|Tchaikovsky in 1877|
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.
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....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:
"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."
"...if you've kept some faint impressionThere 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." As Onegin tells Tatyana:
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!...no, 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!..."
"...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."
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":
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...Reader, he married 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." 
|Tchaikovsky and Antonina after their wedding|
"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...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,
"[My wife] loves me sincerely, and wants nothing except that I should be calm and happy. I pity her greatly."
"I busied myself with the household,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.
became resigned and settled down...
Habit is sent us from above
in place of happiness."
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
 As quoted in David Brown, Tchaikovsky: The Crisis Years (1874-1878). Gollancz, 1982, p. 104.
 Brown, pp. 138-140.
 Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, translated by Charles Johnston. Penguin, 1979, pp. 100-102.
 Brown, p. 138.
 Eugene Onegin, pp. 113-114.
 Brown, p. 142.
 Isaiah Berlin, "Tchaikovsky, Pushkin and Onegin," Musical Times, v. 121, no. 1645 (March 1980), p. 166.
 Brown, p. 143.
 Brown, pp. 150-152.
 Dmitry Murashev, "DM's Opera Site: 'Eugene Onegin' by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky libretto (English)."