Johann Nepomuk MAELZEL (1772-1838)
(b.Regensburg, 15 August 1772; d.at sea, 21 July 1838)
This month marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Johann Neopomuk Maelzel, celebrated as a man of determination, ingenuity, curiosity and good business sense. Through the development and marketing of a compact mechanical metronome, he helped to provide the very practical means for musical tempi indications to become numerical rather than descriptive and it is in part thanks to Maelzel that most compositions today include a precise indication of tempo.
Maelzel was born in Ratisbon, the German city in Eastern Bavaria now known as Regensburg. His father was an organ-builder, and maybe as a result of this he developed an interest in music and in mechanical objects connected to music. He moved to Vienna in 1792 where he devoted himself to teaching music as well as to the creation of a number of extraordinary and highly innovative mechanical musical instruments including the ‘Panharmonicon’ and the ‘Trumpeter’. After his appointment in 1808 as Viennese Court Mechanician, Maelzel constructed a number of ear trumpets, one of which Beethoven used for many years. A friendship grew between Beethoven and Maelzel, and Beethoven composed a piece to commemorate the battle of Vittoria (21 June 1813) to be played on his Panharmonicon, later scored by the composer for full orchestra.
In 1696 Etienne Loulié had described for the first time a ‘chronomètre’ used to define musical tempi. The chronomètre is a pendulum consisting of a moveable lead weight suspended on a cord. Raising or lowering the bob would decrease and increase the period of swing, and since the period for any one effective length of pendulum is more or less uniform, rates and musical tempi could for the first time be standardised. Although dependable, versatile (Loulié defined 72 distinct tempi) and reasonably accurate, the chronomètre proved impractical, partly because the period of swing had to be ascertained by eye, partly because the swing cannot be maintained without interruption, and also not least because a pendulum of almost one metre in length is required to give a tempo of one beat per minute (m.m. = 60).
Considerable efforts were made during the 18th century to improve Loulié’s invention. French inventors and musicians (Joseph Sauveur, Enbrayg, Davaux and Gabory), the German Stöckel, and the famous English clock- and watch-maker John Harrison all described refinements and improvements. In addition, Gottfried Weber, for example, proposed using a length of string knotted at specified lengths to give discreet tempi with a lead weight for the bob, all sufficiently compact to be carried in the pocket, and in England Dr. Crotch made use of a thin, rigid and graduated strip of boxwood in place of the cord, the whole assembly being suspended in a large wooden frame.
Despite all these efforts, it was not until about 1812 that significant and fundamental improvement was achieved and it is the Dutch mechanic, Winkel, who deserves the credit for this. It was he who realised that a compound pendulum rather than a simple one with rod and single bob could give slow rates with short lengths. A compound pendulum is a pivoted vertical rigid rod with two weights, one attached on either side of the pivot. The upper weight is moved up or down along the rod, changing the centre of gravity and thereby decreasing or increasing the tempo. A compound pendulum with a rod less than 20cm long can give a range of between 40 and 208 beats per minute. With the addition of a wind-up spring-driven clockwork mechanism that served the two purposes of giving an audible indication of the beat (tick, tock) and of maintaining the swing for a number of minutes, all the drawbacks of the Loulié’s chronomètre were overcome. Winkel’s metronome is described and commended in the Report of the Netherlands Academy of Sciences (14 August 1815).
It was during a visit to Amsterdam at around this time that Maelzel visited Winkel and took from him his idea of the new and superior metronome. Maelzel clearly recognised the practicality, versatility and usefulness of Winkel’s invention so, following Winkel’s refusal to sell him the rights to his metronome Maelzel patented the new device under his own name. Having moved to Paris by 1816, he started what is thought to be the first factory of its kind producing metronomes, the like of which are still in use today. Although Winkel later won a case in the Niedeländische Akademie against Maelzel for copying his metronome, credit for its development still goes overwhelmingly to Maelzel.
© Robert Manasse, 2022
‘JEAN MAELZEL / 1815 / PATENTEE / METRONOME / PARIS LONDON VIENNA’ Case stamped “59” Metal body height 31.0cm. An example of the first model sold in London, probably made in Paris c.1815.
‘BY LETTERS PATENT / (Royal Coat of Arms) / MAELZEL’S / METRONOME’ Made c.1820 height 33.0cm. An example of the first model made in London, as shown in the Patent, except the body in mahogany, not metal.
“MAELZEL’S / Patent / METRONOME” Made in London c.1825 height 33.0cm. Rosewood veneered body with bronze decorative casting on three sides. Ivory scale, 50 to 160.
London made Maelzel metronome with Wedgwood plaques of “HANDEL”, “HEYDEN” & “MOZARD” [sic] respectively made c.1825. Height 33.5cm.
“PAR BREVETE D’INVENTION / METRONOME / DE / MAELZEL / PARIS LONDRES VIENNE” made c.1820, height 30.0cm. An example of Maelzel’s second model, the mechanism similar to his 1815 Patent with wooden body. Boxwood scale from 50 to 160.
“1815 / MAELZEL / PAQUET / 1846 / METRONOME MAELZEL FRANCE PAQUET FABRICANT FRANCE” Made c.1900. Height 22.7cm. “832.288” stamped on base.
Special thanks to Tony Bingham for permission to use some of the splendid photos he took of his own collection of over 150 metronomes, built up over 35 years. They were for a 2017 exhibition in Basel, Metronomes and Musical Time, for which the catalogue is still available here
The later metronomes like the one above by Maelzel-Paquet sometimes have the addition of a bell that can be made to strike on every 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 6th beat. The underside and mechanism of a similar Maelzel-Paquet metronome are shown below. This metronome can be seen and heard working here.