Destiny and disillusion

Article by Gavin Plumley

Yevgeny Onegin is a revolutionary opera.  Trimming and honing Pushkin’s verse novel, Tchaikovsky offers the postcard version of Tatyana Larina’s sentimental education.  He shunned the overstuffed tone of his operatic peers and followed the example of Bizet’s Carmen; although Yevgeny Onegin is often played through a diaphanous haze of late summer muslin, Tchaikovsky’s drama is anything but cosy.  The score taps into the emotional ups and downs of the composer’s private life and laments how our hopes and dreams turn to convention and catastrophe.  With dense chromaticism, tearing optimistic melodies to shreds, Tchaikovsky filled Russia’s most cherished poem with the vivid blood of realism.

Opera was central to Tchaikovsky’s world.  Blessed with Imperial patronage, the opera houses of Moscow and St Petersburg carried significant weight.  But the composer’s success in the field was hard-earned and sporadic.  He trained in St Petersburg, but on the offer of a job in Moscow he moved south-east in early 1866.  There, Tchaikovsky combined composing with criticism, often travelling across Europe to review the latest musical events.  As a European in style but a Russian in sentiment, these foreign trips stood Tchaikovsky in increasingly good stead as his career developed.  He heard the first complete Bayreuth Ring in 1876.  Although he was far from complimentary about Wagner’s tetralogy, his visits to Central Europe confirmed that music theatre was the guiding cultural light in the final decades of the 19th century.  But however hard Tchaikovsky tried, opera remained elusive.  He destroyed two of his early attempts, while other dramatic works from the time consist merely of recitatives for Mozart and Auber opera or incidental music for Beaumarchais revivals.  By the mid-1870s, Tchaikovsky was far from the consummate theatrical composer we think today.

The commission for incidental music for Ostrovsky’s Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden) in 1873, however, proved decisive.  Cementing a relationship with Moscow’s Imperial Theatre, Tchaikovsky received a commission for a new ballet.  Although it was not the opera he had hoped for, Swan Lake dominated his attention through 1875 and 1876.  The ballet sadly proved something of a flop.  The ballet company in Moscow was undernourished and could not compete with its St Petersburg equivalent.  Coinciding with its triumphant premiere of La bayadère – composed by Ludwig Minkus and choreographed by Marius Petipa –Moscow’s Swan Lake fared very badly indeed.  But the experience galvanised Tchaikovsky’s understanding of form and motivic development, producing a more rigid dance dramaturgy.  Taken away from the pressure of opera, Tchaikovsky’s theatrical spirit flourished and eventually, when staged in St Petersburg after Tchaikovsky’s death, the ballet was revealed as a masterpiece.  Despite the disappointment of its premiere, Swan Lake provided the springboard to a sequence of increasingly daring dramatic works and, once it was on stage, Tchaikovsky’s thoughts soon turned back to opera.

By May 1877, he was pondering what that opera might be.  The choice of Pushkin’s revered poem Yevgeny Onegin (written between 1823 and 1832), suggested during a conversation with friends, was decidedly bold.

The idea seemed wild to me and I did not say anything, but later, while eating alone in a pub I remembered about Onegin and started thinking.  I thought the idea […] possible, then became captivated, and by the end of my meal I had decided.  I ran at once to track down a copy of Pushkin, found the book with difficulty, went home, read the poem over again with rapture and passed a sleepless night, of which the result was a charming plot with words from Pushkin.

Echoing the bookish energies of his heroine, Tchaikovsky began his radical retake immediately, working on the libretto (with the help of Konstantin Shilovsky) before moving on to the score.  As famous as Hamlet, with echoes of Jane Austen’s 1813 Pride and Prejudice – which was available in Russia in French translation – the Pushkin was an intrepid choice for a largely inexperienced composer.  Tchaikovsky’s resulting lyric scenes deliberately fragmented the original story; he binned Onegin’s previous exploits in St Petersburg and focused more or less entirely on Tatyana.

The opera proved almost unrecognisable for those familiar with the original poem.  Not only had Tchaikovsky cut and doctored one of the most admired texts in Russian literature, but he had also changed the tone of the work, echoing the new predominant trend of realism.  Pushkin’s finely-wrought verses were old-fashioned: the thrillingly direct prose of Tolstoy was now the vogue (though Tchaikovsky had to preserve couplets for his libretto).  Anna Karenina (1873-1877) –which also sets society life in the city against rural Russia – was on Tolstoy’s desk at the same time as Tchaikovsky was working on Yevgeny Onegin.  But while the Russian public responded well to realistic novels, theatrical naturalism, particularly in opera, was another thing entirely.

The impetus for this determinedly realistic retelling of Pushkin’s story came from far beyond Russia’s borders: Tchaikovsky had looked to France and Georges Bizet for his inspiration.  Shortly before Tchaikovsky began his new opera, Carmen burst onto the scene.  He had received a copy of the vocal score from a friend who had attended the premiere in Paris on 3 March 1875.  Bizet’s masterpiece was just the shot in the arm that opera needed.  Carmen was bold and belligerent; but, like Pushkin’s verse novel in Russia, Prosper Merimée’s story was incredibly well known across France and the Parisians were nonplussed by Bizet’s and his librettists’ adaptation.  But the rest of Europe was wowed; the flick of Carmen’s skirt sent stylistic ripples across the continent.  In time, the giovane scuola (‘young school’) in Italy would launch their verismo operas.  Czech opera would likewise change entirely with the advent of Janáček – a huge fan of Tchaikovsky.  Even the doggedly mythological Wagner could not deny the impact, but Tchaikovsky was among the first to respond in kind.  The fateful story of the gypsy bewitching and then rejecting Don José may be geographically and socially removed from Yevgeny Onegin, but in Bizet’s tragedy Tchaikovsky had found his operatic language.

Russian tradition did not allow for Tchaikovsky to ditch recitative in favour of dialogue (as Bizet had) but Tchaikovsky constructed Yevgeny Onegin along very similar lines.  He constantly switches between static dialogue and kinetic emotion.  But unlike in Bizet’s opera, when Tchaikovsky’s characters talk to each other they fail to communicate fully.  Instead, it is when we see them on their own that we learn everything about their lives.  That emotional veracity became a shining example for subsequent generations of opera composers.  For Janáček, in particular, his exposure to Yevgeny Onegin and The Queen of Spades changed his approach entirely.  Although originally critical of the style, he noted that Tchaikovsky imitated daily speech in the rhythms of the language, and the psychological acuity of the operas was critical to the development of Jenůfa.

But whatever the wider musicological impact of Yevgeny Onegin, it is the work’s emotional clout that draws us back to the score.  Writing at a difficult point in his life, Tchaikovsky, like Tatyana, found it ever more demanding to balance private emotion with public expectation.

I am now going through a very critical period of my life.  I will go into more detail later, but for now I will simply tell you, I have decided to get married.  It is unavoidable.  I must do it, not just for myself but for you, Modest, and all those I love.  I think that for both of us our dispositions are the greatest and most insuperable obstacle to happiness, and we must fight our natures to the best of our ability. 

As his fame grew, the distance between public and private life became ever more marked.  Bowing to external pressure, he married Antonina Miliukova in July 1877, “a woman,” he said, “with whom I am not in the least in love”.  The marriage was a disaster and the attempt to conceal Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality not surprisingly failed.  Tchaikovsky poured his insecurities into Yevgeny Onegin, which he completed shortly after leaving Miliukova.  It offered the perfect opportunity to explore that endless wrestle between desire and convention.  These were issues, of course, that had been prevalent in bourgeois literature since the beginning of the 19th century; but while Jane Austen chooses a comic resolution for the Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice, Pushkin and Tchaikovsky’s Larina girls are far less lucky.  Regardless of their emotional plight (and his own), Tchaikovsky resisted the temptation to make Yevgeny Onegin a relentlessly gloomy and introspective work.  Instead, sunlight, youth and joy burn through the pages of the score.  What is so palpable (and ultimately so tragic) is how close Tatyana and Olga come to breaking the societal chains that bind them.

As Tatyana pours out her heart in the letter scene, that nascent optimism fills the score.  Unlike the formal structures of the opening of the first act – including a notably prim quartet between Tatyana, Olga, Onegin and Lensky – Tatyana’s eloquence provokes new musical fluency.  As she writes, a hopeful scherzo reveals a giddy, positive girl.  But Tchaikovsky cannot let her optimism prevail, and Tatyana soon asks whether Onegin is really her “guardian angel, or an insidious tempter”.  The descending theme, heard first on the oboe and then sung by Tatyana, places considerable doubt over her hopes.  Tellingly, this moment is linked not only with Onegin – the recipient of Tatyana’s letter – but also with the poet Lensky.  The theme is later heard in a developed form during Lensky’s farewell aria.  The parallel between these two moments confirms an underlying kinship.  Furthermore, both of their arias are tacitly addressed to Onegin: Tatyana’s letter scene is riven by misplaced hope, while Lensky’s adieu is tinged with romantic regret.  Both characters are dreamers and they suffer because of it.  In Jane Austen’s version of the tale, of course, Tatyana would have fallen in love with Lensky or would have had the power to change Onegin’s arrogant ways (as Elizabeth does with Darcy).  But the power of Tchaikovsky’s opera is its ability to find the cloud to every silver lining.  Tatyana’s letter scene and Lensky’s aria are reminders of the doomed nature of idealism.

After Yevgeny Onegin there was no turning back and Tchaikovsky’s work became increasingly single-minded.  His fourth symphony, composed at the same time as Onegin, is beset by a similarly embittered fate motif and that tone continues into the composer’s fifth (1888) and sixth (1893, also known as the Pathétique) symphonies.  While the former adhered to Beethoven’s model for his own fifth symphony, in which pessimism is triumphantly vanquished, fate gets the better of Tchaikovsky’s final work.  Like Lensky’s aria, prefacing the duel that crushes the hopes of the Larina family, the Pathétique cannot overcome such fatal blows and it expires in silence.  Alongside these ostensibly abstract works, only The Sleeping Beauty (1890) and The Nutcracker (1892) offer glimmers of light, though, like Onegin, they are both tales of impossible love.  Only magic can offer resolution, something which Tatyana doesn’t have in her armoury.

Constantly extinguishing nascent hope – not least in Tatyana’s final rejection of Onegin in the third act –Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin remains a radical opera.  But, as with the Parisians’ response to Carmen, Tchaikovsky’s local crowd wasn’t wild about his version.  Slow to catch on in Russia, Yevgeny Onegin fared better abroad.  It reached Prague in 1888 (conducted by Tchaikovsky in the presence of Antonín Dvořák) and Hamburg in 1892, where Gustav Mahler conducted it.  It came to London later that same year.  Tchaikovsky’s opera was usually a foreign audience’s first encounter with the story.  Now, with further research into Tchaikovsky’s personal life, we can understand the emotional reasons why Tatyana’s tale of impossible love captured his imagination.  Unlike Jane Austen’s “dearest, loveliest” Elizabeth, neither Tatyana nor Tchaikovsky find resolution.  From such hapless pessimism, Tchaikovsky derived his power.

Gavin Plumley is a writer and musicologist.  He has recently written about Tchaikovsky for the Royal Opera House, ENO, Opera North and The Guardian.  He writes a blog at