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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