1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Metronome

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METRONOME (Gr. μέτρον, measure, and νόμος, law), an instrument for denoting the speed at which a musical composition is to be performed. Its invention is generally, but falsely, ascribed to Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, a native of Ratisbon (1772-1838). It consists of a pendulum swung on a pivot; below the pivot is a fixed weight, and above it is a sliding weight that regulates the velocity of the oscillations by the greater or less distance from the pivot to which it is adjusted. The silent metronome is impelled by the touch, and ceases to beat when this impulse dies; it has a scale of numbers marked on the pendulum, and the upper part of the sliding weight is placed under that number which is to indicate the quickness of a stated note, as M.M. (Maelzel's Metronome) <<half note>>=60, or <<quarter note>>=72, or <<eighth note>>=108, or the like. The number 60 implies a second of time for each single oscillation of the pendulum — numbers lower than this denoting slower, and higher numbers quicker beats. The scale at first extended from 50 to 160, but now ranges from 40 to 208. A more complicated metronome is impelled by clock-work, makes a ticking sound at each beat, and continues its action till the works run down; a still more intricate machine has also a bell which is struck at the first of any number of beats, willed by the person who regulates it, and so signifies the accent as well as the time.

The earliest instrument of the kind, a weighted pendulum of variable length, is described in a paper by Etienne Loulié (Paris, 1696; Amsterdam, 1698). Attempts were also made by Enbrayg (1732) and Gabory (1771). Harrison, who gained the prize awarded by the English government for his chronometer, published a description of an instrument for the purpose in 1775. Davaux (1784), Pelletier, Abel Burja (1790) and Weiske (also 1790) described their various experiments for measuring musical time. In 1813 Gottfried Weber, the composer, theorist and essayist, proposed a weighted ribbon graduated by inches or smaller divisions, which might be held or otherwise fixed at any desired length, and would infallibly oscillate at the same speed so long as the impulse lasted. Stöckel and Zmeskall produced each an instrument; and Maelzel made some slight modification of that by the former, about the end of 1812, which he announced as a new invention of his own, and exhibited from city to city on the Continent. It was, as nearly as can be ascertained, in 1812 that Winkel, a mechanician of Amsterdam, devised a plan for reducing the inconvenient length of all existing instruments, on the principle of the double pendulum, rocking on both sides of a centre and balanced by a fixed and a variable weight. He spent three years in completing it, and it is described and commended in the Report of the Netherlands Academy of Sciences (Aug. 14, 1815). Maelzel thereupon went to Amsterdam, saw Winkel and inspected his invention, and, recognizing its great superiority to what he called his own, offered to buy all right and title to it. Winkel refused, and so Maelzel constructed a copy of the instrument, to which he added nothing but the scale of numbers, took this copy to Paris, obtained a patent for it, and in 1816 established there, in his own name, a manufactory for metronomes. When the impostor revisited Amsterdam, the inventor instituted proceedings against him for his piracy, and the Academy of Sciences decided in Winkel's favour, declaring that the graduated scale was the only point in which the instrument of Maelzel differed from his. Maelzel's scale was needlessly and arbitrarily complicated, proceeding by twos from 40 to 60, by threes from 60 to 72, by fours from 72 to 120, by sixes from 120 to 144 and by eights from 144 to 208. Dr Crotch constructed a time measurer, and Henry Smart (the violinist, father of the composer of the same name) made another in 1821, both before that received as Maelzel's was known in England. In 1882 James Mitchell, a Scotsman, made an ingenious amplification of the Maelzel clock-work, reducing to mechanical demonstration what formerly rested wholly on the feeling of the performer.

Although “Maelzel's metronome” has universal acceptance, the silent metronome and still more Weber's graduated ribbon are greatly to be preferred, for the clock-work of the other is liable to be out of order, and needs a nicety of regulation which is almost impossible; for instance, when Sir George Smart had to mark the traditional times of the several pieces in the Dettingen Te Deum, he tested them by twelve metronomes, no two of which beat together. The value of the machine is exaggerated, for no living performer could execute a piece in unvaried time throughout, and no student could practise under the tyranny of its beat; and conductors of music, nay, composers themselves, will conduct the same piece slightly slower or quicker on different occasions, according to the circumstances of performance.