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How Fast Shall We Play?

by Martin Saving

The subject of tempi in Beethoven’s quartets is a controversial one. These pieces have throughout the years entered the subconscious of professional musicians, amateurs and audience, and the tradition, handed down by the great quartets of yesteryear, has become a norm against which all subsequent performances are judged. The recordings and performances we grew up with and the interpretive choices the artists made have become an integral part of our outlook on the masterworks. And the choice of tempo in music that so many people dearly love can arouse strong feelings: When the Kolisch Quartet performed Beethoven’s Op. 95 quartet in Paris according to the indicated metronome markings, presumably in the second quarter of the last century, a fistfight ensued.

Unbeknownst to many, Beethoven himself very clearly indicated what tempi he envisioned using metronome indications that for many years seem to have been forgotten or disregarded, mainly because of their controversial nature. Even today, many look at them with suspicion, or simply ignore them. For many years they were absent from the editions altogether. In the recent Henle edition they were nowhere to be found in the parts (but in the preface to the score). The completely fresh Bärenreiter edition presents them as footnotes.

The metronome as we know it was invented by the Dutch mechanic Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel shortly after 1800, but the construction was copied by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel who patented it. A lawsuit ensued, Winkel won, but it was too late: Mälzel’s name had already become associated with the metronome. Beethoven had already become acquainted to the gifted inventor Mälzel when he asked him to construct a hearing aid for him. When Mälzel constructed a mechanical musical instrument, the Panharmonicon, Beethoven agreed to compose a special piece for it: “Wellington’s Victory”. Beethoven greeted the invention of the Mälzel metronome with great enthusiasm: he had for a growing amount of time been regarding the traditional tempo indications as insufficient:

“I have long been thinking of abandoning these nonsensical terms allegro, andante, adagio, presto, and Mälzel’s metronome gives us the best opportunity to do so. I give you my word here and now that I will never use them again in any of my new compositions.” (Letter to Hofrat von Mosel, 1817)

Shortly after, he published a declaration jointly with Salieri starting “Mälzel’s metronome is here!”, paying tribute to the invention. He went on to publish, in instalments, metronome markings for some of his most popular works, and ended up having provided tempo indications for all nine symphonies, the first eleven string quartets, the Septet and a handful of other pieces. Interestingly he never provided tempi for the late string quartets, although there is evidence he intended to.

During the 19th century it seems to have been increasingly difficult to get hold of the metronome indications. They had been regarded as controversial from the outset, and with the editors resistance to publishing them and the complete change in musical aesthetics of the latter part of the Romantic era, they fell into oblivion.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a growing number of performers started to take notice of them again. Rudolf Kolisch (1896–1978) of Kolisch Quartet fame and a pupil of Schönberg became one of their strongest proponents and Boulez’s teacher René Leibowitz (1913–1972) became the first conductor to perform Beethoven’s symphonies according to his metronome markings. In 1942 Kolisch gave the talk “Tempo and Character in Beethoven’s music” in New York, which was subsequently published the same year, and it was to play an important part in the debate on the tempi in Beethoven’s music that seems to have been ongoing ever since.

Myths and Truths

A number of myths surround the metronome markings of Beethoven, and many myths need to be put to rest, but also some truths acknowledged:

1. Beethoven’s metronome was faulty.

It still exists but lacks the heavy weight at the bottom of the pendulum. Because of the lack of the static weight, evaluation of its properties is unfortunately impossible.

2. Beethoven was deaf when he wrote the indications.

The story of Beethoven’s deafness is a rather more complicated issue than popularly assumed, and hopefully a subject of a future post on this blog. His deafness was increasing during his last 25 years, but he seems to have become totally deaf only by the end. The Mälzel metronome is in any case a mechanical one with the “arm” clearly visible, so tempo is also visually perceived.

3. Beethoven fell out with Mälzel over his metronome.

Untrue. Beethoven and Mälzel fell out in 1814 regarding the performance rights for “Wellington’s Victory”. Beethoven filed a legal complaint that was settled in court by a compromise. They were reconciled, and Beethoven went on to pay tribute to the metronome publicly.

4. Beethoven’s secretary Schindler refuted Beethoven’s adherence to metronome markings.

True, but Beethoven’s biographer and secretary Anton Schindler’s (1795–1864) writings have since been discredited. He falsified facts and exaggerated his close relation to the composer. “[V]irtually nothing he has recorded can be relied on unless it is supported by other evidence”, The Beethoven Compendium (1991) states. There are a number of famous Beethoven quotes originating from Schindler that tend to crop up in texts about the composer and these need to be questioned.

5. The pieces become unplayable and/or frantic if performed according to the metronome markings.

Hard, yes, but hardly unplayable. The subject of the frantic character is of course to some extent subjective.

Beethoven’s music had, already in his days, a revolutionary quality: extreme contrasts, sudden accents, quick dynamic shifts. These characteristics can go surprisingly well with the furious tempo Beethoven sometimes asks for.

6. The tempo Beethoven heard in his head is not what he really wanted.

This is the hardest one. A number of composers have been reported as actually playing their music at a slightly different speed than initially asked for in their metronome markings, and the actual performance tempo often tends to get a bit slower. Certainly some composers of the late romantic era are reported to have been free with tempi, and regarded the metronome markings mostly as a recommendation or a “starting tempo”. Then again, others (Bartók for instance) are specific about tempo in the most meticulous way, also between minute changes within a movement.

What we do know is that Beethoven regarded the tempi in his music as something primary in regard to the desired musical expression. Often, when he had not personally attended a certain concert, tempo was the first thing he inquired about.

“The metronome markings [for the Missa Solemnis] will be sent to you very soon. Do wait for them. In our century, such markings are certainly necessary; moreover I have received letters from Berlin informing me that the first performance of the [ninth] Symphony met with enthusiastic applause, which I ascribe largely to the metronome markings…” (Letter to Schott, Dedember 18, 1826)

he writes rather humbly.  There is furthermore not any convincing evidence for any insensitivity on his part in adhering to his own metronome markings, so we must assume that they at least give a very clear indication of his intentions. And as Kolisch writes: “what really matters is the extent of the deviation.”

7. The size of the concert venues, the instruments and the playing styles of Beethoven’s day invite for a slightly quicker pace than with modern circumstances.

This seems to me true to a certain extent. The concert halls today are generally bigger and more resonant, and the players in Beethoven’s day used little vibrato and played on gut strings that react quicker than modern ones.

From a performer’s perspective, and a little bit of humility

A metronome marking gives us a basic indication of the composer’s intention regarding the speed and to a certain extent character of a piece. But within the piece there are of course innumerable deviations from that speed, which is not to be seen as a straight-jacket.

It seems that we have come to the conclusion not to deviate too much from the intentions of Beethoven at this early stage of our exploration of the quartets. Some of them have so far seemed just right and some a little fast. After having performed some of the movements for some time attempting to follow Beethoven’s intentions regarding speed, it seems like the choice of tempo has settled after a while at a pace that feels natural. When we have sensed that a certain theme does not work musically, the metronome marking has sometimes helped us back on track. The first movement of Op. 18:6 seems very fast indeed, and when we performed it a few years ago, we settled at a slower speed, but it is going to be interesting how we feel about it when we come back to it as part of The Beethoven Project.

We have been asked a few times about our choice of tempo in the last movement of Op. 59:3, the famous fugue movement: Beethoven gives a break-neck speed metronome indication and we still haven’t performed it at quite his speed, but close. It seems fast to many, but it also gives an edge of the seat, furious, even shocking quality to the music. The contrast to the unusually slow preceding minuet is tremendous. It seems to me that he knew what he was doing.

It is early days in our learning process of these quartets, and I am sure much will happen in the course of the project. Perhaps I will write a blog post in the future completely refuting the previous text!

Martin Saving

This article was amended in December 2013 regarding the state of Beethoven’s metronome.

Sources (amongst others): “Integral Interpretation: Introductory Notes to Beethoven, Kolisch and the Question of the Metronome”, Thomas Y. Levin. “Tempo and Character in Beethoven’s Music”, Rudolf Kolisch. (The Musical Quarterly, 1993, Volume 77, Nos 1 & 2) “Classical & Romantic  Performance Practice 1750-1900”, Clive Brown. “The Beethoven Quartet Companion”, ed. Robert Winter, Robert Martin. “The Beethoven Compendium”, ed. Cooper. I have not provided footnotes: If you have any questions regarding the details please contact us through the website.

Recommended reading:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/mar/14/beethoven

and this is an abstract of a longer article taking Beethoven into the space age:

http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1971JSV….17..323T

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