Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Beethoven's metronome

So, Sunday morning by chance I heard a piece on NPR that really got my attention, even though it's outside my realm of expertise. I caught a segment of Radio Lab, a show Janice really likes but which I've only heard bits and pieces from. And they were discussing Beethoven's metronome.

It turns out that, late in life, Beethoven got ahold of the newly-invented metronome and marked up all eight of the symphonies he'd written up to that point to show what speed they shd be played at -- that is, how many beats per minute. No longer did he have to rely on vague descriptors like "allegro" and "adagio" ; instead he cd mark the beat exactly as if he were conducting it.

You'd think that, for those interested in a composer from pre-recording days, who had only sheet music to preserve his music, this wd be a godsend. Except that it turns out performances of Beethoven's works routinely ignore his directions because they think it makes the music sound too fast. The Radio Lab segment explored various arguments folks have used to explain away the markings (B's metronome was broken, there were transcription errors, his deafness prevented his recognizing a false tempo) and ended by suggesting that Beethoven wanted his music to sound edgy, and so deliberately avoided the grand, stately measures which we've come to associate with him.  They ended by having a string quartet play a bit from The Fifth at Beethoven's tempo, and then trump this by playing at even faster rates; by the end they gotten to something truly fascinating that sounded like a cross between Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebees" and the theme music from the old Jeremy Brett SHERLOCK HOLMES series. Here's the link.

If you want to just hear the Beethoven, here's a link to a stripped-down version of the segment, with just two examples of the music but showing the actual musicians, so it's worth checking out.

One nice added feature of this second link is that it includes a listing not in the original, in which they went out and compared various recordings and, not surprisingly, found that most played the Fifth too slowly. Ironically, the one recording that got it right -- that is, played Beethoven's Fifth at exactly the speed Beethoven wanted -- is Walker Murphy's A FIFTH OF BEETHOVEN [1976]. Guess I'll have to dig out my old (vinyl) record and give it a listen; it's been a while.

The thing that interested me most about this is that, if they're right, it means Beethoven suffers from exactly the opposite problem as that which bedevils Scott Joplin. People play Beethoven too slowly and stately, and they play Joplin's ragtime (which was intended to be dance music) too fast. At least recordings of Joplin at the proper speed are available (e.g., in Joshua Rifkin's excellent cd, or in a piano roll from Joplin himself.* Now to see if I can find a whole symphony of L.v.B. at fast tempo.


1 comment:

David Bratman said...

As the segment suggests, this is a very old discussion, and, unsurprisingly, the arguments against the metronome marks are, in fact, less stupid than the hosts make them out to be.

Nevertheless, there has been a tendency in recent years to play Beethoven and other past composers not only 1) as fast as we think they wanted to be played, but 2) on instruments of, or modeled after those of, the period (which don't always sound much like those of today), and 3) in the playing style we believe they used (which is also quite different).

And the arguments in favor of and against doing that are also extensive and complicated.

Nevertheless, if you want to hear Beethoven in that style, I was going to recommend the set by John Eliot Gardiner with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, which is quite faithful in also those regards (the idea, as the link suggests, that Gardiner's 109 is "wrong" while Murphy's 108 is "right" is ridiculously hairsplitting). I have a copy myself, and I find it quite invigorating.

Here they are playing the Third.