Happy Scribe

Wait, you're OK? Hi. You're listening to Radiolab Radio from WNYC. Amjad, this is Radiolab. I want to play a story that's come up a couple of times in conversations with folks here at the show. I guess I'll preface it this way. So one of the things that's been a little spooky, weird about this moment is just time.


You know, at least for those of us who don't have to work on the front lines and are lucky enough to still have jobs, we are stuck in our homes doing the Zoom's trying to get things done. But the just the the lack of routines, routines that typically give a day purpose without those routines, time does weird things. It bleeds, it stretches and then collapses. I mean, we've all had the experience of talking about something that happened on Tuesday.


And then suddenly we're like, oh, my God, that was just Tuesday. That feels like a lifetime ago. On the flip side, there's April, the entire month of April, which lasted a second. And I found myself thinking back to one of the very first, I think it actually might be the first episode that Robert and I sort of hosted the show together. It was an entire episode about time. And we talked about relativity and flower clocks and space clocks and all these things.


And in that show, we played this piece of music that you're hearing. This is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, stretched from its typical 70 minutes to last 24 hours. And put that on the other day, and it was really interesting to listen to again, the way the music builds and builds and builds, and you don't know if it's going to keep building to some crescendo, which then never arrives. And then it pauses. For way too long. So, no, I'm not going to play you twenty four hours of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.


I am going to actually play. Kind of the flip side, because 10 years after we did that first show, that that that first show was like 17 years is crazy.


Crazy like was that just Tuesday, more than 10 years after that, we ran into a different story also about Beethoven and about how he.


Clearly had a very acute sensitivity to how small differences in time can really affect people and how he would have hated hearing his Ninth Symphony stretched.


So we're going to play you that second piece. We called it Speedy Beat and then next week. We'll take some of these ideas in new directions, cool. Here we are, here we are. Thank you for doing this. I have questions. You have some big books in front of you. I do. What are those? These are Beethoven symphonies. This is Radiolab, Amjad, I'm Robert, just dropped them on the desk so we can feel the weighty massiveness of them.


There you go.


Yeah, and this is Alan Peerson, conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. The Brookville the Brookfield beef will be filled.


Anyhow, I called up Alan, it's a lot of business, that's a lot of it, because it turns out in those scores that he brought, there is this mystery that could completely transform how you feel about Bato or at least how I have always felt about Beethoven, which is that I couldn't stand him.


Really? Yeah, Alan, too.


And I remember growing up and thinking, well, I'm a musician, I should love this and I don't. Does that mean that maybe I'm a fraud? Am I a bad musician? And we're not really cut out for this.


You know, like you would hear the fifth, the one that everybody knows, you know, those first measures are like bom, bom, bom, bom, bom.


Very like heavy, ponderous, suffocating, no. Put you into a meadow like nobody, Yamoto with with no oxygen and no whatever you think of Beethoven, it turns out that the Beethoven that you and I know that we all know it 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.


And I have no idea what you're talking about. All right. Let me just start the story where it really begins.


Please kind of have to go back all the way to the invention of this. So that was like the sound of my childhood. Yeah, right. The metronome. So Beethoven was one of the first composers to work with the metronome, and the metronome came out in 1817. So he would have been 47 when the metronome wasn't, you know, came out for the first time. So the metronome was this new gizmo.


Right, with a new gizmo and the inventor of the matrimonial, his last name actually metronome like Bobby Metronome, no muscle or muscle.


I'm sure I'm saying it wrong.


However, you say his name in 1817, this dude, after he'd invented the metronome, brought his metronome to Beethoven and said, check it out. Why don't you use this? And Beethoven's first response was, no, no, no, this is not the way music works.


But then, as was not uncommon for Mr. B, it seems he changed his mind and got really excited about the idea of using the metronome to fix for eternity what the tempo is for.


All of his pieces should be as in this piece, don't play it at this speed. Play like this. Now, keep in mind, at this point, Beethoven was pretty much at the end of his career of the nine symphonies, by the time he'd gotten the metronome, he'd written eight of them. So what he did was he went back and he marked and metronome markings for all of his symphonies.


And here's where the mystery really begins.


Those tempo markings are fast, like. Really fast, like in some cases, obscenely fast, you know, like, OK, take a take a piece like the Third Symphony for that piece. The first movement is marked a dotted half equals sixty. One, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three, which is almost impossible to play.


Oh really. Playing. Who's playing that first strings.


OK, Alan got a couple of string players together from the Brooklyn Phil to demonstrate just how hard it is to play the third at Beethoven's tempo markings.


Like this part coming up, check this out. Wow, that was crazy.


Allen says when he tried to play that piece at that tempo with the entire orchestra, I remember there was one rehearsal, only one where we got it, got it up to tempo.


But when you do get it up to that speed, it's a completely different piece. Yeah.


Then take the fifth, which has been played as slow as this right here. This is 74 beats per minute. Beethoven actually marked it here at 108 beats per minute. Oh, no, that's ridiculous. Well, it's just a different feel that's too fast. Well, you're it is for a lot of people. And according to Alan, for the last couple of hundred years, people have been arguing about these tempo markings.


You know, to what extent did like those markings that he put in and 1817 really represent his actual intentions?


Well, it was the debate.


If he put them and he put them in, there are lots of ways that people debate them. One is there's a story that goes around the Beethoven's metronome was broken.


Really? Yeah, he had he was going too fast, not too fast, but that the numbers were wrong.


So if you were to hear this song, which is today, which is 113 ish, he might look on his metronome and would say 130 or something like that.


So inadvertently he wrote down the wrong number. That's the idea.


Although we now have Beethoven's metronome and it seems to work fine. You have the metronome. I believe somebody tracked it down.


That's music critic Matthew Guerrieri, who's written a lot about Beethoven, tested it, and it seemed to work OK.


And it matches up to all the other metronomes in the world. Yeah.


So we eliminate the defective metronome theory. Throw it out now. And another story that's sometimes used to explain the markings is because like this, that Beethoven actually did notate the tempos slower.


But then he gave the pages to his assistants and now they needed to go off to the publisher, but they couldn't find them. They somehow lost the papers.


And so they had to rewrite them. And in their haste, they inadvertently put down the wrong numbers and sped up the pieces.


Clerical error explanation. Number two.


Yeah, this one, I just I don't find that plausible. I mean, he could have corrected them at some point. And, you know, he didn't just do this one time. He did it for all eight symphonies.


So I don't know. All right. We eliminate clerical error. Yeah. And then there was then there's speculation that that theory number three, this may have been affected by the fact that by the time he was doing all these metronome markings, Beethoven was deaf.


So Beethoven by 1814 was basically completely deaf and the metronome came out in 1817. What is being deaf have to do with how what speed you play the music? I mean, you can't hear the music. In any event, it's it has to do with the space in which you're hearing the music, like if you're hearing the music just in your head. Yeah. It's just kind of in the vacuum of your imagination. Right. You take that music and you put it into a room.


Suddenly you've got the acoustics of that room, which, if it's a big concert hall, are going to make all the notes muddy. The details of one note are going to bleed into the attacks of the next. And so Al says, what always happens when you put music in a room, you will play things a little bit slower to maintain the clarity.


Right. The Beethoven, when he was making these metronome markings, he was only hearing the music in his head, not hearing it in the real world. And maybe had he heard it in the real world, would have done something different.


But the counter argument is, who cares if we can create the music that Beethoven heard in his head? Isn't that something that's worth doing?


Up until recently, the answer has been no, because people have not generally performed these pieces at his markings.


But both Alan and Matt think that we probably should just accept these accelerated tempos, you know, like with the fifth at one away, just go with it. Yeah, it's very possible that that's the speed he wanted. If that is the speed he wanted. It's it's a very interesting speed because it's it's it's a tempo almost designed to make us feel uncomfortable.


It's almost designed to disorient us. Here's where we get to a fourth explanation for why Beethoven made these tempos super fast. Speculative takes a little set up, but it's super interesting.


I think it points it a kind of human time that I had never considered. And I will tell you all about it. After the break. Radiolab will continue in a moment. My name is Cipora calling from Seattle. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at W w w Sloan, Doug. I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. We are revisiting a piece for many moons ago about Beethoven and we'll pick it back up with a fourth and final theory about why Beethoven put such speedy markings on his music.


There's something called Firaz Law, which is a law was discovered in the 1960s by an Austrian doctor named Karl von Furat, it went this law says, according to Matt, is that when you ask people to guess tempo's or lengths of time, people will always overestimate short durations of time and they'll always underestimate long durations of time to.


What does that mean to underestimate.


Well, mean you guess backwards. Oh, that let me it's a kind of a complicated thing you just said. So I'm going to let's just do it as a demonstration. OK, I'm going to give you a test. All right. I'm going to give you four beats first slow, then fast.


Your job is to guess where that fifth beat is going to land.


So I'm going to give you four beats and then you have to hit your pen where you think that fifth beat is going to fall.


OK, OK, that's. So you're not asking me to do a melody or invent anything.


Just hit your pen where you feel the fifth beat is going to land. OK, here's the first one. Slow. Get ready. See this, the law in action, you just rushed it. I did not. You so rushed it. I did not do it again. All right. OK, your closer that time, you were closer. I was the same and you rushed it a little bit, but you're closer now. If we do the same thing with a fast tempo like I give you for, you get the fifth.


OK, all right. Here goes. Oh, come on, try that again. You were late again, I wasn't sure if you were audibly late, these this right here on the way for some three, seven, eight.


Oh, yeah, you're 50 milliseconds late, you think I'm 150 milliseconds, they step outside, I'm not even thinking that I can see it in the computer right here.


So the point is, Futureless says that when we have a slow tempo will tend to unconsciously try and speed it up. And when we have a really fast tempo, we will tend to unconsciously slow it down.


And if you think about that for a minute, at some point our perception has to flip over because if we're unconsciously speeding up slow beats and slowing down fast speeds, will there's got to be some particular point right in the middle where our judgment of time actually syncs up with actual time, or in other words, we guess the tempo correctly.


Yeah, and it's called the indifference point.


I don't know why it's called that, but according to most research, that point falls somewhere around this tempo.


Ninety four ninety six beats per minute, if you give people four beats of this tempo and then ask them to guess the fifth, they usually get it right. Yep. That's human time. Yeah, that's kind of where where humans live, right in that little gap. Yeah.


And the really interesting thing is that this tempo, this little point is right about where people tend to dial back to when they don't want to perform Beethoven's Fifth as fast as it's written.


In fact, when Allen asked his quartet to just play the Fifth at whatever Tempo felt right, they fell right back to this indifference point. Well, so you're building to some theory here, aren't you? Yeah, that maybe, just maybe. Beethoven was playing a kind of cat and mouse game that he intuited that there was some place, some point where we felt comfortable, where every beat is coming, exactly where we expect it to, and it just feels right.


And he never wanted his music to fall into that place. So if we like 92 beats per minute, he was going to push his tempos to 108. So it was just a little too fast. Every beat kind of coming a tiny bit too early. So the pieces always it's always just feels like he's running away from us in in a very real psychological way. And this fits with what we know about the guy. I mean, there are numerous anecdotes where he would push not just his audience, but his musicians, almost as if he wanted to hear them struggle when he was rehearsing his Ninth Symphony.


Those solos walked out of rehearsal because he was pushing them beyond their limits.


That's Terrance McKnight, who hosts a classical music show on WQXR. Maybe that's what those quick tempos were about, about maybe pushing the musicians that they'd miss a few notes.


He didn't care about the notes so that the music was right on the edge. You know, this is you know, something's impending. This is danger.


This is ferocious. Not normally how we think of classical music. We have a we have a sort of ethos of perfection around classical music. Now that I think makes us maybe less willing to be on the edge and think of it this way, says Terence.


You know, Beethoven was kind of an outsider, didn't come from privilege. He was a short, dark skinned dude.


You know, some people say that his grandmother was of African descent. He probably stood out in 19th century Vienna. Oh, my God. So you could say, here's this guy who's always on the outside and he wants his music to always express that. But he can see into the future to a time when his music would become the canon.


The man, yes. Maybe that's not what he wanted. If you read it that way, these tempo markings are kind of liberating. It's like this message from 1817 saying, get me out of here. And interestingly, when I was talking with Alan, he sort of implied, without quite saying it outright, that one of the ways that you can keep orchestral music exciting in a time when it's not for a lot of people is by just playing things faster.


Have you ever done Beethoven faster than its markings?


No, I would the fifth you could play faster and that would be fascinating. I'd be very interested to hear. I've never heard of done. You never heard it faster than one away. I would think you could do 120 ish.


Well, let's just let's just do this and let's get our metronomes out.


Here's one 20 party. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.


Okay, we'll make it fast and make it 140, 140, I bet.


No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. You can do it didn't. Can you go to like 160?


I think that's around the edge. But we tried it with this quartet already.


Wow. I just going to go run out of the snow. That was fantastic. You told me 160 years ago.


Well, that is a Beethoven I can dig right there. I could just see the people in Vienna like their ties. Tizer falling off. Their socks are falling down. They're drooling.


That's it's a whole different thing at that point.


Thanks first and foremost to Alan Pierson at the Brooklyn Phil and to the incredible players. I'm Deborah Bach. Violin. Violin, too.


I'm Suzy Perlman, Arash Jemini, Agami, Joey, cellist.


Alan, you on the viola. Thanks also to Kathleen Copeland from the Brooklyn, Phil and Matthew Guerrieri, who wrote the book The First Four Notes, Dun Dun Dun Da, which is a great read about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.


And thanks, of course, to Living Man B and his lovely metronome. Yes. I'm Jad Abumrad.


I'm Robert Krulwich. Thank you guys for listening. More from us next week. Until then, be safe.


This is Tim SAML from New Marilinda, New Brunswick, Canada. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad, Robert Krulwich and produced by Sean Wheeler.


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