Eugene Onegin, one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous operas, was first completed in 1878 and premiered a year later in Moscow in 1879. During this period, Tchaikovsky had vacationed in Brailov, which is now a city in the modern Ukraine. He returned to Moscow late in 1878 and upon resuming his professorship at the Conservatoire, he resigned, finding the situation there unbearable.
At this time, the composer went through a personal crisis that related to the death of his beloved mother. According to scholars, the period during which Eugene Onegin was written was a turbulent time for Tchaikovsky. A letter written by the composer describing his anguish is often cited. He wrote of how he would never be able to reconcile the death of his mother, and that without music he would have “gone mad.”
His mental state during this time brings the opera itself into clear focus. A dark drama, the opera carries with it beautiful music showing how Tchaikovsky expressed himself through writing. Furthermore, the opera also represents a change in Tchaikovsky’s music around the time. His prior operas prior reflected a nationalistic tone. After the first act of Eugene Onegin, however, this theme disappears almost completely.
The sudden change could be a result of his mental state or a desire to move on from his past as depression and confusion were beginning to take their toll on him. But according to his letters, Tchaikovsky felt a small joy in writing Eugene Onegin. He viewed music as a cure and a salvation. The opera allowed Tchaikovsky to temporarily free his mind from the torment of his mother’s death twenty-three years earlier.
Next week: In part 3 of Tchaikovsky 101, we will examine The Nutcracker, one of the most famous ballets. What was Tchaikovsky’s inspiration behind the ballet? What was his life like around that time? Stay tuned for the next part of this look into the life of the famous Russian composer.
Part 1: Tchiakovsky’s Life
Part 2: Eugene Onegin
Part 3: The Nutcracker
Part 4: Symphony No. 6