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Speed Freak

"The Beethoven that you and I know, and that we all know, may in fact not be the Beethoven that Beethoven wanted us to know. We may be hearing his music in a way he did not intend at all."

I was rather stopped in my tracks by this short Radiolab podcast about the speed at which the famous composer's work should be played. Aged 47, steadily going deaf, and with a huge body of work already behind him, Beethoven was one of the first composers to embrace the metronome, which had just been invented. He used it to mark (and attempt to permanently fix) the tempo at which some of his most famous works should be played. The thing is, the tempo he set is much faster than that at which the pieces are traditionally played. So fast in fact, that when played at their intended pace, the work is hugely challenging to play, becomes completely different, and is almost designed to push the boundaries of comfortable listening. Almost every conductor has ignored these speeds and performed the works more slowly and with a sizeable dose of grandiosity. This practice has become so entrenched that myths have even perpetuated (since proved false) that his metronome was faulty. Amazing. There's a good exploration of some of the myths and truths around the metronome markings here.

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