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Tchaikovsky and Russian Opera

Josh Borths – December 15, 2014

Nationalism was a big deal in the 19th century, and in this age of revolution, music was often used to create this sense of national identity. Whether it was the bel canto operas of Italy, the romanticism of German, or the theatrical flair of France, Verdi, Wagner, Meyerbeer (although not French, he did a lot for French nationalism) and others created music that defined the nations they represented.

While Russia did not undergo a revolution in the 19th century, nationalism still consumed Russian composers. What did it mean to write Russian music? How does one best set the Russian language? What makes Russian music distinct from the Europe they were trying so hard to emulate?

With all of these questions swirling around the salons of St. Petersburg and Moscow, the composer Glinka paved the way for Russian opera in the 1830s with his monumental work, The Life of the Czar. Glinka proved that the language and culture of Russia could be set to music. After Glinka, many composers (mostly self-taught or amateur) took up his call. These nationalist composers gave us some of the largest and rawest pieces of the operatic canon (Such as Mussorgsky’s Boris Gudunov).

However, there was a second group of artists in Russian who made significantly less noise in cultural circles. They were the non-nationalists. Mostly trained in conservatories, they focused on elegance, subtly, and melody in their music. The most famous of these non-nationalist composers was Tchaikovsky, and knowing that Tchaikovsky was an outsider both intellectually and otherwise is vital to appreciating his beautiful and complex works for the stage.

In fact, Tchaikovsky felt he was so out of step with his fellow composers that he insisted Eugene Onegin be performed at the conservatory by students instead of premiereing at one of the large, prestigious Russian theaters.

Tchaikovsky was an outsider looking in—just like the title character of Eugene Onegin. These parallels between Tchaikovsky’s personal life and musical output account for the rich psychology and intimacy found in his best operatic works.

Eugene Onegin is a Russian opera. But unlike most operas of this period, it is not concerned about being a Russian opera. With Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky created a work that is obsessed with character, elegance, and complex emotion. It is a story of people trying to connect to the world around them, written by a man who often found himself alone.