If Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) very soon came to be known as the ‘father of Russian literature’, he is also the father of Russian opera. His short stories, verse novels, history plays and fairy tales soon became essential subjects for operatic treatment, from Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov via Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov operas all the way to Stravinsky’s one-act oddity Mavra (1923). 

In the case of Tchaikovsky’s first Pushkin project, life and art became inextricably linked. He had regarded an initial suggestion that he should adapt Eugene Onegin, already a classic, as ‘wild’, but in 1877 he found himself playing out the role of the moody hero to a young woman, Antonina Milyukova, a former student, who had written to him – just as the romantic, impressionable teenage Tatyana in the verse-novel writes to Onegin – declaring her love. Onegin’s rejection seems perverse, and he pays for it by falling in love with the married Tatyana four years later. Partly through cynical motives, to stop the gossip about his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky went so far as proposing to Antonina. After a ‘courtship’ during which he told her that he could not love her, they married. Only two weeks later, the composer had attempted suicide and left her for good.

Following a much-needed break in Italy during which he managed some composition, Tchaikovsky completed Eugene Onegin in February 1878 and it was premiered a year later by students at the Moscow Conservatoire – an apt choice because the composer wanted realism, with the ages of the singers corresponding to those of their characters. 

He had worked simultaneously on the Fourth Symphony, an intensely autobiographical drama of a battle with Fate in which, strangely, the opening  fanfares are in polonaise rhythm. Fanfares also appear at the beginning of the dance itself in the opera’s third act. Onegin, having gone off on a long wandering abroad following his murder of his close friend Lensky in a duel, finds himself at a Petersburg society ball where he will come face to face with Tatyana, now the wife of Prince Gremin, an aristocratic retired general. The brilliance of the fanfares is appropriately offset by melancholy in the cello theme of the central, contrasting sequence.

Composer:  Tchaikovsky Wiki Link:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugene_Onegin_(opera) Title of Musical Work:  Polonaise from Eugene Onegin