Saturday, October 5, 2013

Following a train of thought: Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin

Tchaikovsky in 1877
The first of two scenes:

I. The Letter
A young woman writes an impassioned letter to a man she has met only briefly, declaring her love for him and placing her fate in his hands.

But the woman's name isn't Tatyana Larina; it's Antonina Milyukova. And the man she is writing isn't Eugene Onegin, but the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Antonina's letter arrived in mid-May 1877 at a critical point in Tchaikovsky's life. Eight months previously he had written to his brother Modest about his intention to get married in order to "eradicat[e] from myself my pernicious passions"—his homosexuality.[1]

While Antonina's first letter was lost or destroyed by Tchaikovsky almost immediately, her second and third letters, both dated May 16, still survive. In them she writes,
"I see that it's now time that I began to master my feelings, as you yourself told to me in your first letter. Although I cannot now see you, I console myself with the thought that you are in the same city as I am...[W]herever I may be, I shall not be able to forget you or lose my love for you. What I liked in you [when I first came to know you] I no longer find in any other man; indeed, in a word, I do not want to look at any other man after you....

"I am dying of longing, and I burn with a desire to see you, to sit with you and talk with you, though I fear that at first I shan't be in a state to utter a word...Farewell, my dear one...I cannot live without you...I implore you: come to me. If you knew how I suffer, then probably out of pity alone you would grant my request."[2]
It seems impossible that either Antonina or Tchaikovsky were unaware of the echoes of Eugene Onegin in this situation. From Tatyana's letter to Onegin:
"...if you've kept some faint impression
of pity for my wretched state,
you'll never leave me to my fate.
At first I thought it out of season
to speak; believe me: of my shame
you'd not so much as know the name,
if I'd possessed the slightest reason
to hope that even once a week
I might have seen you, heard you speak
on visits to us, and in greeting
I might have said a word, and then
thought day and night, and thought again
about one thing, till our next meeting...

Another!, another never
in all the world could take my heart!
Decreed in highest court forever...
heaven's will—for you I'm set apart...

Imagine it: quite on my own
I've no one here who comprehends me
and now a swooning mind attends me,
dumb I must perish, and alone.
My heart awaits you: you can turn it
to life and hope with just a glance—
or else disturb my mournful trance
with censure—I've done all to earn it!..."[3]
There are echoes as well of Onegin's response to Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's reply to Antonina. David Brown writes in his critical biography of the composer that Tchaikovsky apparently told her that her love for him would diminish if she really knew his imperfections and failings, and "had counselled his infatuated admirer not to let her feelings run away with her."[4] As Onegin tells Tatyana:
"...Should your perfections be expended
in vain on my unworthy soul?
Believe (as conscience is my warrant)
wedlock for us would be abhorrent...

You'll love again, but you must teach
your heart some self-restraint; for each
and every man won't understand it
as I have...learn from my belief
that inexperience leads to grief."[5]

Elizaveta Lavrovskaya
On May 25, shortly after receiving Antonina's first letter, Tchaikovsky visited the mezzo-soprano Elizaveta Lavrovskaya. The composer was casting around for a new opera project; Lavrovskaya suggested Eugene Onegin. Just a few days later Tchaikovsky reported to Modest that "the idea seemed to me wild, and I didn't reply. Afterwards, dining alone at an inn, I recalled Onegin, fell to thinking about it, next began to find Lavrovskaya's idea a possibility, then was carried away by it, and by the end of the meal had made up my mind." [6]

It was Tatyana's letter to Onegin that inspired Tchaikovsky to begin work on the opera, and it was this scene that was the first that he composed, using almost entirely (as he did throughout the opera) Pushkin's words. Tchaikovsky later wrote his friend, the composer Sergey Taneyev, that "I burned with the fire of inspiration when I wrote the letter scene"[7]:

That Tchaikovsky was inspired to compose this scene shortly after receiving Antonina's letter is surely no coincidence. And writing the scene made him view her in a new light:
"Being completely immersed in composition I so thoroughly identified myself with the image of Tatyana that she became for me a living person, together with everything that surrounded her. I loved Tatyana, and was furiously indignant with Onegin who seemed to me a cold, heartless fop. Having received a second letter from Miss Milyukova, I was ashamed, and even became indignant with myself for my attitude towards her...

"In my mind this all tied up with the idea of Tatyana, and it seemed to me that I myself had acted incomparably more basely than Onegin, and I became truly angry with myself for my heartless attitude towards this girl who was in love with me. Because the second letter also contained Miss Milyukova's address, I immediately set out thither, and thus began our acquaintance." [8]
Reader, he married her.

Tchaikovsky and Antonina after their wedding
The marriage, which took place on July 18, was a catastrophe from the first. Tchaikovsky had told Antonina that he could never love her, but despite her acquiescence to his conditions for their wedded life he quickly realized that he had made a terrible mistake. In a letter to his patroness Nadezha von Meck written three weeks after the wedding he described his growing anguish:
"As soon as the [marriage] ceremony was over, as soon as I found myself alone with my wife with the consciousness that it was now our fate to live with each other inseparably, I suddenly felt not only that she did not inspire me with even a simple feeling of friendship, but that she was hateful to me in the fullest sense of that word. It seemed to me that I, or at least the best, even the sole good part of the real me—that is, my musicality—had perished irrevocably...My wife was in no way guilty in my eyes: she had not invited herself into the bonds of matrimony. In consequence, to make her feel that I do not love her, that I look upon her as an intolerable encumbrance, would be both cruel and base. There remains pretence. But to pretend all one's life is the greatest of torments. And where in all this can one think of work? I fell in to deep despair, the more horrifying because there was no one who could sustain me or give me hope...

"[My wife] loves me sincerely, and wants nothing except that I should be calm and happy. I pity her greatly."[9]
Those feelings of pity and sympathy for women trapped in loveless marriages pervade the opera. In the very first of Eugene Onegin's "seven lyrical scenes in three acts" we learn that Tatyana's mother loved another man at the time of her marriage to Larin. Her new husband, perhaps sensing something of her feelings, took her away from the city to his country estate. She sings,
"I busied myself with the household,
became resigned and settled down...
Habit is sent us from above
in place of happiness."[10]
Tatyana is surrounded by women who have had to sacrifice their feelings on the marriage altar and replace happiness with habit and duty. In her distress on the sleepless night she decides to write to Onegin, Tatyana asks her nurse Filipyevna whether she has ever been in love. Filipyevna tells her the story of being married at age 13 to a boy she had never met, and the tears she wept as her maiden plait was untwined, she was taken to the church, and then into the household of a family of strangers.

Both stories, her mother's and her nurse's, foreshadow Tatyana's bitter fate. And as my loving partner noted, with its focus on the plight of its heroine, the opera could have been entitled Tatyana. There is only one scene that does not feature her, and that scene will be the subject of the second part of this post.

Next time: Eugene Onegin - The Duel

Last time: Pushkin's Eugene Onegin to Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin


[1]  As quoted in David Brown, Tchaikovsky: The Crisis Years (1874-1878). Gollancz, 1982, p. 104.
[2]  Brown, pp. 138-140.
[3]  Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, translated by Charles Johnston. Penguin, 1979, pp. 100-102.
[4]  Brown, p. 138.
[5]  Eugene Onegin, pp. 113-114.
[6]  Brown, p. 142.
[7]  Isaiah Berlin, "Tchaikovsky, Pushkin and Onegin," Musical Times, v. 121, no. 1645 (March 1980), p. 166.
[8]  Brown, p. 143.
[9]  Brown, pp. 150-152.
[10] Dmitry Murashev, "DM's Opera Site: 'Eugene Onegin' by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky libretto (English)."


  1. I had no idea that so many parallels to Tatyana and Eugene Onegin could be found in the life of the newly-married Tchaikovsky's. I hope Tchaikovsky found some catharsis in creating Eugene Onegin, but least his personal pain produced something the rest of the world could love.
    Overall, I always enjoy dipping into the personal lives of the great romantic composers. The parallels between life and art are so fascinating. When it comes to Tchaikovsky, obviously his sexuality would not have made for a happy heterosexual marriage. But then again, I don't know how easy it would have been to live with any of the moody, Byronic composers who created some of my favorite music (I think Liszt or Berlioz or Wagner would have been a lot to handle). In a long term relationship, runaway passions can be just as bad as too little passion.
    Looking forward to reading "The Duel."

    1. Miranda, as you point out, the relationship between personal pain and artistic expression is a complex one. Eugene Onegin is possibly Tchaikovsky's greatest work. But the crisis of 1877 and the debacle of his marriage would lead him (as he later reported to a friend) to attempt suicide in the early fall of that year.

      The marriage was doomed from the start. Tchaikovsky was deeply conflicted about his homosexuality, and his motives for marrying Antonina were clearly very mixed. Before the marriage he evidently told her that he could never love her, and that their relationship would be celibate. She agreed to his conditions, but despite her acquiescence he found life with her to be suffocating. The image of two people each deludedly seeking something that the other was incapable of providing is profoundly sad.

      I, too, find the crisis-filled lives of composers and artists to be intensely interesting, but I'm sometimes skeptical that the emotional upheavals in their lives can be directly read in their work. In the case of Tchaikovsky, Antonina, and Eugene Onegin, though, the parallels between the life and the work seem especially strong. When it comes to "The Duel," it will turn out that the work eerily anticipates the life—and death—of its creator.

      Thanks for your comment!