Saturday, November 30, 2013

Beethoven's Metronome Markings: Tempo choices

Beethoven and the Metronome

Musicians have long puzzled over Beethoven's metronome markings.  To our ears many of his choices seem too fast. Conductors have had to make a conscious choice whether or not to heed the markings he put in the music.

Radio Lab

In a show originally aired in February of this year (which I heard last night while driving home from my concert), the Public Radio show, Radio Lab bravely dove into the issue. Click on the link and you can listen to the show. The hosts enlist the help of Alan Pierson, conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and a quartet of string players from the Philharmonic to play excerpts from the 3rd and 5th Symphonies at Beethoven's expressed markings.

The show's participants cite four of the most commonly listed reasons for why Beethoven may have chosen his speedy markings:

1. Defective metronome -- they dismiss this out of hand with a quick reference to an expert. More about this later.

2. Copyists' errors -- they find this explanation untenable and so do I.

3. Deafness/disregard acoustical considerations (hall, instrument response time, etc.). This one may have some merit, but ultimately may not explain some of the more extreme speeds he chose.

4. Vierordt's Law. Karl von Vierordt found that people tend to overestimate short durations of time and underestimate long. He found a "point of indifference" existed at around 94-96 beats per minute. I found the hosts' desire to settle upon this explanation as the answer in the last few minutes of the show to be lacking in support and a bit foggy in logic. Their explanations fail to account for such details as beat unit (quarter note, half note, etc.) or beat subdivisions used in a piece of music, both of which have a direct bearing on the pace of the beat assigned to a piece.

The ability to find a tempo that brings out the essence of a piece is one of the most important skills for a performer. Beethoven was one of the most highly trained musicians of his time and was perfectly able to replicate steady, predictable tempos when desired. Thus, I don't find the show's final explanation for the fast tempos to be wholly acceptable.

The Scientists

The issue came up again last month in an unlikely source -- the October issue of Notices of the American Mathematical Society. In the article titled, "Was Something Wrong With Beethoven's Metronome" the authors -- scientists, engineers and mathematicians -- provide a view on the subject not usually covered by musicians.  As such it is worth exploring and may provide a definitive answer to the perennial problem of whether to use Beethoven's expressed markings.

The article reopens the debate about the condition of Beethoven's metronome. As mentioned in the Radio Lab show, his original metronome has been found. However, not mentioned in the show is the fact that the weight at the bottom of the oscillating beam (the wand with the metronome markings on it) is missing! Thus, the "expert" on the show who states that the metronome "worked just fine", doesn't say what was used for the fixed weight or wherea substitue weight was placed when the device was tested.




The early metronomes were constructed using double pendula -- two weights -- a fixed weight on the bottom, usually hidden in the wooden housing and a movable one near the top end of the beam. The position of the fixed weight was set by the manufacturer and the movable weight was calibrated for adjustment by the performer.

At some point after getting his metronome, Beethoven, like countless other musicians after him, dropped his and damaged it.  He says in a letter that he is upset and is delaying the publishing of his Hammerklavier Sonata because his metronome is not working properly.

The Mathematical Society publication's authors study two scenarios.

First, Beethoven drops his metronome and it falls standing up on the floor.  The fixed weight shifts down the beam so it is now farther away from the balance point. They show that this maladjusted metronome would register a different calibration of tempos.  As an experiment, for the "correct" metronome they place the fixed weight at 5 cm from the balance point; on the broken one they place it for comparison at 7 cm from the balance point.

Their results show that for fast tempi, the "broken" metronome in this case will go slower than the factory calibrated one. In order to get the "broken" metronome to beat at the same speed as the "correct" one, a higher calibrated speed needs to be chosen.

Second, the metronome falls upside down and the fixed weight shifts towards the balance point. Here's a description of what might have happened from the article: 

Let’s envision the following hypothetical scenario. Unknown to him, the metronome Beethoven 
is working with is damaged in the sense that the heavy weight hidden by the wooden case
has been displaced. Assume Beethoven puts the movable weight on his metronome to correspond
to the marking of approximately =110. Somewhat puzzled perhaps, he finds the visibly observed
marking seems far too slow, around =70 to 80. The markings on the metronome beam 
with the light movable weight that he can clearly see do not correspond to his desired tempo.
Beethoven, dissatisfied with the slow movement of the visible metronome beam, then
moves the weight until he is satisfied with the much higher marking.

Thus, in this experiment, a marking of ♩=110 on the correct metronome would correspond in speed observed to ♩=138 on the broken one. 

While a bold hypothesis, it's hard to argue with its suppositions. 

There is a small trend in symphonic music of performing Beethoven's symphonies at his prescribed metronome markings. Perhaps these recent investigations will put this practice to rest.

Here are some clips of performances using these speeds. Also scroll down to sample noted performances at different tempos.

Metronomes also have some "off-label" uses.  Runners sometimes use a metronome to calculate or maintain a particular pace by timing foot strikes with the beat. Elite runners have a gait that is about 180 strides per minute.

In a related story, I also heard on the radio yesterday that metronomes are being used to help improve chest compression technique during the administration of CPR.  It seems that blood circulates best when the heart is compressed at around 100 times per minute.  The show's experts suggested using Walter Carlos' "Fifth of Beethoven" or Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" as reference points.

I prefer the first movement of Beethoven's Violin Concerto!!









Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Travel Coffee

Making Good Coffee When You Travel

If you like good coffee, you know it can be hard to find when you're traveling. Everyone has their morning routines and making the coffee is one of them. 

When staying in a hotel in the US, you are usually left with one of two options for in-room coffee.

1. A dried out disc or packet of coffee of unknown age in a filter . Following the instructions for making usually results in the "Brown Crayon in Water" style of coffee popular with Americans in decades past.

2. If you double the packets to strengthen the coffee or if you venture down to the breakfast room you often end up with the ├╝ber dark roast with a burned taste.

Going out to find the good stuff can be time-consuming and frustrating. I've got a routine that allows me to have pretty good coffee in the room.


This is my mini coffee grinder. It is a manual burr grinder with an adjustable grind. The coffee is poured into the top chamber and the grounds drop into the clear receptacle below. The capacity is small; you can make one or two cups of coffee at a time. The grind is pretty accurate considering the low cost of this cute little grinder.




The handle detaches for safe packing.

The grinder is made to be paired with the equipment needed for pour-over, single cup style coffee making. Along with a grinder like this, you'll need a ceramic cone for extraction. Plastic cones are fine, but a ceramic cone, if heated first, retains the heat necessary for better coffee brewing.


Some hotel rooms have a hot pot. Use this or, in lieu of one, use the hot water run through the coffee maker for pouring.


You can bring your own roasted coffee or buy some beans in a store in the town you're visiting. I pack mine in a Mason jar for freshness.

Hario, the maker of the ceramic cone, sells the filter paper that fits in this cone, but you can fold a Melitta filter (#4 or #2) to fit in the cone. They are easier to find.


Pouring the water at the rate necessary for a good extraction is difficult if you don't have a dripper, so I bring this along, too.


The spout is narrow and angled just right for aiming the stream and controlling the rate at which the water hits the grounds. There is a certain amount of technique involved in a good pour over, but just using this dripper will greatly improve your coffee!

Remember to keep everything hot! Boil extra water in the hot pot or pour some hot tap water from the hotel room bathroom tap into the dripper while you're setting everything up and grinding. Heat your cup with hot tap water as well as the cone.

Here's an instructional video for getting a great pour over:


















Monday, November 25, 2013

Vienna -- Coffee

Coffee in Vienna

Vienna is famous for its cafes, and rightly so. I enjoyed going back to a few of my favorites: Cafe Schwarzenberg and Cafe Frauenhuber (where Beethoven debuted his Quintet for Piano and Winds).

However, on this trip I found a few more interesting places.  Since I roast my own coffee, I was curious to see if there were any small roasting companies in Vienna.  While I certainly didn't look around that much, I did find one.



It's called Gegenbauer. They have a roaster and a stall in the Naschmarkt. I happened upon it during a stroll through the Naschmarkt to find lunch.


The espresso was a darker roast than I do, but very nice.  They sell their roasted coffee there with the date of the roast on the bag. They also roast pumpkin, almond and other seeds and sell them.  Across the alley they sell their own selections of specialty olive oils and vinegars.


However, the best coffee I've had in Vienna came at the bar in the Julius Meinl store in the Graben section of the pedestrian area in the center of the city. Julius Meinl is a stunningly beautiful gourmet grocery store that has a front section selling prepared food and coffee and lighter fare. The Grosse Brauner I had was not burned tasting like a lot of espresso, but not dull and stale like some I had in other cafes. The foamed milk was beautifully done.  Comes with a little square of fudge-like confection.





Sunday, November 24, 2013

Vienna -- Crypt Tours

Crypt Tours

The other crypts I toured don't allow photography, so you'll have to take my words as enough.


St. Michael's Church is near the Imperial Apartments, the Hofburg and many of the other Habsburg buildings in Vienna's center. It has one of the most extensive crypts of any church.

First a little information. The Habsburgs were mummified for burial. Thus, their vital parts had to be removed.

Their bodies are buried in the Kaisergruft, hearts in containers in the St. Augustine church (see the cannisters in the poster below),


and their viscera (lungs, intestines, liver, etc.) in the crypt at St. Stephens.

The tour of the crypt in St. Michael's church was excellent. It was given in English and German (like the one in St. Stephens) by a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide.  We viewed 2 coffins with mummies (very well-preserved) in them, lots of ossuaries and saw galleries with lots of beautifully decorated wooden caskets.  There is continuing renovation going on down below, with a majority of the galleries still walled off from centuries ago.

One musical person of note is buried in St. Michael's -- Pietro Metastasio (one of Mozart's librettists).

I later toured the crypt at St. Stephens and tried to go to the one at St. Augustine's church, but it was only available for tours after the Sunday services.

While morbid, I found these trips to be fascinating and certainly something we don't have here in the United States.

Vienna -- Kaisergruft

VIENNA

We ended the tour with three concerts in Vienna. I've been to Vienna many times. During this tour I had an unusually large amount of free time on my hands, so I tried to structure my free time with a theme.

I've been to many of the main tourist attractions in Vienna, so I was looking for a tour that would highlight something unique about this place.  

I had been told by some friends that the Bestattungsmuseum (Funeral Museum) was very interesting and something unique to Vienna.  Unfortunately, it is currently closed until fall next year.

So I settled on another plan. If you were a member of the Habsburg dynasty, you were given a very unusual burial. Several churches in Vienna have crypts that can be toured in which the Habsburgers bodies -- or body parts -- are interred! 


In the Kaisergruft (Emperors' crypt) he center city the bodies of the Habsburgs are laid to rest in elaborate coffins. Above is Maria Theresa's final resting place.


No expense was spared in the design of these coffins. Some of them have fresh flowers laid in front in front of them. Below is the coffin of Otto, one of the last Habsburgers, who died in 2003.


And here is Franz Joseph I, the ruler during Vienna's turn of the century golden period until World War I.


Here's a short tour of the crypt thanks to YouTube!! 

 

Tour -- Normandy

NORMANDY



This week on our day off, four of us rented a car and drove up to the coast of Normandy. You can get to the beaches from Paris in about 2 hours. We stopped in Deauville, had lunch and looked around for a bit and then drove to the area the of Omaha and Utah beaches.

You can spend the whole day, weekend or longer driving along the 50-mile stretch of beaches at Normandy, stopping where you want.  There are lots of memorials, museums, etc. There are also excellent guided tours.

Since we just had the day, we decided to go right to the American landing sites and look around for ourselves.

We arrived just as the flag was being lowered for the day at the American cemetary (see above). Below is a photo taken at sunset from the Point du Hoc -- an outcropping that was heavily fortified by the Germans.  You can see the bunker they built in the photo.


The landscape is dotted with similar cement fortresses, some more or less intact, others blown to bits and still scattered.  Shell craters abound.



The sacrifices made at Normandy are hard for my generation to imagine. Looking at the sheer cliffs, it's hard to imagine how our troops held the beaches, especially with fortified machine gun and artillery bunkers like the ones above overlooking the landing sites.


Friday, November 15, 2013

Tour -- Paris


Our next stop was Paris. We were booked for two concerts in the Salle Pleyel. The Salle is near the Arc de Triomphe, a few miles away from the center of Paris.

In a previous post I described some musical walks I took in Paris. This time I'd like to discuss where to go running. Paris is a big, busy city with lots of traffic of all kinds, so running can be frustrating and even dangerous.

However, there are some good places to go. The public areas around the Louvre and Tuileries are fine for short runs of a couple of miles or so. The Parc Monceau around the corner from our hotel is also fine for quick exercise.

If you want longer runs, though you have two choices (at least these are the obvious ones). The first follows the riverside promenades by the Seine. While these don't cover the whole length of the river through the city, they are very nice and give views of the city you can't get elsewhere.

The other place that affords the runner the opportunity to really stretch out and get away from the city while remaining reasonably close is the Bois du Boulogne.

This is a large area that has lots of woodsy paths of all kinds from dirt to pavement. There are numerous routes to take and plenty of things to view while running.

And I do mean plenty . . . for these woods have been used for centuries by those practicing the world's oldest profession! In the more remote areas, bikers, walkers and runners will encounter women plying their "trade" in various forms of attire (or lack thereof).  Some have vans or huts in the woods for use with patrons.

If prostitution is illegal in France, the law is certainly not enforced in the Bois du Boulogne. We saw plenty of cars stop and wait at curbside for the "workers" to appear.

One of Manet's most famous paintings deals with the subject of prostitution in the Bois.

Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe is the painting above.



















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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tour -- Frankfurt and Beethoven

Next we traveled to Frankfurt for two concerts. We arrived in the early afternoon just in time to catch a breath and then go to a short rehearsal of the Beethoven Violin Concerto which we would perform that night with violinist Christian Tetzlaff.

The Alte Oper in Frankfurt is a hall which has been completely gutted inside and modernized. You wouldn't guess from the exterior which is in the 19th century heavy, Germanic style. Inside it is cavernous with a sort of raspberry colored hue on the seats, wall and floor. Banks of lights and  speakers betray its mult-purpose use.  The acoustics are also cavernous and comfortable with a lot of bass resonance.

Tetzlaff gives a very personal, stylish performance of the Beethoven Concerto, emphasizing its intimate side over the monumental.  He also avoids Joachim's cadenza, using his own patterned after the one Beethoven wrote for the piano arrangement of this piece.

Here is his performance with the Tonhalle Orchester on YouTube.  About 18 minutes in you can hear this cadenza.


There is a timpani accompaniment to this that's fun. It's not a very cohesive cadenza musically -- much of it seems to have little to do with the first movement themes.  But a nice change from the usual. Gidon Kremer also wrote a cadenza that challenges the tradition of Joachim.

The performance went well considering we just rehearsed once for an hour and then played the piece.

The next day I went for a rainy, cold run on the banks of the Main River, then sought out a music store near the hotel -- Musikalien Petroll -- which  has a basement full of used music. I bought parts and score to a Vivaldi Bassoon Concerto for 3 Euros.

That night we played the Beethoven Mass again.