Slow Beethoven

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A lifelong amateur violinist, Albert Einstein was an avid chamber musician. He would hardly have endeared himself to his fellow players if, when straying from the agreed-upon tempo or missing an entrance, he had tried to excuse these blunders with his oft-cited claim that “time is an illusion.”

Yet an illusion it is.

It can hardly be contested that perceptions of time have shifted radically since the Industrial Revolution. Human minds and bodies have been subject to the continuous forces of accelerating technological change. Ads bombard us with pitches for “superfast” internet speeds that claim to render quaint the progress of comets. Fast is the new slow.

In the decade after Beethoven’s death in 1827 the Atlantic crossing from England to America took about three weeks. By century’s end the journey could be done in fewer than five days. Less than a hundred years later, the Concorde made it in under three hours. Across the 19th century, the railroad altered more quotidian conceptions of time and distance: the countryside sped by. Now it blurs.

Packed into tighter more harried spaces, ears were forced to parse the chaos of urban stimuli. An automobile could (and can) end your life if you weren’t listening and judging the pace of its onrush.

Music followed the frenzy. In the mid-20th century, American bebop put the pedal to the metal on jazz tempos, rendering even the vigorous Swing of the 1930s stately by comparison. In Charlie Parker’s “Bird Gets the Worm” of 1947 the ear can barely follow the flight patterns of his supersonic saxophone.


It’s as if Parker is in an apocalyptic hurry to get it all onto shellac before the Doomsday Clock ticks down to zero.

Given this global accelerando of impatience, it would seem more than a little likely that musicians in general play faster than did the pre-industrial performer-composers who wrote the great works sill cherished by high culture. And besides, who has the time or inclination to sit through six hours of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung or even the hour-plus of Beethoven’s 9th? Many still do, but how about those generations addicted to the hyper-tempos of their future lives?

There are costs to speed. Haste courts disaster on the Autobahn, in the airways, and on the airwaves. It may just be a few bucks more a month for that 5G package, but all these forms of speed fire increase energy consumption and send the earth rocketing towards that final fermata and the still silence that will follow the big finish.

Pre-industrial attempts to quantify musical time often relied on the human heartbeat as a rough template for calibrating tempos. Others observed approximate correlations between the lengths of a piece of music and the measurements of clocks. The report by one of J. S. Bach’s sons that his father “generally took a very lively tempo” doesn’t help us at all.

Then came the metronome, the bane of many a beginning pianist and a symbol of obedience to dictatorial aesthetic and parental powers. This still-reigning temporal autocratic was patented in 1815 by the German inventor, Johann Nepomuk Mälzel. This canny entrepreneur lagged just behind the technological forefront, but he had a knack for stealing the innovations of others. This contraption made it possible for composers to specify the tempos with the metronome markings for all buyers of the scores to follow with their machines at home. Mälzel gave a metronome to Beethoven, who, in a letter of 1817, wrote that the device’s precision would render obsolete the vague Italian terms—Allegro, Andante, Largo, etc.—long in use. Beethoven set about affixing metronome markings to all his symphonies and many other works.

Quantification didn’t ensure clarity. In the 1980s the British conductor Roger Norrington scrupulously followed Beethoven’s indications, even printing them on his CDs of the complete symphonies, as if providing unimpeachable historical proof of the authenticity of his tempos.

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This Beethoven moved a lot faster than the one most were used to after more than a century’s accretion of Romantic lethargy—at least that’s how Norrington heard the story. To many his tempos seemed blistering, and they certainly reshaped then-prevailing notions of Beethoven’s heroic drive and sublime pathos, as heard here in a later recording from 2002 with the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra:

Many were incredulous. Some claimed that Beethoven’s musical tick-tocker was defective. Added to these uncertainties, was the fact that Mälzel was something of a charlatan in his business dealings and designs. (At one point in his checkered career he purchased and presented as an attraction “The Turk,” an artificially intelligent chess-playing automaton that actual had room within its apparatus for a human to hide in and make the moves.) Maybe Beethoven’s metronome had been hacked!

Whatever the case, it is true that Norrington’s Beethoven was suddenly moving at the perceived pace of modernity.

Tugging Chronos by the other arm, an opposing theory has since posited that Beethoven’s metronome worked just fine, but one beat as indicated by the composer’s markings was not just a tick but also the tock. That is, the beat is complete only when the swinging weight of the metronome’s pendulum has not just swung to the other side of its trajectory but returned to its original position. A vocal and dedicated minority of Beethoven enthusiasts now gather beneath the banner of the Whole Beat Metronome Principle (WBMP).

None is more unswerving in his dedication to Slow Beethoven than the Belgian keyboardist and scholar, Wim Winters.

As should be clear by now, I do not use Slow in any negative sense. I want to hear Slowness in music as participating in a broader critique—not necessarily intended by Winters—of the perilous pace of the present. What musical riches and revelations await if we halve our prevailing tempo, not only in music but also elsewhere?

Just after Christmas, Winters’ recording, with Alberto Sanna, of a transcription of Beethoven’s 5th symphony by his student Carl Czerny for piano four hands arrived in the mail. On his much-visited YouTube channel Winters has also posted a video of the pair’s moodily lighted performance on an ornate copy of an historic Viennese piano of the type that would have been familiar to the composer. At the outset of the video a metronome beats in time, the ghosts in the machine—Beethoven and Mälzel—either grinning or scowling from the spirit world.

In the comment section below the video, Whole Beat partisans rallied to the cause with only occasional shouts of dissent mingled in from detractors of the theory and its musical results.

The differences between the various camps are stark and startling. Whereas Norrington knocks out the 5th in 32 minutes; Winters and Sanna take 56, pretty much as the Whole Beat math predicts.

Many—probably most—will initially find it hard, right from the start, to reconcile the apparent solemnity of Winters/Sanna approach to the first movement with Beethoven’s indication for it to be played “Allegro con brio”— a phrase that could be translated as “brisk, with vigor.” (The piece was composed before Beethoven got his metronome; he added the numeric markings later, though he never stopped using the Italian tempo terms.)

The famous four-note opening figure has been mythologized as Fate Knocking at the Door. Norrington took a high-speed battering ram to that door and demolished it in a thrill storm of splinters. Winters and Sanna put the heavy door back on massive hinges, to be knocked upon ominously and opened “slowly,” struggling against its daunting inertia. Maybe the duo has rediscovered a long-vanished resolve and heroism in that opening motive. However you hear their interpretation, the dimensions of the performance take on an epic grandeur.

In a letter accompanying the disc, Winters enjoins his listeners to follow the advice offered around 1844 by Karl Hölzl, then director of music at the Vienna Cathedral. Born in the last decade of the 19th century, Hölzl heard Beethoven’s music performed under the master’s direction. Writing only seventeen years after Beethoven’s death, Hölzl urged a return to the slower tempos that the 5th had originally been done in, confident that the hard work of slowing down was worth it.

The Battle of the Beethoven Beat is waged with great intensity on the internet: claims are answered by counterclaims; videos by counter-videos; the air is thick with the smoke of theses and antitheses. No synthesis seems likely. Unwilling to risk having my in-box overrun by troops from one side or the other, I plan to avoid the fray and stay in my bunker with a pair of headphones and keep listening, unhurried and open-minded.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at