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.