Tchaikovsky in the Triangle: ‘Eugene Onegin’ in Concert at North Carolina Opera (Part One)

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A “Fistful” of Rubles

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, composer of Eugene Onegin
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), composer of Eugene Onegin

On January 24, 2016, the forces of the North Carolina Opera presented a concert version of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s three-act opus Eugene Onegin (or, as it’s pronounced in the original Russian, Yevgenii Onyegin) at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh. This was the work’s premiere performance with the company, and a first for Russian opera in the state.

Remarkably, Russian opera, along with Russian music in general, had been sadly under-represented in the West for a good many years. Despite the process of Westernization brought about by the far-reaching reforms of Peter the Great (1682-1725) — and furthered later on by his wife, Catherine I, and by Czarina Catherine II (1762-1796), also dubbed the “Great” — the Imperial Court at St. Petersburg continued to occupy itself with the proliferation of opera in the Italian mode.

Be that as it may, during the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries some fairly prominent personalities had established their residency in the then-Russian capital, among them composers Giovanni Paisiello, Domenico Cimarosa, and the Spanish Vicente Martín y Soler, whose opera Una Cosa Rara is quoted in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Even Verdi, the ill-humored “Bear of Busseto,” had traveled all the way to St. Petersburg for the 1862 premiere of La Forza del Destino. That’s some force of destiny, folks!

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)
Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)

Long after the turbulence of the Napoleonic Wars had passed, Russian nationalism — present in rudimentary form in the country’s music and art — began to slowly re-emerge. Specifically, it shined a needed spotlight on musician Mikhail Glinka, the so-called “father of Russian nationalism.” His two claims to fame, the operas A Life for the Czar (1836) and Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), while establishing a precedent for the use of folk tunes and local dance rhythms, were heavily influenced by bel canto exponents Donizetti and Bellini, even old Master Gluck himself. Nevertheless, Glinka set the pattern of integrating native subject matter, drawn primarily from Russian history and literature, with authentic Russian themes.

It was not until the latter half of the nineteenth century that a motley group of non-professionals — five would-be “composers” known as moguchaya kuchka, or “the mighty fistful” — had come together on an irregular basis to further the cause of nationalism in words, music, and song. Besides writing, arguing and composing, the group’s members were forced to hold on to their day jobs in order to support their musical aspirations. More importantly, and in spite of technical deficiencies in their individual backgrounds and abilities, the five worked more or less in tandem toward fashioning a solely native aesthetic whose aim was to discard Western models.

Whether they realized it or not, this group, comprised as it was of Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Modest Mussorgsky, exerted an irresistible force on the future course of Russian music, specifically Russian opera.

We’ll be discussing the latter three members in depth at another time, and in another post. For now, let it be said that the hearty and intrepid trio of Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Mussorgsky were the major components in the growth and spread of their nation’s musical art.

To begin with, Borodin, the oldest of the bunch, once served as a surgeon in a St. Petersburg military hospital, where he made the acquaintance of a young cadet named Mussorgsky. Whereas the surgeon’s main vocation, however, was that of a chemist who only dabbled in music as a sideline, Rimsky-Korsakov, a former naval officer and civilian inspector of military bands, became obsessed by it.

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887)
Alexander Borodin (1833-1887)

Rimsky’s richly sonorous scores stressed overtly melodic elements. But despite his multi-hued orchestrations, as well as his production of works tinged with a decidedly exotic Eastern accent, Rimsky turned into the most dogmatic-minded of the group, consciously editing and “correcting,” in his words, his colleagues’ “disconnected harmony” and “ugly part-writing.” The nerve of him!

Much like his close friend Rimsky, Mussorgsky was the product of a military education before he landed a civil service position within the Russian bureaucracy. Of the three, Mussorgsky was certainly the most innovative — and, purportedly, the most “amateurish,” to put it kindly— in his method of transposing the natural rhythms and patterns of speech into his characters’ vocal lines. To his hindrance and, we’re sad to say, eventual downfall, Mussorgsky was also a hardened alcoholic.

For a Few Rubles More, You Get Pushkin

By this point, you might be wondering where Tchaikovsky fit into this circle. To be perfectly honest, he did not “officially” partake of the nationalist movement. Au contraire, Tchaikovsky was the least nationalistic of his fellow contemporaries, although he was fully aware of their goals and ideals. Unlike these mostly self-taught dilettantes, Tchaikovsky was academically trained and steeped in the established tradition of European forms. His position, relative to the others, was that of an outsider looking in.

Although blessed with a precocious streak and a thoroughly homegrown melodic bent, Tchaikovsky’s early life was geared either toward a career in the military or in civil service, similar to that of the errant Mussorgsky and his fellow dabblers.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Curiously, both men were a little over a year apart in age, with Mussorgsky’s date of birth falling somewhere between March 9 and March 21, 1839 (in the old Eastern Orthodox calendar), and Tchaikovsky’s in late April or early May of 1840. As mentioned, both were musically inclined at a tender age, with the teenaged Mussorgsky showing innate skill as a pianist. He also took an abiding interest in his country’s literary and historical legacy, which he later put to purposeful use with the writing of Boris Godunov (1868, revised 1874), based on Pushkin’s play, and Khovanshchina (left unfinished).

By the mid-1860s, Tchaikovsky had enrolled in the St. Petersburg Conservatory where his studies focused on music theory, counterpoint, and harmony. His talent caught the ears of two of his professors, the Rubinstein brothers, Anton and Nikolai, who encouraged the newcomer to devote more time to original compositions. Unfortunately, they were less impressed with the outcome and the plainly “individual direction” he seemed to be taking.

Neither a conservative nor a progressive, in musical terms, Tchaikovsky was frequently caught in the middle of the academicians’ insular attitudes of where Russian music stood vis-à-vis the almost unrelenting criticisms of the “mighty fistful” and their denouncement (especially by Balakirev) of anything smacking of European influences.

By the time of Mussorgsky’s untimely death from alcoholism (in March 1881) at age 42, Tchaikovsky, who was principally known in the West as a symphonic composer, had completed several stage works, including The Voyevoda (1868), The Oprichnik (1870-72), Cherevichki (1874), his masterpiece Eugene Onegin and The Maid of Orleans (1877-79), as well as Mazeppa (1881-83). He also presented the music world with the iconic ballet Swan Lake (1875-76), and would go on to produce two more favorites along those same lines, The Sleeping Beauty (1889) and The Nutcracker (1892).

Whether Tchaikovsky was moved or not by his encounters with Mussorgsky and his lot is a theme best explored by others. Still, it must be stated that both he and the “mighty fistful” revered the poetry and plays of the late Alexander Pushkin. Tchaikovsky set three of Pushkin’s literary works to music, the first being the aforementioned Eugene Onegin (for the background and history of this seminal piece, please follow the link to my previous article:; the second, Mazeppa, adapted from Pushkin’s narrative poem Poltava; and the third, the 1890 opera The Queen of Spades (or Pique Dame), from a short story of the same name.

Once again, Mussorgsky had tailored Pushkin’s blank-verse drama Boris Godunov into one of the most powerful of Russian operatic works imaginable. Glinka’s earlier Ruslan and Lyumila was itself derived from the author’s epic poem. From a later period, composer Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s two operas, Rusalka (1848-55) and The Stone Guest (1872), were both based on Pushkin pieces.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

And let’s not forget that Rimsky-Korsakov — that scrupulous, fault-finding orchestrator and severe critic of his fellow group members’ output — owed a tremendous debt of gratitude to Pushkin’s oeuvre. The Russian poet proved to be the inspiration for no less than three of Rimsky’s works, among them the one-act opera Mozart and Salieri (1897), which also provided fuel for Sir Peter Shaffer’s hit play and Academy Award-winning movie, Amadeus (see the following link for more information: The other two items, The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1900) and The Golden Cockerel, also known by its French title, Le Coq d’Or (1909), were fairy-tale operas set to long-form poems.

A consummate master of words, emotions, and attitudes, Pushkin served the same purpose for Russia’s artists and composers as Schiller, Shakespeare, and Hugo did for Verdi and others.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

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