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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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26 Responses to “How Fast Shall We Play?”

  1. Stefan says:

    Interesting read, many thanks. Let me add some thoughts:

    Music takes place in time. Classical music follows a rather strict syntax (8 bar phrases etc.). Playing these different parts that make up a sonata, a symphony or a quartet in the right tempo induces meaning. The pieces are falling in the right place. So the tempo is no end in itself but is the fundamental cornerstone to really understand the semantics of Beethoven’s music (though I am sure that Beethoven was not shy of showing off occasionally). As mentonied above the reference figure (whole bar, half note etc.) is also important to understand the structure. E.g. 59/3 fourth movement is not really too fast taken alla breve (still don’t want to have to play it).

    Interestingly the tempi by Carl Cerny (in Über den richtigen Vortrag der sämtlichen Beethoven’schen Klavierwerke, ed. Paul Badura-Skoda (Vienna, 1963), also in the Simrock edition) do not differ to much from the tempi Rudolf Kolisch deduced ,at least concerning music written for piano. So there exists strong evidence from both his pupil and one great violinist (who recorded all of Beethoven’s qartet’s) that Beethoven quite meant what he jotted down.

    From a perfomer’s point of view the question of the right tempo in Beethoven’s music means really hard work since his music has an inherent revolutionary quality that each player also today has to master individually.

    In essence: once you are able to folllow Beethoven’s (or Kolisch’s or Cerny’s) tempo you can do whatever you want because then you have figured out what the music is about.

    Listen e.g. to the excellent recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies by David Zinman/ Tonhalle Orchester Zürich to get an impression of the disturbing quality the music still (or again) has, I recommend especially the 9th.

  2. So are there any notable commercially available recordings of his symphonies, played at his recommended speeds?

    I’d sure love to add them to my collection.

    • Martin says:

      Thank you for your comment! I know that both Norrington and Gardiner are strong proponents of the metronome markings, but I suspect most conductors of the younger generation take them into account these days.

  3. As a long-time Beethoven fan, and dabbler in music (I’ve tried adapting some of his music to medieval bagpipes with moderate success), I think it’s wonderful to hear his music played at the speeds that he recommended. It’s fresh, and really hammers home the message that he was writing his music to be played by virtuosos. Beethoven was sort of an elitist and loved to show off his virtuosity, such as his playing of some arpeggios single-handedly, with the other hand held in the air. His Rivalry with Daniel Steibelt, and arrogance he showed as the two topped each other (Steibelt was just as arrogant, mind you).

    When I hear his music at full speed, it really makes total sense to me, especially when musicians say how hard it is to play, because that’s sort of the impression you get from biographical anecdotes about him. He wanted to not only make beautiful music, he wanted it played his way. He also was the kind of guy who wanted to make sure that he was one of the few people able to play his music, sort of like job security — If he makes music that people like, but it’s too complicated or fast for others to play, people will have to pay him to hear it done right :)

  4. DrDave says:

    The original metronome survives, but lacks one of the weights. Without the original weight, it is difficult to say for sure whether the metronome is accurate or not, but it doesn’t really seem relevant: the idea that the tempo should be dictated by a metronome is inconsistent with what we know about the nature of original texts and performance. B’s compositions invariably went through changes and revisions, so the markers are simply ideas, not velocity-raptors. One thing that is often left out of the debate is that B sometimes fudged his data, so he may also have fudged the markings as part of his overall legacy concept.

  5. Tom says:

    This is a fascinating article. Does anyone know of a recording played at these speeds? I would love to hear them.

  6. jakeysane says:

    Please do continue keep as close as you can to Beethoven’s markings – hard as that may be at times. It drives me mad to hear Beeethoven played with the brakes on. The man and the times were revolutionary. But it’s not just about speed: that is essential; it’s also about conveying that spirit of revolutionary impatience and impetuosity that we can hear in Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind. Please don’t be put off by people who are actually alarmed by Beethoven’s true inspiration. Good luck!

  7. Ted Seitz says:

    Do you know of any cite on the internet that provides Beethoven’s metronome markings? You can find the most obscure and bizarre things, but not these tempos (so far). I had to go to the Beethoven Center in San Jose to find them.

    • Martin says:

      Unfortunately I don’t… They are actually hard to come by, but they are normally printed in the latest editions. You can also find them in Musical Quarterly, Summer 1993, Vol. 77, Issue 2, which you can buy over the internet. Sorry…

      • P.W. Palan says:

        You can go to the IMSLP Petrucci Music Library (imslp.org) and search by composer for the scores to many of Beethoven’s compositions. These public domain works are available for download. The scores for symphonies (at least the ones I checked) have the Italian tempo markings as well as the metronome markings. I am fairly sure (not 100%)that these metronome marks are Beethoven’s.

  8. James Duehl says:

    This article is misleading in that it leaves the reader with the impression that Beethoven’s metronome markings are extensive. The fact is he provided metronome markings for very few of his works, and in some cases the works he did provide markings for may cause us to wonder why he considered them important enough to bother. Here are the facts, which are easily verified. Works for which Beethoven provided his own metronome markings are: (1)all nine symphonies; (2)the first 11 of his string quartets (which means there are no markings for his five great late quartets); (3)the Septet, op. 20; (3)the “Hammerklavier” Sonata (which means there are no markings for the other 31 piano sonatas, including the
    beloved “Moonlight,” “Pathetique,” “Tempest,” “Waldstein,” and “Appassionata” Sonatas); (4) the Cantata, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, op. 112; (5) the Opferlied for soprano and chorus, op. 121b; and (6) the Fugue for String Quintet, op. 137. He did not, as the above article suggests, complete the metronome markings for the Missa solemnis. Considering the 200 or so works Beethoven wrote (that includes works unpublished at his death and works without opus numbers), the number of works to which he gave metronome markings is comparatively small.

    • Martin says:

      Thank you! Sorry if you found it misleading in any way!

    • james says:

      Is it not reasonably to consider it was an on-going project (the revisting of his works to apply metronomoe marks) which he was unable to finish because of death?

      • Martin says:

        Yes, very possibly, as Beethoven apparently planned to provide metronome marks for his last quartets. But the metronome marks for the quartets up until Op.95 (and indeed for most of the other works he provided metronome marks for) were published by Beethoven already in 1817, ten years before his death. After that he published the occasional metronome mark in connection to the publication of a few important works, most notably the “Hammerklavier” Sonata and the Ninth Symphony.

  9. Great reading! Hope to hear you guys sometime soon!

  10. I have always noticed with Beethoven’s music that, when it is played at the indicated tempo, it takes on a transcendental quality. The Vienna Philharmonic’s recorded performance of Beethoven’s 9th in 1987 follows the metronome markings accurately, and it really becomes something more than just music. The prestissimo finale, specifically, is something else: the first time I heard it played at that speed– WOW. I literally had to sit down and try to quantify what I had just experienced. You know that feeling you get when you consciously connect to what a piece of music is saying? That familiar feeling, as if you are listening to a story, in spoken words, that you’ve heard before… There is that feeling, and it is overwhelming, but then there’s something else in there too, of that nature: the same type of connection to the music as a form of familiar sounding spoken language, but it is a language that is so much more deep than traditional words or traditional music– it is a bizarre feeling, as if you are peering into a vast unknown realm of your subconscious. It is way too hard too explain, but I’m sure anyone reading this can somewhat understand what I’m talking about.

  11. Colin Rangeley says:

    A very significant detail in Beethoven’s MM is the number of beats per bar that he indicates.
    e.g. Op59no3 is ONE BEAT PER BAR in my edition (MM semibreve== 84.
    Also,Op59no1,1st movement
    is two beats per bar (MM minim==88. And the slow movement is marked semiquaver==88 (8 beats per bar)

    More fuel to the discussion is the adoption (for the first time) by Schnabel for the last movement fugue in Op126, the Hammerklavier. MM= 144, previously thought to be impossible.

    I heard you play Op59no3 in Sheffield–Breath-taking,but to me it felt a little rushed still. But keep trying!! I’d love to hear it at Beethoven’s speed,and with one beat per bar!

    My wife and I are FANS! You’ve given us some memorable performances, eg to name a few, Schubert quintet in Lancaster, the Purcell in Manchester (never heard quartet playing like it) and your Britten recording is fabulous.

    When you do get around to doing the complete cycle somewhere, we’ll be there.

    • Martin says:

      @ Colin Rangeley

      Thank you for your kind words!

      Yes, you are absolutely right: The way a composer chooses to indicate the metronome marking can be very helpful in deciding the character. There is a slight problem regarding Beethoven since his metronome apparently didn’t go below MM=50. In the Adagio of 18:1 for instance, which is notated in 9/8, he marks quaver=138, presumably because his metronome did not go as far as 46 (138 divided by 3), and this might possibly also be the case in the slow movement of 59:1. It’s impossible to say for sure of course.

      Yes, it’s hard to make that last movement of 59:3 sound exciting but not rushed. We’ll keep on searching!

      Best wishes,

      Martin

  12. Fritz says:

    Alas…

    Reforming one’s performance style takes about 2 years of focus.

    In a way there’s nothing wrong with playing as you do and everyone else does.
    It also takes hard work and dedication.

    In the end it’s a choice that everyone can make for him or herself…

    • Martin says:

      @ Fritz

      First of all: interesting comment.

      I agree with you completely that music should not be performed without fluctuations in tempo. The idea of a strict and steady pulse without any room for rubato would be vulgar in most music and certainly in Beethoven’s. But the aspect of performing Beethoven I set out to explore in this first blog was simply to investigate what initial tempo Beethoven would have envisaged and if his metronome indications are viable. But I agree, the musical expression must always come first.

      Regarding some of the other details: The famous Beethoven quote, as reported by Schindler, is very controversial, as is apparently more or less all of Schindler’s writings. Even more controversial seem some of the conclusions in the Wikipedia article you link to. It is very problematic dividing the attitudes to keeping a strict tempo in “old” and “modern” practice. They have changed dramatically throughout the centuries, but not only in one direction. It is true that the Romantic approach, say a hundred years ago, would have been one of extreme rubato and many different tempi within a movement. But during the Baroque and even the Classical era the importance of keeping a strict pulse was constantly stressed. The era of Beethoven, or probably the generations after, seems to have been transitional. I will come back to this subject in one of my next blogs, but for now I’d like to recommend Clive Brown’s phenomenal “Classical & Romantic Performance Practice 1750-1900″.

      Again: this is of course a purely theoretical investigation into these subjects. When it comes to actually performing our hearts must guide us. But the brain must not follow far behind.

      Best wishes,

      Martin Saving

  13. Fritz says:

    How Fast Shall We Play?

    Fast, slow…?
    No come on… -> that’s the wrong question in the first place.

    You’ll play it expressively like clever musicians who shape phrases (thrillingly, riskily!), and not in the perverted manner that classical music is performed today.

    We’ve kindof been brainwashed to expect a steady-beating-tempo; drilled in by outside influences (metronome) …. a kind of modern performance practice that get’s hammered into our brains whenever we listen to classical music CDs.

    Don’t give in to a society that ignores one’s soul and wishes only provable rational things.

    In the words of Beethoven: “No metronome at all! He who has sound feeling needs none, and he who has not will get no help from the metronome”.

    How hard must it have been for Beethoven to revert his opinion on Maelzel, who was his friend; and whom he hoped could help him with his deteriorating hearing.
    Fact is… Beethoven did realize the metronome’s “evil”. Schindler tells us the details anyway.

    To sum up:
    Play like thinking feeling expressive HUMAN beings, not like metronomes.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metronome#Metronome.2C_strict_rhythm:_modern_performance_practice

  14. beethovenunravelled says:

    Very comprehensive and informative, thank you Martin! Perhaps people shy away from metronome markings because of their association with an ‘unmusical’ quality. But of course, as you’ve pointed out, taking the composer’s MM as a starting point – to send you on your musical journey – is very different from that dangerously stifling pursuit of playing along for lengthy periods with a metronome. Surely the MM will reveal a lot of the composer’s intentions, especially when seemingly radical? Great article! Looking forward to hearing the results…

  15. Lisa says:

    That was really fascinating! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter….I feel a lot more educated now!

  16. Martin says:

    Thank you! Yes, the designer is called Miles Essex.

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