Tchaikovsky and the Literary Folk: A Study in Misplaced Derision
By Richard Taruskin (1945–2022)
This essay was first published in a November 1997 issue of San Francisco Opera Magazine
[N.B.: Throughout this essay, the title Eugene Onegin will refer to the novel in verse by Pushkin, and Yevgeny Onegin will refer to the opera loosely based on it by Tchaikovsky.]
“My desires are modest,” said Vladimir Nabokov, in his famous Playboy pseudo-interview with Alvin Toffler, the future futurist. ("Pseudointerview" because, like all Nabokov interviews, this one was conducted completely in writing, with considered and composed answers to submitted questions, and a few composed questions, too.) Asked to define his ideal state, he continued: "The social or economic structure is of little concern to me. Portraits of the head of government should not exceed a postage stamp in size. No torture and no executions." No surprises there.
But then he added, "No music, except coming through earphones, or played in theaters.” At this the interlocutor (surely Nabokov himself this time) had to ask "Why no music?”
And this remarkable paragraph ensued: "I have no ear for music, a shortcoming I deplore bitterly. When I attend a concert—which happens about once in five years—I endeavor gamely to follow the sequence and relationship of sounds but cannot keep it up for more than a few minutes. Visual impressions, reflections of hands in lacquered wood, a diligent bald spot over a fiddle, these take over, and soon I am bored beyond measure by the motions of the musicians. My knowledge of music is very slight; and I have a special reason for finding my ignorance and inability so sad, so unjust: There is a wonderful singer in my family—my own son. His great gifts, the rare beauty of his bass, and the promise of a splendid career—all this affects me deeply, and I feel a fool during a technical conversation among musicians. I am perfectly aware of the many parallels between the art forms of music and those of literature, especially in matters of structure, but what can I do if ear and brain refuse to cooperate? I have found a queer substitute for music in chess—more exactly, in the composing of chess problems."
After Nabokov's declaration of militant tone-deafness, it will not overly surprise us that in another place, his four-volume translation and commentary of Alexander Pushkin's novel in verse, he railed mercilessly at the work we are to hear tonight, calling it "Tchaikovsky's silly opera" in one place, "Tchaikovsky's slapdash opera" in another, hissing in a third that "in the opera by the 'great' composer, everything insults Pushkin's masterpiece."
On this occasion, Nabokov's persiflage did not come up to his usual level of originality. Sniping at Tchaikovsky's opera had already been a favorite indoor sport among Russian literary intellectuals for almost a century (that is, for the whole life of the opera). Even before it had its first performance (by a student cast at the Moscow Conservatory in March of 1879), the novelist (and, lately, playwright) Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev bought a copy of the vocal score and was able to write to Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, another literary man who had got wind of the impending desecration, that "the music is doubtless remarkable, but what a libretto!" And the judgment has been parroted, first in deference to Turgenev, later to Nabokov, by generations of "Slavists," many of whom have probably never seen or heard the opera.
In a way the situation is perfectly understandable. Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, which was just coming into its own as an object of canonical veneration around the time Tchaikovsky and his poet friend Shilovsky dared to adapt it, is beloved not for its plot or (with one exception) for its characters—the only parts of a literary work that most literary people think transferable to another medium. Rather, it is adored for what Nabokov called "the divine details"—the verbal dazzle (that is, the music that Pushkin had already put there), the wry social commentary, the perfectly exact descriptions, the endlessly subtle and nuanced characterizations, the interrelationship of literary and social conventions, all conveyed by a famously intrusive narrator's voice. It is a work of art that is loved for the telling, not the tale. It calls such delightful attention to itself as a work of art, as a specifically verbal construction, one containing so many verbal pleasures of an absolutely unparaphrasable kind, that it is small wonder it has been declared sacrosanct by the scholars who earn their livelihoods by dissecting those aspects of it that are beyond the reach of music (or so they think).
If anything, resistance to Tchaikovsky's Yevgeny Onegin in literary quarters increased in the twentieth century. as literary studies (and, alas, literary appreciation) became more academically cloistered, and as the academy submitted to the influence of what used to be called the New Criticism. New Criticism, now about as old-hat as an academic fashion can be, valued (to quote one of its founders) "a maximum of complexity under a maximum of control." There is no literary device that creates more complexity per unit of invested effort, and none that so increases the possibilities of interesting analysis, as irony—saying one thing and meaning another. Instantly you have levels of meaning. Instantly you need a critic to sort the levels out. And that is how Eugene Onegin became a cottage industry.
The novel's greatness is assumed to lie in its irony, vouchsafed by all those gloriously complicating narrator's intrusions, which provide "a kind of spiritual air conditioner," as one eminent commentator has colorfully put it. When that machine is turned off, as it is assumed to be in the opera, "the atmosphere becomes sticky, the underpinnings of the wonderfully delicate, intricate, balanced structure rot, and it collapses. You are left with a banal, trite, and sentimental bore—which may nevertheless be a vehicle for some delightful music."
Thank you very much, but that formulation shows magnificent incomprehension of what the music in an opera does—in any opera, but particularly in this opera, where the music, quite simply, is the narrator. Tchaikovsky, as alive to the special beauties of Eugene Onegin as any New Critic, contrived to do what no literary man, feeling a fool during a technical conversation among musicians, would have dreamed possible. Using a different medium, and of course adopting music-specific strategies, he managed to invest the opera with the same multileveled perspective—the same ironies and knowing asides—that Pushkin achieved through the more predictable use of words alone. And he also managed to adapt the novel's sensibility, without sacrificing the "air conditioner," to the age of Turgenev—and even, looking ahead, of Chekhov—as Turgenev later came to realize.
After actually seeing the opera performed, Turgenev reversed his judgment on the libretto and even conceded that Tchaikovsky had—in one specific way (to be described in due course)—improved on Pushkin. As for Chekhov, the best testimony of his esteem (and a poignant one it is) comes in the flyleaf of a copy of his second book of stories ("At Twilight," 1887), now in the library of the Tchaikovsky homestead museum in Klin, a suburb of Moscow. It bears the inscription, "To Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, from his devoted future librettist." It never happened, for within a few years of Chekhov's hopeful overture, Tchaikovsky met his premature and sudden death (don't ask how). But Chekhov was right to recognize in the composer of Yevgeny Onegin the only kindred dramaturgical spirit he ever had among Russian composers.
So how does the music do what the professionally tone-deaf have declared it can not? It does it the same way Pushkin's verses did it by virtue of what it adds by way of commentary to the bare frame of plot. For the plot of Eugene Onegin as such is slender and banal in the extreme, and deliberately so: a dreamy country girl falls in love with a young fop from the big city; she impulsively pours out her feelings to him in a letter; she is rebuffed and humiliated; five years later the two encounter one another again and fop is smitten; by now, country girl has become a society matron who will not abandon her husband for her old flame. There is also a subplot involving the fop's friend, a provincial poetaster, and the country girl's vacuous sister, over whom the two young men duel needlessly and the friend is meaninglessly slain. Nobody would ever pick Eugene Onegin as an object on the strength of its plot alone. Them's slim pickings indeed.
But what Tchaikovsky shortly perceived, after his friend the contralto Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya surprised him with the suggestion, and what critics (not audiences) have failed to perceive for over a century now, was that music of a sort he was uniquely inclined and equipped to write could perform exactly those functions for which Pushkin's celebrated narrative voice was prized. The result was a chef d'oeuvre of stylized operatic realism: the Russian counterpart to Traviata or Manon, except that it stands higher in its national tradition than they do in theirs, and its realism more fundamentally determined in style.
From the very first sung notes, Olga's and Tatyana's offstage duet to the harp, the music acts as a very busy and detached mediator of situations and feelings. As the Soviet musicologist Boris Asafyev was the first to demonstrate in detail, Tchaikovsky "sings'; his opera in an idiom intensely redolent of the domestic, theatrical, and ballroom music of its time and place—its, not his—and in so doing he situates it, just as Pushkin situates the literary prototype, in the years 1819–25 (adding maybe ten years in the case of Tchaikovsky, who, like Stravinsky after him, was particularly attracted to the song styles of the 1830s). And just as Pushkin's characters (like all "realistic" characters) achieve their "reality" through a multitude of precisely manipulated codes, so Tchaikovsky's express themselves through a finely calculated filter of musical genres and conventions.
To express the passions and spontaneous reactions of the characters by means of stereotyped melodic and harmonic figures, however freshly and virtuosically recombined, makes exactly the same point Pushkin makes in his novel: feelings are never truly spontaneous but always mediated by the conventions and constraints, as often learned from literature as from "life," to which we have adapted. Therein lie both the tragedy (the constraints) and the salvation (the adaptation) of human society.
And as Tchaikovsky knew, attentive student of Mozart that he was, a composer has certain narrational advantages over a writer, advantages which a novelist with slight ear or knowledge of music could never imagine. Where the novelist must arrange things in a temporal sequence, the musician can simultaneously present and comment without recourse to digression. The best possible illustration comes at the very outset of Yevgeny Onegin, with the eccentric "quartet" for women's voices in which that very typical period duet-romance sung by the sisters offstage (to an early verse by Pushkin, Tchaikovsky's only Pushkin romance!); accompanies a speech-song conversation, truly conversational in its contours and rhythms, between their mother, Mme. Larina, and Filipyevna, their former wet nurse. The foreground conversation begins with an invocation to the books in Larina's life ("O Grandison! 0 Richardson!") and ends with a modest paean, paraphrased from Chateaubriand, to habit ("given to us from above as substitute for happiness").
The conversation is a comment on the song that accompanies it (or that it accompanies), the idiom-defining domestic romance that first introduces to the audience's ear the distinctive period style in which the opera is couched. It turns this quite unprecedented double duet for women's voices (a tour de force, incidentally, of art-concealing contrapuntal artistry) into a simultaneous text and gloss—an explicit meditation on one of the novel's paramount themes, the relationship between life and literature, between spontaneous feeling and mediating convention, between—if a bit of once-modish language may be excused—signifiers and signifieds. These are just the aspects of Pushkin that literary people fancy inaccessible to music, or at least to Tchaikovsky, of all the great nineteenth-century composers the one that twentieth-century people still find it easiest to condescend to—in a conventional sort of way.
The little maxim from Chateaubriand about the virtues of habit—that is, of salubriously conventional behavior—will repay one last look for what it can tell us about Tchaikovsky's very sophisticated methods for achieving his famous simplicity and sincerity of utterance. He sets it off as a sudden little canon, a conventional set piece in miniature. The simple contrapuntal form represents its meaning—that is, becomes significant—according to a time-honored code: "Es ist der alte Bund," as J.S. Bach had put it, fugally, many years before. It is the old constraint: if feeling is to be significantly expressed in art, it must be mediated through significant forms—that is, forms that function as conventional signifying codes. And that presupposes their intelligibility, which in turn implies predefinition. An artist who wants to communicate significantly must accept limits to his freedom—constraints that have potentially liberating consequences. If, as has been claimed, and as one can only agree, Tchaikovsky is the great "poet of everyday life" and a "genius of emotion," it is not because he was a genius at having emotions. (We're all geniuses at that.) It is because he knew how to channel life and emotion with great power and precision through coded forms.
"It seems to me," Tchaikovsky later wrote to his friend Vladimir Pogozhev, a theater official, "that I am truly gifted with the ability truthfully, sincerely, and simply to express the feelings, moods, and images suggested by a text. In this sense I am a realist and fundamentally a Russian." All of the italics in this self-characterization were Tchaikovsky's own, and the opening quartet in Yevgeny Onegin, to say nothing of the whole opera that follows it, wonderfully bears them out. The realism and the Russianness of this opera are equally profound and profoundly interrelated; and they are equally likely to be missed by those who equate realism with "formlessness" and can discern national character only in the sort of folklore that exists in Yevgeny Onegin (like the "folk" itself) only as an aspect of decor—in the field-hands' songs and dances of the first scene, for example, or the berry-pickers' chorus, taken directly from the novel, in the third.
Another choice sample of Tchaikovsky's "diegetical" skill—his ability at once to present and to comment, to show things as they are and at the same time to "distance" the portrayal ironically—comes at the moment when the title character together with his friend, the poetaster Lensky, make their first appearance. The comically exaggerated courtly flourishes in the orchestra that accompany their bows to the Larin ladies instantly sketch their foppish histories, accomplishing much of the work of Pushkin's chapter 1, the absence of which is so often (and so severely) held against the opera's libretto. In their startling anticipation of Stravinsky's Pulcinella, his "Pergolesi" pastiche ballet, these "eighteenth-century" curlicues also call attention to Tchaikovsky's underappreciated mastery of the grotesque.
These points of period style and representational technique apply not only to the characters' public behavior and to the obviously "generic" ballroom scenes but even, or especially, to their most private and personal utterances. Tatyana's "Letter Scene" (the latter part of scene 2), the most private and personal in the opera, is in effect a string of four drawing-room romances linked by recitatives. The resonances between the music of this scene and the duet romance within the opening quartet are many, conspicuous and (oh yes, most consciously) calculated: they are the resonances between Tatyana's inner and outer worlds.
To cite the most obvious correspondence, both numbers incorporate what is generally known as Tatyana's leitmotif. (Like most leitmotifs, emphatically including Wagner's, they were actually named—and thus limited in their signifying power—not by their creators but by later commentators and commercial exploiters.) It is the very first melodic phrase presented to the audience in the opera's orchestral introduction; it is echoed in the last line of each stanza of the duet romance, and it is echoed again in the middle section of the last, climactic romance in the Letter Scene. But even before its specific, gradually-revealed association with Tatyana is made clear, the leitmotif bears a generic resonance, one that (with due apologies to Nabokov and others who may resent it) requires just a dab of "technical conversation" to identify it.
Beginning on the sixth degree of the minor scale, it descends ultimately to the first degree, the tonic or keynote, thus describing the interval that more than any other defines the idiom of the bitovoy romans, the Russian domestic or household romance of the early nineteenth century. Russian scholars have even coined a special term—sekstoviy ("sixthy") and its derivative sekstovost ("sixthiness")—to denote that defining quality, associated with many of the romances of Glinka, the founding father of Russian professional art music, but even more closely associated with the "three Alexanders"—Alyabyev, Varlamov, Gurilyov—who in the 1830s and 40s turned out romances by the bushel for the parlors of the increasingly music-hungry Russian nouveaux riches, the incipient grand (but by Tchaikovsky's time much pettier) bourgeoisie.
The role of Tatyana is saturated with melodic sixths. Along with the role of Lensky in the same opera, it is surely the "sixthiest" in all of opera. And at times the melodic sixths are nested within a harmonic idiom that shows a marked "sixthiness" of its own—the constant use of the minor submediant (the "flat sixth"), a chord that ever since the time of Schubert had been the chief passion-flower in the bouquet of romantic music, especially romantic domestic music, and that (especially when it is alternated with the tonic in the major) audiences—yes, you—have long since learned to react to with a throb of the heart.
Penetrating just a bit further into the refinements of musical technique, we might add that the alternation can take the form of an immediate local progression (like the one that accompanies the famous horn solo in the Letter Scene), or it can be projected in the form of a subsidiary key governing large spans within the harmonic structure. The orchestral introduction to Act I sets the precedent: its development section is all within the key of the submediant. Later, the whole vocal coda of the Letter Scene ("Finished! I dare not re-read!") is cast within the flat-submediant key to portray poor Tatyana lost in a love trance.
The melodic-harmonic idiom is only one of many genre resonances that tie Tatyana's Letter Scene to the opening duet and thence to the whole world of the domestic romance.
The harp-heavy orchestration of the first two sections is another. But the harp does more than evoke the sounds of domestic music-making. The inspired chords (not arpeggiated!) that punctuate the woodwind phrases in the actual letter-writing music that introduces the second romance take their place within a marvelously detailed sound-portrait of the love-sick girl, in which Tchaikovsky shows himself an adept practitioner of Mozartean "body portraiture" as outlined in the famous letter of 1781 from Mozart to his father about Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Tchaikovsky had read it in the famous Mozart biography by Otto Jahn). As in the case of Mozart's Belmonte or Osmin, we "see" and "feel" Tatyana—her movements, her breathing, her heartbeat—in her music. This "iconicity" shows off music's advantages especially well: what the novelist or poet must describe, the composer (unlike the dramatist, who must depend on the director and the cast) can actually present.
As to irony, did Pushkin ever make a more trenchant comment than Tchaikovsky, when he mocks Onegin's passionate confession to Tatyana in Act 3 with a fleeting reference to the music by which he had rejected her in Act 1? It is not simply a matter of showing that the boot is on the other foot: that much had already been accomplished by setting Onegin's arioso at the end of the sixth scene (Act 3, sc. 1) to the melody of the first romance in the Letter Scene (equally ironic in that Onegin, not having "heard" that music on its earlier appearance, cannot be" quoting" it now; the reference is entirely a narrator's aside). The allusion to the rejection music shows him fickle and erratic. It takes the place of the lengthy passage in Pushkin's novel in which Tatyana visits the absent Onegin's library and discovers, by peeking at the annotations in his books, how shallow he is.
The concluding confrontation between Onegin and Tatyana (the seventh and last scene in the opera) has been described as" a duet in the grand style," but even here the method of construction remains that of stringing romances (a technique Tchaikovsky evidently picked up from his teacher, Anton Rubinstein, as anyone knows who knows the last act of Rubinstein's most famous opera, The Demon). Tatyana's chief melody apes the one her husband, Prince Gremin, had sung in the preceding scene, thus telegraphing her answer to Onegin. Only twice, fleetingly, do the two voices mingle. It is hardly a duet at all. Like Tatyana's total silence in response to rejection (Act I, sc. 3, and, except for her participation in ensembles, in the next scene as well) the scene flies in the face of operatic convention and frustrating the audience's conventional expectation (unless, like all Russians·, they've read the book), thus underscoring by omission yet another ironic narrator's aside: the futility of the dramatic situation. The very fact that Yevgeny Onegin contains no real love duets already testifies to its singular affinity with Pushkin's novel, air conditioner and all.
And this, by the way, not reasons of censorship or literary censoriousness, is the reason why Tchaikovsky, after seeing the first student performance, modified his original ending, which had included a kiss and the sudden melodramatic entry of Tatyana's husband on the scene. No music needed to be altered, only one line of dialogue, Onegin's (and the opera's) last: from "O death, 0 death, I'm going out to seek thee!" to "Shame, grief, 0 how pitiful is my lot!" The former was "grand opera." The latter made a far more fitting conclusion to seven "lyrical scenes from Pushkin."
Not that there are no divergences between Tchaikovsky’s treatment of the story or its or its characters and Pushkin's. Lensky in particular, whose sixthy Act 2 aria, the largest vocal set piece in the opera except for the Letter Scene, is a very serious moment, reflects a later, more sentimental age-the age of Turgenev, so to speak, rather than Pushkin's. And Turgenev knew it. One of Tchaikovsky's intimates, the critic Nikolai Kashkin, reported in his memoirs of the composer that the great writer admitted to him in conversation, early in the 1880s, that "for me, you know, Tchaikovsky's Lensky has grown somehow; he’s gotten bigger somehow than he was in Pushkin.”
Not only does he loom larger in the opera than in the novel, but he is taken far more seriously—by Turgenev, by Tchaikovsky, and by their contemporaries, for whom Lensky had become not just a figure of heartless fun (as he was for Pushkin) but the embodiment of a romantic temper that had, like the slain poet, been extinguished from Russian letters.
Pushkin's Lensky never does the equivalent of singing his operatic counterpart's aria. Instead, he writes a stilted poem on the eve of the impending duel at which he is to lose his life that is all cliches and turgid imagery. Even in extremis, he is just a fop. Tchaikovsky redeemed him. (Not that Nabokov was grateful. For him Pushkin's original was sacrosanct, Tchaikovsky's just a wimp. Because he never adequately understands the impulsive rage that caused the duel between friends, and because he voices no genuine regret, the original Lensky was a "real man," an implicit baritone. By making him a tenor and replacing his foolishness with resignation, Tchaikovsky "makes a whining weakling of Pushkin's virile Lensky.")
And yet even in his big operatic moment, Tchaikovsky mediates his Lensky through a set of significant formal codes. Tchaikovsky's unswerving use of the modest romance form is more than just evocative; it sets distinct limits on Lensky's emotional scale. Like all the characters in the opera, he remains a denizen of a realistic novel (one of the very earliest to be given operatic treatment), not a historical spectacle or a well-made play.
And so there was more to Turgenev's appreciation of the new Lensky than meets the eye. What Tchaikovsky had created in Yevgeny Onegin was the one Russian opera that behaves like Turgenev's own famous and very innovative play, A Month in the Country—"lyrical scenes," so to speak, in which nothing seems to happen except on the inside of the characters. It is a thoroughly novelized drama, even as Yevgeny Onegin is novelized opera. Just as in Turgenev's novels, the mechanism of A Month in the Country, seemingly derived directly from Eugene Onegin, concerns the entry into the settled society of a gentry estate of an outsider (Belyayev in Turgenev's play; Onegin in the novel that bears his name) whose disturbance of its routines illuminates its nature.
Even closer in spirit to Tchaikovsky's lyrical scenes, of course, is the oblique and ruminative world of Chekhovian drama. A Tchaikovskian Three Sisters—if only he had lived to write it! To imagine it is to appreciate the final triumph of Yevgeny Onegin and offer the final refutation to all its distinguished literary detractors. Its best and most revealing context may not be the history of Russian opera after all (where it will always seem a misfit), or even the creative biography of its composer, and surely not the world of "Pushkinism," but rather the history of Russian drama, which it may through Chekhov have unwittingly helped to transform.
Richard Taruskin is Professor of Music at the University of California, Berkeley. He has contributed more than 160 articles on Russian subjects to the New Grove Dictionary of Opera and is the author of three books: Mussorgsky: Eight Essays and an Epilogue, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, and the just-published Defining Russia Musically (Princeton University Press, 1997).
Editor’s Note: Professor Taruskin passed away on July 1, 2022.