Tchaikovsky started work on an operatic treatment of Pushkin's great verse novel, Eugene Onegin, in the spring of 1877, at the same time his extraordinary epistolary affair with Antonina Milyukova began. He was deeply struck by the parallels between Tatiana's love and Onegin's treatment of her and the similar letters from Antonina and his own response. Tchaikovsky's emendations of Pushkin reinforce the biographical connections, as life became an odd counterpoint to art in the creation of his new opera, or, as he preferred, "lyric scenes."
The inevitably disastrous marriage of Tchaikovsky and Milyukova took place in July, 1877. The composer almost immediately fled the relationship, although he never divorced Antonina. He completed the sketches for Onegin during his correspondence with Antonina, and finished orchestrating the opera in the early months of 1878, while travelling in Italy in the highly charged emotional aftermath of the marriage.
Onegin is a group of telling, deeply felt character portraits in the context of a sharp social critique. Tchaikovsky thought that what he had created was so unusual that it could not be done justice by conventional professional performers, so the premiere took place in March, 1879, at the Moscow Conservatory, not one of the imperial theaters. Nonetheless, it was not until the Bolshoi staged the work in 1884 that it began to grip the public. Those performances marked the beginning of broad popularity in Russia for the composer.
The scenes that open Acts II and III of the opera are sharply etched social vignettes, parties complete with vivacious dance music. The centerpiece of the Moscow ball in Act III is a polonaise, a robust dance of Polish origin, done in Tchaikovsky's grand manner. The party for Tatiana's nameday that begins Act II is a provincial version of the scene, with a surprise appearance by a regimental band that provides a plump waltz in which Onegin flirts with both Tatiana and her sister Olga.
- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Director of Publications.