Beethoven’s Sense of Humor Part 2: “To beat, or not to beat.”
Notes By Fred Haight
In part 1 of Beethoven’s humor, we wrote about “Rage of a Lost Penny”. Today, we talk about the humor in Beethoven’s 8th symphony.
Johann Nepomuk Maelzel tried his hand at Artificial Intelligence about two centuries ago. It did not work out so well for him. In 1821, he brought an automaton chess player called “the Turk” to the United States and toured widely with it, claiming to have invented it and that the “automaton” had the intelligence to regulate its moves. This fraud was later exposed by Edgar Allan Poe in an essay. It turned out that his automatic chess player contained a man hidden inside it (picture below). The machine was in fact invented by Wolfgang von Kempelen and bamboozled the public for decades before being discovered.
Maelzel also claimed to have invented the metronome. Actually, he did not invent that either.
In 1813, Maelzel encouraged Beethoven to compose what could possibly be his worst piece, “Wellington’s Victory”, which celebrates Wellington’s military victory over Napoleon. Maelzel laid out all of the parameters and special effects to make it sound like a battle, including quotes of “Rule Britannia.” Performances featured interludes by Maelzel’s automaton trumpeter and his Panharmonikon, an automatic orchestra.
Despite the composition’s commercial success, Beethoven ended up suing Maelzel when he tried to pass the work off as his own. Beethoven described him as “a rude, churlish man, entirely devoid of education or cultivation.”
Listen to this canon that maked fun of Maelzel and his metronome.
These days, scholars who love to spoil all the fun, claim that the canon was actually written by Beethoven’s aide-de-camp, Anton Schindler, and passed off as praise for Maelzel by Beethoven. That does not quite make sense. Here are the words of the canon:
Ta ta ta, dear Maelzel
ta ta ta, live well, very well
ta ta ta, you Banner of Time
ta ta ta, you great metronome.
ta ta ta ta ta ta.
Faint praise indeed. Besides, Schindler was very critical of taking Beethoven’s metronome markings literally, because he personally had experienced Beethoven change his mind about what tempo his works should be taken at. Beethoven alleged comment to Schindler: “No more metronome! Anyone who can feel the music right does not need it; and for anyone who can’t, nothing is of any use; he runs away with the whole orchestra anyway.”
Now to Beethoven’s 8th symphony. The second movement resembles this canon. The same scholars argue that the symphony came before Maelzel patented his metronome, so it could not be a parody of it.
Give us a break! In the symphony, Beethoven is clearly making fun of a too strict tempo. But we ask you, the audience to listen and tell us what you think!