Sunday 19 May 2019

A tale of timing: the chancer and Beethoven

In demand: The virginal-bureau, a writing desk that plays like a harpsichord
In demand: The virginal-bureau, a writing desk that plays like a harpsichord

George Hamilton

'I got rhythm, I got music," sang Judy Garland in the 1943 movie Girl Crazy. She certainly couldn't have had the music without the rhythm, for it's the one constant in every tune, from classical, through jazz to pop.

Just as the drummer is the heartbeat of every rock band, so it's the conductor who synchronises the symphony orchestra.

For those of us operating further down the performance scale, there's another means of keeping time - the metronome.

Johann Nepomuk Mälzel is the name most associated with the little pyramid housing the pendulum that ticks away on top of the music teacher's piano.

Born in Bavaria in 1772, he was more of an inventor than a musician. He came up with a device which he called a panharmonicon - a big music box that sounded like an orchestra.

There's always been a demand for mechanical instruments. In Harrods in London years ago I heard the piano groove from Nina Simone's 'My Baby Just Cares For Me'. Rounding the corner of the music department, I discovered the baby grand was playing itself.

In the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow the other week, an exhibition of Dutch Masters had some musical accompaniment - from a virginal-bureau, a writing desk that could play like a harpsichord. It was made in Flanders in 1593.

Mälzel was a bit of a chancer. He made his name with somebody else's invention - a robot that could play chess. He took it on tour and made a lot of money.

But the whole thing was a hoax. The robot actually housed a chess-genius chum of his who pulled the strings.

Mälzel's metronome wasn't his invention either. It was a Dutch clockmaker called Dietrich Winkel who had produced the weighted pendulum on a pivot that could be used to keep time.

Winkel, though, neglected to patent it, and Mälzel seized his chance. He secured copyright for the "instrument or instruments, machine or machines, for the improvement of all musical performance, which he denominates a metronome".

Mälzel, by now based in Vienna, brought his device to Beethoven. He'd been making him ear trumpets to help with his deafness.

Mälzel suggested he write something for his music machine, and the composer was happy to do so. It went down so well, Beethoven was encouraged to turn it into a full-blown piece for orchestra.

What didn't go down so well was that Mälzel went off with his panharmonicum, passing the music off as his own. Beethoven fell out with him as a result.

Known as 'Wellington's Victory', or 'The Battle of Vitoria', it isn't heard much these days, but what you may hear is a little ditty Beethoven is said to have come up with when Mälzel first showed him his metronome.

"Ta ta ta, lieber Mälzel" went the first line - thank you, dear Mälzel. It's still around as a canon that vocal groups perform, attributed to Beethoven. It appears to have been recycled as the basis of the second movement of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony.

Sadly, there is nothing to back this up, but it makes a good yarn anyway. What is beyond doubt is that Beethoven did rate the metronome as an important aid to keeping time. You'll find the tempo marking on some of his scores as a number, indicating the beats per minute, accompanied by the letters "M.M." - for "Mälzel's Metronome".

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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