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Not With The Band: Let's Speed Up Beethoven

Beethoven and his metronome














When it comes to playing music written by somebody else, how do we know that we interpret it correctly? There is obviously no problems for musicians who are still alive or who lived not a long time ago, but what about classical musicians who died centuries ago? It had really never come to me until I listened to the radio show Radiolab about Beethoven and his metronome.

Beethoven was one of the first composers to work with a metronome, he became a sort of enthusiastic of the invention and went back to all the symphonies he had already composed (8 out of 9) to mark for posterity the tempos to which they should be played. But here is the problem, the tempos marked by Beethoven are fast, very fast, sometimes almost impossible to play! Take Beethoven’s ultra famous 5th symphony usually played at 74 beats per minutes,… he wanted it to be played at 108 beats per minutes!

People were so surprised and so unready to accept such a fast beat, that they were wondering whether these markings were his actual intentions. They first thought his metronome was broken and was given the wrong numbers, but Beethoven metronome still exists and it is fine. Was it his assistant’s error? Very improbable as he couldn’t have repeated the same errors all the time, right? Beethoven was already deaf at the time, and he was only hearing the music in his head, so people questioned his ability to hear a tempo in the real world… but at the end, none of this can really explain his fast markings, and people simply don’t want to admit that the fast tempo because it makes them feel uncomfortable, almost on the edge, since symphonies played that fast are totally different rock’ n’ roll beasts. Chuck Berry was right, roll over Beethoven!

These days, his symphonies are not performed at his markings, he wanted his music to be played a lot quicker, and musicians who try to play it that fast, usually miss some notes, but you know what? Beethoven didn’t even care that much about the notes, he just cared about the uncomfort zone. Amazing!

I thought it was a very interesting concept, classical music is often perceived as relaxing and calming, but BeAthoven’s intentions were just the opposite! This reminded me about Milos Forman’s excellent film ‘Amadeus’ which portrayed a pink haired truculent and unruly Mozart as we had never imagined him to be. I am now convinced that a lot of classical musicians were the first punks in music, it’s about time to dust off their image and and play their music as they intended to be played.

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