I’ve been learning about something called Whole Beat Metronome Practice (WBMP) in the last few weeks. It’s something that Musicologist Wim Winters has been learning and teaching about on his Authentic Sound website and Youtube channel .
He noticed, from the time when he was first learning music that many pieces from the Baroque through the Romantic period had tempo markings that were simply impossible to follow, even by the world’s most accomplished musicians. In some cases it was necessary to play certain passages at half the tempo that was indicated.
There were many explanations put forward by musicians and musicologists for this phenomenon, such as broken metronomes and extreme virtuosity, but none of this answered all the questions.
A Better Understanding?#
Winters' research brought to light a number of interesting historical clues that seem to have been neglected, especially in modern performance practice and education.
These clues seem to show that, just like it is common in music to count one-and-two-and-three-and-four and just like a pendulum’s swing is counted by physicists and children alike by complete back-and-forth cycles, so the metronome markings were meant to indicate the subdivisions of the main pulse of the music.
Above are the first two measures of Bach’s Two Part Inventions #1. Notice that the tempo is set as 138 quarter note beats per minute according to the modern reading.
If you get a metronome and set it to 138 bpm and realize that this reading means that each beat represents 4 sixteen notes, this is very quick. It means 552 sixteen notes per minute or 9.2 per second. This isn’t impossible to play, but it’s very fast for an amateur musician like myself.
If you look at this with WBMP in mind, then 138 bpm represents the subdivision of the quarter note, which means that there are 138 subdivisions (remember one-and-two-etc.) per minute. This means 276 sixteen notes per minute (4.6 per second) which is a much more manageable speed.
Winters points out that historical musical instruments did not allow for the kind of virtuosic speeds that seem to be in vogue today. Also a number of pieces with such crazy tempi were supposed to have been studies designed for students.
He also points out a number of historical documents such as teaching manuals and descriptions of concerts that seem to agree with his new understanding of these tempo markings. All-in-all, the man has a point. Quite a lot of points, in fact.
The first example is Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s Erlkönig. When this is usually performed, it is at a very fast pace, considering it is marked Schnell and 152 quarter notes per minute.
It could be argued, though, that a man holding a boy in his arms riding through the woods in the middle of the night would not be going at a full gallop. He would be riding quickly, but at a canter; a gallop would be very reckless. It would also be impossible to carry on any kind of conversation at the gallop.
A full gallop is a 4-beat, not 3, but a canter is a 3-beat. This makes more sense of the story and, even though the beat is much slower, it’s possible to put more emotion into the singing and playing at this tempo. In addition, the increase in tempo and intensity at the end of the piece is a lot more poignant if it can accelerate significantly.
Compare these two performances, both by Wim Winters:
The first is from 2015 and is at the usual speed.
The second is from 2019 and is at the WBMP speed.
I’m used to the sound of the first one, but the new way of playing it is intriguing. I’d like to hear it performed like this with a soloist.
Beethoven’s 5th Symphony#
Here’s another example of WBMP performance; Beethoven’s 5th:
This is very different from what we’re used to hearing and one wonders what this would sound like with full orchestra. I’m not sure I even like it, but it’s very interesting.
Winters writes in his blog post about this topic that the composer probably intended the introductory motif to represent fate knocking at the door. He presents two extreme versions of this piece as contrasting interpretations and ask which one sounds more like a knock.
As an amateur musician myself, I find Winters' ideas fascinating. I like to play Bach’s Inventions on my violin and I’m trying to improve my skill on the recorder as well. It would be awfully nice if I could actually play some of this music all the way through and be in line with how the composer intended them to be performed.
Not only that, but it seems to me (and Winters points out and demonstrates) that it’s possible to put more nuance and finesse into these pieces at these slower speeds. If one plays so incredibly quickly then it’s only possible to get the notes out. Adding feeling to them as well is beyond reach.
I’m not a musicologist but I’m really enjoying learning about a different way of thinking about music. I’m going to download some scores from imslp.org and try this out.