Thursday 14 December 2017

A time-keeping maestro who had the ear of Beethoven

What is the connection between Beethoven, a simple time-keeping device, and a fireman's breathing apparatus? The answer is one man: Johann Nepomuk Maelzel.

The son of a German organ builder, he had an eye for the unusual. He took himself off to Vienna where his new ideas might find a better market. He refined a kind of barrel organ to make it replicate the various sounds of an orchestra, particularly the wind sections.

This he called a panharmonicon, and it made enough of an impact around the imperial capital that even Beethoven was a fan. It sounds hard to believe, but Maelzel actually persuaded him to write something for his contraption.

Beethoven's Wellingtons Sieg (in honour of a British-led success in a battle with the French as part of the Peninsular War in Spain) -- which he subsequently turned into a piece for an orchestra -- was the result of this request.

In gratitude, Maelzel worked on perfecting some ear trumpets to help the composer with his deafness.

But the pair fell out, when Maelzel put on a series of concerts presenting Wellingtons Sieg as his own work. With legal action pending, Maelzel left Vienna. It wasn't long before he found himself in bother again.

A Dutch clock maker, Dietrich Winkel, had come up with a device that would keep time when music was being played, but he wasn't as sharp as the German, who took the idea, patented it, and launched it as 'Maelzel's Metronome'.

Whether Maelzel and Beethoven ever made up is unclear, and it may be they never got the chance, for between trying to make a success of his various inventions and keeping one step ahead of the posse, Maelzel eventually found himself in America.

Beethoven did see the merits of the new tempo-setting device, and was one of the first composers to include metronome marks on his scores.

In the midst of his musical endeavours, Maelzel had also come up with a rudimentary gas mask that became standard issue for Austrian firefighters.

But it was as a showman that he would ultimately make whatever living he did. He lived in Philadelphia and toured with a chess-playing robot (which hid a diminutive player inside). A plaque in his honour stands at the corner of Fifth and St Mark's streets in the city.

Maelzel died on this day in 1838, on board a ship bringing him back to Philadelphia from a failed tour of Cuba. He was buried at sea, off the coast of South Carolina.

RTÉ lyric fm features The Hamilton Scores from 9.30am each Saturday, and George Hamilton's Full Score on Sundays at 3pm.

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