An Intimate Grandeur
In Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky Outlines Love’s Demands
by Larry Rothe
Artists are often poor critics of their own work, so Tchaikovsky can be excused for failing to recognize he had made a masterpiece in Eugene Onegin. Perhaps the circumstances of its birth colored his judgment. Finely built, powerfully communicative, filled with some of the composer’s most rapturous music, nothing about this opera suggests it emerged from the worst episode of his life.
Being gay at a time and in a society uneasy with sex in any form, Tchaikovsky was tortured with guilt and fear of being outed—so tortured and so scared that, in 1877, he determined at last to undergo a self-imposed conversion therapy. He planned to marry.
This plan, his biographer David Brown believes, enabled Tchaikovsky to convince himself he could build a solid domestic life, and because no specific bride existed, the project could remain a fantasy. In May 1877, everything changed. A letter arrived from a woman who claimed to have loved Tchaikovsky since her student days at the Moscow Conservatory, where he taught. Her name was Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova. Although Tchaikovsky surely knew Pushkin’s verse-novel Eugene Onegin—any educated Russian did—he had not yet considered an Onegin project of his own, and he may not have realized his response to Antonina echoed Onegin’s response to the letter in which Tatyana declares her love. Both men, the real and the fictional, counseled the women to get a grip.
Then a friend suggested Pushkin’s novel as basis for an opera. Tchaikovsky scoffed. So complex a book would never translate to the stage. Yet over a solitary dinner at an inn, the idea gelled, and by the time Tchaikovsky headed home a scenario materialized. Soon he was working at top speed. But fate, a subject he had dramatized in his recently completed Fourth Symphony, had a way of confounding him. Now it came in the form of another letter from Antonina. “My first kiss will be given to you and to no one else in the world,” she wrote. “I cannot live without you, and so maybe soon I shall kill myself…. If you knew how I suffer, then probably out of pity alone you would grant my request.” By now Tchaikovsky had fallen in love with Pushkin’s Tatyana. Disgusted with Onegin for lecturing her after she had poured out her heart, he determined not to repeat the mistake.
And so he met with Antonina. Yet his presumed wish to be kind seems more pretext than reason to have made contact with her, for here was a woman who suddenly offered a way to end his bachelorhood. After a second meeting with Antonina, he proposed.
Antonina was no Tatyana. Tchaikovsky told his bride that while she might have his companionship, she would never enjoy his love, an admission that failed to faze her. Predictably, the union of two such troubled and clueless souls disintegrated, and after a few months they each went their way. Tchaikovsky, though miserable and close to nervous breakdown, recovered quickly and returned to Onegin, immersing himself in a world that nurtured him, replacing what reality had drained. The parallels between Onegin and Tchaikovsky’s life beg attention, if only to grasp a sense of the inner forces he harnessed as he produced his greatest stage work. Eugene Onegin simmers with what we call “operatic” passions. Its world is dominated by Tatyana, an ideal Tchaikovsky discovered by way of Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin.
Published in its final version in 1837, Pushkin’s verse-novel Eugene Onegin differs from Tchaikovsky’s opera in scope and tone, its pages packed with what musicologist Richard Taruskin calls “verbal dazzle” and “wry social commentary.” By Tchaikovsky’s time, writes Taruskin, the novel had become “sacrosanct.” From this, Tchaikovsky fashioned his libretto, enlisting the help of his friend Konstantin Shilovsky. Though the librettists adopted much of Pushkin’s phrasing, they ignored the sarcasms and digressions and narrative twists. What remains is straightforward: Pushkin bowdlerized, some believed—Turgenev and Nabakov among them—dismayed that a sacrosanct text had been cut and pasted into a sentimental romance. From Pushkin, Tchaikovsky took what he needed to feed his muse and help sort the emotions roiled by his time with Antonina.
He moved fast, starting in June 1877 and completing Onegin the following February 1. He believed he had made something different, not a grandly scaled opera but a collection of “lyric scenes” capturing the essence of Pushkin’s story. “There are no scenic effects,” he wrote to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, “its music is devoid of brilliance and high-flown effectiveness.” His ideal audience would be eager for “the musical reproduction of ordinary, simple, universal sensations far removed from high tragedy and theatricality.” Tchaikovsky denied the premiere to the imperial theaters of Saint Petersburg and Moscow, wary their conventional staging would threaten the freshness of his new work. The first performance, by students and faculty of the Moscow Conservatory, took place on March 29, 1879. Tchaikovsky expected little from public or press, but both embraced the opera despite grumbling from the Pushkinites. One critic predicted it would become among the Russian repertory’s most popular entries.
While Tchaikovsky claimed not to have written on an opulent scale, no one can accuse Onegin of lacking grandeur, which infuses even the first-act peasants’ chorus and dance, the second-act waltz and mazurka, the third-act polonaise. In them and throughout, we hear signature Tchaikovsky, the Tchaikovsky who wrings every ounce of color and weight from a standard orchestral complement.
Onegin’s real grandeur, however, is subtle and intimate. It celebrates human dignity, a quality emerging from the music that drapes Tchaikovsky’s characters, namely those whose lives have been blemished by the callous Onegin. This is a tale of how eros plus caritas completes love’s equation, how a commitment to cherish the other physically requires an equal devotion to the spirit. Alone among the principals, Onegin suffers a stunted sensibility. Compared to what Tchaikovsky gives Tatyana, Lensky and Gremin, who rejoice in love, Onegin’s music remains emotionally cool, igniting only when Lensky challenges his honor and when the loss of Tatyana triggers his passion, selfish though that passion remains.
Four show-stopping numbers celebrate love; and if we fail to recognize love as their subject, musical correspondences make the likeness clear. In scene 1 of the first act, Lensky serenades Olga in an aria of spontaneous melody, cresting in a passage of proto-Puccini, as drenched in joy as the music of Tatyana’s letter scene will be saturated with blissful despair. To underscore the kinship of the emotions we encounter in Lensky’s serenade and in the letter scene, we hear shrewdly related foreshadowings in the orchestra: a variant of the horn figure that will dominate the letter scene, for example. That phrase recurs in Act 2 in the minor-key counterpart to Lensky’s serenade, his lament before his duel with Onegin. And as Lensky takes his weapon, the orchestra offers a poignant reminder of the serenade’s opening phrase. In the happier climate of Act 1, Lensky moves into even higher emotional gear in his love song’s peroration, concluding as the letter scene concludes, when Tatyana pens her last lines and the orchestra parallels Lensky’s gesture, erupting in a musical equivalent of ecstasy.
Such ecstasy is echoed in Prince Gremin’s Act 3 aria—echoed literally in melodic shape, except now accompanied by an orchestra of chamber-like proportions and proceeding at a more measured pace. As Tatyana’s husband rhapsodizes, the music mirroring that of the letter scene, we understand that Gremin’s passion for his wife still smolders with the heat of young love, a point emphasized when he ends exactly as Lensky finished his serenade to Olga, Gremin singing “she appeared like a ray of sunlight, bringing me life and youth and happiness” to the same music in which Lensky pledged, “Never shall anything quench my love.” The match underscores the fusion of eros and caritas. Small wonder that Tatyana refuses to relinquish such a life.
The opera’s nucleus occurs some forty minutes into the work’s two-and-a-half-hours. This is no dramatic miscalculation. The letter scene seals our pact with Tatyana, so much so that Onegin will never succeed in gaining our sympathy. This is the heroine’s show, and if the opera is not titled Tatyana Larina, it is because Tchaikovsky understood his limits in reshaping Pushkin.
The letter scene’s music reveals both Tatyana’s vulnerability and her passion. Crucial here is the haunting orchestral passage that introduces the scene’s last section (immediately before Tatyana asks, “Are you my guardian angel, or my tempter?”). The pace slackens, the key shifts into the quiet rapture of D-flat major, and the oboe poses a question, phrased as a group of three descending tones plus five more (eight tones in all, dropping from a high F to A-flat). The first horn answers with a group of three tones plus four (seven tones in all, rising and falling from a low F to another A-flat). Tchaikovsky requests that this dreamy two-part passage be played piano, andante and molto espressivo. When Tatyana breaks off to finish writing, the dreamy passage returns, but now fortissimo in the full orchestra, and what was initially fragile becomes music of powerful resolve. But return to that introduction, the questioning oboe and answering horn. We have heard each phrase earlier, not always literally the same as these, but alike in shape and mood. Never, however, have we heard both phrases together. Combined at last, the two phrases become one passage; hearing it whole after being exposed until now only to suggestions of its constituent parts, we experience a deep sense of completion. It is a stroke that transforms the letter scene from music to miracle.
Tchaikovsky deals with Onegin roughly, forcing him to endure the consequences of bad choosing, consequences the composer well understood. This is not the sentimental tale of lost love Turgenev and Nabakov condemned. Pushkin’s Onegin is spurned after appealing to Tatyana by letter. Tchaikovsky accomplishes this irony musically, for when in Act 3 Onegin claims to be poisoned with desire for Tatyana, his music corresponds to hers as the letter scene began, and so do his words: he even appropriates her emotions. Encountering the older and wiser Tatyana, Onegin regrets dismissing her years earlier. Not, however, because he broke her heart, but because his cruelty has cost him a desirable woman—a princess! In his arrogance, he imagines the naïve girl whose spirit he crushed would have become the same woman, had she been at his side, and now, despite what once passed between them, he believes himself entitled to ask that she abandon the husband who adores her. Onegin has eluded wisdom. He has grown desperate, surely, but no less self-absorbed.
Our patience with this man, like Tatyana’s, is at an end. We can imagine ourselves walking off the stage with her, leaving Onegin alone as the final curtain falls.
Larry Rothe’s books include For the Love of Music and Music for a City, Music for the World. Visit www.larryrothe.com.