Are Beethoven's Metronome Markings Dependable Guides to Tempos? - Some Doubt It

WHY do so many of the Hogwood and Norrington recordings fail to evoke the spirit of Beethoven? David Epstein, conductor and music theorist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has specialized in research on the role of time in music and is completing a book on the subject for Schirmer/Macmillan. He is not convinced that the metronome marks stressed by the authenticists actually do reflect Beethoven's intentions, pointing to possible errors by the composer in writing them down and to the questionable reliability of Beethoven's metronome itself.

Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, notes also that Beethoven's metronome did not go below 50 beats to the minute, so that an intended marking of 1/4 note = 40 (as in the ``Eroica'' slow movement) would have been indicated by 1/8 note = 80. Taking paces across the room to indicate the difference, Zander asserted that 1/8 note = 80 does not fit a march, while 1/4 note = 40 (the same distance covered in the same time, but with half as many paces of double the length) was the tempo taken by the Coldstream Guards for the funeral march of Winston Churchill, and makes far more sense in the ``Eroica.''

THE same problem occurs, says Zander, in the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony, and Zander's own new recording (not yet released) with the Boston Philharmonic meets the challenge by reducing the number of pulses while maintaining the indicated speed. ``It's not Beethoven's metronome marks that are in the way; it's a lack of a mastery of the rubato style [the introduction of rhythmic flexibility within a phrase or measure] and of [too many] impulses,'' Mr. Zander said.

A comparison with the Norrington and Hogwood versions of this movement showed that Zander's does seem slower and less cluttered, even though it is also taken fast. The smoother sense of connectivity Zander achieves by reducing impulses makes his performance come across as serene and altogether more convincing than either Norrington's or Hogwood's.

Beyond questions of how much Beethoven's scores do reflect the composer's intentions, Epstein questions the mechanical approach to musicmaking implied by the ``authentic'' approach. The metronome, he says, ``gives us some kind of clock speed,'' but the conductor has to ``internalize [the beat] and make the phrases speak and articulate inside that beat, and that's a psychological thing much more than it is a mechanical clock-type thing.''

Conducting could not operate merely by following directions, but ``it's almost like having molten clay in your hands, and you've got to sustain this piece and shape its phrases and carry on the underlying motion of the piece, which is unique to every piece,'' Epstein continues.

``...There's no way on earth you can show the tempo. That's why as many composers as not have used tempo terms to convey more gesture or character or psychological qualities than they do speed.''

Compositions such as the Beethoven symphonies, furthermore, ``are so complex, and so massive in what they have to say that they can sustain a lot of different approaches. ... If that music didn't have that kind of breadth and richness and variety, frankly we wouldn't be playing it very much.''

While Zander says he has been following Beethoven's tempos for almost 20 years in his own performances, if forced to select between two recordings, he would choose a slower reading with emotion ``because of the atmosphere'' rather than a fast one without it. ``I will not settle for mechanical musicmaking just to get the tempo right, and I think mechanical playing is what we've got as a result of the `authentic' approach.''

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