Wednesday, March 30, 2011

3/30 "B's Way" (Beethoven's Metronome Tempos)

One of the most controversial aspects of performing Beethoven's music today is tempo.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Beethoven's symphonies were usually played at a "measured" pace to allow the sonorities of a huge orchestra in a huge audience hall to wash over the listeners.  Some people also contend that orchestras were not "good enough" to play at a faster pace.  There were exceptions of course, like Toscanini and Weingartner, but they were sometimes derided for being to metronomic and rushed.  In modern practice, fast tempos have made a kind of comeback, thanks largely in part to the "historical performance" trend, where smaller forces are used on original instruments.  It's much easier to play the 2nd Symphony with an orchestra a third the size of a typical Mahler-style orchestra.

But the main point of today's post is about B.'s written metronome marks.  The metronome was invented much later than many of his works were composed, so B. went back to his old scores and retro-actively applied ("ret-conned") metronome markings to these works from 20 years past.  Almost invariably, these markings were faster than any ensemble or performer could comfortably play.  A famous violinist was once asked about these markings and he remarked, "well of course, that's ridiculous".  Was B.'s metronome defective?  Did B. misjudge the tempos of his works in retrospect?  It's common for composers to envision a specific tempo at the manuscript table, and then change his mind at the rehearsal hall because it was too fast.  Also B. was never really good at numbers by his own admittance. 
"Evidence clearly shows that the composer would, for example, simply add up the number 9 seven times to arrive at the sum of 63. The young Gerhard tried to rectify this by tutoring Beethoven in the intricacies of multiplication."
The other thing that performers mention is that there is sometimes an inconsistemcy to his actual metronome choices.  There is at least one case where a metronome marking contradicts an accelerando instruction or a ritard.  One doesn't 'speed up' to a slower speed (actually I can't recall if that's exactly case I saw explained, but it was something along those lines).

Still, it's hard to believe the greatest musical genius of all time couldn't figure out how to work a metronome.  As Ben Zander says, he was DEAF, not BLIND.  And current performing practices show that it is possible to play B.'s works at B.'s tempos (a little aside - with MIDI you can set any tempo you want.  I once put the Moonlight Sonata at 3000 bpm just for fun).  Personally I much prefer the faster versions according to the written tempos.  It's worse to be too slow, than to be too fast, for my tastes.  Beethoven's compositions were at the cutting edge of harmony and technology at the time, so why shouldn't they still be at the cutting edge of performance practice?  No one ever claimed playing Beethoven was easy.

Here's a great chart detailing B.'s metronome markings (from Cliff Eisen, "Notation and Interpretation", A Performer's Guide to Music of the Classical Period, Anthony Burton Ed., ABRSM Publishing)
More on Beethoven's Metronome Markings
Metronome Techniques (An Online Guide to Metronome use)


  1. Composers always perform their own music too fast (because they know what is coming next and can't wait to get at it). Same applies to retrospective metronome markings. Generally 10-20% 'too' fast.

    1. I've never heard that - interesting - thanks!

  2. Not true. Composers can be slower or faster than usual. They are NOT wrong. THEY ARE RIGHT.