La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

“Your devoted friend, P. Tchaikovsky”

Yevgeny Onegin, a cry from the heart

Thomas Van Deursen
Reading time
8 min.

In addition to composing some of the most popular works in the whole history of music, Tchaikovsky was an assiduous correspondent. To date, there are still more than 5,000 of his letters in existence, sent to a repertory of around 400 people, which enable us to trace back the genesis of his compositions. His writings about Yevgeny Onegin reveal an artist who was a perfectionist, searching for lyrical innovation and marked by his tumultuous romantic life...

1876 and 1877 were pivotal years in Tchaikovsky’s life. After the failure of his ballet Swan Lake, damaged by mediocre choreography and a bad orchestra, he wanted to turn the page. In August 1876, he suddenly declared to his brother Modest:

“I have decided to get married. It is inevitable. I have to do it, not only for me, but also for you, for Anatoly, Aleksandra and all those I love. For you in particular! But you too, Modest, you must seriously consider it. Homosexuality and education cannot live together in harmony.”

He refers to the young pupil of his brother Modest, Nikolai Hermanovich Konradi, and to the ‘bad influence’ their sexuality could have on the boy, not to mention the potential rumours he could fall victim to. This impulse would come with a growing desire to write an opera, whose intrigue would strangely resonate with his private life...


Tchaikovsky and Iosif Kotek (Moscow, May 1877)
Tchaikovsky and Iosif Kotek (Moscow, May 1877)

From his adolescence, Tchaikovsky had treated his homosexuality as a phenomenon of moral indifference. However, his existence was shaken by an identity crisis on this issue, seeing marriage as a way of ‘disciplining’ his urges. He did, however, soon realise that it was impossible to go against his nature, admitting to Modest in a letter dated 28 September/10 October 1876: “I won’t form any union, either lawful or unlawful, with a woman without having fully ensured my own peace and freedom.” At the end of that year, he fell hopelessly in love with Iosif Kotek, one of his pupils at the conservatory. In spring 1877, while his passion for the young student declined following the latter’s infidelities, Tchaikovsky received several letters from Antonina Miliukova, a former pupil, confessing that she had secretly loved him since their meeting a few years earlier. After some months of correspondence, the young woman and the composer met and the possibility of marriage was mentioned. Two weeks later, an unexpected topic for an opera came to Tchaikovsky after a visit to the mezzo-soprano Yelizaveta Andreyevna Lavrovskaya, as shown in this letter:

Moscow, 18/30 May 1877 (to Modest Tchaikovsky)
Last week, I was visiting Lavrovskaya. The conversation turned to subjects for an opera. Her idiot husband would not stop talking nonsense and making impossible suggestions. Lizaveta Andreyevna remained silent and smiled good-naturedly before saying: “And why not Yevgeny Onegin?” This idea seemed absurd to me and I did not reply. Later, when eating lunch alone at an inn, I remembered 'Onegin' and I thought about it – Lavrovskaya’s idea started to seem possible to me, then I let myself get more and more carried away and at the end of the meal; I had made my decision. I hurried to obtain a copy of Pushkin. After finally managing to find one, I went home, reread it with enthusiasm and stayed up all night, the result of which was the synopsis of quite a charming opera based on a Pushkin text.


Tchaikovsky and his wife Antonina Miliukova (1877)
Tchaikovsky and his wife Antonina Miliukova (1877)

Unlike his main character, who refuses the young woman’s advances, a week after choosing the topic of his new opera, Tchaikovsky asked for Antonina’s hand in marriage, promising her brotherly love but nothing more, which she accepted. The official ceremony took place on 6/18 July 1877 at St George’s church in Moscow. From the beginning of his married life, the composer realised that he had made a grave mistake. He wasn’t able to adapt to his wife’s personality. In August, he took leave for a month and a half at his sister Kamenka's. His ambition to improve his social and personal stability with an impulsive marriage ended in failure. During the winter of 1877-1878, he left his wife permanently and began divorce proceedings, which he gave up on three years later in the end. During this whole period, he took refuge in his work obsessively. In Yevgeny Onegin, he saw the possibility of creating a unique work, with particular requirements, writing a list of specifications for his friend, the cellist Karl Albrecht:

Venice, 3/15 December 1877 (to Karl Albrecht)
I will never hand over this opera to the Directorate of Theatres before it has been produced at the Conservatory. I wrote it for the Conservatory, because what I need here is not a large stage with its routine and conventions, its talentless directors, is luxurious but absurd scenery, its rhythm-drumming machines instead of orchestra conductors, etcetera. For Onegin, this is what I need: 1) singers of average quality but who have been trained properly and know their roles well; 2) singers who can also perform with simplicity but accuracy; 3) a stage direction that is not sumptuous but strictly in tune with the era; the costumes must absolutely be from the era when the opera’s action takes place (the 1820s); 4) choruses that are not like a flock of sheep, as is the case on the imperial stage, but people who take part in the opera’s action; 5) an orchestra conductor who is not a machine, or even a musician like Nápravník, only caring to ensure that where there’s a C sharp, the orchestra does not play a C, but who is a real guide for the orchestra instead.

Tchaikovsky in San Remo (winter 1877-78)
Tchaikovsky in San Remo (winter 1877-78)

From the first drafts of his music, Tchaikovsky received warnings from his colleagues and friends about this choice of intrigue, predicting a public fiasco and criticism. Indefatigably, the composer defended his project with passion. A long letter of defence written to his friend, the composer Sergei Taneyev, gives better insight into his creative process, his lyrical sensitivity, his vision of the heroine and his state of mind when he finished the opera:

San Remo, 2/14 January 1878 (to Sergei Taneyev)
Maybe you are right when you say that my opera would not be effective once on stage. To this, I would like to answer that I really do not mind about its effectiveness on stage. The fact that I have no dramatic sense was established a long time ago and I do not place much importance on it now. If it is ineffective, it should not be staged; it should not be performed. I wrote this opera because one fine day, I felt an irrepressible need to set to music everything that, in 'Onegin', was just waiting to be set to music. I did the best that I could. I worked on this opera with indescribable joy and enthusiasm, without worrying about the action, effects, etc. I spit on effects. What are ‘effects’ anyway? If you find any, for example in 'Aida', I assure you that I would not compose an opera based on a story like that for anything in the world: I need characters, not puppets. I would be happy to have a go at any lyrical subject, even without repercussions of any kind, provided that I find human beings who resemble me, feeling emotions that I have felt myself, that I understand. The emotions of an Egyptian princess, a pharaoh or a frantic Nubian are unknown or incomprehensible to me. My instinct tells me that these people moved, spoke, felt and consequently expressed their feelings in a particular way – different from ours. That is why my music, which, despite myself, is imbibed with Schumannism, Wagnerism, Chopinism, Glinkaism, Berliozism and all the isms of our era, would adapt to the characters of 'Aida' as well as the gracious language of Racine’s heroes, who talk to each other formally, and would correspond to the real Orestes, the real Andromache, etc. This would be false, and falseness of this kind disgusts me. However, I reap the fruits of my insufficiently extensive reading. If I had greater knowledge of different genres of literature, I would of course be able to find something that suits my tastes and is effective on stage at the same time. Unfortunately, I cannot find anything myself and I have not met anyone who can suggest a subject like Bizet’s 'Carmen' to me, for example, one of the best operas of our times. You may be wondering what I am looking for. I will tell you. What I need is something without kings or queens, without people’s revolts, without battles, without marches - simply without all these attributes of grand opera. What I am looking for is a powerful and intimate drama, based on situations I have experienced or witnessed, which touch me deeply.
With respect to your remark that Tatyana (in Pushkin’s novel) does not immediately fall in love with Onegin, I must say that you are wrong. It does happen immediately: “As soon as you entered, I recognised you. I felt myself tremble, I felt myself consumed,”... Do you see, she does not fall in love with Onegin because he has such and such a quality; she does not need to know him to fall in love with him. Already before his arrival, she was in love with her novel’s hero. Onegin only had to make his appearance for her to immediately confer on him all the qualities of her ideal and transfer onto a living being the love she had felt for the product of her imagination, impassioned by novels.
I wrote this play responding to an irresistible personal attraction. I assure you that it is the only rule to follow in composing operas. (...) No music has ever been written with such enthusiasm and such love for its story and characters as for 'Onegin'. I was trembling with an undefinable pleasure when composing and if a minuscule portion of what I felt as I worked finds an echo in the audience, I will be utterly satisfied...

The need for simplicity that Yevgeny Onegin's composer shows and his quest for authenticity recall the lessons of his romantic life. In a letter sent to his brother Anatoly in February 1878, he wrote: “Now, more specifically after the business of my marriage, I’m starting to understand how futile it is to want to be what I am not by nature...”