Eugene Onegin, According to Bryan Gilliam


The following introductory talk on Eugene Onegin was presented prior to NC Opera’s concert performance of the opera on Sunday, January 24 (reviewed here). The talk is reprinted with the kind permission of the author, Duke University Professor Bryan Gilliam, a member of the company’s board of directors.


You might think it strange if I first mention Verdi in a talk on Tchaikovsky, but I want to make a point contextualizing Eugene Onegin with what was going on in European musical culture at that time. By the time Verdi wrote his Requiem of 1874, he declared he would be retiring. He complained of fatigue, of dissatisfaction with the ways opera houses were being run, and of the current ways in which some of his operas were being staged.

But I have another theory, and that was that Verdi was feeling less relevant in the changing operatic world of the 1870s and ’80s. It was at that very time of his “retirement” (of course he came back and wrote Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893)) that Italy (and Verdi, by extension) was losing its monopoly in the world of opera. He was no longer the King of Italian opera, a position he had earned and deserved. But here was another other opera composer born the same year (1813) who was making international headlines: a man named Richard Wagner, whose operas such as Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, and Tristan und Isolde were taking hold in the sunny south. It was even said that Wagner was working on a mammoth operatic cycle based on not classical but Nordic myth. If the theaters Verdi once loved and dominated wanted to put on such stuff, well they had their right to, but Milan was big not enough to for two such men. Verdi declared he would retire to his famed citrus plantation and become the gentleman farmer.

And things were worse; younger Italians – Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and, especially, Puccini – were drinking Wagner’s intoxicating beverage: those sexy chromatic harmonies, the lush orchestrations, and the exploitation of Leitmotifs Even worse than disloyal Italians were the younger composers from other parts of Europe. What were some of the other hits during Verdi’s retirement, after the Requiem? Manon, La Gioconda, Samson et Dalila, The Tales of Hofmann, Die Fledermaus, and worse: Carmen. And now the Russians, of all people, were getting into the act.

This was a time of fierce nationalism, especially in the East. There was, in Russia, an anti-Western-Europe club that had been formed by five composers: Modest Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cesare Cui, and Alexander Borodin, all working under the nominal leadership of Mily Balakirev. They called themselves “the mighty fist,” and they eschewed western ideas of musical composition. They rejected conservatory training, were mostly self-taught, and had other jobs (enjoying a certain amateur status). Mussorgsky was an especially vocal proponent of Russian nationalism and accused a composer such as Tchaikovsky as sucking up to the West or, as he once said, “licking Austrian spittle off the streets of Vienna.”

So where does Tchaikovsky fit in? Conservatory trained in St. Petersburg (under Anton Rubenstein). He made early travels through Germany, Austria, Belgium, and France. He received a teaching post at the Moscow conservatory in 1866 and a year later met Hector Berlioz, who was in Moscow on a concert tour. But Tchaikovsky loved Russian folk music, and he incorporated much of it in his works. Thus, Tchaikovsky was neither fish nor fowl. Tchaikovsky was not Russian enough for the “mighty fist” and yet he was not viewed as an equal by the likes of Johannes Brahms. Add to that his well-known homosexuality and you can understand a painfully shy individual who suffered from constant depression. This was the constant tension of his life: the tug between East and West.

But, of course, this very “tug” is what gave his music such complexity, informed by Schumann, Brahms, Chopin, Berlioz, and Wagner, yet infused with the indigenous sounds and harmonies of his own country. He was, in short, comfortable in western genres as well as those of the east. Indeed, he composed in nearly every genre imaginable: symphony, concerto, tone poem, chamber music, ballet, songs, and especially operas (indeed, he composed 12 in all). When most of us think Tchaikovsky, we think of the composer of the famed piano and violin concerti, Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, and the last three symphonies, but if we were Russian, we would recognize him as one of the great operas composers.

Here, Onegin and The Queen of Spades come to mind, but in Russia such operas as Mazeppa, The Maid of Orleans, and Iolanta are regular components of the repertoire. What I find exciting is that we are now seeing some of these lesser-known operas being performed in the United States (Iolanta was performed at the Met on HD last season). Tchaikovsky’s musical style is ideal for opera: his clearly profiled, expressive melodies, his gift for orchestration (soaring strings and colorful woodwinds). There is also that perfect sense of timing, that strong sense of rhythmic drive and momentum building through the use of sequences (a Wagnerian technique if there ever was one). I also love his predilection for antiphonal effects, where the winds, brass, and strings are in dialogue with one another. Add voices to this mixture, and you have perfect music theater.

So let’s talk about Eugen Onegin. Written as a novel in verse form in 1829, Alexander Pushkin’s work is ironic, subtle, detached, and restrained. And for this reason, Tchaikovsky hesitated when the suggestion was made by a leading Russian contralto that he should consider setting Pushkin’s verse-novel. He told his brother, Modest, that he thought the idea to be “wild.” The book is, as one scholar asserts, less about the tale than the telling,* the highly nuanced poetic narrative. Stripped to its essence, the opera involves a woman in love with a man who does not love her back. After time, he falls in love with her, but it is too late, she has already married. Fairly generic stuff, if we avoid Tchaikovsky’s marvelous score.

The story involves a wealthy society dandy named Onegin and a friend named Lensky who pay a visit to Madame Larina, who has two daughters, Tatyana and Olga. Lensky immediately falls in love with Olga, who returns his feelings. Tatyana is enamored of Onegin, who, however, does not reciprocate her strong feelings. The critical moment of Act I is her famed letter aria (a 12-minute aria that quotes Pushkin verbatim). By the end of the act, Onegin returns with the letter, reproving Tatyana for her lack of self-control. Tatyana is shattered.

Act II begins with a ball on Tatyana’s name day. Onegin, who is a guest, has the temerity to flirty with Lensky’s betrothed, and he challenges Onegin to a duel, which Onegin wins. In Act III, Onegin, four years later, finds himself at a palace gathering where, by chance, he finds Tatyana happily married to a wealthy nobleman. He tries to rekindle old flames, but Tatyana refuses (and I should say, rightly so). Onegin leaves in despair.

But I think what truly inspired Tchaikovsky to compose this opera was the character of Tatyana, whom the composer described as a woman “full of pure feminine beauty of a maidenly soul, still not touched by the contact of real life; she has a dreamlike nature, vaguely seeking an ideal and passionately driving after it. Seeing nothing approaching her ideal, she remains calm but unsatisfied. But it had only to happen that a person appear who in externals stands apart from the milieu of the common provincial, and she imagined him to be her ideal, and she is over come with passion.”

She is a reader, a dreamer, and – like a seasoned author – she writes a letter to Onegin, convinced that he will return her passion. Should we be surprised to learn that the letter aria is the first thing that Tchaikovsky composed? We learn so much about her in this letter. Yes, she is dreamy, naïve, and passionate. But she is full of resolve and she is smart. She starts the letter in hesitation, wadding up pages and throwing them away. But once she resolves to write, she and Tchaikovsky are unmatched in their beauty and passion.

“No, I am resolved to lay my empty life before you,” she writes. “Pity my burning tears and grant me your protection, I implore you; believe me I am alone. No one here understands me…. O how I long for you to save me. One word could set my heart on fire.”

This may well be the most impassioned musical section of the entire work.

By the end of the act, Onegin reproves her for her frankness to a stranger, declaring that he is far from the marrying kind. The beauty of this ending is in its ambiguity. She does not respond to him; she is too smart for that.

Onegin is a fop of the worst sort. During the ball, whose style is the least Russian in the opera (it could easily have been written by the Waltz King), he shamelessly flirts with his friend’s betrothed, and they end up dueling with poor Lensky mortally wounded. For the first time we see Onegin truly remorseful. As I mentioned above, much time has passed between Acts II and III; Onegin has travelled and matured. Or so he says. By chance, he has run into Tatyana at a ball hosted by her wealthy husband. Once they are alone, Onegin claims he has changed: he is ready to settle down and wants to marry Tatyana. He regrets all the time he wasted. Tatyana knows it is impossible, and Onegin is left in despair.

This is the classic common wisdom of the ending, the trajectory from passion to remorse and then despair. But I would like to offer a different one.

Why should we view this opera through the lens of Onegin? It is Tatyana who has grown from the dreamer to the realist. She surely was always attracted to Onegin, but she wisely saw him for what he was. Has Onegin really changed his life? She thinks not (and neither do I). After all why would he be putting moves on a married woman? She doubts, I believe, that he would be faithful, even should she marry him. Thus, is the ending tragic? Onegin, the incurable dandy, got what he deserved, and Tatyana (after all, Tchaikovsky’s favorite character) is far better off.

*And indeed there are references to books and reading in the libretto.

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