Vox Humana Posted September 30, 2017 Share Posted September 30, 2017 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? Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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