da capo: the origin of our metronome

Maelzel’s metronome, c. 1815. (source)

The invention of the metronome is often attributed to Johann Nepomuk Maelzel (also spelled Mälzel) (1772-1838), a German inventor with some borderline plagiarist tendencies. The actual proto-metronome was invented by a Dietrich Winkel in Amsterdam in 1814 and called a “chronometer.” Maelzel happened to observe this invention and promptly added a scale, filed a patent, and began selling the device as his own. The entire affair is recorded in a letter written to the editor of the Revue Musicale by an Amsterdam official.

“The facts are the following:– In 18…., Maelzel being at Amsterdam with his chess player [editor’s note: a chess-playing machine], (which by the way was not originally his, but had been purchased by him of a German mechanist,) M. Winkel applied to the fourth class of the Royal Institution of the Low Countries, asking us to plead his cause before a commission, in the presence of M. Maelzel, in order to verify his assertion in the German Gazette, and to conclude the affair, once for all. I was on the commission. The result of the speeches of the two adversaries was, that we were fully convinced–firstly, that M. Maelzel had but a very imperfect knowledge of mathematics, and especially of mechanics, since he had proposed to Winkel a process for making a metronome, which was utterly impracticable; and secondly, that he had seen in Winkel’s possession an instrument, hastily made and rudely executed it is true, but which perfectly answered the end, and which had served as a model for his chronometer. Being closely pushed by our interrogatories, he declared, in the presence of four witnesses, members of the commission, that had he not seen the instrument of M. Winkel, the idea would never have occurred to him of constructing his metronome, as he has done: He only claimed the scale, as established by him, and for which Winkel had never contended.” (The Harmonicon)

All intellectual property theft aside, Maelzel was the person responsible for introducing Beethoven to the metronome, and he loved it. In an 1817 letter to Hofrath von Mosel, Beethoven raved:

So far as I am myself concerned, I have long purposed giving up those inconsistent terms allegro, andante, adagio, and presto; and Maelzel’s metronome furnishes us with the best opportunity of doing so. I here pledge myself no longer to make use of them in any of my new compositions. It is another question whether we can by this means attain the necessary universal use of the metronome. I scarcely think we shall! I make no doubt that we shall be loudly proclaimed as despots; but if the cause itself were to derive benefit from this, it would at least be better than to incur the reproach of Feudalism!…Of course some persons must take the lead in giving an impetus to the undertaking. You may safely rely on my doing what is in my power, and I shall be glad to hear what post you mean to assign to me in the affair.” (source: Beethoven’s Letters, vol. 1, entry 211)

Which brings up another problem: when Beethoven went back to his older pieces and added metronome markings, a lot of them ended up being considerably faster than any modern performers play them. Consider these two recordings of the first movement of Beethoven 5. The first is by Toscanini, and hovers around 105 BPM:

Now listen to Christopher Hogwood’s version, which is much closer to the original 108 BPM marking Beethoven scribbled down all those years ago:

Beethoven’s metronome markings have left many perplexed at their adrenaline-inducing speeds. Some blame copying mistakes; others remark that Beethoven’s hearing was rapidly worsening at the time; still others say that there must have been something wrong with his metronome. At any rate, we can’t dismiss the impact that this little wooden piece of technology had on Beethoven’s life.

“I have received letters from Berlin informing me that the first performance of the [Ninth] Symphony met with enthusiastic applause, which I ascribe largely to the metronome markings.” – Beethoven, in a December 1826 letter (source: quoted in Rudolf Kolisch, “Tempo and Character in Beethoven’s Music“)

More reading/listening:

Radiolab – “Speedy Beet” podcast
The Beethoven Project – How Fast Shall We Play?

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Audition advice.

Rodgers, Berlin, Hammerstein, and Helen Tamiris, watching auditions at the St. James Theatre (source)

Many student musicians are now feeling that heart-quickening mixture of excitement and dread as they enter the school audition season. They pack their best clothes and travel to strange cities to play in front of strangers for fifteen minutes…and then return home to await the answer, all the while praying fervently for a positive one.

Auditioning for schools isn’t an easy process, but there are some things we can do to feel more at ease and successful throughout the process. I’m by no means an old hand at auditioning, but I’ve been lucky enough to have been on the receiving end of valuable audition advice.

  1. Practice the audition, not just the music. You’ve likely been investing hours into the preparation of your pieces, but hold mock auditions–multiple times–by inviting friends, family, and/or colleagues to sit in front of you and watch you play your audition pieces. Have them follow the audition process by stopping you in the middle of a piece, telling you which piece to play next, and selecting movements in random order.
  2. Visualize a successful audition. This ties into the mock audition: by imagining yourself in a strange studio or auditorium, playing in front of judges, your actual audition will seem less like foreign territory. Rather than putting energy into fears and worries about the unknown, program your mind with positive mental images.
  3. Practice calmly. Especially on audition day, resist the urge to rush through your pieces beginning to end. Play through them slowly and mindfully, start at different sections, and review problem spots calmly and carefully for confidence’s sake.
  4. Don’t apologize for mistakes. A friend once made the astute observation that competitions are about a single performance, but auditions are about potential. Teachers and judges understand that the audition process is nerve-racking, and they don’t expect flawless performances. Rather than letting technical slips distract you, accept the mistake and move on as quickly as possible. Music is a living, breathing, emotional art, and you’re not there to show that you can play a Beethoven sonata without missing any notes–you’re there to show that you’ve worked hard and that you’re passionate about and invested in music.
  5. Be memorable. The faculty might see dozens of hopeful students in a day, and hundreds of them in a month. Besides ensuring that your musical interpretation is logical, creative, and nuanced, it might help to put yourself in the shoes of a businessperson. Dress well. Show your personality. Look people in the eye. Walk with confidence and purpose. If you have the opportunity to talk with the faculty, try to ask thoughtful questions.
  6. Be an artist. Finally, remember that passing a single audition is not the final destination. What judges think of you is secondary to your own convictions about, and love for, music. One of the things that helped me the most when auditioning for grad school was hearing a friend advise me to imagine myself as a touring musician, concertizing in new and exciting cities. That image of being an established artist, sharing music in front of fresh audiences, inspired me to care more about my music, to infuse my interpretation with more personal creativity. I once heard a quote similar to: “Practicing is the work. Performing should be the enjoyment.” Imagine your audition as a performance, another chance to express yourself through art, and it will be a more positive process for you (and the judges too!).

Finally, a quote from another field which deals with auditions, on not worrying too much about the audition process and accepting whatever the outcome may be:

“They are dying for you to blow them away. They’re on your side. What do you think—they want to go through hundreds of people and settle? No. Just do what you do. Either you’re right for the part or you’re not—let them decide.” –Ian Tucker, acting coach

Further reading:
The Violin Site – Fearless Audition
Bulletproof Musician – What is the Most Overlooked Step in Audition Preparation?

What’s your best audition tip?

HBR: The Relationship between Anxiety and Performance

Although directed toward people in the business world, this article by Scott Stossel in the Harvard Business Review addresses some points about performance in high-pressure situations that are equally as relevant for us musicians.

For those who choke during presentations to board members or pitches to clients, for example…the best approach may be one akin to what Beilock has athletes do in her experiments: redirecting your mind, in the moment, to something other than how you’re comporting yourself, so you can allow the skills and knowhow you’ve worked so hard to acquire to automatically kick into gear and carry you through. Your focus should not be on worrying about outcomes or consequences or on how you’re being perceived but simply on the task at hand. Prepare thoroughly (but not too obsessively) in advance; then stay in the moment.