Why is Beethoven's tempo so off?

There is one thing that brought me this question. Well 2 actually. First off is Wim Winters and his Authentic Sound channel where he argues that Beethoven is using double beat for his tempos. He relatively recently made a series of videos of a supposedly tempo accurate performance of Beethoven's Fifth. I can tell you from listening to a snippet(I didn't even get to the development section, it was so horrid) exactly how he got that tempo. He took a recording and then manipulated it to be slower. But even if he did use notation software and got a better sound out of it, I would still take issue to the slowness.

The second thing that brought me this question, also from Beethoven's fifth, is this tempo marking:

Straight interpretation

If I were to interpret this straight as half note = 108 BPM. I would then get quarter note = 216 BPM. If I were to interpret the tempo this way, it would be way too fast, even compared to the fastest performances of the piece(which for reference, are around 160-170 BPM). 216 BPM is Prestissimo these days and was probably Presto agitato in Beethoven's time. In the case of Mozart, I can understand why his Allegro molto is so variable, from 140 BPM to 210 BPM. But didn't tempo start getting standardized in Beethoven's time? Wasn't it clear at that time that 210 BPM is not any sort of Allegro? In that case, why would Beethoven write such an outrageous tempo marking for his fifth symphony?

Double beat interpretation

Now we come to Wim Winter's interpretation. According to him, the whole symphony is supposed to be interpreted as though it was in 4/4 time. Given that 2/4 and 4/4 are very similar in terms of accent, this isn't out of the question. What is out of the question, is once again, the resulting tempo. At a tempo of quarter note = 108, sure you could say it is Allegretto or maybe even Allegro. But that is too slow for Allegro con brio. Con brio translates to with energy and in the case of tempo, implies that the tempo is faster than averages for the marking.

So in other words, Allegro con brio implies a fast Allegro. The slowest performances of Beethoven's Fifth tend to hover around 132 BPM, certainly faster than the average of 120-125 BPM for Allegro. 108 BPM is nowhere near Allegro con brio. This alone makes me seriously question the double beat interpretation of Beethoven's tempo.

It can't just be that Beethoven's metronome was broken. If that was the case, I would expect to see something more along the lines of Adagio half note = 120 and I don't. But neither the straight interpretation or the double beat interpretation is right either. So why is Beethoven's tempo so off from ours?

• You do realize that "correctness" is a subjective value, right? I happen to find 108 half notes per minute a perfectly fine tempo for that movement. Sep 8, 2019 at 18:35
• The Italian tempo markings used to be highly subjective. Nowadays they do indeed more or less correspond to particular ranges. But that doesn't mean that they can't still be contextual. I don't see why one couldn't use "largo" for a section within a grindcore piece that is at 100-120 BPM (because the expected tempo for that musical genre is incredibly fast, way above 100-120). Sep 9, 2019 at 4:40
• RadioLab did an episode exploring this very topic. I found it fascinating: wnycstudios.org/story/269783-speedy-beet Sep 9, 2019 at 14:25
• I'm subbed to Wim's channel and enjoy it quite a bit, though I remain undecided on the question. While I appreciate the topic of this question (historical tempo research), I don't think an objective answer is possible. If it could be absolutely proven which side of the tempo debate was correct, it wouldn't be an open question. All one can do is present evidence for one side or the other, or neither (as written, the question presumes neither is correct). Sep 10, 2019 at 0:08
• Given that Youtube lets us play videos from quarter speed through to double speed, we can choose our own preferences these days.. Jan 21, 2021 at 19:28

The topic of Beethoven's tempi is a controversial one that has prompted a huge body of discussion. Here though are some factoids:

• Beethoven clearly cared deeply about tempo and seems to have intended his markings literally rather than contextually. See quotes like "...first performance of the Ninth Symphony was received with enthusiastic applause, which I attribute largely to the metronome markings" and “his first question invariably was: ‘How were the tempi?’”.
• The obvious conclusion then is that Beethoven was fettered in some way and his markings are not what he intended; however many of these theories fit poorly with fact. For instance, the idea that his metronome was broken fits poorly given that his tempi are sometimes faster and sometimes slower than the 'reasonable' speed. Likewise, his deafness would not prevent him from seeing the arm of the metronome and measuring time that way.
• So maybe it's all just subjective and Beethoven's markings are as legitimate as conventional interpretations? Perhaps, though worth noting that some faster sections come up against issues of playability. An interesting idea in this regard is that instrument design and musical style of Beethoven's time made pieces easier to play faster (lack of vibrato, gut strings, see Beethoven Project). Though writing too-difficult parts also wouldn't be out of character for him; he admitted being a terrible violinist and not a perfect orchestrator either. It fits his personality to write what he heard in his head regardless of physical possibility.
• re: "But didn't tempo start getting standardized in Beethoven's time?" yes, with the operative word being 'start'. Maelzel's metronome became available in 1816, 8 years after the fifth symphony was published; Beethoven added the metronome marks to his first 8 symphonies after the fact, so those works had been performed for years without those guidelines; people may have already become accustomed to the those tempi rather then Beethoven's. Even once the markings were in place, Beethoven was an early adopter of the metronome, and most conductor's would be unused to the idea of adherence to an exact tempo, further increasing likelihood they were ignored, and a different tempo entered public consciousness. Finally, taste has changed in 200 years
• The double beat idea is interesting, I don't recall encountering it before. Forsen et al. mention that Beethoven had poor eyesight and may have misread the metronome, which required more interpretation than modern devices.

So clearly there's a lot going on. I couldn't say what it was that actually happened, but seeing the number of variables it's perhaps unsurprising that the markings do seem odd to us.

The Beethoven Project

Zander

• interesting. I find these discussions of time/pitch a bit dubious in a scientific historical context anyway. Trying to measure either was AFAIK extremely difficult up until the early 20th century - how might a craftsman in Leipzig how know that his second/hertz was the same as someone in London? I seem to remember that tuning forks from this time bear this out. It's down to the lack of any calibration tools. So I have no difficulty in believing that Beethoven's metronome might have been say 10% different from one a hundred miles away, without being in any way "broken". Oct 29, 2019 at 8:16
• I think you mean Maelzel as the inventor of the metronome. Oct 30, 2019 at 23:41
• @danmcb - Tuning forks for pitches varied mostly because concert pitch at the time was not yet standardized at A440. But seconds were perfectly measurable by this time. Pendulum clocks have a period determined by basic physics and the length of the pendulum, so a second could be measured with accuracy. Even pocket watches by the early 1800s (after the lever escapement was developed) frequently had second hands and could be accurate to within a minute/day or so, which means seconds could be measured even on a watch to within ~0.1% accuracy or less. Oct 30, 2019 at 23:51
• Interesting! thank you. I wonder how accurate measurements of length were at that time? What standard would you use? It would not exactly be trivial to make a trip to check the accuracy of your rule. (I used to work as a calibration engineer, so I guess this is an interesting subject for me.) Oct 31, 2019 at 8:54