Measure: In Pursuit of Musical Time

As someone who splits his professional time between musical performance and writing, it seems fitting that my latest book, about musical time, wedded the two disciplines. Several years ago, I was in my study practicing as I often do when I looked up and caught sight of my battery-operated metronome. I recalled the sleek, black pyramid-shaped Taktell that sat on the piano in my home growing up and briefly contemplated their respective differences in technology. Of course, by this time the metronome app had become even more commonplace, and it seemed this technology was about the furthest musical time could travel. It was then that I thought what an interesting study the idea of musical time could make!

Most every professional musician has to come to terms with the metronome in one way or another, whether as a student, preparing orchestral excerpts or working in the recording studio and ‘obeying’ the click track, yet few if any of us are aware of the device’s history. So my initial idea was simply to tell the story of the metronome, a lively tale involving some rather intrepid individuals and thievery! But the more I contemplated such a study, the more convinced I became that I needed to start centuries earlier, at the point where the hard evidence of musical timekeeping first comes into existence, for only by doing so could I convey what was involved in bringing the infernal tick-tocking we all know and love—or hate—to life.

And thus the real study began, as I delved into Renaissance musical treatises, examined marble and woodcuts and perused artwork that incorporated evidence of finger and foot tapping. My desire was to craft something engaging and readable for musicians and non-musicians alike and as with any serious study, the challenge soon became what to keep and what to leave out. Before long I was discussing pendulum physics with a Duke physicist and clockwork with a local clock maker, concepts bound up with the history of musical timekeeping. As a performer, I was already well acquainted with Beethoven’s attraction to Maelzel’s newfangled metronome and the issues that created for subsequent generations of musicians but as the study progressed, I learned an increasing amount about how other composers used or refused the device and how the metronome served other disciplines as well.

My book covers a rather wide swath of time and information but one could argue that, at least from a modern-day perspective, everything that came before the invention of the metronome was a sort of lead-up to that device. Here are a few words from my Preface, summing up the essence of that trajectory:

The metronome’s origins were naturally traceable to the pendulum, a discovery attributable to Galileo and which was subsequently appropriated for musical timekeeping and time measuring purposes. In this guise the pendulum, or musical chronometer, would be subjected to countless designs, some of which actually continued to be favored by musicians well after the metronome itself had become an established tool. The pendulum, however, was hardly the first musical timekeeping device. Previously, musicians relied on their hands and fingers and feet—and even their own pulse—to keep and convey musical time, a connection dating back to at least 709 BC, when “music directors” or rhythmagoi in Ancient Greece “beat with the staves in equal movement, in order that all might keep together.”

The history of the Western tradition, however, begins effectively in the Middle Ages, when plainchant resounded within monastery walls and chapels. Our earliest surviving liturgical chant books—and hence our earliest notated records—date to around the start of the tenth century, a time when music consisted of a single line and, so far as we understand it, lacked a steady pulse. We might easily envision monastic hands communicating the musical highs and lows and stops and starts—in other words, the general patterns of liturgical song—to a group of singers but this is admittedly speculation. Over the course of the following centuries additional vocal parts were added and because each moved with relative independence, their coordination demanded a larger unifying pulse, or tactus (captured by an increasingly sophisticated system of musical notation). Still, we are left to imagine how hands may have been used to convey musical time.

It is only during the Renaissance that music’s connection to the hand becomes fully illuminated. Beyond the evidence expressed in written documents, the existence of visual images, whether painted or sculpted, contribute significantly to our understanding of how musicians expressed tactus and passed that information to one another. In the generations that followed, the musical world advanced any number of timekeeping practices. Some were captured from day-to-day life, such as the pace of a man walking, while others involved the incorporation of language, most notably Italian, nomenclature that in reality could do little more than suggest the relative tempo of a piece of music. Some of these practices were adopted and remain in use today; others, such as the use of keyboard keys as a measuring device, failed to gain attention. Yet all bore witness to the range of thought and activity associated with the musical community’s need to communicate tempo and time.

It proved a fascinating few years for me and I hope that fascination is evident in my book Measure: The Pursuit of Musical Time.

This guest post was written by MARC D. MOSKOVITZ, author of Alexander Zemlinsky: A Lyric Symphony and co-author of Beethoven’s Cello: Five Revolutionary Sonatas and Their World, both published by the Boydell Press. He has contributed program notes to orchestras and opera houses in the United States, Germany, Spain and China and entries for The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. A dedicated teacher and performer, Moskovitz also serves as principal cellist of the ProMusica Columbus Chamber Orchestra. 

Measure: In Pursuit of Musical Time
By Marc D. Moskovitz 
ISBN: 9781783276615, Hardback
List price: £19.99 / $29.95 
Blog price: £12.99 / $19.47 

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