Sunday, July 28, 2013

Footnote on Beethoven's Metronome Markings

A comment on my last post reminds me that the controversy about Beethoven's metronome markings is not perhaps as widely known as it should be. Rickard writes:
Interesting, I had no idea the performances were so much slower than what Beethoven intended. And I also used to think (and think to some extent now) that it's a kind of mysterious movement. It's the only movement in the symphony that isn't so bombastic and it's pretty calm compared with the rest. Maybe it makes more sense when it's performed at the speed Beethoven wrote (I don't know as I haven't listened to such a performance I think). 
The metronome was newly invented in the early 1800s and at first Beethoven (and Salieri) were quite enthusiastic about it as it offered a more precise way of indicating to performers exactly the tempo the composer had in mind. In the late 18th century there were various tempi ordinari being used--that is, "standard tempos" that were widely known. Charles Rosen has an excellent discussion of this in his book on the Beethoven piano sonatas [pp 45 et seq.] But Beethoven came to understand that the metronome did not exactly solve all the problems. In a note written on the manuscript of his song "Nord oder Süd" he wrote:
100 according to Mälzel, but this must be considered applicable only to the first bars, for sentiment also has its tempo and cannot be completely expressed by this number.
Ah, sentiment! The question of "sentiment" or what we might rather call "expression" applies most strongly to slow movements. The problem I see with Beethoven's metronome markings in the slow movement of the Symphony No. 9 is that the opening section,  Adagio molto e cantabile [quarter note = 60] is very difficult to reconcile with the contrasting section Andante moderato [quarter note = 63]. Sixty versus sixty-three is almost no difference at all and if there is no difference, there is no contrast. So in my mind the tempo words Beethoven chose are at odds with the metronome markings. Either the Andante has to be a lot faster (which would be silly) or the Adagio a lot slower (which is the choice Barenboim and a lot of others make). It is not the crudely simplified question of either following Beethoven's metronome markings or ignoring them, it is rather a question of whether you think the metronome marking is more important or the tempo word. Both are viable options, but give different results. Here is a performance conducted by Paavo Järvi of the Symphony No. 9 that sticks pretty closely to the metronome markings. The third movement starts at the 28'00 mark:

I find this an excellent performance, by the way. I really enjoy the rhythmic 'groove' in the faster movements, especially the scherzo. But the adagio does sound a bit, ah, 'jaunty', does it not? And in point of fact, there is virtually no tempo contrast between the B flat opening section and the Andante section in D major. This, to me, is a serious interpretive problem. But you pays your money and you takes your choice. All interpretations are questions of choices. I think that Järvi has an interpretation that works--in some ways more effectively than Barenboim's, but I also think that Barenboim has an interpretation that works--in some ways more effectively than Järvi's.

I often talk about ideology and the unfortunate effects it can have on aesthetics. If I were to make my own choices in this symphony I think I would tend to go along with Järvi for the first and second movements, but with Barenboim for the third. I think the contrast between the Adagio and the Andante is more important than whatever number Beethoven wrote down for the metronome marking. In other words, I think interpretive choices should be based more on musical than ideological considerations. Lurking behind a lot of "movements" in the arts are ideologies. The rule that "Beethoven's metronome markings must always be followed rigidly" is an ideology, not an interpretation.

And by the way, Beethoven left no metronome markings for his late quartets so there the performer is entirely on their own...


Virgil T. Morant said...

You might be mildly interested to know that your recent posts have resonated with our concerts here in northeast Ohio. Last night the Kent/Blossom Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Cleveland Orchestra Assistant Conductor James Feddeck, performed Beethoven's Symphony No. 8. But wait there's more! Eric Sellen's program note for the piece includes remarks about the metronome. It seems there is a tune in the second movement taken from a song Beethoven dedicated to Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, "inventor of the first practical metronome" (as Mr. Sellen described him).

Rickard said...

I agree with your points about the interpretation. It's way better to have a many varied interpretations rather than only staying strict to what the composer intended. And of course in the case of composers who didn't have access to recording technology it's really hard to say how exactly they would want it performed. That's the main issue with HiP, we don't know, even the most "accurate" HiP is only a guess in the end. Besides we don't know what J.S. Bach or Vivaldi for instance would think of the instrument modifications and new instruments that came after their lifetime for example.

I agree, it's quite wierd with the change between 60 bpm and 63 bpm especially given the text describing the tempos. Could it be an error made by a publisher in Beethoven's time?

Unknown said...

Hi Bryan,

I'm wondering where you found the numbers 60 and 63 from?

I've checked both the composers score and the first edition and only the tempo as text is written with no specific bpm mentioned.

Autograph copy 3rd movement starts on page 189

first edition: 3rd mov starts page 79

Bryan Townsend said...

Lots of comments on this post! Yes, I read the story about Maelzel and the second movement from the Symphony 8, but didn't mention it in my post.

I'm a big believer in doing whatever research you can to get inside the music as an aid to performance. So, in principle, I am an adherent of "historically informed performance." But I think that the real goal is not to be historically accurate, but to be aesthetically convincing. Knowing about historical performance practice might help.

Hi Nathaniel and welcome to the Music Salon. You managed to pick the two places where Beethoven's metronome marks are NOT found: the original Mss and the first edition from 1826. Beethoven did not originally insert metronome marks in the symphonies but went back later and figured them out. He then sent them to his publisher in a letter (or several letters). I'm not sure why they are not in the first edition of 1826, but you're right, they are not. But if you look at the Breitkopf and Haertel complete edition of 1863, there they are. They have also been published in some scholarly papers. We have the letters with the metronome markings, so there is no dispute about that, nor that they came from Beethoven. The question is, do they all work, aesthetically?

Rickard said...

Well, what I was trying to say is that HiP might not always be the best option (like in this case). But ofc if a HiP sounds better than a modern performance at least to some people then at least it's worth it.

Bryan Townsend said...

Some pianists (and orchestras) used to play everything as if it were Brahms! The Early Music movement, succeeded by the Original Instruments movement, succeeded by the "Authentic" movement and now the Historically Informed Performance movement changed all that. Now we have harpsichordists playing Couperin on actual harpsichords which sounds a lot better to my ear. Pretty soon we will have Wagner on original instruments and after that, who knows, could John Cage on original instruments be far behind?