Refocusing the Debate on Beethoven’s Metronome Marks

by Yoichi Udagawa

There has always been great debate about the metronome marks in Beethoven Symphonies. Performer “A” believes that the speeds indicated make the music sound “un-Beethovenian”, while Performer “B” thinks that some of the marks are good while others are suspect. The debate about Beethoven’s marks center around their validity and rarely involve any discussion as to the reasons Beethoven chose the marks that he did. If the debate about Beethoven’s MM were to revolve around trying to understand Beethoven's choices instead of questioning them, the debate might lead to interesting insights. What was Beethoven trying to say in making his choices of MM? Are the choices arbitrary or do they have some rational basis? If so, what are they? How are the choice of MM related to the composition?

Assumption 1: Tempo clarifies musical structure and form. Musical structures and forms unfold through time, and tempo determines the speed with which this happens. A composer is challenged with the task of organizing musical elements into a complete work. All these elements must be presented at a tempo which enables the listener to hear the composition as a coherent whole.

Assumption 2: The metronome marks can be best understood as attempts to choose tempi that best clarify all the compositional elements of a piece. This includes large scale formal designs, phrase lengths, meter, tempo indicators, and even such details as bowings and dynamic marks.

Thesis: The metronome marks left by Beethoven are decisions about tempi that are inseparable from all the elements of his compositions. The composition determines the tempo and the tempo in turn determines whether a listener will be able to hear all the details of a piece that Beethoven meant to be heard. The metronome marks are as integral to the composition as the key signatures or the notes themselves. They are his insights about how his music can be best understood.

There are many examples of movements from Beethoven Symphonies which are often performed at tempi which differ vastly from Beethoven’s MM. The second mvt. from the fourth symphony is a good example. It is often taken at a tempo that is much slower then the one indicated by the MM. Analyzing the movements compositional elements will reveal that there are many reasons to support Beethoven's choice of MM. The second mvt of the fourth symphony is in sonata form, and the phrases are generally 8 bars (4+4) in length. The relationship between form and phrase lengths with tempo is simple. The tempo must be a speed which enables the listener to discern the phrase structure as a whole. If that is accomplished, the listener will be able to hear the overall formal structure of the composition. If the tempo is too quick, the phrases sound compressed, and if the tempo is too slow, the listener will not be able to comprehend the phrase as a whole. The first phrase is 8 bars (4+4) long. This can be confirmed by observing that the phrase is repeated immediately thereafter in a varied form. The recapitulation at measure 64 is also 8 bars in length.

The development beginning at measure 41 starts with an 8 bar statement of the first theme. This analysis confirms the phrase lengths as being 8 bars. The tempo chosen should be such that the listener can hear this 8 bar phrase as a whole. In most performances, the tempo is quite a bit slower than Beethoven’s marking of e = 84. The tempos generally are around e = 50. At this speed, it becomes almost impossible for the listener to hear the first 8 bar phrase as a whole. The phrase gets broken up into smaller 1 or 2 bar segments. At Beethoven's tempo, it becomes easy to hear all the 8 bar phrases as whole entities. This allows the listener to clearly hear the phrases and how they connect within the larger formal structures of the movement. Whatever our subjective feelings about Beethoven’s choice of MM might be, his “fast” tempo was chosen because it best clarifies his phrase and formal structures.

The meter of the second movement is 3/4 and the tempo indication is Adagio. Let us assume that the meter should be felt as a slow 3/4. Beethoven’s MM of e = 84 translates into a slow quarter q = 42. At that speed, one can still hear the meter as being a slow 3/4. Most modern day conductors take a tempo around e = 50. At this tempo, it becomes almost impossible to hear the pulse as a quarter note. Invariably, most listeners hear the eighth note as the beat. In addition, the 3/4 meter breaks down, and the music sounds like it is in 6/8 or 2/8. The ironic thing about this is that the slower tempo of an e = 53 can be heard as being faster than the q = 42. This can be explained as a question of what the listener perceives the beat to be. At e = 50, the listener hears the pulse in eighth notes. At q = 42, the listener feels the pulse in quarter notes. The perception is that the faster tempo is "slower" than the slow tempo. The meter and the tempo indication of Adagio can both be accounted for by Beethoven’s choice of MM. At the speed of e = 84 which translates to q = 42, the sense of the 3/4 meter is preserved and the listener hears the quarter note pulse as being Adagio.

The bowing marks (the slurs) in the string parts are worth examination. The traditional approach to bowings is to interpret them as only phrase indicators and not as literal bowings. Furthermore, the slow tempos taken by most conductors today make it almost impossible to play them. However, if one takes Beethoven’s MM, his bowings make sense as bowings. For example, the first violins enter at bar 2. The bowing slurs across the entire first bar. The dynamic indication is piano. At Beethoven’s MM, the bowing is entirely possible, and it has the added advantage of insuring that the violins will play piano. The cellos enter at bar 2 and have a two bar slur. This too makes sense with Beethoven’s MM and insures a soft dynamic. Moving on to bar 5, the first violins have a crescendo. With Beethoven’s bowings, the players will naturally use more bow and make the crescendo. Bars 6&7 are once more piano and the crescendo in bar 8 is accompanied by a bowing that easily enables the players to make more sound. The bowings left by Beethoven are possible and logical when the tempo is q = 42 (e = 84). This is not the case when the tempos taken are the traditional ones which are around e = 50. At that tempo, the bowings are impossible. Furthermore, they become thought of as “phrase marks” which they are not. The phrases are not 1 bar segments but are 8 bars long.

The controversy about Beethoven's metronome markings are characterized by arguments about their validity and not at all about what might have lead Beethoven to make the choices that he did. Most of those who are critical of Beethoven's judgment regarding his choice of tempos nevertheless hold him up as one of the giants of Western music. How is it that a great composer cannot be given the benefit of the doubt concerning something as basic a picking a tempo? The debate should not be about the legitimacy of the metronome marks, but rather about the reasons that would explain why he chose the tempos that he did. This way of approaching Beethoven's metronome marks will reveal that Beethoven’s choices of MM’s are related to all aspects of his compositions. The form and structure, the meter, tempo indications, bowings, and dynamic marks, should all be revealed to us in performance. The choice of tempo is crucial to insuring that the listener can hear all the component parts of a piece as a unity. Beethoven’s metronome marks serve that function.