Was Beethoven’s metronome busted?

metronomeIn his 1981 book Facing the Music, New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote of a disturbing trend in classical music. After years of listening to the recordings of turn-of-the-20th-century conductors, instrumentalists and singers, Schonberg concluded that performance tempos had slowed down radically.

“Musicians today are prevailingly slower (emphasis in the original) than they used to be,” Schonberg wrote. “In recent years we have arrived at the point where slowness and even lethargy seem to be equated with profundity. And that is all wrong. A study of old recordings is one of the most valuable tools in any survey of performance practice, and one largely ignored by students and musicologists.”

Stieler, Joseph Karl: Beethoven mit der Missa solemnis Ölgemälde, 1819The old recordings do seem to back up Schonberg. And yet, when it comes to the music of at least one composer, there now seems to be a growing consensus that slower is actually better. In fact, in a paper published this week in the American Mathematical Society, author Sture Forsén writes that the tempos in some of Beethoven’s scores are “absurdly fast and thus possibly wrong.”  The source of these errors: Beethoven had a malfunctioning metronome.

Beethoven probably obtained his metronome around 1815 from Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, a part-time inventor (and full-time swindler) who specialized in creating musical automatons, tiny self-playing devices capable of performing the popular ditties of the day. Beethoven swore by his metronome and used it to mark the tempos of his 1818 magnum opus, the Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major, Op. 106 “Hammerklavier.”

The “Hammerklavier” is Beethoven’s longest sonata, and it is widely considered to be one of the most difficult piano pieces ever written. After composing it, Beethoven boasted that the sonata would keep pianists busy for the next 50 years. In fact, the piece was considered to be all but unplayable until the mid-1830s, when Franz Liszt first performed it (from memory no less!) in Paris.

schnabel3One reason it took the likes of Liszt to finally bring this sonata to the public was the ridiculously fast tempo markings Beethoven listed is his score. His marking for the first-movement allegro is 138 beats per minute for the half note. Artur Schnabel, who in the early 1930s became the first pianist in history to record all 32 of the Beethoven sonatas, gave the “Hammerklavier’s” original metronome markings his best shot, and the result was playing that was both breathtaking and untidy. You can hear Schnabel’s blistering performance here.

kempffThe great pianist Wilhelm Kempff thought Beethoven’s metronome marking was clearly a mistake, one that could “easily lead to this regal movement being robbed of its radiant majesty.” Was Kempff right? You can hear his more majestic tempo here.

The pianist and musicologist Peter Stadlen (1910-96) spent years studying Beethoven’s metronome markings, and he was convinced something was wrong. He even located the Master’s metronome, but by then it was missing its weights and was inoperable. Nevertheless, he determined that as many as 66 out of 135 of the composer’s metronome markings were too fast and so probably wrong.

Forsén and his co-authors in the American Mathematical Society set out to prove, using a series of complex mathematical formulas, that Beethoven’s metronome had indeed been faulty. In the end, the math seemed to be on their side. But it’s unclear whether history is also on their side.

Schonberg was right. The old recordings of turn-of-the-20th-century musicians – conductors, instrumentalists and singers who had been active during classical music’s golden age – suggest tempos in general (and not just in Beethoven’s music) had been faster in the 19th century.

So perhaps Beethoven’s metronome wasn’t really broken. Maybe he really intended musicians to play his ridiculously fast tempos. Certainly, he couldn’t have cared less if this resulted in music that was too difficult. Music was a representation of life, and life, especially for a deaf composer, was hard. He wanted musicians to struggle with his music and ultimately overcome its difficulties.

And perhaps pianists like Kempff, Brendel and Barenboim are also right in slowing Beethoven’s music down. Every generation has a right to its own music. Shouldn’t every generation have a right to its own tempos?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.

Comments

  1. I thought the “Beethoven’s metronome was broken” theory had been debunked long ago. If it was wrong, it would have been consistently wrong, but even “received wisdom” modern performances are in the neighborhood of many of his markings.

    Part of the issue is that Beethoven was writing for pianos with lighter actions and less sustaining power, and for smaller orchestras in smaller rooms. Strings were played in a lighter manner, with minimal vibrato only on long notes. But Schonberg WAS onto a tendency for interpretations to slow over time. And modern interpreters tend to imitate the tempos they heard on their first recordings, without often actually trying to do what composers indicate. (See Gunther Schuller’s “The Compleat Conductor.”)

    I don’t argue for following metronome markings exactly. But it’s certainly worth trying to get in their neighborhood. And recordings of the Beethoven symphonies by both John Eliot Gardiner and David Zinman pretty powerfully prove that those metronome markings DO “work.”

  2. Dean Whiteside says:

    Interestingly, those who accuse Beethoven’s markings of being wrong only seem to think that they’re too fast about half the time. What about the other half, when they’re either right or too SLOW? Certain movements in Beethoven are often taken quicker than the printed metronome markings. Musicians have helped perpetuate the myth that Beethoven’s metronome was faulty in order to support their own performance agenda.

    See this very interesting podcast about actually following the markings:

    http://www.radiolab.org/story/269783-speedy-beet/

    Metronome markings are not there to be slavishly obeyed. A “correct” tempo doesn’t exist; a good tempo is one which is sensitive to the instruments, the players, and the performance space. We may even choose to interpret the music against the grain of what the composer has notated, as in the case of the great performers whom you mention. But following the tempi which Beethoven wrote, as extreme and sometimes impossible as they may seem, can be more exciting. Beethoven pushed the limits of possibility and often wanted us to play outside of our comfort zones.