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
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
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
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
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.
Deutsche Grammaphone / Conductor: James Levine
Eugene Onegin: Thomas Allen
Tatyana: Mirella Freni
Philips / Conductor: Semyon Bychov
Eugene Onegin: Dimitri Hvorotovsky
Tatyana: Nuccia Focile