What do you do when Beethoven doesn’t give you a metronome marking?

Reblogged from Broken Thirds, the Epomeo Blog


It’s been a few months since I sat down for a rehearsal with my colleagues in Ensemble Epomeo, but next week we begin a busy two-week tour of the East Coast, with a mountain of repertoire to learn- four huge programs in all. Central to most of our concerts is Beethoven’s first String Trio, opus 3 in E flat. It’s a big piece in six movements (it’s really a Serenade, although Beethoven apparently didn’t call it one) and a huge undertaking for any group that takes its challenges seriously.

Although all of us had performed opus 3 at various times in our individual careers, we first played it as Epomeo last April. Among the many issues that brought up spirited discussions was the question of tempo.  Perhaps since we all had played it before, we each came in with fairly strong ideas about tempi, and, in this case, those ideas didn’t initially mesh. How does a democratic group with three independently minded artists come to a consensus about how fast we ought to play a movement of Beethoven? How do we know what the “right” tempo is?

Can there even be a “right” tempo?

Beethoven certainly thought there could be, and, more importantly, he was certainly concerned that performers avoid the wrong tempi. To this end, he was the first major composer to adapt the use of the metronome, and to give metronome markings to some of his works.

How much did tempo matter to Beethoven? Well, late in his career he begged that the premiere of his Missa solemnis be postponed until the conductor received the new metronome markings for the piece. Better no performance at all than one that got all the tempi wrong.

However, Beethoven’s metronome markings have remained controversial, and there are many misunderstandings about what his metronome markings do and don’t tell us. For instance,  many people think that taking note of the metronome markings leads to “metronomic” playing in which everything is played in strictly unyielding time. This seems not to have been at all what Beethoven had in mind- as a pianist, he was very much a rubato player, and his tempi could vary quite a bit within a movement.  A metronome marking is certainly not an attempt on Beethoven’s part to tell us that ever bar in a movement should go at exactly that speed- in fact, it’s perfectly possible that not a single bar will actually go at that exactly that speed. What it does tell you is the neighbourhood of the speed.

Metronome markings also clarify the relationship between the tempi of different movements. For instance, in the 2nd Symphony Beethoven marks both the main body of the first movement and the Scherzo at 100 beats per minute (the first mvt is in half notes, the third in dotted half notes). The Finale is marked 152, which means the quarter notes in the 3rd mvt are the same speed (or as close as he could get on his metronome) to those  in the Finale (300 per minute).  So yes, one might decide that the marking for the first  movement is “too” fast, but one then has to take that into account and adjust the last two movements accordingly. Also- the 2nd movement is at 92- if the first movement gets much slower than the 100 he marks, the 2nd movement no longer sounds very slightly slower as it should.

One can also see that the speed of  the pulse in the last movement of the 5th Symphony should be slower than that of the Scherzo (many conductors, even George Szell, get this relationship completely backwards).

Anyway- conductors have struggled with, argued about and ignored LvB’s metronome markings for centuries. At least they get discussed. Beethoven also wrote metronome markings for all the quartets through opus 95.  I’m going to name drop for a moment here to make a point. I ‘ve coached with members of the Borodin, Tokyo, La Salle, Pro Arte, Vermeer, Orford, Emerson, Vegh, Amadeus and Berkshire quartets, and that list is not all-inclusive. In all my years as a student, I never had a teacher call our attention to, discuss or, god forbid, achieve a single one of the metronomes in the Beethoven quartets. They literally never, ever once came up that I can remember (and if I’ve forgotten, I apologize!). Sure, they’re often fast and difficult, but they tell us so much about the pieces, about the relationships between movements, about what the Italian tempo terms mean.  I wish I’d been more curious as a young man when I was actually playing Beethoven quartets all the time. I feel like I wasted a great deal of time with those pieces. I would guess the Hungarian Quartet worked with Beethoven’s metronome markings based on some of their tempi, and the Elias Quartet  have written about them, but the vast majority of quartets seem to ignore them or not even know about them.

But back to opus 3!

Fond as he was of the metronome, Beethoven didn’t provide metronome markings for all of his music, and there are none for the string trios (at least to the best of my knowledge). So is all of this  discussion of metronome markings irrelevant to Ensemble Epomeo and the Beethoven String Trios? Do we have to resort to instinct and taste? Well, I’d argue that metronome markings can and should always be applied with instinct and taste. On the other hand,  I was worried last spring that we were gravitating towards tempi that weren’t consistent with what I’d learned in 20 years of trying to understand the metronome marks in the symphonies.

In the end, I decided to look for examples in other works of Beethoven of movements with similar Italian tempo markings, meters and rhythmic units. For instance, our most colourful discussions had been about the fourth movement of opus 3, and Adagio in 2/4 in which the fastest notes are 32nds, and the harmonic rhythm is fairly slow. Were there movements in the symphonies that could be instructive as to what Adagio in 2/4 with 32nd notes meant to Beethoven? What about the second movement, an Andante in 3/8, or the Finale, an Allegro in 2/4? Is it in “two” or in “one? Did Beethoven write any 2/4 Finales with a metronome marking given in quarter notes? Only one- the Finale of his first String Quartet, opus 18 no. 1 is marked quarter=120, but there are oodles of sixteenth-note sextuplets and even 32nd notes in it. All the others I can think of are marked in half notes and they all, like the Finale of opus 3, go up to sixteenth notes.

Below are my findings. Of course, these kinds of extrapolations can’t fully take into account the character and harmonic rhythm of a distinct piece of music, but I found this very interesting and instructive. Yes, most movements would likely end up faster than we played them last spring extrapolating from this list, but the 2nd Menuet will end up slower, which I think will be cool.

Fellow musicians: What is your experience looking for the right tempo in Beethoven’s music where there is no metronome marking?

In any case, remember, a metronome marking is just a starting point.

Meanwhile, here is a list of my comparisons, followed by links to some of Paavo Jarvi’s performances of the symphonies which tend to be both technically accomplished and fairly close to the metronome marks. I’ll also include a list of all the metronome markings for the quartets.

And, have no doubt- even with this research done, the spirited discussions will continue!

I Allegro con brio

See Symphony 1 mvt 1 Allegro con brio half=112

See Symphony 2 mvt 1 Allegro con brio half=100


II Andante (in 3/8))

See Symphony 1 Andante cantabile con moto 8th=120

And Symphony 2 Larghetto (slower than Adagio or Andante) 8th= 92


Menuetto: Allegretto (in ¾)

See opus 18 no.  4 (Menuetto: Allegretto) bar= 84


IV Adagio (in 2/4)

See Symphony 3 Adagio assai (ie slower than Adagio) 8th= 80

See Symphony 4 Adagio 8th=84

See opus 18 no. 2 Adagio cantabile (ie slower than Adagio) 8th= 72 (note goes up to 64th notes rather than 32nds)

See opus 18 no. 5 Poco Adagio (ie faster than Adagio) 8th=88


V Menuetto: Moderato (in 3/4)

See Symphony 8 Quarter= 126

See opus 59 no. 3 (Menuetto: Grazioso) quarter=116


VI Finale: Allegro

See Symphony 1 Finale: Allegro molto e vivace bar=88

See Symphony 3 Finale Allegro molto bar=76

See Symphony 4 Finale: Allegro ma non troppo (ie slower than Allegro), bar=80

See Symphony 6 Mvt 1 Allegro ma non troppo (ie slowwer than Allegro) bar=66

See Symphony 7 Finale: Allegro con brio bar=72 (note there are more 16ths in this one, so likely to be slower than an Allegro con brio with mostly 8ths)



Beethoven 1 Jarvi


Beethoven 2 Jarvi


Beethoven 3 Jarvi


Beethoven 4 Jarvi


Beethoven 6 Jarvi


Beethoven 8 Jarvi



Quartet       Movement                 Unit           Speed

 Op. 18 #1     I. Allegro con brio      dotted half    54
   (in F)      II. Adagio affettuoso
                    ed appassionato     eighth         138
               III. Allegro molto       dotted half    112
               IV. Allegro              quarter        120

 Op. 18 #2     I. Allegro               quarter        96
   (in G)      II. Adagio cantabile     eighth         72
                   Allegro              half           69
               III. [Scherzo] Allegro   dotted half    52
               IV. Allegro molto
                    quasi presto        half           92

 Op. 18 #3     I. Allegro               half           120
   (in D)      II. Andante con moto     eighth         92
               III. Allegro             dotted half    100
               IV. Presto               dotted half    96

 Op. 18 #4     I. Allegro ma non tanto  half           84
   (in C min.) II. Andante scherzoso
                 quasi allegretto       dotted qtr     56
               III. [Menuetto]
                  Allegretto            dotted half    84
               IV. Allegro              whole note     66
                   Prestissimo          whole note     84

 Op. 18 #5     I. Allegro               dotted qtr     104
  (in A)       II. Menuetto             dotted half    76
               III. Andante cantabile   eighth         100
                    Poco adagio         eighth         88
               IV. Allegro              whole note     76

 Op. 18 #6     I. Allegro con brio      whole note     80
  (in Bb)      II. Adagio ma non troppo sixteenth      80
               III. [Scherzo] Allegro   dotted half    63
               IV. [La Malinconia]
                 Adagio                 eighth         58
                 Allegretto quasi
                   allegro              dotted qtr     88
                 Poco adagio            quarter        69
                 Prestissimo            dotted qtr     112

 Op. 59 #1     I. Allegro               half           88
  (in F )      II. Allegretto vivace e
                 sempre scherzando      dotted qtr     56
               III. Adagio molto
                     e mesto            sixteenth      88
               IV. Allegro              quarter       126
                 Adagio ma non troppo   eighth         69
                 Presto                 half           92

 Op. 59 #2     I. Allegro               dotted qtr     84
  (in E min.)  II. Molto adagio         quarter        60
               III. Allegretto          dotted half    69
               IV. Presto               whole note     88
                 Piu presto             whole note    112

 Op. 59 #3     I. Andante con moto      quarter        69
  (in C )         Allegro vivace        half           88
               II. Andante con moto
                 quasi allegretto       dotted qtr     56
               III. Menuetto grazioso   quarter       116
               IV. Allegro molto        whole note     84

 Op. 74        I. Poco adagio           quarter        60
  (in Eb)         Allegro               half           84
               II. Adagio ma non troppo eighth         72
               III. Presto              dotted half   100
                 Piu presto quasi
                   prestissimo          dotted whole  100
               IV. Allegretto con
                    variazioni          quarter       100
                 Un poco piu vivace     half           76
                 Allegro                half           84

 Op. 95        I. Allegro con brio      half           92
  (in F min.)  II. Allegretto ma non
                     troppo             quarter        66
               III. Allegro assai
                      vivace            dotted half    69
                   Piu allegro          dotted half    80
               IV. Larghetto            eighth         56
                   Allegretto agitato   dotted qtr     92
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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.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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5 comments on “What do you do when Beethoven doesn’t give you a metronome marking?”

  1. Robert Berger

    The problem with metronome markings is that they indicate the tempi for any given work that a composer chose at one time . They change their minds, and have been known to perform their own works, either conducting or playing th epiano, at differnet tempi on different occaisions .
    So one must avoid holding musicians dogmatically to the written metronome markings, becuase we have absolutely no way of knowing what long dead composers would or would not have approved of .

  2. Kenneth Woods

    I’m with you on avoiding dogmatism, and it especially concerns me when I feel that slavish dependence on the metronome leads some performers not to really listen to what they’re doing.

    On the other hand, the metronome, as I write above, tells us so much more than beats per minute, and ignoring it can lead to diversions from the composers intentions that aren’t just matters of taste, but plainly wrong. There’s the famous example of the last two movements of Beethoven 5, which I’ve mentioned before. Is it possible that Beethoven would have accepted a performance of them at tempi other than 96 and 84? Of course! Would he have accepted the common mistake of reversing those tempi to 84 and 96, which we often hear? Absolutely not. In the case of the 5th, it’s clear that the those two metronome markings not only tell you “the tempo” (what they’re really telling you is the neighborhood of the tempo) but more importantly tell you the relationship of the two tempi- the Finale HAS to be slower than the Scherzo. Likewise, the Andante should be almost the same speed as the Scherzon (92 vs 96). An adjustment in one movement presupposes an adjustment in the other (and also note that the pulse of the Andante should be faster than that of the Finale).

    Or take Shostakovich 5- people can argue about whether they “like” the fast or slow ending, but Shostakovich clearly wrote a symphony in which the outer movements both express tempo arches- starting slowly, gradually increasing in tempo, then winding down to a final tempo that is almost the same as the one the movement started in. Bernstein’s famous final tempo isn’t wrong because it’s WAY faster than Shostakovich’s tempo marking, but wrong because it’s explicitly speeding up when the composer is clearly and unambiguously asking him to slow down. Of course, Shostakovich would probably have been open minded about deviations from his metronome markings by degrees, but flipping tempo relationships upside down is probably not something he could have countenanced.

    It’s also important not to over-egg the question of composers as performers. It’s best to treat Elgar, Bartok, Mahler, Stravinsky or Bernstein the composer as more or less a separate person from Elgar, Bartok, Mahler, Stravinsky or Bernstein the performer for reasons that may include ego, insecurity, lack of ability, difficult performing circumstances, health or other factors. Stravinsky’s withering assessment of his own recording of Rite of Spring is at least an honest admission that the performance of a composer doesn’t necessarily reflect the intentions of the composer. Anyway, it’s not about pleasing the composer, but about doing justice to the music- the score is the ultimate arbiter, not the person.

    Hope that’s of some interest.


  3. Mikko

    Just heard a performance this evening of LvB5 that flipped the tempo relations. I was thoroughly disappointed. Moreover, the Scherzo recap in the middle of the Finale was exactly the same tempo as wherever the Finale had ended up by that point, and yet the return of the Finale was immediately faster once again. Neither consistent nor correct (by which I mean defensible with regard to the score), and not musically satisfying either.

  4. Violadq

    Check out Rudolph Kolisch’s article on the subject. “Tempo and character in Beethoven’s Music”

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