Tchaikovsky was only one generation removed from the birth of Russian classical music (Michael Glinka gets the credit for penning the first Russian opera, A Life for the Tsar, in 1836). As such, he was a transitional figure in the development of his nation’s musical culture. He was an early graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, which put him outside of the circle of self-taught composers who became known as the “Mighty Five”: Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, and Cui. There was a mutual distrust and disdain between Tchaikovsky and this quintet of nationalists. The Five wanted their music to express natural Russian melodic and rhythmic patterns, including folk sources. They considered Tchaikovsky to be too cosmopolitan. He considered them to be arrogant amateurs.
But as is often the case in such historical feuds, the tensions among these artists has been misrepresented. Tchaikovsky expressed genuine admiration for the originality and strength of the Five, and eventually developed strong friendships with Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov. Besides, he expressed no little national pride himself, declaring in an 1891 letter to a director of the Imperial Theaters, “It seems to me that I am truly gifted with the ability truthfully, sincerely, and simply to express the feelings, moods, and images suggested by a text. In this sense I am a realist and fundamentally a Russian.”
These qualities are joyously on display in his 1879 opera Eugene Onegin, an adaptation of the novel in verse by Alexander Pushkin—himself a careful observer of Russian speech patterns, including peculiarities of the Orthodox Church service. Pushkin’s enormously popular writing is so embedded in the idiomatic twists and turns of Russian grammar that the translator, Vladimir Nabokov, needed two full volumes to make sense of the story in English, even though the original only runs about one hundred pages.
Pushkin’s story remains best known to non-Russian audiences via its operatic treatment, but was deeply familiar to native readers. For this reason Tchaikovsky felt comfortable leaving out large stretches of the narrative, confident that his listeners would be able to complete the story line in their imaginations. For the rest of us, the libretto is cohesive enough that these omissions do not really affect the overall structure of the story.
The music itself features the characteristic mix of distinctively Russian elements with a rigorous academic technique that we hear in all of Tchaikovsky’s great scores. The opera opens with a remarkable ensemble of four female voices, exuding sweetly doleful, folkloric melodies. Elsewhere, there are choruses that (almost ironically) would be at home within a Mussorgsky opera. Beyond these overtly Slavic traits, there is a traditional Italianate opera structure, both in terms of plot line and the dramatic placement of major arias, which speaks to the composer’s desire to reach an international audience. The 1892 premieres in London and Hamburg were indeed successful (a young Gustav Mahler was the conductor in Hamburg, whom Tchaikovsky instantly identified as a musical genius). Eugene Onegin, perhaps more than any work of art preceding it, proved that Russian culture is exportable.