Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Mälzel's Role in Beethoven's Symphonic Metronome Marks

Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Mälzel's Role in Beethoven's Symphonic Metronome Marks

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

A recent recording of Beethoven's symphonies that utilizes his metronome marks invites further discussion of this topic but from a new perspective.1 Marks for his firsr eight symphonies, "determined by the composer himself according to Maelzels metronome," appeared in Leipzig's Allgemeine musikalische Zdtung on December 17, 1817.2 In all probability, this was at the instigation of Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, based in Vienna, who had appropriated the metronomes invention from Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel in Amsterdam, patented it, and undertaken major publicity efforts. Although a court of arbitration later decided in WinkePs favor, in 1817 Mälzel was believed to be the inventor, and he traveled to European cities to promote the device. In Paris he published a Notice sur le metronome (1816) in which some forty composers (including Beethoven) from Germany, Austria, France, and England endorse the metronome.3 These endorsements were vital to Mälzels marketing success. For composers' convenience in selecting a tempo, he then published in 1818 a scale of metronome numbers that he thought suitable for replacing die principal Italian terms of tempo (see Figure 2 below).4 While rhe scale is feasible for certain pieces, for others it is highly misleading. Might it be implicated in the many implausible metronome marks in composers' scores?5 The questions raised by some of Beethoven's figures have been the subject of discussion for over a century, and this material need not be covered again. Instead, after considering the historical context, this article will focus on Mälzels role in diese and other tempo marks.

II. Historical Context

Beethoven's hearing loss is a major factor when considering his tempo marks. By 1799 its magnitude was sufficient to make him avoid society. In 1814, three years before preparing his first tempo figures, Louis Spohr heard him conduct his Seventh Symphony. Being unable to hear the piano sections, Beethoven was ahead of the orchestra by as much as ten or twelve measures. By 1816 all tones were lost to him. Any use that Beethoven made of the metronome would have had to be either with another person or gauged according to the pendulum's visual movement. Even for us, who have grown up with the metronome ticking in our ears and are accustomed to music with little deviation from a steady beat, the latter would be unlikely to produce an accurate reading. Following a metronome precisely can be a particular challenge for one who never had an opportunity to learn its discipline when he still had his hearing.

A second matter is the unstable rhythm of the period. To find an accurate metronome number for a specific piece, one must play or sing with exacdy even beats, a skill that cannot be claimed by every musician. Selecting an appropriate tempo with a metronome has been thought a simple matrer, For today's performers who regularly practice with it, that is true. For others, however, it may not be so simple. Probably everyone who teaches applied music to non-performance music majors has had some students who have difficulty following the metronome, despite being surrounded by rhythmically sound music. Now imagine ourselves in the early nineteenth century, never having worked with such a machine and accustomed to the resulting rhythmic Inaccuracy. Early sources frequently cite the great difficulty encountered in holding ensembles together rhythjnicalry. Even highly skilled musicians found the rigor of a loud metronomic device (Zeitmesser) a challenge, as recalled by the former Berlin Kapellmeister Johann Friedrich Reichardt, who was present at a gathering in Paris (1803) where individuals tried unsuccessfully to keep rime with it:

The opportunity of a musical Zeitmesser prompted the men and women of musical talent to all sorts of experiments at the fortepiano. None of us succeeded completely in attempting to sing or play anything exacdy in rime according to such a very artificial and precise Zeitmesser. …

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