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An empathetic composer: How Tchaikovsky reflected his own life in Eugene Onegin

In his operatic masterpiece, Tchaikovsky shows a real affinity for his characters, with musical intricacies revealing the depth of his characterization.

By Gavin Plumley (Classical music blogger)

19 December 2015 at 6.00pm | 1 Comment

Tchaikovsky is an empathetic composer. Whether he’s telling the story of Clara one magical Christmas or that of a lovelorn girl, deep in the Russian countryside, he understands his characters and provides a musical channel for his audience’s reactions. For instance, our sympathies might well go out to Eugene Onegin as he curses his fate and the curtain falls on his doomed love for Tatyana. But whom does Tchaikovsky really feel for in his ‘lyric scenes’ of 1879?

When writing Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky expressed great affinity for its heroine: ‘I was completely buried in my composition and had grown so close to the character of Tatyana that she and all around her started to seem real to me’. Such thoughts sadly didn’t prevent him from acting as badly as Onegin when it came to Antonina Milyukova, the woman who was, briefly if disastrously, Tchaikovsky’s wife. Had Tatyana and Onegin married, their relationship might well have hit the buffers pretty fast too.

A much better match would have been Tatyana and Lensky, whom Pushkin describes as ‘a poet’ and a singer of melancholy tunes (not unlike Tchaikovsky).

'He sang of love, to love subjected,
his song was limped in its tune
as infant sleep, or the unaffected
thoughts of a girl, or as the moon
through heaven’s expanse serenely flying,
that queen of secrets and of sighing.
He sang of grief and parting-time,
of something vague, some misty clime;
roses romantically blowing;
of many distant lands he sang
where in the heart of silence rang
his sobs, where his live tears were flowing.'

There’s certainly a kinship between Tatyana, who always has her head in a book, and Lensky, whose love of Schiller and Goethe seem more suited to her pensive ways. Even the dashing, diehard socialite Onegin seems to agree, remarking to Lensky that he would have chosen Tatyana over her sister Olga, ‘had I been, like you, a poet!’. Buried at the bottom of a quartet in the first scene, Onegin’s comment passes almost unnoticed, but it reveals much about the way Tchaikovsky thought of his characters. It certainly makes us wonder how different the story could have been had Lensky chosen differently.

Sadly, he didn’t and there are consequently few moments to link Tatyana directly to Lensky, though Tchaikovsky provides one subtle but crucial motif that does just that. At the height of her letter scene, as she writes out her feelings for the hard-hearted Onegin, Tatyana asks, ‘who are you? My guardian angel or a wily tempter?’ It’s a moment of rare stasis in an otherwise hectic scene; Tchaikovsky clearly wants us to hear this motif and he repeats it, significantly, in the second scene of Act II.

Having challenged Onegin to a duel, Lensky awaits his friend’s arrival on a frozen winter morning. During his heartrending aria, the young poet asks, ‘what does the coming day hold for me?’, as Tchaikovsky states a bruising, chromatic variant of the descending theme from Tatyana’s letter scene. Dreamers alike, she and Lensky are equally doomed by Onegin, the former to a loveless life, the latter to death. They are victims of unrequited passion – Lensky idealizes Olga as disproportionately as Tatyana does Onegin – crying out identical words, ‘I wait for you’. Such intricacies reveal the depth of Tchaikovsky’s characterization. Even though the opera, following Pushkin’s novel, fatefully joins Tatyana to Onegin, the music suggests that another, happier story could well have bloomed. Perhaps there is a ‘guardian angel’ for us all, but for the characters in Eugene Onegin – and for Tchaikovsky – that is not to be.

Eugene Onegin runs until 7 January 2016. Tickets are still available.

The production is a co-production with Teatro Regio di Torino and Opera Australia, and is given with generous philanthropic support from the Danish Research Foundation.

By Gavin Plumley (Classical music blogger)

19 December 2015 at 6.00pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged Alexander Pushkin, by Kasper Holten, Eugene Onegin, Production, Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky, romance, Russian romance

This article has 1 comment

  1. Guido Martin-Brandis responded on 19 December 2015 at 7:29pm Reply

    Lots of interesting points here, but generally we are attracted to people who are exotic in some way, that is, people that we find mysterious. Or to put it another way, sexual attraction exists between polarities. So I don't think it's that surprising that Lensky and Tatyana are not together - it is their very similarities that prevent attraction. Onegin obviously doesn't appreciate this - he may even be projecting his own sublimated desire on to Lensky, who knows!

    Also, I would not agree that that moment of the letter scene is a moment of stasis. repose perhaps, but there is nothing static about it, and the same intensity of emotion motivates it that imbues every bar of the rest of the scene - these are the biggest questions she has ever asked herself and she is very actively searching for an answer. One of the very rare beauties of this opera is that it contains almost no moments of stasis for the main characters, usually such a tricky thing to address in opera direction. The characters are constantly discovering themselves anew.

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