I don’t read a lot of nonfiction. Actually, that’s not true. I read a good deal of nonfiction in the form of science journals for my day job, so when I read for pleasure I prefer fiction because I’m usually looking for a bit of escapism.
However, a couple of months ago, I read two nonfiction books that I thought might be of interest to some people.
So, if you went up to random people and asked them to hum something “classical”, I bet mostly everyone would almost immediately go, “Duh-duh-duh-DUMM!”, don’t you think? In The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri scrutinizes what is arguably the most well-known musical measure in history: the famous opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Now, a whole book about four notes might seem a bit tedious, but Guerrieri opens by looking at musical history and the forms that might have influenced Beethoven while writing the symphony, which is kind of cool. He then moves on and describes the impact the symphony’s opening has had on Western culture — starting from its debut in 1808 up through the current day. For example, early on it was postulated that the measure represents Fate literally “knocking at the door”. To me though, what was perhaps the most interesting realization is that so many political and philosophical movements tried to co-opt it for their own purposes, including both sides during the Second World War. Today, I think it’s hard to listen to the Fifth Symphony strictly as a piece of music. It’s so culturally ubiquitous that it’s almost transcended music to something that’s always been with us.
The First Four Notes is probably of prime interest to anyone intrigued by the intersection of music, history, and society, and perhaps those who are interested in how thought and criticism evolve over time. Though not exactly a page-turner (I read more about late 19th century existentialism than I thought I ever would voluntarily), I learned things and a renewed appreciation for a piece of music that I figured no one could illuminate anymore.
One thing though, even if you’re not interested in the book, I suggest that you take a half hour and turn of your phone and turn off your feeds and just listen to that symphony and try and hear it anew. It really is remarkable.
Three stars out of five, perhaps an extra one if you have Beethovophilia.
In a much more down to earth book (Piano Lessons: Music, Love & True Adventures), Noah Adams, who is perhaps best known as the former host of NPR’s All Things Considered, recounts the year in which at age 52, he decided to buy a piano, learn to read music, and learn to play it.
Adams describes his long interest in learning to play and how it was something he “just never got around to”. Well, that’s a feeling that I know pretty well, because several years ago (when I was 41) I decided to do the same thing: get a piano, learn to read music, and learn to play it.
Adams is a good storyteller and does a great job describing the uncertainty that can come in the wake of the decision to purchase a piano. Questions I knew very well: how will I know which piano to get? How much should I spend? What if I decide I don’t like it, or am absolutely terrible? Where do I even start?
The story is told in 12 chapters and covers his successes and setbacks each month. For me, I liked comparing it to my own experience. It was interesting to see that he was too self-conscious to take a class and/or lessons (which is what I did) but first tried to use computer learning (the book is set in 1996, so computer-learning was still a thing in progress and there was no internet to speak of). That was largely unsuccessful though, and Adams turned to the extreme of an immersive “getaway piano camp” week, which given my discomfort for playing in front of people sort of turns my stomach.
Of course, it was really fun to read someone perspective on something so similar to what I had done, though because he worked for NPR, Adams gets to spice things up by interleaving stories of famous musicians that he was able to meet and interview during the year. The closest I can get to that is saying that the Beloved’s cousin is the drummer for Toby Keith’s band and I met him once three years ago.
Piano Lessons is a short, but charming story about an old dog learning new tricks. And that’s something I can completely endorse.
Four stars out of five.