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Metronome Markings in Tchaikovsky (especially Op. 50)

Dear Tchaikovsky scholars,

It is my understanding that the metronome markings in Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio, Op. 50 stem from the composer, and that he was rather insistent that performers should follow them. In preparing the piece for an imminent professional performance in Chicago, my excellent string players and I have gotten into a good-natured debate about the marking for Variation VII, the "prelude" to the Fuge. (Both Variations VII and VIII are marked Allegro moderato.) All our copies of the score give this as quarter-note = 126, which seems ponderously slow. Is this a typographical error for HALF-NOTE = 126? Intuitively, this alternative strikes me as rather too fast for an Allegro moderato, but my violinist loves it. (I had been using half-note = 96 as the basis for my practicing.)

Returning to the Trio after a few years away from it, I'm finding that most of the metronome markings seem reasonable to me now, although a few strike me as a shade on the fast side (e.g. the opening of the Pezzo Elegiaco, the Valse and the Mazurka.) I used to think that the marking for the variation theme was too slow, but have revised my opinion. Any clarification from those with access to the Complete Edition, original sources, or reliable oral history going back to Tchaikovsky would be greatly appreciated.


Daniel Paul Horn, D.M.A.
Professor of Piano and Chair of Keyboard Studies
Wheaton College Conservatory of Music
Wheaton, Illinois 60187

You can also try to check this pdf file of complete score of Op. 50: http: // from site.

Marcel Takac

In my score for the Piano Trio in A Minor, the eighth variation (Fuga) is marked "Allegro moderato," to which is added, in brackets, (quarter note = half note). This would indicate that the quarter note tempo of the Fuga variation is exactly half the speed of the preceding Allegro moderato.

I would also like to point out that the seventh variation is in 3/2 meter, rather than 6/4. This would indicate that the basic unit of pulse is the half note, not the quarter note.

Thus, I would conclude that the intended tempi for the seventh and eighth variations, respectively, are: (half note = 126) and (quarter note = 126)

In other words, I agree with your violinist.

Nicolas Krusek

I just took a break from practicing the two variations in question to check on this thread. Thanks to Mr. Takac and Mr. Krusek for their responses.

Mr. Takac: I was delighted to discover the <> site, which I had not previously encountered. However, neither of my computers will connect to the Trio score, although they will download most other things on the site.

Mr. Krusek: All of your indications agree with those in our scores, and I'm strongly inclined to accept your view as to what the markings should be in those variations. I went through the MM markings again last night; since the indications for the Valse and Mazurka are slightly on the fast side (as is not uncommon with composer MM markings), it would make sense for the 3/2 and Fuga variations to tend in the same direction. (If I'm a bit more comfortable at 116–120 than at 126, adrenaline will likely make up the difference in performance.)

I appreciate the input thus far, but would still be interested in any other insight into Tchaikovsky's tempi and his relationship with the MM.

Daniel Paul Horn

The Soviet Complete £dition (Vol. 32A, 1951) shows "Allegro moderato" with the metronome marking (quarter note = half note). However, the editors noted that Tchaikovsky originally wrote "L'istesso tempo (quarter note = quarter note)" [sic] on the manuscript, but struck this through and replaced it with the present indication. I don't know whether that helps, or simply muddies the waters.

Tchaikovsky's metronome markings start to appear from the end of the 1870s onwards, and are remarkably consistent, e.g. Andante is usually around quarter note=69, Moderato = 120, Allegro is 132, Allegro molto vivace = 144, etc. Unfortunately they tend not to be followed in performance. This is often because they inidcate speeds rather faster than the usual indications (for example, in the second movement of the Fifth Symphony). Sometimes—as in the suites—the speeds are extremely difficult to pull off, and with a few noble exceptions they are normally quietly overlooked by conductors.

Brett Langston

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This page was last updated on 05 November 2013