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The 1816 “Maelzel” Metronome Directions explained

The 1816 “Maelzel” Metronome Directions explained

The 1816 “Directions for using Maelzel’s Metronome” is one of the most important, if not THE most important source on the use of the metronome. It’s also the first source my dear single-beating friends throw at me in the comment sections of my YouTube channel to “proof” that obviously I am wrong in ALL I’m saying. For them, this text is “clearly proving” the metronome was intended to be used as we use it today. But is that the case? Let’s have a close look together on this unique text and see what we can learn. It will result in a somewhat longer blog/video, but I promise you that after this you’ll have a crystal clear understanding on what this text really is about.

Why the Metronome Indications really Matter

Historical sources are definitely a part of the never ending fascinating journey of trying at least to reconstruct the original idea of the composer. In that journey, the metronome often is set aside today as a boring machine that many of us have bad memories off from our earliest piano lessons. We forget however that tempo, as personal the choice might be and also is, dictates all other layers of a performance. Changing the tempo, even slightly, is changing everything. So, in this light, how lucky are, having thousands of tempo indications, given by the musicians we still care about. When we put the slider of our metronome on 138, we hear a sound in the 4th dimension, that of time, that connects us directly to Beethoven’s own session of the Hammerklavier sonata, where exactly the same device was “conducting” so to say in exactly the same tempo. It’s our responsibility as to decide what we do with that information. One thing is sure: closer than this we’ll never come.

The MM: always an EXACT tempo indication!

As the metronome was brought to a kind of mass production by Maelzel in 1815, the device, under the hands of the brilliant marketeer Maelzel was, soon would be used worldwide as a standard for indicating the tempi composers wantedJohann Nepomuk Maelzel their pieces to be performed in. We will make separate episodes in which we’ll show you that there was no exception in the idea that a metronome number was an accurate, exact speed indication that a composer really wanted you to take into account. We might think today otherwise, but that doesn’t change anything to what was factually the case almost two centuries ago.

Breaking down the 1816 text: what does it really say?

So the text we’re discussing here, was published in July 1816 in the Times and Morning chronicle in London. Often Maelzel is named as the author, what could be true, but in fact this text is unsigned. Maelzel however did not reject the content of it either. Important to note is that this text was translated into German, almost worldly in 1817, published by a gentleman named Franz Sales Kandler.  That gives the unique situation in which terms can be checked in both language as to understand a 100% what their true meaning is. We will make an episode on the German translation later, let’s focus here on the English text which you can read in full below this blog post.

The text opens with a general description of the device. The essential part starts under the subtitle: “Directions to the composer how to find and indicate the time intended for any new movement”.

So let’s break this text down together. Again: full text below to check for yourself.

1st §

The first paragraph describes the simple fact that the higher the rod is placed, the slower the vibrations will go and vice versa. Nothing new here.

2d §

The second paragraph learns us the fact that the numbers on the scale are a reference to the number of beats per minute. That is obvious to us, but was kind of new at the time. The pendulum, in essence a simple rope with a weight, was Gotfried Weber Fadenpendelknown already much longer, but gives the length of the rope only, resulting in a swinging speed. We recalculate these resulting speeds today in metronome numbers, or swings per minute, but that of course is not what you need when using a pendulum.  The reference to the minute was also one of the elements Maelzel got criticized for by Gottfried Weber, who was very known at the time for his Fadenpendel. Anyways, not too important for what we want to learn today, be it that the last element of this paragraph makes a reference to exactly that point of discussion. Since the metronome is given a scale referring to the minute, a simple stop-watch can show the correctness of the device. It has been my point for a long time: if the metronomes of Beethoven and Schumann really would be broken, the level of intelligence of both man might be questionable. And more than that: all metronomes of those decades must have been broken, and broken in exactly the same way. Since all those metronome numbers, perfectly line up with each other. In other words: there is not a too much of a difference between a Beethoven and a Chopin allegro. For a reason as we will see in future episodes.

3d §

The third paragraph is simply saying that doubling the number of the scale doubles the speed. Again, obvious to us, 50 is half as slow as 100, but not to the users of the pendulum. Since doubling the length of a pendulum (remember, the length is so to say the “scale” of the pendulum) does not result in a tempo relationship of 1 to 2. The important thing here is to realize the author speaks to composers and to composers who are used to the pendulum and its usage. We’ll come back to the importance of this context later.

4d §

Then we come to the essential parts of the text. The author now points to different elements, that we will break down one by one, but keep in mind that he focuses on the example of a normal –normal in the sense of notation- a ‘normal’ allegro around which he will built his practical example.

In paragraph 4 we read that the composer is best able to judge if the “time” should be marked by minims, crotchets, quavers etc. So the “Time” is marked by a note value, which should not surprise us, we all are familiar with the metronome indications of for instance half note is 80. The half note as we read is the indication of the Time, the Tempo, the Zeitmass. The nature of the movement decides which note value best is taken to indicate the “time”, as we will see in future episodes this correlates to the use of note values and harmonies in the composition, but not being the focus here, the author gives a rule of thumbs, saying that -and I quote-

“generally speaking, it will be found, that in Adagios it is most convenient to mark the time on the Metronome by Quavers, in Andantes by crotchets, in Allegros by minims, and in Prestos by whole bars.”

End of quote.

Since a normal allegro movement will be used as an example in paragraph 5, it is important to note that in normal practice, as written here, the “Time” of an allegro is indicated by a half note.

Now comes an interesting sentence. I quote:

“As often, however, as the case may admit of so doing, it is desirable that the pendulum should be made to strike integral parts of a bar, just as a master would beat or count the time. In 4/4, ¾, 2/4 time, the rod should, whenever possible, beat ¼ or a crotchet (or a quarter note). In 8th note time, whenever possible the 8th notes.”

Remember these two rules of thumbs we have here. One: the Time of an allegro movement is generally indicated by half notes. Two: in a 4/4 time signature, the metronome ticks each quarter note.

Keep this in mind, we’ll come back to this later.

5d §

Paragraph 5 connects to the previous statements by the opening words “this being premised”.

So the text goes:

“This being premised, suppose a composer desires to time a movement in 4/4 time, which according to the present system, would be called an Allegro: Let the weight, by way of trial, be placed against No.80; and two or three bars of the movement be played, to ascertain whether, at that number, each beat falls in with the degree of quickness desired for one minim or two crotchets.”

End of quote.

This is strange! Weren’t we supposed to have the metronome tick the quarter notes in a 4/4 time signature? Let’s look at this sentence again:  “In 4/4, ¾, 2/4 time, the rod should, whenever possible, beat ¼ or a crotchet”.

But suddenly, we are not looking anymore for the speed of those quarter notes, but the metronome beats the “quickness desired for one minim”!

So, here we have a real problem. At least for the single beat believers. Let’s summarize this again:

1.  The Time of an Allegro is indicated generally by half notes

2.  The metronome is set in a way that in a 4/4, the rod beats the quarter note.

3. With this in mind (in the text: this being premised), if the metronome is set at 84 for an allegro, the pendulum beats the minim.

It is not hard to understand that a metronome in a 4/4 time signature cannot align both the quarter notes AND the half notes with each single tick. So the text is either contradicting itself, in a way even that the whole document becomes rather worthless, or we do not see subtle nuances that are clearly present, but from our today’s standpoint is overlooked.

So what are we missing?

1.  In a 4/4, the rod beats the quarter note

2.  In a 4/4, the pendulum beats the minim.

Let’s compare this with the German translation of Kandler 1817:

1.  Im 4/4 Tact würde das Schlagwerk ¼ schlagen

2.  Im 4/4 (…) auf welchem der Pendel die halbe Note genau in dem Grade der Geschwindigkeit schlägt.

Again, we will focus on this translation in a future episode, but for the sake of our English text, the German text is too important not to involve in the understanding of the English text.

It is no misprint!

We first of all see that a misprint is out of question. Because the German text exactly copies the English version. The only possible explanation for the at first sight obvious contradiction is to be found in the exact understanding of the term ‘beat’ or, in German, ‘Schlag’.

As the historical meaning for Schlag goes back to the mensural time, where the tempo (or: Takt) of a semibrevis was given by one Schlag, in many sources clearly described as the arm or hand of the leading musician going up AND down, a fact even not debated by Klaus Miehling.

If this text is taken seriously, the ‘beats’ of the rod must be meant as single beats or ticks –remember the sentence and I quote “the pendulum should be made to strike integral parts of a bar, just as a master would beat or count the time”. This is the typical description, also to the metronome of its single beat use: every tick represents a “part of the intended time”, as you indeed would conduct a piece or practice.

But the general outcome of the rod beating these parts, results in the  ‘pendulum beating the minims’, where beat means a full-swing of the pendulum. In other words: the rod, going from left to right, indicates the quarter notes in our example, the metronome as a whole beats (Schlagt) the Time, in Italian, the “Tactus”, and therefore giving the “Time” as represented by the note value of our metronome equation.

So in a 4/4 allegro, the “Time” is indicated in half notes, the tick represent the quarter note and the full swing gives the minims. It reflects wonderful the description G. Weber gives in 1814: the pendulum both gives the Tact and the Tactheilen.

The magical last sentence!

That this doubtlessly is the correct and only reading of this precise text, is shown in the last sentence, a sentence that often is served as the ‘golden’ argument for single beat use of the metronome, but when read correctly, exactly means the opposite. Let’s read it together:

“it being well understood, that in this, as in every other case, each SINGLE beat or tick forms a part of the intended time, and is to be counted as such: but not the two beats produces by the motion from one side to the other”.

If your single goal (no pun intended here) is to only read sources from a standpoint of backwards proving your point, you will only focus on the terms ‘single beat’ and further on the words ‘not the two beats’, after which you will write lengthy comments as if ‘obviously’ the case is closed.  But let’s step away a moment from any context of 2018 and see what the sentence actually means.

The “every case” is important as we will see soon, but for now, it means there is no exception to the situation in which -I quote-  “each single beat or tick forms a part of the intended time”.

What is meant by Intended Time?

So what is the “Intended Time” actually? That is not too hard to figure out. As we read in paragraph 4, the “Time” is marked by a certain note value. Since the text is about the use of a metronome, it should not be too hard to understand that the Intended Time is nothing more than the note value in the metronome mark. What else than the metronome mark can be meant by “intended time”?

Let’s reread the same sentence again and notice how you will see the context totally different now.

I quote:  “it being well understood, that in this, as in every other case, each SINGLE beat or tick forms a part of the intended time” End of quote.

So now the focus shifts to the term “part”. Part of the intended time. If Time is given by the composer in the note value of the metronome mark, and every single beat or tick forms a “part” of that, then this sentence can ONLY mean that that every tick of the metronome gives a part of the note value of the metronome mark. And now the contradiction slowly evaporates:

In the example of half note = 84, each single tick gives part of the intended time, meaning: the  quarter notes, now perfectly in line with what we thought was a contradiction!

The very last sentence proves this again correct. Let’s read the last sentence again:

“it being well understood, that in this, as in every other case, each SINGLE beat or tick forms a part of the intended time, and is to be counted as such: but not the two beats produced by the motion from one side to the other”.

Why is that additional sentence necessary?

Remember still the opening words of this sentence (and I quote) “that in this, as in every other case”. Why the emphasis that “this”, namely that every tick forms a part of the intended time is true in every case?

That becomes immediately clear when taking into account the practice of the pendulum. As you might possible not know, one of the main disadvantages of a pendulum is the length of the rope. Beating in seconds, one needs already a length of a meter. But for tempi even slower, the rope becomes much longer than that. So it was common practice for slow movements, in case of a pendulum, to have TWO single swings for EACH part of the intended time. Exactly that what you should never do with the metronome anymore: The unique design with two weights, made it possible to give almost ALL speeds, also the slow ones in a device that was relatively slow.

The doubling of pendulum numbers was common practice. Let me give you two examples.

De la Chapelle (1737) + Zwecker 1887

An early example of that practice we find in the important 18th century book by Jacques Alexandre de la Chapelle “Les vrais Principes du Musique, published in Paris in 1737. Exactly in the case of very slow tempi, de la Chapelle suggests of taking two vibrations as one. I don’t have a facsimile of that source, but I quote from Lorenz Gadient’s book:

“[…] il suffira de mettre vne noire au desus [!] du chiffre par lequel on connoitra qu’il faut deux vibrations pour faire un tems.”

1887 zweckwer metronome patent1

Meaning: It is enough to put a quarter note on top of the number by which one knows that you’ll have to count two vibrations for one ‘tems’.

This is a practice that still in 1887 was done. We read the same thing for instance  in a patent Richard Zwecker registered for  his “metronome”, nothing more than a pendulum with a normal scale referring to th

e minute. Let’s read the passage together and you’ll learn why context is key in understanding historical sources and not what you or I would like to read: I quote:

“h represents a double scale, which shows the number of vibrations of the weight g in a minute for different lengths of the pendulum (…) thus, when the index d points to the top numbers, 80 40, the pendulum is at full length and indicates eight vibrations counting the falls in one direction only, or forty vibrations, counting the falls in both directions as one.”

Read now our last sentence again and sit down firmly:

“it being well understood, that in this, as in every other case, each SINGLE beat or tick forms a part of the intended time, and is to be counted as such: but not the two beats produced by the motion from one side to the other”.

So, how simple can it be? The “instructions” warned against what was common practice with a pendulum. Again, the short rod, made possible by two weights, was a genius invention, that we may take for granted today, but provided a machine in those days that made very slow and very rapid movements possible in a relatively small device. On top of that, it delivered ALWAYS the exact indication of the “parts’ (never forget this anymore !) of the intended time, and thus indicated metrically (hence the name metronome) the intended time altogether.

©2018 Wim Winters for Authentic Sound.org

Directions for using Maelzel's metronome or musical time-keeper 1816
Directions for using Maelzel's metronome or musical time-keeper 1816