The original design of Mälzel’s clockwork metronome endured for years and years; it’s only now, in this electronic age, that it’s been replaced by something that looks more like this:
But, whether clockwork or electronic, it has become, as a means of establishing and (maybe just as importantly maintaining) the tempo of a piece, an essential part of any musician’s equipment.
Not everyone is a fan. Several very distinguished composers (Verdi, Wagner and Brahms for instance) would have no truck with it, and many commentators have drawn a distinction between mechanical ‘metronome’ time and the more fluid/human ‘musical’ time.
This, however, isn’t the only controversy to surround the metronome. Composers who have used it – Beethoven was among the first – have sometimes sown seeds of confusion and dissent among their later interpreters by indicating speeds that seems impossibly fast. So much so that a considerable amount of scholarship has been expended on the theory that these composers were the proud owners of wonky metronomes.
Take Beethoven: here, from the symphonies, are two famous examples (there are several others).
The first movement of the Eroica is marked:
here’s a piano realisation of part of the movement at that strict tempo…
Another (seriously!) fast indication is to be found in the finale of the 8th symphony:
Wonky metronome? Too fast?? Just the right speed???
What do you think?
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