“The First Four Notes” by Matthew Guerrieri

John Donne wrote that “All mankind is one author; and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language”. The hope, taken for granted by Donne, is that we are lead to a better language. It’s quite a wager, especially when we’re dealing with translators of all sorts. What could come out of it might be messier, not necessarily better. But the process of translation is a necessity. It is how we comprehend what came before us, which might as well be a foreign tongue.

Exploration of translation is Matthew Guerrieri’s task, taking Beethoven’s chapter and focusing on the paragraph of his 5th symphony. But he zooms in even more onto the opening sentence of this paragraph: the four note motif: da da da dum!

There have been many who have taken Beethoven’s 5th, from revolutionaries to totalitarians, as the subject of translation. And these translations have translations of distant chapters that orbit around them: a strain of music theory relating to the 5th for instance. It’s no surprise that the accumulation of translations can make up a book in of itself. Guerrieri elegantly aligns these translations in a way that creates a web of relations, an expanding universe of, as the subtitle states, “Beethoven’s 5th and the Human Imagination”.

This book leaves one in a dizzying state of awe. How a sentence of a paragraph of a chapter can send a ripple through the volume of all mankind…


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