In 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.”
The 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.
One 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.
The 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?