Beethoven’s Broken Metronome

Solving the Hammerklavier’s Mysterious 138

Beethoven’s “Broken” Metronome

Solving the Hammerklavier’s Mysterious 138

So about Beethoven it is well documented that the composer of the ninth symphony used his metronome upside down. Or at least the weight was upside down –which doesn’t make a big difference by the way. Or the violent man fired all his emotional anger on his metronome, so that the poor device gave him wrong speeds throughout his entire career.

The most complicated fairy tales can easily be found. In all the discussions you’ll find on Beethoven’s metronome, one general agreement among all layers of musical society is easily agreed upon: By definition it is Beethoven who was wrong. Not we.

Tempo: A musician’s decision that influences all other performance elements, so yes, metronome numbers are important!

You probably know my view on metronome numbers by now: There is nothing more important than the tempi we choose for our performances. A tempo dictates many, if not all of the other elements of a musical conversion, over articulation and phrasing up to building the character of the piece. So how lucky we are to have thousands of exact speed indications, from precisely that generation of composers from which we today still admire the compositions so much.

And yes. Also from Beethoven.

What’s simpler than operating a metronome…?

Reading through some explanations for the ‘incomprehensible’ metronome numbers our friend Ludwig left, one starts to wonder how on earth a man of such little intelligence, was able of composing the ninth symphony. I mean, what a high level of idiocy does it require not to know how to operate a ultra simple device like a metronome?

My daughter of six exactly needed 10 seconds of explanation to never miss any number any more. And as mentioned, the weight upside down doesn’t give you that big of a difference. Yes, Beethoven could have thrown his metronome out of anger against a wall, down the stairs, out a window even on the street where horses stepped over it, before someone took it up, and threw it back through the same window, leaving Beethoven with a black eye, and a broken metronome, that he nevertheless kept using.

If Beethoven’s metronome was broken, all early 19th century metronomes were!

And to continue this interesting idea of the broken metronome, I have some spectacular news for you: all those metronomes in the early 19th century, and even up to 1850 and beyond, they all were broken, and broken in exactly the same way! How do I know?

Simple: just compare those metronome numbers with each other: the differences you’ll find often will be remarkable small.

So, or all metronomes were broken in exactly the same way. Or they functioned all fine. Also Beethoven’s. The latter is not hard to imagine either since those metronomes were calibrated to tick 60 times in one minute. So even imagine the metronome Maelzel gave to Beethoven wasn’t accurate –which on its own would be hard to believe: would you give the greatest composer of your time a specimen that is not tested?- Beethoven must have been aware soon of the device’s inaccuracy.

I mean, guys, it wouldn’t give him the second even correctly!

So let’s rapidly forget about those fairy tales and blame ourselves instead if we don’t understand the speed indications he left for his works. As we better agree on the fact Schumann had a properly working metronome, Czerny had – and was really serious about the accuracy of his speed indications, Hummel had, Ries had, Moscheles had, Chopin had, and so on and so on.

Are those metronome numbers not really fast? I mean: REALLY fast?

So what does that leave us with?

Just accepting the correctness of the numbers, how hard could that be?

I hear you think: but many are so incredibly fast. Yes, if you read the metronome numbers as we do today, they are. You end like great pianists as Schnabel who tried at least to play the Hammerklavier in 138 for the half.

Click here to listen.

No,  the Viennese piano will not help you overcome the difficulties Schnabel apparently did not manage to overcome: a Viennese piano will not help you play faster either, nor will it help you to make those beginning chords sound less muddy.

O and just by the way in case you are already impressed with Schnabel’s high speed and courage, he still is way below Beethoven’s 138. So take a breath and practice a bit more, you’ll have to accelerate from Schnabel’s 116/126 to Beethoven’s 138.

The historical metrical reading of the metronome

Or you take the other approach, that of the historical metrical reading of the metronome. I have made many videos now on the old metrical reading of the metrome and link some of them here. Very short: you start from the idea of the tactus, the arsis-thesis, the up-down of a conductor, as a unity. In the world of a metronome , those ups/downs are indicated by the actual number, in this case 138. Both up-down, or in a metronome’s case, the left-right, belong together as one “Schlag” as the Germans say, and that two-fold unity is represented by the note value, in this case the quarter note. So on every ‘tactus’ – every quarter note here- two ticks are heard.

The Hammerklavier does not become an easy piece by playing it in quarter note 138, but playable after all by I’d say a majority of today’s professional pianists who don’t mind to study really hard for some months.

I’ll give you now a really short snapshot of how “my” Hammerklavier will sound once the pianoforte is here.

Click here.

Hope that asks for more.

The whole piece becomes very cantabile, almost opera-like as well. And one starts to understand why Beethoven choose to have the eight notes as basic note value, connecting to the tradition of the old alla breve as for instance some of J.S.Bach’s famous fugues for organ, still today played on those big German historical organs at speeds that are not far from the one we indeed get for the Hammerklavier. We’ll make several videos on the Hammerklavier once my pianoforte is here, that’s a promise!

The latter choice of metronome interpreation is up to you to make, but let’s agree on tree things:

  1. Beethoven’s metronome was just fine.
  2. The speed indications the left are extremely important in understanding the way he played.
  3. We have two options: either single beat or, the old metrical double beat interpretation.

In case you are serious about historical musical reconstruction- and certainly if you tell your audience you are- there is no other way than creating your musical conversions but through these metronome numbers.

Certainly those of Beethoven I’d say.