Did Beethoven Use a Broken Metronome When Composing His String Quartets? Scientists & Musicians Try to Solve the Centuries-Old Mystery

When it comes to clas­si­cal com­posers, Beethoven was pret­ty met­al. But was he writ­ing some kind of clas­si­cal thrash? Hard­core orches­tra­tions too fast for the aver­age musi­cian to play? 66 out of 135 of Beethoven’s tem­po mark­ings made with his new metronome in the ear­ly 1800s seem “absurd­ly fast and thus pos­si­bly wrong,” researchers write in a recent Amer­i­can Math­e­mat­i­cal Soci­ety arti­cle titled “Was Some­thing Wrong with Beethoven’s Metronome?” Indeed, the authors go on, “many if not most of Beethoven’s mark­ings have been ignored by lat­ter day con­duc­tors and record­ing artists” because of their incred­i­ble speed.

Since the late 19th cen­tu­ry and into the age of record­ed music, con­duc­tors have slowed Beethoven’s quar­tets down, so that we have all inter­nal­ized them at a slow­er pace than he pre­sum­ably meant them to be played. “These pieces have through­out the years entered the sub­con­scious of pro­fes­sion­al musi­cians, ama­teurs and audi­ences, and the tra­di­tion,” writes the Beethoven Project, “hand­ed down by the great quar­tets of yes­ter­year.” Slow­er tem­pos have “become a norm against which all sub­se­quent per­for­mances are judged.”

Eybler Quar­tet vio­list Patrick Jor­dan found out just how deeply musi­cians and audi­ences have inter­nal­ized slow­er tem­pi when he became inter­est­ed in play­ing and record­ing at Beethoven’s indi­cat­ed speeds in the mid-80s. “Find­ing a group of peo­ple who were pre­pared to actu­al­ly take [Beethoven’s metronome marks] seriously—that was a 30-year wait,” he tells CBC. “A huge amount of our labour required that we un-learn those things; that we get notions of what we’ve heard record­ed and played in con­certs many times out of our heads and try to put in what Beethoven, at least at some point in his life, believed and thought high­ly enough to make a note of and pub­lish.”

But did he? The sub­ject of Beethoven’s metronome has been a source of con­tro­ver­sy for some time. A few his­to­ri­ans have the­o­rized that the inven­tor of the metronome, Johann Nepo­muk Mälzel, “some­thing of a mechan­i­cal wiz­ard,” Smith­son­ian writes, and also some­thing of a dis­rep­utable char­ac­ter, sab­o­taged the device he pre­sent­ed to the com­pos­er in 1815 as a peace offer­ing after he sued Beethoven for the rights to a com­po­si­tion. (Mälzel actu­al­ly stole the metronome’s design from a Dutch mechan­ic named Diet­rich Winkel.) But most musi­col­o­gists and his­to­ri­ans have dis­missed the the­o­ry of delib­er­ate trick­ery.

Still, the prob­lem of too-fast tem­pi per­sists. “The lit­er­a­ture on the sub­ject is enor­mous,” admit the authors of the Amer­i­can Math­e­mat­i­cal Soci­ety study. Their research sug­gests that Beethoven’s metronome was sim­ply bro­ken and he didn’t notice. Like­wise data sci­en­tists at the Uni­ver­si­dad Car­los III de Madrid have the­o­rized that the com­pos­er, one of the very first to use the device, mis­read the machine, a case of musi­cal mis­pri­sion in his reac­tion against what he called in 1817 “these non­sen­si­cal terms alle­gro, andante, ada­gio, presto….”

The­o­rists may find the tem­pi hard to believe, but the Toron­to-based Eybler Quar­tet was unde­terred by their skep­ti­cism. “I don’t think there’s any evi­dence to sug­gest that the mech­a­nism itself was [faulty],” says Jor­dan, “and we know from [Beethoven’s] cor­re­spon­dence and con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous accounts that he was very con­cerned that his metronome stay in good work­ing order and he had it recal­i­brat­ed fre­quent­ly so it was accu­rate.” Jor­dan instead cred­its the pun­ish­ing speeds to Romanticism’s pas­sion­ate indi­vid­u­al­ism, and to the fact that “Beethoven was not always so very nice.” Maybe, instead of sooth­ing his audi­ences, he want­ed to shock them and set their hearts rac­ing.

Who are we to believe? Ques­tions of tem­po can be fraught in clas­si­cal cir­cles (wit­ness the reac­tions to Glenn Gould’s absurd­ly slow ver­sions of Bach.) The metronome was sup­posed to solve prob­lems of rhyth­mic impre­ci­sion. Instead, at least in Beethoven’s case, it rein­scribed them in com­po­si­tions that bold­ly chal­lenge ideas of what a clas­si­cal quar­tet is sup­posed to sound like, which makes me think he knew exact­ly what he was doing.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Watch Ani­mat­ed Scores of Beethoven’s 16 String Quar­tets: An Ear­ly Cel­e­bra­tion of the 250th Anniver­sary of His Birth

How Did Beethoven Com­pose His 9th Sym­pho­ny After He Went Com­plete­ly Deaf?

Stream the Com­plete Works of Bach & Beethoven: 250 Free Hours of Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Anders says:

    He used the metronome in a dif­fer­ent way , with two klick per beat . As in ONE AND TWO AND THREE AND FOUR AND As opposed to One — two thRee four — that will cut the inten­dert tem­po in half and make it play able .

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