Beethoven’s Metronome Markings in op. 106

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John Ruggero
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Beethoven’s Metronome Markings in op. 106

Post by John Ruggero » 19 Oct 2019, 22:39

Many have considered Beethoven’s metronome markings to be too fast, and the result of a faulty metronome, a deaf composer’s “inner hearing” or error. The Sonata op. 106 is a particularly sore point. The opening movement is marked at a ferocious half note = 138, the final fugue at an equally ferocious quarter note =144. Even the scherzo (dotted half = 80 and slow movement (eighth note = 92.) seem too fast. Perhaps all of these tempi should be marked down proportionally?

In trying to solve this riddle, I considered the following external evidence:

1. Beethoven was very concerned about his music being played at the correct tempo and serious about the metronome. He continually had it regulated.

2. His student Czerny generally suggests rather “normal” metronome markings in his book on the performance of Beethoven’s piano works, yet recommends Beethoven’s own indications for op. 106 without a quibble. He also mentions that this sonata must be “well-practiced”, which must be the understatement of all understatements, but implies that this sonata is something special from the technical point of view.

3. Of his piano sonatas, only op. 106 has metronome markings. Is it because Beethoven felt the correct tempo was not only critical, but unusual?

4. There is a strong relationship between the slow movement of op. 106 and the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23, which is also in F# minor, also in 6/8, also an Adagio, and which has an opening theme to which Beethoven’s opening theme seems to allude:
Mozart-Beethoven.jpeg
Mozart-Beethoven.jpeg (318.23 KiB) Viewed 405 times
The relationships seems so strong to me that it is possible that Mozart’s movement influenced Beethoven when he wrote his own piece in a very similar mood. Since Mozart’s slow movement may be played convincingly at eighth note = 92, but not much slower, I think it reasonable to imagine that Beethoven thought of his own slow movement as being in the same tempo.

I also considered the following internal evidence: while some sections of the sonata can work at various tempi, many passages rely on a rapid tempo to be convincing. Examples:

1. It is impossible to imagine the introduction to the Fugue (which Beethoven marked at a sixteenth note = 76) at a slower tempo; and for this reason, it is the one marking that has never been disputed. (This makes the faulty metronome theory problematic.)

2, The opening section of the scherzo works at various tempi, but the strange stagnancy of harmony of the middle section requires Beethoven’s rapid tempo to become the ghostly affair he intended.

3. ms. 1-24 of the first movement can sound majestic and impressive even at half tempo, but ms. 25-33 lose their wild excitement and fall flat. Similarly ms. 39-63 sounds like a tedious exercise at a slower tempo. At Beethoven’s tempo such passages become exciting swirls of sound, which may have been a new effect that he was exploring in this sonata.

4. In the fugue, the stretto in augmentation in ms. 116-125 is incomprehensible at a slow tempo, and the interlude at m. 250 stagnates at anything other than a very fast tempo.

Etc.

In summary, I believe the metronome markings to be correct as marked. We know that Beethoven intended to write a monumental work, a piece that would go to the outer limits of what he could conceive of for the medium and the outer limits of what a pianist can perform. The metronome markings were a well-considered part of the challenge. In fact, because Beethoven was exploring the possibilities of very fast tempi in a piano sonata, the sonata relies on these tempi to be convincing.

But the tempos should be modified as needed for expression, as with any piece by Beethoven.
Last edited by John Ruggero on 20 Oct 2019, 16:03, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Beethoven’s Metronome Markings in op. 106

Post by Schonbergian » 20 Oct 2019, 01:04

John, playing devil's advocate: do you believe that the theory advocated here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sgkls8XEt8), that these metronome markings were used radically differently in Beethoven's time, holds any weight when it comes to the Hammerklavier at least?

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Re: Beethoven’s Metronome Markings in op. 106

Post by John Ruggero » 20 Oct 2019, 03:12

My goodness, Schonbergian, what strange theories one can find on the internet. Is he proposing that we have been playing ALL of Beethoven's music (plus Chopin's and Schumann's etc.) twice too fast? The thought of a 1.5 hour Hammerklavier Sonata is very unappetizing. Or is it just the first movement of op. 106 that is twice too fast? That theory has surfaced before in a different guise, but for me the piece is tedium at that tempo.

Czerny knew Beethoven personally, heard him play his music, played his music for him, and was given the honor of premiering the Emperor Concerto. For me, the most surprising thing about Czerny's metronome markings (for practically every piece Beethoven wrote that includes the piano) is that there is no surprise at all. They are remarkably like what we do today.
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Re: Beethoven’s Metronome Markings in op. 106

Post by David Ward » 20 Oct 2019, 07:22

Has anybody here heard Igor Levit's recording of Op 106? I expect he has the mechanical technique to play all movements at metronome speed: but does he? I know Brendel regards the metronome markings as plain wrong, but I (who can't possibly play Op 106 at any speed, except in my head) would love to think they are correct and have read through the piece convincingly in my imagination at the marked tempi. (A risky thing is imagination!)
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Re: Beethoven’s Metronome Markings in op. 106

Post by John Ruggero » 20 Oct 2019, 16:15

Thanks for your thoughts, David. It sounds like you have considered question for some time. Are you happy with your mental performance of the last movement?

The Beethoven quote: "This sonata will keep pianists busy for the next 75 years." Can't remember where I read it. In any case, it is another understatement. We are all still very busy with the piece after 200 years.

Does anyone knows of ANY recorded performance that achieves Beethoven's tempi successfully? Schnabel had an excellent conception of the first movement as a fast piece, but not enough technical command to quite bring it off. He was much less convincing in the fugue. His middle movements are too slow. Various other versions I sampled online use the "safe" half note = 112 that goes back to Bulow's edition.

I just did a calculation of the duration of the sonata using Beethoven's tempi. About 35 minutes. Closer to the durations of his other big sonatas.
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