Eugene Onegin

About the Composer


Tchaikovsky's music is Russian, Romantic, and popular. In fact, it’s some of the most popular music ever written. Music presenters around the world are constantly programming Tchaikovsky, because box-office statistics show that audiences love his music. Soloists are always performing his concertos, his symphonies are continually on the radio and in the concert halls, and The Nutcracker sells out all over the world each Christmas. In terms of the classical music business, Tchaikovsky guarantees success. But as a human being, Pyotr Tchaikovsky seemed doomed to failure and tragedy. He was born in 1840, to a middle-class family in a small town. As a child, he was obviously gifted. His family shipped him off to school in cosmopolitan St. Petersburg when he was ten, and his mother died of cholera a few years later. The unusually sensitive child was traumatized by these separations. But he worked hard in school and, upon graduation, took a government job and traveled a bit. He had always been interested in music but didn’t begin formal training until he was 23, when he entered the newly established St. Petersburg Conservatory. He progressed rapidly and, a few years later, moved to Moscow to join the faculty of the brand-new Moscow Conservatory. Here Tchaikovsky began to compose in earnest—and to have his works performed.

His First Symphony went over well, but his next work, a fantasy overture on Romeo and Juliet, was his first real masterpiece. In it, Tchaikovsky demonstrated his talent for wedding a familiar story with unforgettable music: beautiful and accessible melodies that speak directly to the emotions. He continued to explore matching music to story in several operas and programmatic symphonies (e.g. the “Little Russian” and “Polish” symphonies). The small clique of fiercely nationalistic composers who dominated Moscow’s musical scene never accepted Tchaikovsky. These composers—Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and their friends—wanted above all to write only truly Russian music, uncontaminated by any European influence. As far as they were concerned, Tchaikovsky’s Western training had left him a dainty imitator of Mozart, incapable of speaking with an authentic Russian voice. While Tchaikovsky did worship Mozart, like his contemporaries he also drew from traditional Russian church and folk music and, in his operas, Russian speech patterns.

Tchaikovsky wrote his first piano concerto for Nicolai Rubinstein, his boss and mentor at the Moscow Conservatory. The young composer was crushed when Rubinstein rejected the piece, which he said was poorly written and unplayable. Today, every pianist in the world knows Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, and most classical music fans can hum the famous opening fanfare. The concerto was eventually given its premiere in Boston by the German pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, an ardent disciple of Richard Wagner.

Tchaikovsky attended the first production of Wagner’s enormous Ring cycle in Germany in 1876. He was more impressed with a French opera he heard on the same trip, Bizet’s Carmen. Most of the other Russian opera composers, mesmerized by Wagner’s mythic world of gods and dragons, eagerly began writing operas based on legends and fairy tales. Tchaikovsky, inspired by the gritty realism of Carmen, turned away from these kinds of subjects and created his greatest opera, Eugene Onegin, an intimate, almost mundane story featuring everyday people.

Tchaikovsky, who created all sorts of problems for himself trying to deny or conceal his homosexuality, had two significant relationships with women. Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow and admirer of his music, contacted him and offered to become his patron. They never met; she supported him for the last fourteen years of his life, during which time they were constantly writing each other. Their private letters have now been read by music-lovers the world over, because Tchaikovsky often wrote about what the music he was composing meant to him.

If his relationship with Mme. Von Meck provided the composer some much-needed financial and emotional security, his marriage to Antonina Milyakova did the opposite. She was an attractive young music student who (like the heroine of Eugene Onegin) wrote the man she loved a passionate love letter. The composer wed her in the hopes that marriage might “cure” him of his homosexuality. Instead, their two-month marriage drove him to nervous collapse and a half-hearted attempt at suicide. His despair dried up his creativity (albeit temporarily). Shortly before his marriage he had written Eugene Onegin, the great Fourth Symphony, and the famous Violin Concerto; afterwards, he quit his job and floundered for several years, unable to compose any significant music.

Following his creative slump, Tchaikovsky wrote much of the music he is best known for today, including more symphonies, ballets, and the opera The Queen of Spades. He died at the age of 53, nine days after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony. While cholera was given out at the time as the cause of death, many historians now believe he was ordered to poison himself with cholera-contaminated water in order to avoid a public scandal concerning his sexual orientation.

Tchaikovsky’s Greatest Hits

Ballets: Frenchculture dominated upper-class Russian life for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and classical ballet, which had been invented in France, was transformed by the Russians during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime. Tchaikovsky was a masterful composer of ballet; his opera Eugene Onegin features a famous Polonaise, and his three great ballets—Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker—are still the meat and potatoes of ballet companies the world over.

Orchestral Music: Symphony orchestras everywhere frequently perform Tchaikovsky’s six symphonies; symphonies Nos. 4, 5 and 6 (the last known as the “Pathétique”) are probably his most popular. Tchaikovsky also wrote lots of programmatic music for orchestra, inspired by Shakespeare, Dante, Byron, and other great writers, as well as popular pieces like the “Capriccio Italien,” the “Serenade for Strings,” the “Marche Slave,” and the noisy and patriotic “1812 Overture.”

Concertos: Tchaikovsky’s works for soloist with orchestra include one of the greatest violin concertos of all time, three piano concertos, the Rococo variations for cello, and a handful of other pieces.

Chamber Music: Tchaikovsky wrote three string quartets.

Tchaikovsky and Pushkin’s Poem

Eugene Onegin is not an ordinary opera by any means. In fact, Tchaikovsky had grown increasingly frustrated with opera ever since he attended the first performance of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung at Bayreuth in 1876. So he called Eugene Onegin not an opera, but “lyrical scenes.” “How delighted I am to be rid of Ethiopian princesses, Pharaohs, poisonings, all that stilted stuff,” he wrote while at work on Onegin. The story of Onegin is perfectly plausible; what’s more, this story happens all the time, all around the world. The very mundanity of the story is the key to understanding the opera, because it is Onegin’s crushing boredom with his mundane existence that destroys him. For the audience, the tedium and monotony of these small lives is relieved by the beauty and richness of the music.

Originally, the music accompanying Onegin’s story was the exquisite poetry of Aleksandr Pushkin, one of the greatest Russian writers. Pushkin’s long narrative poem, also entitled Eugene Onegin, is a master piece of Russian literature. Moreover, almost every literate Russian has read the poem. So in preparing his opera based on Pushkin’s poem (indeed, setting much of Pushkin’s original text to music), Tchaikovsky could assume that his audience already knew the story and the characters and could skip right ahead to those “lyrical scenes” he wanted to dramatize.

Pushkin (1799-1837), often referred to as “Russia’s Byron” and “the father of the Russian novel,” wrote his poem in fits and starts during the 1820s. It was published haphazardly, a chapter or two at a time, until the author revised everything and readied the whole for publication in 1833. While it has often been translated into English, even by the great writer Vladimir Nabokov, only speakers of Russian have full access to the poem’s brilliance. The poem consists of eight chapters, each chapter comprising roughly fifty stanzas. Each stanza features fourteen lines and an intricate rhyme scheme. The closest equivalent we have in English would be Byron’s Don Juan. As in Byron, the humorous voice of the author is constantly interrupting the poem to comment on his characters or share details of his own life. But Eugene Onegin is much shorter, tighter, and more dramatically sound than Byron’s sprawling mock-epic. Despite Pushkin’s constant interruptions, he never judges his characters. Instead, he simply lets them live their lives and lets his readers marvel at the ironic contrast between their miserable emptiness and their author’s brilliant wit and wisdom.

Eugene Onegin and the Romantic Hero

The most popular stories of nineteenth-century Europe, whether poems, novels, or operas, all tend to feature a similar protagonist, the Romantic hero. He’s a rebel—at war with his family, or the corrupt government, or even God. He’s doomed—and he meets his inevitable fate in a wide variety of grisly scenarios. And he’s sexy—his rebellious pride, his poetic eloquence, his tempestuous emotional life, and (in the operas) his lovely tenor arias all have the effect of making the ladies’ hearts beat a bit faster.

This character, who goes by many different names, dominated the European imagination during the Romantic movement. His first incarnation was Goethe’s Werther. Byron wrote about him so often he’s occasionally called “the Byronic hero.” To this day he treads the boards of every opera house in the world, and he’s a crucial figure in Eugene Onegin.

But just as Eugene Onegin is not a typical opera, so Eugene Onegin the man is not a typical Romantic hero. In fact, Onegin’s friend Lensky has much more in common with the type than Onegin:Lensky (a) is a tenor, (b) always acts at the whim of wild emotions, and (c) dies young like every self-respecting Romantic poet. If Lensky is our Romantic hero, what then is Onegin?

Onegin is both a masterfully drawn fictional character and an ironic commentary on this popular archetype. When we first meet Onegin, we might expect him to be a Don Juan, an entertaining but wicked bon vivant who will seduce and abandon the innocent Tatyana. Indeed, the Romantics, inspired by Mozart’s great opera Don Giovanni, began seeing Don Juan as a great Romantic hero—driven by inner demons, doomed to failure in his quest to find the perfect woman. But Onegin neither falls for Tatyana nor seduces and abandons her; he merely rejects her. Why?

Bored by traditional morality, Onegin has already been a Don Juan. But he has grown bored with this game as well. When he has the opportunity to seduce and ruin Tatyana, he is uninterested. His endless boredom, his ennui, his inability to experience emotion of any kind is his honest response to the experience of being the Romantic’s Don Juan, a refutation of the exaggerated emotional hysterics of a posturing Romantic like Lensky. But Onegin’s ennui is also what makes him a tortured Romantic hero himself—doomed, in his case, to the saddest fate of all:endless emptiness and loneliness.

Recommended Recordings

Deutsche Grammaphone / Conductor: James Levine
Eugene Onegin: Thomas Allen
Tatyana: Mirella Freni

Philips / Conductor: Semyon Bychov
Eugene Onegin: Dimitri Hvorotovsky
Tatyana: Nuccia Focile

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