Friday, November 22, 2019

A Translation of "Metronomisierung" by Theodor W. Adorno


The natural essence of music does not give rise to any timeless rules for notating instructions to its performers.  Like musical performance itself, its notation has its history—a history that reflects the varying tension between prescribed form and personal freedom.  Today it may perhaps be taken for granted that we have reached a limit situation of a sort that has entailed the disappearance of this tension.  Accordingly the following should be said:

The benefit of metronomization is that the composer’s idea of a piece’s tempo is rationally specified.  As no objective formal tradition bindingly determines how music is to be rendered and at the same time works from this age do not allow the performer any degree of free play, such specification is necessary even though it admittedly could never assure the integrity of performances.  The capriciousness of performers, which only asserts itself as the bad antithesis of interpretative freedom, is drastically forestalled by metronomization.

As to the chief drawback of metronomization: it must be admitted that its very rationality exacts a certain rigidity of technique that threatens to extinguish that vital life of a performance that is talked about so much. But in the first place, the application of the category of life to works of art—which are constructions, not creations—is dubious.  Moreover, there are grounds for suspecting that that life is often no more than an ideology propounded by performers, who feel affronted by the demands exacted by a self-contained work that does not need to be constituted from the outset by themselves and in whose eyes their own laxity is of greater importance than the life of the works, which admittedly does not take place in the transition from ritardando to a tempo, but rather is coextensive with the history of the works in the various ways in which they have been interpreted by performers—as is confirmed by Schoenberg’s essay on mechanical musical instruments.  That a work cannot be performed strictly by the metronome—unless the performer himself has mechanistic intentions—but that instead the metronome marking approximately supplies the modifiable basic unit of tempo, ought to go without saying and be unassailable by any pedantic doubts.  Incidentally, Schoenberg has pregnantly described the ancillary function of the metronome markings in his “George Lieder,” op. 15.  The performer’s liberal rule of thumb no longer suffices to define interpretation; whereas by the same token the space between three “dead” but exact chronometric units is imbued with better phrasing, better sound, a more faithful apprehension of the work at an adequate stage of its history—in other words, ultimately, more life—than the space between the poles of a private oscillation whose individualistic origin belongs to a stage of musical history that has outlived itself; a stage whose importunate vitality is in truth dead, manipulated according to set patterns.

The benefits outweigh the drawbacks, decisively and in praxis, which in this case probably cannot be contrasted with theory, for the theory of musical notation alone specifies the requirements of such notation.  Only the metronomization of older works strikes me as questionable, because they prescribe more to interpretative freedom; although the history of the metronomization of Bach in the nineteenth century, even if it is a history of errors, provides a good representation of the history of the works themselves.  But because the decline of interpretative freedom is not only dictated by the structure of contemporary works but also conditioned by the remoteness from tradition of the performers’ own situation, it is impossible to foresee whether the metronomization of works from earlier periods will soon also be necessary.  The question whether in entering a phase of metronomization older music would simultaneously be entering a phase of antiquarian mummification, whether its history would consequently draw to its conclusion, need not be discussed.  In individual cases the beat is compelled to gloss over many cognitive contradictions.

The composer will give a wide berth to misunderstandings “that may arise from the all too great precision of metronomization” via, for instance, even greater precision—via, specifically, his introduction of several counting units (Tempo I, Tempo II, Tempo III, all metronomized) or his modification of the metronome count with every change in tempo indication, e.g.: Bewegt [active or animated] ( =120) etwas ruhiger [somewhat calmer] ( =92) straffer [tighter] (=106), Hauptzeitmass [principal tempo] (=120).  Apart from that, verbal descriptions—those regarding not just the tempo of the performance but also its character—are capable of providing constant assistance.
Accordingly, Reger’s metronomizations of ritardandi and accelerandi strike me as misguided, because they perforce regard tempo modifications as being pieced together out of passages each of which—however brief it may be—manifests a constant chronometric unit, whereas Reger’s entirely functional music actually knows only continual transitions between tempi.  Just as in the course of a passage of extended modulation in a Reger composition, it is scarcely ever possible to identify a moment in a specific key with any certainty, during his tempo-changes a passage can scarcely ever be said to have alighted on a specific chronometric unit, even a merely ideal one.  In cases of such continuous modification it may suffice to metronomize the starting and ending points. Even here one can differentiate via verbal expressions.  For example: when the conclusion of a stringendo is especially tightly compressed, the principal indication (…accelerating from X [=92] to Y [=160]) may be subscribed by the sub-indication “Very tightly compressed four beats before Y.”  Thus may one deal with continuous and relatively continuous modifications; in contrast, those that are effected via abrupt modulations can be metronomized without hesitation.  Among such abrupt modulations may be reckoned not only such sudden changes of tempo as occur in the variations in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, but also “halting” ritardandi, which maintain their continuity throughout the repetition of the same motif or segment of a motif but require a different tempo for each of these repetitions.  Paradigms of thoroughly metronomized halting ritardandi are to be found in Anton Webern’s op. 2 song “Escape on Light Boats” for a capella mixed chorus, and op. 5, the Five Movements for String Quartet.

Whether or not to forbear from including additional tempo indications when the tempo is precisely metronomized depends upon the specific character of the piece.  Such forbearance is justified when that character is evident thanks to the piece’s open avowal of its instantiation of a specific form (for example, a rondo like the one in Schoenberg’s wind quartet); when the music is so radically devoid of intentional contents that no “character” other than, perhaps, the negation of character has been assigned to it (a piece of such music is Stravinsky’s Concertino for String Quartet); here the absence of verbal indications has a polemical meaning; the characters are “left blank”; and finally when the music is so self-differentiating that one cannot but fear that the addition of verbal indications would do it violence.  Nevertheless and in any case, it would be as premature to pronounce a general verdict on verbal indications as to predict the outright demise of musical characters.

To rectify the insufficient clarity of the numbers via the metronomic specification of “the concepts of largo, adagio, andante, etc., whose meaning is clear to every musician” strikes me as impossible, because I am skeptical as to the “semantic clarity” of such concepts, at least in relation to recent works.  These concepts signify types, and their objectivity is borne solely by the objectivity of the types to which they are applied.  Because the types are disintegrating, the legitimacy conferred by their names is being diminished and certainly no longer suffices to encompass the essence of constructions that are breaking out of the typical sphere of order.  The application of typical indications to works that are alien to the real validity of types—and these are the only works that matter today—could only conserve the semblance of an objectivity that falsifies the works before they have even begun; and it would only be fit for making illusory the tidy efficaciousness of the metronomic specifications whose truth consists in the fact that under the auspices of the eschewal of every typically endorsed rule for performance and the eschewal of that freedom that would be appropriate to such a performance, the modicum of regulatory capability that inheres in the isolated ratio, and in the severity which solely via the precise formulation of the subjective compositional intention safeguards the interpretation from bad anarchy, is set in stone.  Or do you think it was merely by chance that the late Beethoven already often appended to the stereotypical Italian terms an expression of his personal intention in German, thereby honestly proclaiming the double significance of his overall situation in linguistic doubleness?  As schematic aids to metronome counts the ontologically all too chock-full Italian words are completely useless.  They are legitimate only when instead of playing out romantically in the stereotypes the composition consciously, transparently, and relevantly plays with the stereotypes without actually asserting their reality.  Apart from Berg’s chamber concerto, I would be hard-pressed to name many works that deserve to have this legitimacy conceded to them.



Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2019 by Douglas Robertson

Source:  Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Werke, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. in collaboration with Gretel Adorno, Susan Buck-Morss, and Klaus Schultz (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 1986; Directmedia: Berlin, 2003), Vol. 17, pp. 307ff.

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