September 19, 2013

"Was Beethoven’s Metronome Wrong?"

It's long been suspected, based on his weird tempo markings.
[M]usic historian Peter Stadlen has actually located Beethoven’s metronome....


Ron said...

Maezel's Mechanical Turk was exposed by Edgar Allen Poe's article on it....This was 'detective Poe' writing on "Maezel's Chess Player."

Ern said...

The Smithsonian article refers to "Sixty-six out of 135" pieces by Beethoven. This is somewhat incorrect. The last piece of music that Beethoven published, his string quartet No. 16 in F, is opus 135, but it's common for a Beethoven opus to include more than one work; opus 18, for example, includes all six of his early string quartets. Beethoven actually completed approximately 200 pieces of music.

Archilochus said...

The metronome tempo of the Moonlight's first movement completely transforms the sonata.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

The actual research is interesting, but the linked article doesn't get close to explaining what's wrong with the metronome marks in the first place. There was long a consensus that they must be wrong because they were (in most cases) a lot faster than the tempos musicians were currently using. (A few were, in contrast, a lot slower than current practice, and it's been argued that these were typos; the march with the tenor solo in the finale of the Ninth Symphony is the famous one, where maybe the mistake is in the note value that gets the mark, so it ought to be twice the speed indicated.)

The thing is, the marked speeds aren't implausible. They were certainly unfamiliar, until people started taking them seriously, mostly from the early 80s, but a few folks before that.

Here is what the finale of the string quartet Op. 59/3 sounds like when played at about the dubious metronome mark by a high school orchestra. (Admittedly an exceptional high school orchestra, in a conservatory-like program at a Catholic girls' school, and conducted by my husband, but still ...) Is it preposterous? Does it not make musical sense?

The New Music Quartet recorded it about this speed in the early 50s, but it didn't become common until recently. To me, it seems completely right. Provided you can actually do it, of course.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...


Yes, that's only one of many things wrong with the article. Beyond disaggregating multiple works under single opus numbers (and there are a lot of those), there are the many WoOs -- "Werke ohne Opuszahl" -- works that Beethoven didn't give an opus number or were published posthumously. There are quite a lot of those, including pieces that are fairly often performed (e.g., the "Eyeglasses" duo for viola and cello, and the Scottish folksong settings).

Strelnikov said...

Maybe. But "Beethoven's Metronome" would be a great name for a band. I call dibs.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...


Only if you do a cover of the second movement of the 8th Symphony.

(Background here, though I've played in community orchestras that could do a better job than the "Bucharest College" gang do here. For one thing, they're maybe 20% under the metronome mark :-) )

Jenny said...


That's a high school orchestra?! Wowza!

Diane Wilson said...

Not just Beethoven. Also his fanboy, Shostakovich.

Shostakovich's friends (and critics) often complained that his metronome markings were too fast. Shostakovich always replied that he had an old metronome, and it was probably broken, and that he would fix the metronome markings in his next work. Which he never did.

From recordings of Shostakovich playing his own works, he did tend to play them at the marked tempos.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...


That's a high school orchestra?! Wowza!

Well, like I said, it's a very unusual high school -- a boarding Catholic girls' school with a serious music scholarship program. Those kids were great in the ordinary academic courses, but they all also spent a couple hours daily in the practice rooms.

George (their conductor) rewrote "We Are the Champions" for them after the first (or was it the second?) time they won the national championship at the ASTA convention

We are the champions, my friends,
'Cause we hold out phrases 'til the end
We are the champions, we are the champions!
We make our up-bows sound just like our down-bows
All the time.

The second verse ends

We play the concerts
And then do the homework
Late at night.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...


I wish the Bartok Divertimento was up on -- that's what they won with in Albuquerque -- but there are copyright issues with that, as there are with the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia. They won with that in Reno, despite apparently playing in a space as dry as dust. If you know that piece, you'll know that it wants a very generous acoustic.