Times present and times past: The metronome: blessing or curse? Bayan Northcott on the latest attempt to solve the tempo problems of Beethoven's Ninth

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For page after Olympian page, the scherzo of the Symphony No 9 in D minor has been bounding along in its Molto vivace triple time. Suddenly the score asks for an acceleration and the music tumbles into a duple-time trio section marked Presto. Though tricky to bring off, the notation would present no doubt as to Beethoven's meaning . . . had he not taken steps a couple of years after the work's first performance in 1824 to add at this point an utterly bemusing metronome mark.

Which is a bit ironic, considering that the metronome was always supposed to be an 'objective' measure of tempo. Certainly its introduction in the second decade of the 19th century was no mere historical accident. Up till then the vast bulk of music had been composed in standard genres for immediate performance under the control of the composer himself. Baroque scores often contain tempo indications only where something unusual is required, while the directions on scores of the age of Haydn and Mozart are generally confined to a handful of normative terms for tempi ranging from Largo to Presto. But by Beethoven's generation, the cult of originality was stimulating an expectation for the unusual; the internationalisation of publishing was spreading performances beyond the composer's control, and with a standard repertoire beginning to accumulate, it was apparent that some music might long outlast its creator. Beethoven had openly begun to talk of composing 'for a future age'.

So, when his dubious entrepreneurial friend, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, patented in 1815 the first commercial metronome (the device was actually pinched from a fellow inventor), it was hardly surprising Beethoven hailed it as 'assuring the performance of my compositions everywhere in the tempi conceived by me which, to my regret, have so often been misunderstood' - and forthwith added metronome marks to his first eight symphonies. Among his successors Berlioz was particularly meticulous in his metronomic indications, even experimenting at one stage with a primitive electric device for co-ordinating tempi. Some subsequent composers - Verdi possibly, Bartok certainly - began deploying the metronome not just to fix the tempi of completed pieces, but to govern the pacing and proportioning of works in progress. And since the Second World War, composers as different as Carter, Simpson, Stockhausen and Birtwistle have used metronomically defined grids of tempo relationships as actual starting- points in the composition of complex structures.

Yet a surprising number of major figures seem to have felt either indifferent to the metronome, like Bruckner, ambivalent, like Richard Strauss, or actually hostile, like Sibelius, who could only be induced to supply exact speeds for his later works under pressure. Even more saliently: after carefully marking their earlier works, both Wagner and Brahms turned polemically against the gadget, while Mahler scarcely supplemented the copious verbal tempo indications scattered through his scores with a single metronome mark. Mahler's objection was that, in the real world of performance, tempi inevitably fluctuate all the time; Wagner and Sibelius considered the most metronomically exact performance pointless if the spirit was lacking, while Brahms simply wrote 'I never believed that my blood and a mechanical instrument go well together'.

What they were all arguing in effect was that a convincing tempo is as much a matter of articulation and expression as of correct pulse - and, by implication, that these considerations are all, to a degree, variable according to context. Even before a piece reaches performance composers frequently find themselves modifying the tempo of, especially, fast music as they work out invention and scoring in more detail. In some notorious cases they have gone on changing their minds about tempi for years after an initial launching: one has only to contrast the metronome marks in the two editions that Schumann published of his First Symphony or in Stravinsky's two versions of Petrushka. Then, of course, there are the variables of the performing situation itself - the number and proficiency of performers, for instance, or the acoustics of the venue - which may necessitate a considerable adjustment of pulse beteween one reading and another to recreate the desired effect. Not least, there are those ineluctable, almost imperceptible changes of taste and pace that affect musical performance over generations, like gradual shifts in the pronunciation of common speech.

Not that Beethoven seems to have worried about any of these matters in his first enthusiasm for Maelzel's little clockwork pendulum. But the metronome marks he duly scribbled into his scores have worried plenty since. Many of these tempi appear - or have come to appear - so fast that some scholars have wondered whether Beethoven's increasing deafness had effectively cut him off from the practicalities of performing or his metronome was simply out of order. The trouble with such suspicions is that not all the marks seem unreasonable; and we also have to take into account the subsequent broadening in Beethoven interpretation initiated by Wagner in which the focus of attention passed from the dancing pulse to the singing phrase - a tradition that has been carried into our own time by such conductors as Furtwangler and Bernstein. Yet in their determination to counter this tradition and get back as far as possible to Beethoven's original intentions, not even the most determined of our authenticists have hitherto quite come to terms with the problems of the Ninth Symphony.

It is not just that the added markings for the opening movement and the Adagio seem so rapid for the grandeur of the one and the serenity of the other - while that for the scherzo, by contrast, is acceptably moderate. There are also two junctures - the link from scherzo to trio, and the relation of the bouncy march-like tenor solo in the finale to the ensuing orchestral fugato - where the markings seem hopelessly ambiguous. Though scholars of the stature of Peter Stadlen have given years of their lives to investigating how the by-now stone deaf Beethoven, possibly with the help of his nephew Karl, might have arrived at, or even garbled the indications, these irrefutably seem to suggest tempi at both points that could be either far faster or slower than might be expected. In his much-praised 'authentic' recording with the London Classical Players on HMV, Roger Norrington still fell a bit short of the metronome speeds in the first and third movements, and opted for the slower solutions in the trio and march; but the trio comes out at an uninspiring plod, while the slow march necessitates a totally unmarked accelerando into the fugato. Now, however, the Anglo-American conductor Benjamin Zander and his semi-amateur, but professional-sounding Boston Philharmonic have brought out a reading that realises the fast speeds and options throughout.

It demands, at least, to be heard - even if some of Zander's detailed arguments in the accompanying booklet have been compromised by careless proof- reading. The first and third movements, though a bit stiff in execution, lose surprisingly little power at the metronomic speeds; and an interesting new set of proportions emerges, with the scherzo - all repeats observed - running only a little shorter than the opening movement and longer than the Adagio. Of the trouble spots, the quick-step march charging straight into the fugato convinces at least this pair of ears, not least because Schiller's text at this point comprises an injunction to 'haste ye, brothers, on your way'. But the incredibly fast trio is more of a shock, almost a new piece. Though Zander and his forces prove it possible to bring off at this speed, the suspicion must linger here, at least, that something came adrift in Beethoven's metronomic calculations, and that conductors who simply aim instinctively at a tempo somewhat short of the faster option may have been getting it right all along.

Symphony No 9: Pickwick MCD 40