Defending LvB’s tempi- Symphony no. 2 and beyond

Some months ago, my trio, Ensemble Epomeo, had just given a rather pleasant and exciting concert the night before, and I was enjoying my morning espresso on the slopes of Mount Epomeo just that little bit more with the first performance of a challenging new program behind me. As I wandered the grounds, I ran into a student I had always thought of as a genial if eccentric older amateur musician. Any hint of her gentle wit soon evaporated when she started yelling at me, for a good 15-20 minutes, about our tempos in the Beethoven C minor String Trio the night before.

A key element of her lengthy and rather vitriolic diatribe seemed to be that by choosing rather brisk tempi throughout the work, we were revealing a lack of respect and affection for Beethoven’s music. Apparently, in her world, playing slowly means you love the music, playing fast means you hate the music. I recently encountered the same sentiment again. If you don’t know what Beethoven actually wrote, nor understand why he wrote it, or the relationships expressed within, it might never occur to you that a performer has chosen tempi not to aggravate you, but because they have made an effort to understand the text they’re interpreting. That’s not to say the performer is correct, but simply that you lack the skill and standing to evaluate the merits of their approach.The art of tact rarely extends to explaining to a listener that they just don’t know what they are talking about. Sadly, she didn’t know what she was talking about, much as she loved her recording of the piece.

Of course, the question of tempo is always somewhat fraught in Beethoven (mostly because his quicker tempos require the performers to practice their parts), but I’d never actually been accosted about it so violently before. I can remember my own deep resistance when someone got out their metronome while I was listening to a favorite recording of a Beethoven symphony (the 1st mvt of #3). Of course, LvB’s tempo was insanely faster than what I was used to- it was a mistake, I thought. I got very upset- It’s a load of crap! Metronomes aren’t musical! They don’t feel, they don’t express! I’m sure I did some colorful and vitriolic ranting of my own. I might have even considered some accosting. I probably said that anyone who conducted the piece that fast would have to hate the music or be late for a train.

What finally got me to sit down and think hard about Beethoven’s tempos was the experience of working with some great chamber music coaches, notably the La Salle and Tokyo quartets (especially the patient mentoring of Henry Meyer), long arguments with my conducting teacher, Gerhard Samuel, and encountering the Beethoven symphony performances of Carlos Kleiber. Kleiber sealed the deal.  I’d always been presented with a false dichotomy-I’d been told that  real, deeply feeling, passionate musicians who love and care about and understand the music came up with their own tempos. Cold, unfeeling, mechanical academics are just content to hack through based on a tempo dictated by a machine. Kleiber, of course, was the most joyful, the most passionate, most creative, most flexible interpreter of Beethoven who ever picked up a baton. He also stayed very, very close to LvB’s carefully thought out metronome markings.

The fact is, when you learn a piece from a recording, you’re not learning the composition, you are imprinting a performance. Nothing more. It’s a passive process, not an active one. It confuses familiarity with understanding. Listening to a beloved performance ten thousand times doesn’t mean you understand the piece- you’ve got to go to the score for that. When we hear or perform music, we’re often inspired to poetic descriptions. We might decide that this or that piece is “genial’ or “lyrical” or that it “needs to breathe,” when what we mean is that we are used to a performance that has those qualities. This doesn’t mean that the favorite performance is wrong, simply that it is not definitive. What is surprising is that, for such a listener, a performance that departs from their familiar version might still affect listeners as “genial” but might come across to that listener as something else entirely. Or, it might bring out other, equally valid and worthy qualities. And, of course, you can still enjoy aspects of a performance while recognizing where there are problems. I continue to admire the color and sensitivity of Celibidache’s Beethoven, even though I find he pays too high a price in terms of structure, and loses almost all the wit and humor. I can still strive to learn from those beautiful textures, and enjoy the performances on their own terms. Put simply, it is wiser to educate yourself to listen more openly and more critically- to be able to enjoy and admire points of view different from your own.

Take, for example, the 2nd Symphony, which I just conducted last weekend in Cambridge. Beethoven added the metronome markings in 1817, after the work had been performed many times, by which time he would have had not only a memory of his original concept of the work,  but also of the performing issues the piece offers. All the tempi he suggests are eminently playable, if challenging. Of course, the value of a performance is not measured in how exactly one adheres to those tempi, but it doesn’t take long to see that they are exceptionally carefully thought out, and reflect carefully intergrated tempo relationships throughout the piece.

The Allegro section of the 1st mvt is marked half=100. That’s brisk and virtuosic, but not chaotic (unless the listener insists on hearing it that way). The 2nd mvt is marked Larghetto, which sounds slow, but the metronome marking is 92, which means the speed of the pulse is just the tiniest bit slower than that of the Allegro. When LvB transcribed the Symphony for Piano Trio, he changed the tempo marking of this movement to Larghetto quasi andante, or “in a walking tempo.” If you were raised on a very slow tempo, LvB’s will make for a different listening experience, but it is also a revelation- the anticipations of Schubert’s Andantes are right there to be seen. Instead of a Romantic slow movement, you have more of an intermezzo- a leisurely stroll, during which you experience many beauties, moments of great humor, mystery, fantasy and much more, before your journey brings you back home, enriched. It sparkles, it flirts, it explodes in pomp, then retreats into radiant serenity. To me, it is more profound because it wears its genius more lightly.

Things get even more interesting in the 3rd Mvt, which LvB marked dotted-half=100. In other words, the speed of the pulse in the 1st and 3rd mvts should be exactly the same. Take a slower I, you need a slower III, a faster I a faster III. It also means that the pulse of III is just the tiniest bit faster than that of II.

Then, there is the Finale, which is marked half= 152. This is, of course, fast, but it is also an expression of a very interesting relationship. At dotted half=100, the speed of quarter notes in III is 300. At half+152, the speed of quarters in the Finale is 304- almost the same speed, and the metronome doesn’t generally have a 150 option, so Beethoven may have meant either exactly the same speed or one with slightly more fizz. (I always assumed that if Beethoven had had the option of a 150 notch on his metronome he would have used it, but I’m no longer so sure- that bit of extra fizz seems to create a lot of propulsion, since each of the last 3 movements then is just a bit faster than the one before)

This means that the whole symphony has a sort of underlying sense of unity to the tempi that makes a lot of sense. Interesting things come to the surface at these speeds- notably humor and virtuosity. There are several thematic references to the Marriage of Figaro Overture (in the same key, of course) in IV- these come out beautifully at LvB’s tempo. In fact, Beethoven’s wit comes across beautifully throughout.

In the end, following LvB’s tempi doesn’t in any way guarantee a good performance- it’s got to be colorful, articulate, in tune, together, dynamic, balanced, phrased and more, and I’m not sure I’d sacrifice any of those for sheer tempo. If I did, I’ll learn from the mistakes, to be sure, and I’d be grateful for feedback that called it to my attention. When I did the piece last week, I found 96 was about as fast as I dared go in the 1st and 3rd mvts, with other tempi adjusted proportionately, at least in the rehearsals. I’ll be curious to hear the recording of the concert, and see how it worked. I last did the piece in Pendleton in April of 09, at almost the exact same tempi, but for some reason, the 3rd Mvt didn’t work as I hoped it would- it never quite grooved and ended up a little slow- it felt better this time. However, the outer mvts worked well at LvB’s tempi, which you can also hear in fine recordings by Gardiner, Zinman and many others.

This is a big and contentious subject, but the only thing to add is that LvB is pretty consistent from piece to piece about his metronome markings- similar movements with similar descriptive markings end up with similar metronome marks. Look at the first mvts of his 3rd and 8th Symphonies- what do they tell you about the tempo of the Egmont Overture? There is a range of tempo possibilities there, but it is a relatively narrow one. The Finale’s of LvB 2 and 4 are cut from the same cloth, and have almost identical tempi of 76 vs 80 to the bar or 152 versus 160 to the half bar. Most good conductors switch back and forth between conducting in 2 and 1 in these movements- that shift in the unit of pulse is very, very typical of classical repertoire, especially Haydn, whose music is the most obvious and profound influence on early Beethoven. If you take either movement too slowly, you are stuck in 2 all the time- the pulse of the whole bar becomes to slow to have any impetus.

So, of course that string trio performance last year could have been shaky, not together, out of tune, ugly, whatever. To say that it was “too fast” though, belies a sort of well-nurtured ignorance. Taking the time to learn LvB’s tempo tendencies is certainly not indicative of a lack of deep love for his music. I count myself as a very lucky man- I’ve conducted all the Beethoven orchestral music other than Wellington’s Victory (which I like!), played all the quartets, all the piano trios and all the string trios. I’ve even massacred a good smattering of piano sonatas in the privacy of my home. I’m so glad I had some teachers and mentors strong enough to overcome my attachment to the performances I grew up with- those visions of the pieces were wonderful, but there is always much, much more in Beethoven’s conception of his own music than in that of any one conductor. The more you learn the whole output, the more you realize how logical and consistent he is with tempi.

I’m so glad I can look back on my past and realize how much I had to learn- I don’t like the alternative at all….. to be forever trapped by my own ego in a prison of ignorant dilettantism. To be proved wrong is a great gift- otherwise, you simply remain wrong forever.


Just to reiterate my point about metronome markings not being something to apply in a completely facile way, take Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, which we also performed on the same concert as the Beethoven last week. Ravel’s tempo for the 1st Mvt is dotted-quarter= 92, which is very, very fast. However, that turns out to the tempo of the original version for piano– such a tempo sounds fluid and lucid on solo piano, but is impossible, or at least ill advised, with orchestra. We took it at 80, which keeps the liquid flow Ravel was after without introducting an unwanted sense of panic.  Oboe soloist Bethan White played it rather sublimely. We made a similar adjustment in the 2nd mvt, marked 96, which we took about 80-84. You try to keep the same relationship (very slightly faster than the 1st mvt) while adjusting for the realities of the new setting.

UPDATE- worth referring readers to a similar post on Shostakovich here.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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5 comments on “Defending LvB’s tempi- Symphony no. 2 and beyond”

  1. Zoltan

    I heard similar explanations in the last concert season by Benjamin Gunnar-Cohrs before a performance of Bruckner’s 7th (are you sitting Ken?) by Norrington.
    He as well talked about tempi (“mostly too slow”) and their relationships between movements in Bruckner’s symphonies. If I remember correctly, one of his examples was the importance not to take the first movement slower than Bruckner tells, otherwise the first theme of that movement would not be recognizable as such when it is quoted in the last movement at (then) quicker pace.
    Then again, I do find Celibidache’s Bruckner 7th (especially that one off concert with the Berliner’s) fascinating as well!

  2. Joshua Slater

    “Very well-written and expressed. Io te saludo.”

  3. Tay

    LOL. I’d get along with her just fine on the slow aspect; not because I think playing slow means you like the music, but because slow is my best speed. I get too fast and the music suffers. Then again, in a couple years I might be just fine going faster.

    Seriously, I think some people acquire a taste for music played a certain way and they’re not able to envision it played differently. It’s as if you violate some sacred oath if you change it. As they say, you can’t please everybody.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Tay- thanks for the comment! One never stops that process of trying to get your technique to the point where tempo is never a problem. It’s a never ending issue, unless you take the easy way out and start making excuses. Solti said he was only able to reach his ideal tempo of Beethoven 5 in 1992, when he was already in his 80’s. It takes time!

    Zoltan- that must have been some Bruckner concert!

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