THE FIRST FOUR NOTES: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination
By Matthew Guerrieri
Knopf, 359 pp., $26.95
It’s the most famous opening in classical music: da da da DUM, three short notes followed by a longer, lower one. But there’s a lot left to learn about Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony,’’ from its first line to its long life in the two centuries after its 1808 premiere, as Matthew Guerrieri’s enormously entertaining, endlessly informative new book proves. Those first four notes he pegs as a kind of quartus paeon, a rhetorical tool favored by the ancient Greeks (and likely known by Beethoven) for its ability to inject poetic rhythm into prose, though other influences also apply, including songs from the French Revolution (including “La Marseillaise”) and a songbird called the yellowhammer. Beethoven’s notoriously unreliable biographer Anton Schindler apparently made up the tale that the first four notes were meant to represent fate knocking at the door.
Guerrieri, who writes about music for the Globe, is a friendly, chatty guide through the thickets of Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Nietsche, as he sketches Beethoven’s importance in European debates about politics, philosophy, aesthetics, and creativity. The work resonated across the Atlantic, finding admirers among American transcendentalists, abolitionists, and the first American symphony orchestras (including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which included Beethoven’s “Fifth’’ in its inaugural season of 1881). For Gilded Age Americans, Beethoven represented cultural excellence; one Beethoven-loving conductor was memorialized for his devotion to music that “elevates, refines, enobles, inspires, stirs, and impassions the mysterious weft of the human mind.” By World War I, a wave of anti-German sentiment not only banished Beethoven from American symphony halls, but also cost BSO conductor Karl Muck, a Swiss citizen born in Germany, his job (sent to an internment camp in north Georgia in 1918, he was deported to Germany in 1919). Less than a century later, the first four notes of Beethoven’s “Fifth’’ pop up as an annoying ringtone — a historical footnote Guerrieri mines with the same wry curiosity that makes his book such a pleasure.
MY ESCAPEE: Stories
By Corinna Vallianatos
University of Massachusetts, 176 pp., $24.95
One of the characters in this bracing new collection, a gifted schoolgirl, bolts for home in the midst of an IQ test; another, facing her own likely early death, swaps roles with her nurse, an ambiguous letting go. All of the women (and some men) in Corinna Vallianatos’s stories seem to find themselves betwixt and between — in a “place of torn loyalties, confusion of being,” one notes — but the resulting fiction is clear, vivid, and affecting.
Vallianatos’s debut is rich with precisely rendered moments of painful recognition, resignation, or passionate defiance. Many of the characters are unhappy, or angry, or scared; you get the sense that they have arrived at a point of nothing-to-lose truth-telling. In the title story (the book’s best), an old woman rails against life in a nursing home, comforting herself with memories of her longtime lover: “I always thought she was beautiful. The process of her aging was better known to me than it would have been to a husband, and I was sympathetic to it.”
HELP, THANKS, WOW: The Three Essential Prayers
By Anne Lamott
Riverhead, 101 pp., $17.95
“Now I lay me down to sleep,” goes the prayer many are taught in childhood, “I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” The next line — “if I should die before I wake” — overheard at a sleepover, terrified a seven-year-old Anne Lamott, who argues, in this small but powerful book, that prayer needn’t follow anyone else’s script. Whether we pray to God or goodness or love or life — “[n]othing could matter less than what we call this force” — what matters is that we are seeking connection, or solace, or forgiveness. Any time we talk to God (whatever name we give that concept), we are praying; though as she points out, quoting C.S. Lewis, we pray not to change God but to change ourselves.
In three essays, Lamott invites readers to pray simply: to ask for help, give thanks, just say “wow.” As she points out, “human lives are hard, even those of health and privilege, and don’t make much sense.” Prayer can bring comfort, even grace; if you can feel, or just imagine, that God (or something) loves you, then you can begin to love yourself. This openhearted, expansive spirituality can tend toward adorable glibness (see: “Eat, Pray, Love’’), but it’s redeemed by Lamott’s insistence on service and humility. Ultimately, that’s what feels most useful and inspiring: Even when we don’t feel good, we can do good.