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Early Metronomes

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I am perplexed. I expect we all know that Beethoven’s metronome markings are controversial. Performers often find them disconcertingly fast. Consequently many attempts have been made to make the facts fit modern preconceptions, an ever-ready one being that Beethoven’s metronome was faulty. Yet Karl Holz, Moscheles and Czerny, all of whom had close contact with Beethoven, left metronome markings for his works that broadly support Beethoven’s own markings and scholars who have confined their considerations dispassionately to the contemporary evidence seem to accept them (e.g. this thesis from last year, which I confess to have read only partially).

 Maelzel pirated and patented the concept of the metronome in 1815. Samuel Wesley had one by the following year because his Twelve Short Pieces, completed in July 1816, have metronome markings. I had never really thought about these speeds before, but today I checked them (using Gordon Phillips’ urtext edition for Hinrichsen) and found them no less incredible than Beethoven’s. Most of them felt unnecessarily fast and the marked tempo for the well-known Gavotte, minim = 104, is really utterly ridiculous. (Could this be a misprint for crotchet = 104? I wonder what Wesley’s manuscript in the RCM says). Similarly with his son’s Choral Song. In this piece, crotchet = 100 for the prelude is perfectly doable, but crotchet = 112 for the fugue* seems incredibly frantic, the octave passages in either hand requiring an almost Tchaikovskian dexterity. I would also question the ability of an organ’s low pipes to speak properly at some points using this speed.

 Now I am as guilty as anyone else of wanting to make the facts fit my preconceptions, but are these speeds really what the composers intended? I was hoping that perhaps the numbered scale on Maelzel’s early metronomes might turn out to be just a random scale unconnected to the clock, but alas it seems always to have been a measurement of beats per minute. (At least a review of the metronome in 1821 said it was.)

Frankly, I have no intention of abandoning what my ears tell me to be musical, but on the other hand I would really like to understand how these composers perceived their pieces.

 

 * Just an idle thought: it is well known that the subject of the fugue is taken from the section “Tell it out among the heathen” from John Travers’ Ascribe unto the Lord. Could it be this rather than the prelude that gave the work its title?

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There is the hypothesis that some people considered a single beat of the metronome to consist of the time it took, not for the pendulum to reach the other side (one click), but for it to return to its original position (two clicks). This would (obviously) give markings like the Samuel Wesley one that appear exactly twice as fast as they should be.

This has been advanced as an explanation for the fact that Reger's original metronome markings seem very fast and Straube's editions of his work (apparently issued with Reger's approval) tend to halve the markings.

Snags for this hypothesis:

1. Lack of any contemporary evidence for this.

2. This method would get very confusing in compound time.

3. One could imagine Beethoven and Sam Wesley confronted with a novel device coming up with an idiosyncratic way of using it, but surely by Reger's time such anomalies would have been squeezed out.

Thought: Is there any contemporary evidence of a sufficiently hard nature to shed light on these questions (e.g. "This piece/movement took 5 min 34 sec to perform")?

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In the early decades of the 19th century there was still confusion and a lack of agreement over what we now take to be simple matters of physics which most school students understand today.  The time period and frequency of an oscillating system such as a clock/watch or metronome were one example (I say "one example" rather than "two" because the two parameters are reciprocals of each other).  I once got into a complete muddle trying to understand what Cavaille-Coll was on about in one of his early scientific papers relating to the end corrections of organ pipes.  I have great admiration for his depth of understanding of acoustical physics, but was stymied in this particular case until it dawned on me that the figures he was using for frequency were twice those we use today.  He was apparently counting two acoustic impulses per complete cycle of the sound waveform.  It is even more obscure than that though, because he seemed to change his mind later on when he apparently adopted today's convention, perhaps because later in the century the measurement of frequency became internationally standardised along with many other physical constants (a movement in which the French themselves played a significant role).

It is possible this might have something to do with the metronome problem being discussed here, as DyGW suggested above.

CEP

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As usual a thorough and informative response from the good Dr. Pykett.

I'm sorry, Colin, but I didn't understand a word of it!!! Physics and me didn't get on at school!

 

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That's very interesting.

There are precedents for such a way of counting. Those who have learned Latin may have wondered why a Roman mile (mille passus, i.e. 1,000 paces) appears to be roughly half a modern one (taking a yard as a bit more than a pace). If they had an intelligent Latin teacher it will have been explained to them that the Romans counted as a pace the interval between one foot touching the ground and the next time it did (i.e. a double pace by our reckoning).

Nor is confusion/ambiguity a thing of the past. Even today problems have been known to arise because a mathematician who may have devised an algorithm starts counting from 0, but the engineer implementing it starts from 1.

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43 minutes ago, S_L said:

 

As usual a thorough and informative response from the good Dr. Pykett.

I'm sorry, Colin, but I didn't understand a word of it!!! Physics and me didn't get on at school!

 

Maybe, but it's each to his own I think.  I wouldn't be able to hold a candle to you in terms of your musicianship, where I am enthusiastic but remain a mere fumbler!  I find the spectrum of abilities and professions represented on this forum is perhaps its greatest strength, and I learn a lot from it.

CEP

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It's easy to forget that so much of what we think is obvious (e.g. what a metronome marking means) is in fact arbitrary and conventional. To someone in a different age/culture things may look quite different.

There's nothing implausible in the idea that a nineteenth-century musician confronted by a "fast" metronome marking would just shrug his shoulders and say, "Ah, one of those people who counts a double beat," and adjusted accordingly, and this was so "obvious" that no-one ever thought to note the possibility down. Just as a contemporary reading an early paper by Cavaillé-Coll would realise he was counting one way, and reading a later paper that he was counting the other way.

Even so, it would be nice if there were some concrete evidence for the hypothesis! In acoustical physics one can prove that an anomalous method of counting was employed; in the more subjective area of musical tempi, alas, that's not so.

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Without wishing to do the thing to death, on the matter of Cavaille-Coll counting 'double' values for frequency, I subsequently came across a footnote in Audsley (his book 'The Art of Organ Building') which also made the same point - so he had obviously come across it too.  Apparently they knew each other, so maybe the matter was discussed between them on one of Audsley's visits to the 'atelier' of the great man as he charmingly put it!  (Audsley may have been somewhat verbose, though many of his anecdotes and turns of phrase add colour to what he said, I find).

CEP

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Thank you, both, for those interesting thoughts. Apparently there is an article (to which I don't have access) by Nicholas Temperley in a 1966 issue of Music and Letters that discusses some concert timings by Sir George Smart. I gather that as far as Beethoven's works are concerned the timings do not differ significantly from those of today, but the trouble is that we have no idea whether Smart's speeds were the same as Beethoven's: they might be exactly the reason the metronome was thought to be such a good idea.

The problem I see with the "double-click" theory is that, while it would make sense of Wesley's "Gavotte" (the title is spurious, although apt), for the other pieces marked - and for most everything else, I should think - it produces speeds that are just as dubiously slow as the literal interpretation is fast. Nevertheless it could be that some early users did think of it this way, since such an interpretation is specifically stamped on in the 1821 review I mentioned above. I have had an interesting email from our former contributor Cynic reminding me that there is also a theory that some composers aligned the tempo numbers with the bottom of the weight rather than the top - which of course would produce slower speeds. This is a very attractive suggestion because it does makes a lot of empirical sense, but, alas, I don't think it quite stands up to scrutiny.

One thing that tends to get overlooked is that, recent digital developments apart, the design of the metronome has not changed since Maelzel patented it, except for the early introduction of a bell which could be set to mark the barline (something recommended in the 1821 review). Towards the end of 1815 Maelzel took out patents for the device in several countries.  The English patent can be read here.  The drawings show that it already has the notched rod and the text confirms that these notches correspond with the numbers on the scale. The review of 1821 (at page 302 here) specifically says that the numbers relate to a minute of time, so that when the weight is set to 50, fifty beats or ticks will be obtained in each minute and that users can confirm the accuracy by setting the metronome 60 and timing it against a stopwatch. This is unambiguous and disposes of my hope that the number scale on these early metronomes would turn out to be unrelated to the clock.  I would imagine that setting the weight so as to read off its lower edge would have felt as perverse then as it would be today since it would have entailed wilfully ignoring the spring clip on the weight that engages with the notches on the rod.  

As I have mentioned here more than once I don't do Reger, but David Adams's thesis on Straube's Reger editions (the two had something of a musical partnership) is available here and includes a discussion of Straube's tempi. The whole thesis looks quite fascinating, but is still some way down my reading list and goodness knows when I will get around to it.

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I've had a quick look at the 1966 Temperley article. It is seventeen pages long, and goes into some detail, considering such questions as whether the timings are distorted by cuts or missed repeats, and includes works by Mozart, Haydn and Handel as well as Beethoven. As you say, Temperley's view is that the tempi implied do not greatly differ from modern (i.e. 1966) ones.

Quote

To sum up, the conclusions may be divided into those that are more or less inescapable on the evidence and those that have an element of conjecture. It is certainly true that Smart performed some music faster than modern conductors, some at about the same tempo, and some (including some Beethoven) slightly slower. But he had no consistent tendency to perform either slower or faster than modem conductors. In playing Haydn's and Mozart's symphonies, he certainly did not make a habit of playing the long repeats, and he may not even have played the short ones. If he did play the short ones, his average tempos must have been a little faster than modem ones for these works. In Beethoven's symphonies he did not usually play the long repeats, though he may have done so occasionally. He did not regularly make substantial cuts or interpolations in orchestral works, but he may have occasionally made a substantial cut or even omitted a whole movement of a symphony. He did not usually leave very long intervals between movements (that is, more than a minute or so at the most), though the ninth symphony was an exception. In oratorios he did not make cuts that are now common (e.g. of da capo sections).

Turning to less well established conclusions, I believe that all the facts suggest that Smart was apt to treat Beethoven with rather more respect than other composers. His performances of Beethoven's symphonies were less perfunctory than those of Haydn's and Mozart's in two ways: he did not rush the tempo as much, and he played the repeats more often. It also seems to me, on balance, that Smart probably had a smaller range of tempo than modem conductors: that is, he tended to play slower movements faster and faster movements slower than we do.

It is worth noting that, as Temperley relates, Smart had played for Haydn, and had met Beethoven, with whom he discussed tempi (though note Smart's caveat!):

Quote

[...] Smart's timings have a certain authenticity through his personal experience. He had played under Haydn at Salomon's concerts in 1794; and when he visited Beethoven at Baden in 1825, "Beethoven gave me the time, by playing the subjects on the pianoforte, of many movements of his symphonies, including the Choral Symphony, which according to his account took three-quarters of an hour only in performance. .. This I deem to be totally impossible."

 

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