The Kennedy Center

Eugene Onegin

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Richard Freed

Evgeny Onegin, which Tchaikovsky designated "lyric scenes in three acts," was written concurrently with the Fourth Symphony, which closes this program. Both works were undertaken in May 1877; the Symphony was completed the following January, the opera a month later, at about the time the symphony was given its first performance. The premiere of the opera, whose libretto was adapted from Pushkin's narrative poem by Tchaikovsky himself and Konstantin Shilovsky, was given at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on March 29, 1879.

Onegin brought Tchaikovsky his first and most enduring success as an opera composer, while the Fourth Symphony was his first truly great work in its category. The parallel composition of these works is significant in several respects, one of the more obvious reflected in the orchestral writing in the opera: it is exceptional by any standards, and on a truly symphonic level throughout the work.

It is of further significance that a major work given its premiere just two months befoe Tchaikovsky began writing this opera and this symphony was the first of his three ballets, Swan Lake. The composer's feeling for the dance is manifest in unexpected ways in the Fourth Symphony's opening movement and its famous scherzo, and both the second and third acts of Onegin open with dances that further validate the composer's affinity for the ballet--and which, in fact, may be said to lookforward to The Sleeping Beauty as clearly as they look back toward Swan Lake. To open Act II, whose setting is a gala birthday party for the young Tatiana, Tchaikovsky created one of his most splendid waltzes, and for the opening scene of Act III--a glittering ball at the great house of Tatiana and her elderly husband Prince Gremin--the brilliant Polonaise that opens the present concerts.

Barely a year after the opera's premiere, Franz Liszt made a celebrated piano transcription of the Polonaise. A dozen years later Tchaikovsky was in Hamburg for the German premiere of Onegin, which he was to conduct. He wrote to his nephew Bob Davidov that he was delighted to find that the production had been so well prepared. "The conductor here," he wrote, "is not merely passable but actually has genius, and he strongly wishes to conduct the first performance. Yesterday I heard a wonderful performance of Tannhäuser under his direction. The singers, the orchestra, the managers, and the conductor--his name is Gustav Mahler--are all in love with Onegin, but I have my doubts about the Hamburg public's sharing their enthusiasm." Tchaikovsky, in fact, was so taken by Mahler's belief in the work and his fine preparation of the production, that he did step aside and allow him the honor of conducting Hamburg premiere. The audience, as he had feared, did not respond well in spite of the fine production, but Mahler subsequently produced both Onegin and Tchaikovsky's final opera, the one-act Yolanta, during his tenure at the Vienna Opera. By then the Polonaise had taken its place in the concert repertory.