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Family History in Objects: Metronome; a Skilled Pianist, Childhood Memories and Technical Information

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Family history is important to me. I have cherished objects which hold stories, historical events and so many memories.

This metronome has known me all my life. It stood on top of my mother’s piano and surveyed the scene; house-to-house, good times, tantrums and all! Its tick-tock measured many a day, intriguing me, soothing me, making me feel safe. It was a comfort in its predictability.

Later, I played with it, as long as I was careful, being aware that it was not a toy but an important machine to aid the pianist or indeed any instrumentalist. I found much hilarity in making the pendulum swing as fast as possible. A slow sway evoked reflection or sadness. For me, it emphasised the importance of rhythm and mood. A bell announced the start of each musical tempo, so a waltz would be 1-ding!, 2, 3.

The Pianist

My Mum’s love of music started at an early age, though I don’t know exactly when. She was an only child, so whiled away many hours lost in her piano-playing. I do know that she wanted a place at the Royal Academy of Music in London, a prestigious institution which was difficult to get into. Sadly, though the expertise was there, the family did not have the finances to send her.

Nowadays, the Royal Academy say that,

‘[the] Entrance audition is tough and counts for the most, with "evidence of professional performing potential in your principal study, sound general musicianship and a good aural response" being the main priority.’

She certainly had all those things. I can imagine her disappointment at not being able to go but I know she wouldn’t have complained, such was her nature.

As I grew up, I listened to her playing with rapt attention. She played Rachmaninov, especially his Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor (which she said 'made her toes curl'!), Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and many more. Her taste was eclectic; Gershwin and later The Beatles were among her contemporary favourites as well as others in our family music collection. My parents did not mind my or my sister’s records blaring from the old Dansette.

Mum with Piano in background

Mum with Piano in background

Concerts, Piano v Organ, and My Own Efforts

Mum played not only at home. She and a friend would hold charity evenings and play duets. I went with her now and then and became part of a much older but amiable group of women. Despite enjoying playing at those intimate concerts, she preferred playing at home, using it as her comfort and stress-buster at a time when my grandmother was ill and rather demanding. Her hands caressed the keyboard and she swayed with the music. Touch was important; she hardly ever used the sound pedal.

A constant, though amicable, argument between her and Dad was his appreciation of organ music. To Mum, there was no opportunity for emotional interpretation; the organ could not be manipulated, rather one relied more on the impact of the musical composition itself.

When I was 8, I had piano lessons. Oh dear! Although I tried, my heart wasn’t really in it. The teacher was rather old-fashioned, not like the upbeat (literally!) music teachers of today. I persevered for a while, for Mum’s sake, then she realised it wasn’t for me and I finished lessons. Mum still continued teaching me a little now and then, so it wasn’t all in vain. The piano always had a prominent position wherever we lived.

Keeper of the Metronome

Mum’s metronome now belongs to her younger granddaughter who used to play with it and seemed fascinated by its mechanism and rhythms, as was I. It’s a treasured item, an important link to the past, a memory of a much-loved Mum and Grandma who often had a wistful smile as she played.

At her funeral, Mum's coffin entered to the music of her beloved Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto Number 2 in C Minor. As we filed out after the service, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue serenaded her.

Workings of a Metronome

  • it is a spring and cog driven timing device aimed at providing a musical tempo or audible aid for musicians.
  • it comes either with or without the addition of a bell, which operates generally at four settings with a ring at either 2,3,4 or 6 swings of the pendulum.
  • the button at the side can be pushed in to turn the bell off.
  • the speed of each tempo of a mechanical metronome is altered by sliding the pendulum weight up ( slower ) or down ( faster ).
  • it is a rarity to find a fully working and accurate unit that could be used as a reliable time-keeping aid, that is over 50 years old.

Mum’s metronome is still accurate.

Pendulum with Weight and Key - Behind on the yellow strip, are the Italian terms for the Varied Speeds; Allegro etc.

Pendulum with Weight and Key - Behind on the yellow strip, are the Italian terms for the Varied Speeds; Allegro etc.

Marvellous 'Metronome de Maëlzel': Potted History of this Magical Object and its Maker

Antique Metronomes provided me with the following information:

  • Johann Nepomuk Maëlzel (1772-1838) registered the metronome patent in 1815 after devising the musical scale for a device largely constructed and invented by Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel a year earlier.
  • Maëlzel started production of the metronome in Paris 1816, gaining praise and publicity from none other than Beethoven himself, whom he was later to fall out with over rights issues for ‘The Battle of Vitoria’.
  • He was widely travelled, twice visiting the West Indies, as well as going to Munich, Vienna, Paris, London and the United States.
  • Whilst travelling, he promoted and sold numerous musical inventions and automated wind and cog driven devices, ranging from ear trumpets, chess players, pan harmonicons, rope-dancers and speaking dolls.
  • Although greatly respected and successful in his own right, Maëlzel also had an ability to seize on the ideas and works of others and use them to his benefit.
  • There are two reports of how he died in 1838, neither of which have been confirmed; the first, that he died from alcoholism on a ship in the harbour of La Guarira, Venezuela, the second that he died while sailing on a brig, the ‘Otis’, travelling from Havana to Philadelphia.
  • By his death, he had established a highly successful musical accessory business.

Inscription on the Front Lozenge

Written in the middle of the irregular hexagonal lozenge is


and stamped on each side, is (from the top, clockwise)


How exciting to think of such objects all around the world, surveying music rooms and accomplished pianists who gave many so much joy!


© 2020 Ann Carr

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