Radiolab Explores Tempo in Beethoven's Music

WNYC's Radiolab is one of my favorite programs. It's hosted by Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, who explore the world around us. In a recent podcast, they discuss the metronome markings in Ludwig van Beethoven's music, which have been quite controversial. They focus on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony since it is so well known. Some performers feel that his markings are too fast, while others take him at his word. The faster you go the more exciting it is. Radiolab wanted to explore how fast is too fast. Here is a quartet from the Brooklyn Philharmonic performing the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony at 160 beats per minute. Beethoven's marking is at 108, so this is a little silly, but also kind of fun. 

One thing that is left out of the discussion is performance practice and how that has changed over time. Our understanding of the "correct" tempos have come through the filter of the Romantic Era, where bigger is better and therefore slower (and schmaltzier) is often the norm. Early 20th century recordings bear that out, but as we come to realize that classical orchestras were not as large, and that the pieces were performed in smaller halls, performances have become faster. Conductors who are part of the historically informed performance movement, like John Eliot Gardiner, tend to take Beethoven's symphonies as marked; they seem perfectly reasonable and – in my opinion – better served. You can hear the whole "Speedy Beet" episode (18 minutes) at Radiolab's website.