, nationalist pressure is likely to become a serious and lasting threat to Russia’s internal stability."
Oct 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: "But US and global equities have not yet fully priced in even a mild and short hard landing. Equities will fall by about 30% in a mild recession, and by 40% or more in the severe stagflationary debt crisis that I have predicted for the global economy. Signs of strain in debt markets are mounting: sovereign spreads and long-term bond rates are rising, and high-yield spreads are increasing sharply; leveraged-loan and collateralized-loan-obligation markets are shutting down; highly indebted firms, shadow banks, households, governments, and countries are entering debt distress. The crisis is here."
Sep 29th 2022
EXTRACTS "Ever since she became a prominent political figure 12 years ago, Truss has been a shapeshifter. She started as a Liberal Democrat before becoming a Conservative, and she voted to remain in the European Union before championing Brexit. As a minister, it is hard to think of anything she accomplished. She signed a few EU trade deals as Secretary of State for International Trade, but most of those were rollovers." --- "But if until recently it seemed that Truss was driven solely by political ambition, her government’s 'mini-budget' proposal sheds light on her deeper ideological affinities."
Sep 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russia’s focus on Ukraine and Putin’s choice to frame this as a civilisational struggle with the west has created opportunities for China to enhance its influence elsewhere – at Russia’s expense."
Sep 20th 2022
EXTRACTS: ”The Ukrainian army is making spectacular advances,” --- “…the European Union has fully mobilized to confront the energy crisis.” ---- “we are helping our partners in the Global South to handle the fallout from Russia’s brutal aggression and cynical weaponization of energy and food.” ---- “In short: the overall strategy is working. We must continue to support Ukraine, pressure Russia with sanctions, and help our global partners in a spirit of solidarity.”
Sep 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "In 1950, a team of sociologists, including the philosopher Theodor Adorno, conducted an empirical study, later published as The Authoritarian Personality, which ....... “If a potentially fascistic individual exists, what, precisely, is he like? What goes to make up antidemocratic thought? What are the organizing forces within the person?... what have been the determinants and what is the course of his development?”
Aug 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russian aggression certainly poses a threat; but it is a familiar one that we know how to deal with. Rising temperatures, dry riverbeds, parched landscapes, falling crop yields, acute energy shortages, and disruptions to industrial production are something else."
Aug 25th 2022
EXTRACTS: "As the revolutionary founder of a new Chinese state, Mao emphasized ideology over development. For Deng and his successors, it was the opposite: De-emphasis of ideology was viewed as necessary to boost economic growth through market-based 'reform and opening up.' Then came Xi. Initially, there was hope that his so-called 'Third Plenum Reforms' of 2013 would usher in a new era of strong economic performance. But the new ideological campaigns carried out under the general rubric of Xi Jinping Thought, including a regulatory clampdown on once-dynamic Internet platform companies and associated restrictions on online gaming, music, and private tutoring, as well as a zero-COVID policy that has led to never-ending lockdowns, have all but dashed those hopes." ----- "With the upcoming 20th Party Congress likely to usher in an unprecedented third five-year term for Xi, there is good reason to believe that China’s growth sacrifice has only just begun."
Aug 23rd 2022
EXTRACTS: "Less widely noted, however, is that the prices of many commodities fell this summer. The price of oil decreased by about 30% between early June and mid-August. The politically sensitive price of gasoline in the United States fell by 20% over the same period, from $5 per gallon to $4 per gallon. The overall index fell 12%." ---- "There are two macroeconomic reasons to think that commodity prices in general will fall further. The level of economic activity is a self-evidently important determinant of demand for commodities and therefore of their prices. Less obviously, the real interest rate is another key factor. And the current outlook for both global growth and real interest rates suggests a downward path for commodity prices."
Aug 22nd 2022
EXTRACT: "How Trump planned to use the classified documents remains a question that investigators presumably have made a high priority. Depending on the answer and the resulting charges, if any, one thing is certain: Trump will play hardball, including by amplifying his claims of victimhood at the hands of the fictional Deep State, and denying any wrongdoing in purloining the documents. His lies and hyperbole, however, don’t preclude seeking a plea deal. In his previous tangles with the law, such as his Trump University scam, he agreed to compensate the victims (in that case $25 million) after his prevarications were exhausted."
Aug 21st 2022
"On one side, there is the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, for whom all but the most partisan Tory would struggle to count many successes during her lengthy cabinet career." ---- "Rishi Sunak, whose proposed policies appear more attuned to the imperative of tackling inflation and the hardship it is causing. But on the big issues of the past few years, Sunak has been wrong. He backed Brexit from the beginning, denies the damage it is doing, and enthusiastically supported Johnson’s bid for the premiership." ---- " Which of these two can offer honesty to the British people, who deserve to be treated like grown-ups? To paraphrase the US Democratic politician Adlai Stevenson, the average man and woman are better than average."