By Leann Davis Alspaugh
It was just another Moscow dinner party. Madame Lavronsky’s dull husband was talking his usual nonsense. Composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was about to give up the evening as a total loss when the guests began to talk about suitable subjects for opera. What about Eugene Onegin, the gracious hostess suggested. Tchaikovsky said nothing—who would be bold enough to take on Russia’s greatest work of literature and translate it for the opera stage?
“Then when I supped alone in a tavern, I remembered Onegin,” he wrote to his brother in 1877. “Then it gripped me, and before I had finished my meal, I came to a decision. I hurried off at once to find a Pushkin, found one with some difficulty, went home and read it with enthusiasm, and spent an entirely sleepless night, the result of which was the scenario of an enchanting opera on Pushkin’s text.”
Tchaikovsky delighted in Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel about Tatiana the dreamy country girl, Lensky the fatal romantic, and Onegin the heartless dandy. What drew his enthusiasm was probably not the story, a rather banal tale of unrequited love and passion. Rather, Tchaikovsky was intrigued by the details about everyday life and the way that the author fleshed out his characters. The way Pushkin tells his story is also compelling. He gives it a tone of intimacy as if he were regaling guests at a Russian country estate. Outside, dusk is dimming the lilacs in the allée, and the songs of the peasants are fading over the wheat fields. Inside, the lady of the house bustles around the tea table with its bubbling samovar, caraway cakes and jugs of bilberry wine.
Pushkin deftly evokes these kinds of homey details as well as the porcelain and amber richness of the St. Petersburg ballrooms. But unlike the genre pictures of another great Russian stylist, Turgenev, Pushkin’s world is condensed into sharp focus by the exigencies of poetry. He zooms in on his protagonist’s nasty disposition and his heroine’s fecklessness—“The flirt has reason’s cool volition;/Tatiana’s love is no by-play, she yields to it without condition/like a sweet child.” He uses wit and sarcasm—“one raves in verse like me!”—to keep his tone conversational. The result is a naturalistic portrait not of types, but of real people.
Tchaikovsky wrote that he approached Eugene Onegin warily, humbled by his audacity in tackling this sacrosanct work. Yet, he let his enthusiasm be guided by Pushkin’s example, namely, the poet’s use of tightly controlled structure and telling detail to achieve psychological insight. In the opera, Tchaikovsky aims to achieve something similar by focusing on how two of society’s most mundane activities, letter-writing and dancing, can be used to illuminate character.
When he came to write the music for Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky began with Tatiana’s passionate love letter to Onegin. In Pushkin’s verse novel, this letter is a bald confession uninflected by any of the usual literary devices. Tatiana’s “careless language of surrender” is a mad gesture—only Onegin’s sense of honor can protect such a free, unaffected outpouring of emotion. He must return either her letter or her love. Re-reading his Pushkin, Tchaikovsky was struck by Tatiana’s courage and indignant at the unworthy object of her love.
He was immersed in composition, finding in Tatiana a muse and a sympathetic victim, when he received a letter not unlike the one written by his heroine. For several months, the composer and his former pupil, Antonina Milyukova, continued to correspond, and she offered him her heart and hand. He told her he could only offer her brotherly love, and she assured him that she was willing to accept that. They announced their engagement in May 1877. Already struggling with his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky promptly took off for his librettist’s country estate near Moscow.
By the end of June, Tchaikovsky had two-thirds of Eugene Onegin completed. He and Antonina married in July, but he soon realized that he had made a horrible mistake. They lived together for 20 days without consummating the marriage. Nervous and ill, he left for his sister’s estate in Ukraine, and then returned to Moscow. He stayed with his wife for 12 days and then left for good. He traveled to Switzerland and Italy where he completed Eugene Onegin in January 1878.
Tchaikovsky could hardly have failed to remark on the coincidence of a fateful letter appearing in both Pushkin’s story and his own life. His emotional susceptibility at this period no doubt led him to turn to his own musical language to depict the characters in the opera. One of the ways he did this was to associate different keys with certain characters and ideas. Early on in the opera, Tchaikovsky assigns Onegin the key of G. The peasants’ khorovod dance and folk songs are associated with B-flat major. However, Tchaikovsky does not give Tatiana a strong musical identity until the letter-writing scene in which she sings in the key of D-flat major.
Prior to that scene, Tatiana is depicted as innocent and romantic, suffering alongside the unhappy lovers in the book that she is reading. Her mother, who confesses to having once been an avid reader of Richardson’s novels (all epistolary), cautions her daughter not to believe everything she reads. Their neighbor Lensky then arrives and introduces Onegin to the family. Lensky is the fiancé of Tatiana’s silly sister Olga, and the love poetry that he writes to her isn’t (it must be admitted) any more original than the girl to whom it is directed. Between her reading, Lensky’s love poetry, and her own dreamy temperament, Tatiana is ripe for infatuation. So far, the written word has dominated Tatiana’s intellect—this and the essentially Russian resignation to the whims of fate. With her letter to Onegin, however, Tatiana turns the power of words to her own uses in a surprisingly bold and independent move.
In the aria he wrote for her, Tchaikovsky reveals Tatiana to be a far better poet than Lensky could ever hope to be. Her innocence is a guarantee for her authenticity. He also places Tatiana in a unique position, one often occupied by male characters in Russian literature. When she sings “I am alone…no one understands me and I must perish in silence,” she seems to be taking on the character of the “superfluous man,” the Russian literary type who is an outcast because he does not follow society’s values and standards. Granted, in Pushkin, this character is clearly Onegin, the aristocrat whose actions lead to senseless death and the tragedy of a purposeless life. Within the confines of the opera, however, Tatiana takes on that role when she pens a confessional letter to a strange man, transgressing all that society deems permissible for an unmarried girl. “Perhaps, I have an entirely different destiny,” she sings, invoking fate and honor in a declaration that is almost masculine in its clear-headed assertiveness. Later, Onegin will write a similar passionate letter to Tatiana, strengthening not only the construction of the narrative, but also adding dramatic significance to something as seemingly innocuous as ink on paper.
With a composer like Tchaikovsky, so well known for his ballets, the element of dance in Eugene Onegin cannot be ignored. Like letter-writing, dancing was common but full of expressive opportunities. In polite society, dancing was the only socially sanctioned activity in which a man might hold a woman close in thrilling, synchronized movement. The opportunity to see and be seen, to gossip, or to flirt added to the excitement.
In Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky draws not only on European dance tradition, but also on Russian folk dances and songs. In Act I, a peasant chorus dances the traditional khorovod and sings about maidens and a lad as “fresh as a raspberry” who carries a cudgel and bagpipes. The foreshadowing of the arrival of Onegin and his effect on Tatiana is clear, but, as dance historian Roland John Wiley points out, to integrate a simple peasant dance dramatically into opera was a new idea. In the operas of Glinka, for example, dance served as an interlude, interrupting the action for a dash of local color. Dance, for Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, while it certainly allowed for musical shifts and eye-catching choreography, also reinforced the narrative arch and added dimension to the characters.
In Act II, Tatiana is chagrined to see that Onegin has had the temerity (and poor taste) to show up at her name-day party after having received her letter and rebuffed her. To add insult to injury, he then asks her to dance, but quits abruptly when he overhears people gossiping about him. He decides to show these bumpkins how it is done in Petersburg and begins a vigorous flirtation with Olga. Lensky is deeply insulted, especially because Olga has been dancing to all the most romantic music with Onegin rather than with her sensitive poet-lover.
While it is true that a ballroom scene allows Tchaikovsky to display all of his prodigious skill at waltz composition, it also serves a deeper function in the opera. The spectacle of the whirling dancers and the musical momentum lulls us into complacency—what can go wrong at a country dance? The dancing is then interrupted, first by Monsieur Triquet’s inept French verses and then by Lensky’s anger. His hateful words and the crowd’s reaction is a jarring stop to the delicious waltz. As Lensky throws down the gauntlet, it is impossible to forget that Pushkin himself died from wounds following a duel in 1837.
Tchaikovsky also used stylized movement in the duel scene. This “dance of death,” if you will, was dictated by what Lensky’s punctilious second Zaretsky calls “strict rules and old traditions.” Zaretsky instructs the men where to stand and when to aim their pistols. To reinforce the idea of coordinated movement, Onegin and Lensky sing not independently, but together of how they used to be friends, but must now kill in premeditated cold blood. The interruption of the “dance” here is the pistol shot that fells Lensky.
Act III opens several years later with a ball in the Gremin palace, where Tatiana now lives as wife to an old warrior, Prince Gremin. The waltz music here is richer and more complex than that heard at Tatiana’s name-day party. Tchaikovsky picks up the pace with a polonaise and an écossaise. These popular dances, ones that raced like wildfire through European high society, had simple folk beginnings, a Pushkinian irony that Tchaikovsky no doubt relished. In the middle of this brilliant scene, Onegin, once a top-flight dandy, is now seen as a moping eccentric and even “the glitter of society doesn’t dispel [his] melancholy.”
By the third act, both dancing and letter-writing have become more than just quaint cues to the distant past. Trapped in the heat and crush of the ballroom, Onegin belatedly realizes that he loves Tatiana. He writes her an impassioned latter (sharing the language of her letter-writing aria) and he is rejected. Tatiana refuses to take Onegin as a lover, keeping her sacred vow of marriage. Again, she is almost masculine in her sense of integrity and honor. Inexorable fate has prevented both Onegin and Tatiana from having the kind of life they imagined. All of their movements and all of their letters have led to nothing, a useless expenditure of energy.
Tchaikovsky could never have been satisfied with this note of pessimism. For him, as for Pushkin, creative engagement—with words and music—was an affirmation and an end in itself. The poet might have agreed with Tchaikovsky, who said of his opera, “If ever music was written with sincere passion, with love for the story and the characters in it, it is the music for Onegin…. If the listener feels even the smallest part of what I experienced when I was composing this opera, I shall be utterly content and ask for nothing more.”
Leann Davis Alspaugh is a frequent contributor to LA Opera’s performance programs.