If Tchaikovsky had given up on E. O.

Reviewing T. J. Binyon‘s biography of Pushkin, James Wood remarked in 2003:

It is in some ways unfortunate that Tchaikovsky set Eugene Onegin to music, not Rossini, the composer of deep shallows. Pushkin, according to T.J. Binyon’s remarkable biography, became ‘addicted’ to Rossini while living in Odessa, where an Italian opera company was visiting…

Yes, Rossini – but there’s no way he would have done it… let’s just say he stopped composing operas in 1829 while Onegin was completed in the fall of 1830. Glinka would be a natural candidate but he was busy with Ruslan i Lyudmila until the early 1840s – based on Pushkin’s youthful poem – and then something went wrong and he stopped composing.

I suggest a different counterfactual. Suppose Tchaikovsky had abandoned Onegin early on and switched to another opera. An operatic treatment of the novel in verse would have to wait until the 20th century. Stravinsky then? A sequel to The Rake’s Progress? That was my first thought, but how could I ignore the author of War and Peace? Surely Prokofiev would have been there first. (I’m not even mentioning masters from other countries.) It could have been a failure, but a more satisfactory kind of failure than the success of Tchaikovsky’s opera.


  1. I’ve been trying to formulate an in-depth reply to this but my brain’s not working at the moment. I admit I’m fond of Tchaikovsky’s opera – at least it’s closer to Pushkin than Gounod’s “Faust” is to Goethe. Pushkin is usually described as “Mozartian” over here but unfortunately Amadeus was decomposing rather than composing by the time the book came along (hat tip to Sir Thomas Beecham). Among the moderns Prokofiev is the obvious candidate. In fact, he even wrote a work based on “Onegin” in 1937, an unclassifiable mixture of music and spoken poetry. It’s been recorded but I’ve only heard brief extracts.

    • I enjoy listening to EO performed in German. Lensky’s aria is particularly interesting. Apparently, Lensky was educated in Germany and grew up on Goethe, Schiller and Kant. Pushkin poked fun, amicably, at his “Göttingen soul” and attempts to write “romantically” (“darkly and anemically”). Overall, Pushkin seemed to like his Lensky. Sure, the youth’s last elegy was imperfect and somewhat derivative but he wrote it knowing he could be killed, as he was, the next morning. Besides, Pushkin himself didn’t yet write great poetry at eighteen.

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