We all agree that the choice of the right tempo is one of the essential elements for a convincing interpretation. Indeed, it enables to bring out the details as well as the broad lines of a composition. In all eras, more or less precisely, the composers have tried to indicate in the score the speed with which to perform their pieces. In addition to this, we have historical documents that directly attest to the duration of a particular song, work or concert. We know, for example, that a cantata in Bach's time had to last from 25 to 35 minutes (approx. 1747), or we have reviews of period newspapers which report the overall duration of a work (Mozart's Don Giovanni in the its representation in Prague in 1787, probably under the direction of Mozart himself, lasted 2 and a half hours).
1814 is an important year for music: the Dutch engineer Winkel built the prototype of the modern metronome, called mechanical musical chronometer. In 1815, with an action not worthy of praise, the German Maelzel, stealing the basic ideas of Winkel, developed and patented the modern metronome. Beethoven began to use it from 1817.
One might think that with this invention the diatribes on the right tempo with which to perform the pieces (at least of those which reported a metronome marking) were water under the bridge, but instead it is precisely from this moment that these began, with rather more vibrant vehemence, especially in more recent times, in which a more conscious historical attitude of approach to the romantic repertoire has pushed many performers to confront themselves with the metronome markings left by the composers.
Here are some of the most striking and controversial cases from the first half of the 19th century:
L.van Beethoven: Sonata n.29 op.106 "Hammerklavier", I movement, as printed in the first edition: Artaria (1819)
R. Schumann: Kinderzenen op.15 n.7 "Träumerei", First edition: Breitkopf und Härtel (1839):
'Corrected' Tempo, Edition: Henry Litolff’s Verlag (1880):
F.Chopin: Nocturne op.27 n.2, first edition (1837):
I invite you to try these metronome markings for yourself, you will see that the tempos are much faster than the ones we are used to. However, let's not forget a couple of things: 1) all the vintage editions (and almost all the more modern ones) report these tempos, some correct them but without omitting the original indication of the composer 2) the mechanic of the pianos in that time was much lighter than that of our day, which made it possible with greater ease to perform very rapid passages and consequently enabled also a better understanding of the musical material for the listener 3) "Träumerei" in German doesn't mean "Dream" but a complex concept which can be translated either with "Daydream" or, in the words of the Brothers Grimms (German Dictionary): phantastic and therefore meaningless thoughts and ideas. So, nothing like a 'dreaming' slow piece 4) it is obvious that the metronome markings indicate more the general tempo than a speed to be strictly hold throughout the piece (Beethoven himself is told to have said that a metronome marker is only valid for the first few bars of the piece). Here some performance at the right tempo (notice the tempo fluctuation in Beethoven and Schumann within the given metronome marking):
Beethoven (please, check also the Fuga, played at the fantastic Beethoven's tempo!)
Chopin (played on a Pleyel 1844):
The double beat theory
According to this very controversial theory, the metronome marking would indicate the time of two metronome 'clicks' and not of one, as we are used to doing today. However, a group of musicians and musicologists believes (wrongly in my opinion) that the double beat theory should be applied to all metronome markings from Beethoven till almost the end of that century. In this way, the pieces should be performed at the half of the given speed. The result is that we can listen to performances of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasie of over 50 minutes! Many other pieces sound like a first-sight performance and completely in shreds, loosing harmonic connection and large lines. This gave rise to heated discussions, especially in specialized blogs and on YouTube. There is no question that the topic is extremely interesting not only on an academic level but, particularly for me, on a practical one. We have relatively few metronome markings in our repertoire. However, one in particular attracts our attention because it is placed at the beginning of a very famous piece: M.Giuliani's Variations op.107 (Haendel Variations).
Giuliani's Variations op.107 (1828)
The clear indication of M.M. (Metronome of Maelzel) 80 = Minim leaves us a little perplexed at first. By trying to play the Theme in this tempo, you will feel that it is by far too fast and that the expression obtained will not correspond to the one required by 'Andantino', e.g. an 'Andante' slightly slower and, most importantly, graceful; 'ino' is in fact a suffix that in Italian gives the word to which is added a ‘cute’ touch (like ‘bambino’, for example). Then, consider another very important and decisive thing in the choice of the tempo of the op.107. This cycle of variations is based on a progressive acceleration from variation to variation caused by the acceleration of the subdivisions (values) and not of the pulsation (in other words: the metronome tempo does not change). After the point of maximum speed (4 variation) the acceleration logically stops to leave room for the more lyrical variation (in minor), traditionally slower even in the absence of a tempo signature (which however there is here: Minore sostenuto), followed by the final variation, the most virtuous one, also performed according to interpretative tradition more quickly than the initial time, even in the absence of an indication in this regard. This gradual acceleration through the use of always faster values makes sense and achieves the required effect only if the basic pulsation remains the same, that is, if the tempo does not change. Here is the scheme of values used progressively in the variations in the first two bars:
Crotchets (1 unity of tempo = 1 note)
Quavers (1 unity of tempo = 2 notes)
Triplets (1 unity of tempo = 3 notes
Sixteenths, partially (1 unity of tempo = mix of 2 and 4 notes)
Sixteenths, throughout, with the exception of the final bars of each section (1 unity of tempo = 4 notes)
Slow (minor) variation
Last Variation (Allegro molto), Sixteenths
Let's try now playing Variation 4 at 80 = Minim. Exactly: impossible. Yet, let's try to replace the Minim with a 1/4th note, that is, to apply the double beat theory. Magically the whole work (up to the variation in minor) can be performed with the same tempo and with a certain due ease. It seems that Giuliani here meant the metronome marking in this way.
The Gran Variazioni op.114
However, the only other piece by Giuliani where we find a metronome marking tells us just the opposite. His op.114 is a set of ‘gran’ variations preceded by an introduction in sustained Andante tempo. Here are the first bars:
Here it is all too clear that metronome-tempo is to be understood as we are used today, that is, a click = Crotchet. If we try to use the double beat we will get an expression of atrocious heaviness (the chords at bar 3 completely lose all their harmonic strength). Later on, at the beginning of the Theme we find a curious tempo marking, in fact the number which indicates the beats for minute is missing:
These variations gradually undergo an acceleration through the values, too, therefore it is of crucial importance to correctly interpret this marking. My interpretation of it is that the Minim of the cut-C of the Theme is equivalent to a Crotchet of the Introduction, and, being the number of beat per minute the same, it has been implied.:
Introduction: 54 = Crotchet
Theme (and Variations): 54 = Minim
I can assure you that the Theme and Variations played with this Tempo (the slow one shows the indication "Andantino grazioso", and is exceptionally in major, instead of minor) works perfectly, both from a musical and technical point of view.
Aguado's Rondò Brillant op.2 (1827)
Other famous cases of metronome indications in our repertoire are undoubtedly the 3 Rondò Brillanti by D. Aguado. The first Rondò constitutes a controversial case. Indeed, here the 66 = Quaver of the Introduction even being at the slow side, appears to us to be a still acceptable tempo yet, while the 112 = Crotchet of the Polonaise seems slightly too fast for the noble character of this dance (leaving aside the clear playability of the part in sixteenths-triplets and 32nd-8-notes arpeggio). On the other side, a double beat would make it terribly slow!
In this case, for my recording, I relied on my musical instinct, not having been able to find an objective justification for my choice of the tempos.
However, the other two Rondò not only are perfectly performable at the tempos indicated by Aguado but they also sound extraordinarily logical and striking (in single beat, of course).
From this journey through the fascinating metronome tempos of the romantic era, I learned one fundamental thing: one cannot rely on a theory and pass it off in all cases for a universal panacea. In some cases it is the context and our musical instinct which will help us in choosing a tempo that, at that moment, will seem to us the most right and logical.
I thank you heartily for having read until the end of this blog and hope it will be of some use and interest to you. Please, share your thoughts on this topic in the comment section below, they are very welcome! Take care, see you next time and don’t forget to give a look to my other blogs ;)!
My warmest thanks to Mercè for her funny thumbnail :)
P.S. I personally think that Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin knew very well what they wrote, but as I already wrote in other blogs: (bad listening) habits are sometimes quite detrimental for a historically inspired performance.