Friday, November 26, 2010

An unlikely friendship

Maelzel was quite the character.  He patented the metronome in 1815 - stealing the invention a man named Winkel had constructed two years earlier. Even today most history books credit him as the inventor.

1813 was an auspicious year for Maelzel, because that's also when he met Ludwig Van.

Beethoven unwittingly befriended the Austrian when he constructed some 'ear trumpets' to help him with his hearing loss.  The maestro obliged his new friend by writing a special composition for an instrument Maelzel invented called a 'panharmonican'.  Things turned ugly when the 'inventor' claimed the composition as his own.  Beethoven sued.  Pretty audacious.

By that time the con artist was well-practised.  He purchased an invention called the Automaton Chess Player in 1804 and had been touring it for many years. Players would sit at the table opposite the mechanized  'Turk'  whose arms would mysteriously move pieces to win matches on the board.  Edgar Allan Poe wrote a full account of the spectacle and great intellects debated the nature of mechanized intelligence.  The whole thing was exposed as a fraud sometime between 1820 - 1826 (depending on the source) when two young boys watched as a very small chess master climbed into a hidden compartment.  When it had finally been exposed, the Automaton had entertained audiences for over 80 years, 20 of them with Maelzel. 

Tom Allen talked about Maelzel at the TSO 'After Work' concert this week, and these other sources verify the facts:
The Metronome Guy
Joahnn Nepomuk Maelzel
Edgar Allen Poe's account
Scoundrels Wiki site 

Maelzel metronome owned by Michael Jackson

Maelzel's hunger to be recognized for genius would make a great film.  I see it now - opening scene - a man in his early forties sits at a piano,  playing chords ... a servant comes to the door to announce a guest but the pianist doesn't seem to hear... is it because he is engrossed in the moment?  No, the musician really can't hear... he is watching as the metronome ticks back and forth.  The servant must stand directly facing his master.  "Maestro Beethoven" he says,  "Herr Maelzel has arrived."

Beethoven's Eighth Symphony doesn't always get the attention it deserves, sandwiched as it is between the 7th and 9th.  It debuted in 1813 (there's that year again).  The programme noted "it was widely considered a letdown after the mighty Seventh.  Beethoven, however, when told that the Eighth had proved less successful than the Seventh, replied, 'that is because it is so much better.'

Music nerds consider this opus a comic piece, light-hearted, overly dramatic, with the "finish" lasting almost half as long as the last movement itself.  It was fun watching the music director conduct - a right jab, a left hook, bouncing lightly on his feet - he was getting a real work out!

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