A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Metronome

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METRONOME (Germ. Metronom, and Taktmesser; Fr. Métronome. From the Gr. μέτρον, a measure, and νόμος, a law). An instrument, constructed for the purpose of enabling composers to indicate the exact pace at which they wish their works to be performed.

The Great Masters of the earlier Schools left the Tempi of their compositions entirely to the discretion of the executant. In doing this, they incurred no risk whatever of misconception: for, until the close of the 16th century, and even later, the Composer was almost always a Singer in the Choir for which he wrote; and his relations with his fellow Choristers were infinitely closer than those existing between a modern Composer and the Orchestra under his control. But, the change of style introduced by Claudio Monteverde, added to the impulse given to Instrumental Music and Vocal Music with Instrumental Accompaniments, after the beginning of the 17th century, changed these relations very materially. The invention of the Opera brought new ideas into the field. The individuality of the Composer began gradually to throw the characteristics of the 'School' into the background: and Musicians, no longer guided by traditional laws, soon became alive to the necessity for giving some sort of direction as to the manner in which their pieces were to be sung or played. Hence arose the employment of such words as Grave, Allegro, Adagio, and other terms of like import, which have remained in common use to the present day. As the resources of modern Art became more fully developed, even these directions were found to be insufficient for their intended purpose. A hundred different varieties of Allegro were possible. How was it possible to indicate to the performer which of these the Composer intended him to adopt? The number of technical terms was multiplied indefinitely; but, it was clear that none were sufficiently explicit to remove the difficulty; and, at a very early period, the use of the Pendulum was suggested as the only rational means of solving it.

To Etienne Loulié—not François, as has been sometimes supposed—belongs the credit of having first turned this idea to practical account. In a work, entitled Élémens ou principes de Musique, mis dans un nouvel ordre, (Paris, 1696, Amsterdam, 1698), he describes an instrument, called a Chronomètre, formed of a bullet, suspended to a cord, and provided with means for lengthening or shortening the latter at pleasure, in such a manner as to indicate seventy-two different degrees of velocity. This was a good beginning. Nevertheless, the machine does not seem to have become generally known; for, in many curious treatises of later date, we find vague glimmerings of similar ideas, put forth in apparent ignorance of Loulié's discovery. Joseph Sauveur—the inventor of the word 'Acoustics,' and the author of a series of valuable papers on Music contributed to the Mémoires de l' Academie, between the years 1700 and 1711—is said to have proposed a Chronomètre of his own. In 1732, an article on a species of Musical Time-keeper was contributed to the Mémoires des Sciences by Enbrayg. Gabory recommended the use of the Pendulum, in his Manuel utile et curieux sur la mesure du tems, (Paris, 1771). John Harrison's 'Description concerning such a machine as will afford a nice and true mensuration of tune; as also an account of the Scale of Music,' (London, 1775), serves to shew that the connection between Music and Chronometry was not unnoticed in England. Davaux wrote an article on the subject for the Journal Encyclopédique, in 1784. Not long afterwards, Pelletier made use of the Pendulum in a way sufficiently ingenious to call forth a treatise on his invention from Abel Burja, of Berlin, in 1790. In the same year, Breitkopf & Härtel printed, at Leipzig, Zwölf geistliche prosaische Gesänge, mit Beschreibung eines Taktmessers, by J. G. Weiske. And enough was done, both in France, and in Germany, to shew, that, even before the close of the 18th century, the matter had attracted no small amount of serious attention.

In 1813, Gottfried Weber advocated the use of a Pendulum, formed of a small bullet attached to the end of a string, upon which the necessary divisions were marked by knots; the whole being so contrived that it could be carried in the pocket—a far more simple and convenient arrangement than that of Loulié.[1] New plans were proposed by G. E. Stöckel, Zmeskall, and other Musicians of reputation; and Beethoven is known to have discussed them with interest. The subject excited an equal amount of attention in England, where many attempts were made to produce a perfect instrument. Dr. Crotch, discarding Louliés cord, used, in place of it, a stiff Pendulum, formed of a long thin strip of box-wood, graduated in inches, and hung upon a suitable frame. Another Musical Time-keeper, invented by Mr. Henry Smart (brother to the late Sir George), is described in the Quarterly Musical Review (vol. iii., London, 1821). Both are now obsolete: but the writer remembers seeing instruments of the kind recommended by Dr. Crotch, exposed for sale, not very many years ago, at Messrs. Erat's Harp Manufactory, in Berners St.

All these inventions failed, however, more or less completely, through the inconvenience caused by the length of the Pendulum necessary to produce beats of even moderate slowness. In order to perform sixty oscillations in a minute, a Pendulummust, in our latitude, be 39.2 inches long. One long enough to execute forty would be difficult to manage. This difficulty, which had long been recognised as a bar to farther improvement, was eventually removed, through the ingenuity of a celebrated Mechanist, named Winkel, an inhabitant of Amsterdam, who first entertained the idea of constructing a Metronome upon a system before untried, involving the use of a certain kind of Double-Pendulum, the motions of which are governed by mathematical laws of extreme complexity, though, practically considered, the principle is so simple that we trust a very few words may suffice to explain it.

If a rod be suspended from its centre, and equally weighted at both ends, its centres of motion and gravity will coincide, and its position, when at rest, will be perfectly horizontal. But, if the weight at one end be diminished, or moved a little nearer to the central pivot than the other, the centre of gravity will be displaced, and the unaltered end will gradually descend, until the rod hangs perpendicularly; the rapidity with which the change of position takes place depending upon the amount of diminution to which the upper weight is subjected, or its nearness to the pivot. In either case, the upper weight will exercise so strong a retarding influence on the lower one, that by carefully adjusting the proportion between weights and distances, it will be found possible to make a Double Pendulum, of the kind we have described, oscillate as slowly as an ordinary one five or six times its length.

The possibility of constructing a Metronome upon this principle is said to have first suggested itself to Winkel about the year 1812; but it is difficult, in the face of conflicting statements, to arrive at a just conclusion as to the circumstances under which his invention was first given to the world. It is, indeed, known to have been warmly commended by the Dutch Academy of Sciences, in a report dated Aug. 14, 1815; and, judging from this, we may surmise that it had, by that time, assumed a complete, if not a perfect form. We have, however, no definite proof of its then condition. It may have been finished, or it may not: but, finished or unfinished, it is certain that Winkel derived very little benefit from his discovery. Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, an accomplished Musician, and a Mechanist of European reputation, had long meditated an improvement upon Stöckel's machine for beating time; and succeeded, about this time, in producing a species of so-called 'Chronometer,' which fairly satisfied Salieri, Weigl, and even Beethoven himself. Fortified by the approval of these high authorities, he determined to bring out his invention in London. Meanwhile, he exhibited it, in company with other mechanical curiosities, in a travelling museum, which he carried about with him, from city to city, through some of the principal countries of Europe. Among other places, he visited Amsterdam, where he saw Winkel's instrument. Struck with the superiority of the Double-Pendulum to the principle adopted in his own time-keeper, he at once offered to purchase the invention. Winkel declined to cede his rights; but Maelzel, having now learned all he wanted to know, proceeded to Paris, patented the Double-Pendulum in his own name, and in 1816 set up the first Metronome Manufactory on record. Winkel afterwards obtained possession of one of the Paris instruments; established its identity with his own; and (as Wurzbach states) took advantage of Maelzel's return to Holland to submit his case to the 'Niederländische Akademie' for decision. A Commission was appointed, to investigate its merits: and, as it was proved that the graduated scale was the only part of the instrument really originated by Maelzel, a formal judgment was recorded in Winkel's favour—too late, however, to do him full justice, for, to this day, his share in the work is, by common consent, suppressed, and Maelzel is universally regarded as the inventor of the instrument which bears his name.[2]

The first Metronomes made at the new Manufactory differed so little, in any point of vital consequence, from those now in daily use, that a description of the one will include all that need be said concerning the other. The most important part of the business is a flat steel rod, about seven and a half inches long, and an eighth of an inch in breadth, pierced, at a distance of about five and a half inches from its upper end, by a hole, through which is passed the pivot upon which it is made to oscillate. This rod—answering to the Double-Pendulum already described—is suspended, by means of the pivot, in front of a wooden case, and kept in a perpendicular position by a stout leaden bullet, fixed to its shorter end, which, thus weighted, sinks, of course, when at rest, to the lowest place. On its upper and longer end is placed a smaller weight, of brass, made to slide up and down at will, and so proportioned to the lower weight, that, by changing its position, the Pendulum may be made to execute any number of oscillations, between 40 and 208, in a minute. As a guide to the position of the upper weight, the rod is backed by a graduated scale—really the invention of Maelzel—affixed to the wooden case: and, by means of this, the instrument may be so adjusted as to beat, silently, for a few minutes, at any required pace. To render it still more effective—capable of beating for a longer time, and, with a distinctly audible sound—it is provided with a strong spiral spring, adapted to an escapement exactly similar to that of an ordinary loud-ticking clock.[3] In this form, it is complete enough to answer its intended purpose, perfectly: nevertheless, an attempt is sometimes made to increase its efficiency still farther, by the addition of a little Bell, which can be made to strike at every second, third, fourth, or sixth oscillation of the Pendulum, and thus to indicate the various accents, as well as the simple beats of the bar. The scale does not include all the units between 40 and 108 [App. p.718 "208"]—which, indeed, would be a mere useless encumbrance but proceeds, from 40, to 60, by twos; from 60, to 72, by threes; from 72, to 120, by fours; from 120, to 144, by sixes; and, from 144, to 208, by eights. In order to indicate the exact Tempo in which he wishes his piece to be performed, the Composer uses a formula, beginning with the letters M.M. followed by a Musical Note, connected, by the sign =, with a number. The letters signify Maelzel's Metronome. The Note implies that the beats of the Pendulum are to be understood as representing Minims, Crotchets, or Quavers, as the case may be. The number indicates the place on the graduated scale to the level of which the top of the upper weight must be raised, or lowered. Thus, 'M.M. Figure rythmique blanche hampe bas.svg=60,' would shew that the Metronome was to be so arranged as to beat Minims, at the rate of sixty in a minute: 'M.M. Figure rythmique noire hampe bas.svg=100,' that it was to beat Crotchets, at the rate of a hundred in a minute. Some Metronomes are marked with the words Andante, Allegretto, Allegro, etc., in addition to the numbers. This is a new, and utterly useless contrivance: for it is evident, that, if Figure rythmique noire hampe bas.svg=100 be held to indicate Moderato, Figure rythmique blanche hampe bas.svg=100 will stand for Allegro, and Figure rythmique croche hampe bas.svg=100 for Largo. The word Moderato;;, therefore, without the Minim, Crotchet, or Quaver, to qualify it, means nothing at all; and it is absurd to encumber the scale with it, or with any other technical terms whatever.

By far the best Metronomes now attainable are those manufactured in England for Messrs. Cocks, Chappell, Ashdown & Parry, and other well-known Music Publishers. French Metronomes are far less durable than these; and, as a general rule, far less accurate time-keepers; though it is sometimes possible to meet with one which will beat evenly enough, as long as it lasts. A very large and loud Metronome is made by Messrs. Rudall & Carte, of London, for Military Bands; and an instrument of this kind may often be used, with great advantage, when a number of vocal or instrumental performers practise together: for, apart from its primary intention, the Metronome is invaluable as a means of teaching beginners to sing or play in time, and will, indeed, make 'good timists' of many who would be a long while learning to count accurately without its aid.

[ W. S. R. ]

  1. A pocket Metronome was registered by Greaves in 1850, and another, 'scala Mälzl, system Decher,' has just been patented by Aibl, of Munich.
  2. We are indebted, for most of these particulars, to Mr. A. W. Thayer, whose careful researches have placed him in possession of much valuable information on this subject. Bernsdorf tells a different story, to the effect, that Maelzel, unable to overcome some difficulty connected with his improvement of Stöckel's Time-keeper, took Winkel into consultation: that Winkel solved the problem for him; and that he then proceeded to Paris, and there patented Winkel's invention in his own name.
  3. In the first Time-keeper made by Maelzel, in his attempt to improve upon Stöckel's Chronometer, the sound was produced by a Lever, (Hebel), striking upon a little Anvil, (Ambon). This explains a curious expression contained in a letter written, by Beethoven, to Zmeskall—'Erste Schwingmann der Welt, und dies ohne Hebel.'(' First Bwlngman of the world, and that without a lever.') For a description of the instrument—known as the 'Stöckel-Maelzel Chronometer'—see the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung for Dec. 1, 1813.