Interpreting Beethoven: Metronome Myths and Facts




In the last article I discussed the broken metronome theory and my thoughts why I don’t believe Beethovens metronome was broken. But that doesn’t change the fact that his metronome markings are really high and sometimes unplayable, so in this article I’m going to discuss some of the other theories. I am also going to share a few letters from Beethoven to see how the theories stand up to Beethovens own words.



Metronome Myths:


The first theory or thought I have heard many musicians say, is that Beethovens metronome markings was meant as an ultimate goal. He didn’t expect musicians to play that fast, but to strive and try to get as close as possible to his tempi. Why he didn’t just write «as fast as possible» or something like that I don’t know, but the idea of this theory is that Beethoven expected future musicians to be at a much higher level, and that some time in the future someone would be able to play as fast as he indicated. I have heard many musicians say they believe this, but I haven’t managed to find so much published about this theory so it’s hard for me to explain it in detail or to tell you what arguments the supporters use for this theory. So if you believe in this theory I would love to hear from you so we can discuss and learn more from each other! 


The dutch conductor Harke de Roos has made up his own theory, and I have to admit he has been quite successful with it. He has had multiple tv appearances, made a documentary, and he recorded Beethovens 2nd Symphony with the Wiener Symphoniker. De Roos thinks the metronome markings was deliberate mistakes from Beethoven to test if the musicians understood his music. If a musician actually played the music as fast as the metronome markings indicated, he knew that this musician didn’t understand his music, while a good musician would understand that these metronome markings were wrong and the music should be played much slower than indicated. I don’t want to be rude against De Roos and his theory, and I admit he has been quite successful with it, but to me it seems he hasn’t actually done any research to come up with this. Beethovens own words, as I’m going to show you later in this article, fully contradicts what Harke De Roos thinks and maybe we interpret the letters differently, but it’s hard for me to understand how he can think this if he has actually read these letters. 


The Professor of fortepiano at the Grieg Academy, Torleif Torgersen, introduced me to this theory, and even if I might not fully believe it, I think it makes the most sense out of all the theories discussed so far. He thinks the reason for Beethovens high tempi is because he put in the metronome markings a while after completing a piece. With some pieces composed before the invention of the metronome in 1816, he would put in the markings years after composing the piece. According to this theory anyone, Beethoven included, would choose a higher tempo when thinking back at a piece, than what they actually want when playing it. There is also a factor of becoming tired of a piece you have worked on for a long time, which would mean you set the tempo up, and according to Torgersen, these two things is what lead Beethoven to choose such high tempi. You can actually try this yourself at home, by thinking of a piece you have played or heard for a while, check the tempo you chose against a metronome, and then checking a recording of it. Odds are, even with me making you aware of it, you are going to choose a higher tempo than the recording. Even though I don’t believe this theory to be the reason of Beethovens high metronome markings, I think every musician who works on a piece for a long time would eventually become tired of it and therefore take the tempo up to try and make it a bit more interesting for themselves, Beethoven included. 

With these theories in the back of our heads, and the Broken Metronome theory of last article, I think it will be interesting to see how Beethoven talks about the metronome in his own words, and how these theories fit with what Beethoven says himself. 



The Beethoven Letters:


«Thanks for your metronome; let us try whether we can measure Time into Eternity with it, for it is so simple and easily managed that there seems to be no impediment to this! (…) I thought there was something worthy of notice in your metronome, and I hope we shall soon succeed in setting it thoroughly right.» -To Zmeskall (1811)


I thought this was interesting to see how Beethoven supported the metronome, and wanted a device to accurately measure time. It’s especially worthy to note that this was written five years before Mälzel  (or Winkel) invented the metronome. This letter might therefore indicate that Beethoven was a supporter or even a helper/consultant for inventing the metronome. This is one of many arguments I have against Harke De Roos’ theory, because if Beethoven was supporting the metronome even when it was just some kind of prototype (note that he said WE shall soon set it right), why would he just use it just to test the musicians by deliberately putting in the wrong markings? Isn't it more believable that Beethoven supported the development of the metronome because he wanted to accurately instruct the musicians how fast he wanted a piece played?



«I have long been thinking of abandoning these nonsensical term like adagio, allegro, (…) and Mälzels metronome gives us the best opportunity to do so. I give you my word here and now that I will never use them again in any of my new compositions»  -To H. Von Mosel (1817) 


We know he didn’t actually stick to his words in this letter since he continued using these nonsensical terms, and he didn’t even put metronome markings on everything he composed after this, but it shows us how much he supported the metronome. My thoughts of why Beethoven continued to use the terms and didn’t always put in metronome markings? Because it was still a very new invention that not many people owned at the time. I have probably read thousands of Beethovens letters for this project, and I would say about 80% of them are about money and business, and so for Beethoven the business man it would be stupid of him to only use metronome markings for his works. Most of his sonatas and chamber music was published so that other musicians and amateurs could buy the sheet music and play it at home since they didn’t exactly have Spotify back then, and this was a big part of Beethovens income. He would have lost a whole lot of business if his music required people to own a metronome, a device only a handful of people owned. That is why I think Beethoven, even after writing this letter, only used the metronome markings for the bigger pieces or when he felt it was absolutely necessary.



«The metronome markings will be sent to you very soon. Do wait for them. In our century such markings are certainly necessary; moreover I have received letter from Berlin informing me that the first performance of the Symphony was met with enthusiastic applause, which I ascribe largely to the metronome markings» -To Schott (1826)


This again shows us how important the metronome was for Beethoven, and the Harke De Roos theory is even harder to believe the more letters you read. It is also hard to believe his metronome was broken, because that would either mean the musicians of the Symphony ignored his markings without telling him, or that the audience still loved it at an extremely high tempo. I think its also worth mentioning that in the first part of this letter, he talks about the Missa Solemnis, so this means he made not only a big orchestra, but also the choir to wait until they got his metronome markings. 

The Symphony he talks about, which was met with enthusiastic applause from its first performance in Berlin, and note that Beethoven wasn’t there for the premiere, is actually the 9th Symphony. You have probably heard the story of when the 9th symphony premiered Beethoven had to use a helper to conduct it since he couldn’t hear the orchestra, and that he didn’t even know when it was finished so the helper had to turn him around to see the standing ovations. From what I can make out of this letter, that is all false. He wasn’t even there for the premiere! And every time I've heard this story I always wondered why it was so difficult for him to conduct without hearing, since he could see the musicians playing and conduct from that? Well, not so long ago I found out that everyone back then would conduct facing the audience, and that Wagner was the first person to turn his back to the audience and actually look at the orchestra he conducted. Just a small fun fact I wanted to share with you.

In the next article I will let you know what I think might be the solution to Beethovens metronome markings, and show you some interesting sources I’ve found, so stay tuned for the next post!


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And as always, feel free to comment below or send me a message with your ideas and thoughts or if you have any questions, 

I would love to hear from you.


Thank you for reading,

Markus Eriksen


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