Playing Beethoven too slowly

Toward the end of his life, Beethoven added metronome markings to the scores of his symphonies to indicate exactly how fast they should be performed. The tempos indicated in the scores are consistently faster than how the symphonies are usually performed.

Source: Radiolab

9 thoughts on “Playing Beethoven too slowly

  1. In the late 1980s, the “early music” movement (which actually started earlier) gathered a lot of momentum and generated a lot of interesting performances and recordings of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. I remember hearing Norrington’s recordings of Beethoven and never wanting to go back to the slow renditions of Beethoven’s fast movements again. That was a quarter of a century ago. I haven’t changed my mind.

  2. Beethovens 8th symphony (second movement) is supposed to be a parody of the recently invented metronome.

  3. In music school we were taught the MM markings were likely skewed. The metronome was a new device, and early models flawed.

  4. Brian: The podcast mentions that possible explanation. However, it also says that Beethoven’s metronome is still around. It has been tested and there’s nothing wrong with it.

  5. My fundamental point of view: just listen and figure out what makes sense for you. That is all. It is not completely pointless to ask “what did Beethoven really mean?” or “what did Confucius really mean?”, but in the end, we live right here, today, and it is up to us to make our own experiences meaningful.

  6. Some are so slow as to die of their own weight. Sustaining the long line can be more difficult at slower tempos but can be done within a reasonable range if the conductor knows what he’s doing. This is rare.

    Two other common problems also drive met nuts. Adding a ritardando, or a fermata, at the end of a piece where none is written. Beethoven’s Fifth for example should end “in rhythm”. Slowing down or holding any of the last notes for more than their written value, jettisons the accumulated intensity and makes the final cadence sound like a dying elephant.

    The other is to bury the moving line in the rhythmic parts. It is rather annoying to know that there is a melody being played, when only an oom-pah band is heard.

    I like my Beethoven lean and mean. There is enough gravitas in the music as written. Trying to add more is like putting armor on a racehorse.

  7. I notice a difference in the tempo indications I add to my own scores depending on whether I’m sitting in a chair with a metronome or sitting with an instrument making audible music. Almost always, my chair tempos are faster than I prefer when I can hear the result out loud. I wonder if Beethoven’s hearing loss might have something to do with his (to my ear) excessively fast tempo markings.

  8. Elgar is another great example. Everyone plays Elgar too slowly, especially the Enigma Variations. When you play a conductor Elgar’s recording of a piece, he’ll invariably complain that it’s too fast!
    Also, it’s very lucky that we have recordings of him conducting his pieces. In one movement of Enigma, the tempo of his recording is 2/3 of that written on the score. It’s likely he divided by the wrong number when working out the metronome mark.

  9. When Beethoven’s piano sonatas are played faster than they are customarily taken by the most famous Beethoven “experts” (such as Barenboim and Arrau) It is surprising how much clearer his musical ideas become.

    People that want to play Beethoven slowly argue that his few metronome markings are mistaken and are too fast. On the contrary I think Beethoven knew exactly what he was doing and what he wanted.

    It is like those editors that sprinkle disfiguring p’s and f’s all over Mozart’s sonatas because it is inconceivable to them that Mozart would want a long section played with the same dynamic throughout.

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