• 3 - Eugene Onegin - Musical Analysis and the complete audio file

    So that our readers can follow the opera while they read the musical analysis scene by scene, here is the first complete recording of Eugene Onegin, made in 1936. It was allegedly the soundtrack for a film that was never made.

    Eugene Onegin Vassily Nebolsin Bolshoi 1936 Tchaikovsky
    Lensky -Sergei Lemeshev
    Eugene Onegin - Panteleimon Nortsov
    Prince Gremin - Alexander Pirogov
    Tatania - Glafira Joukovskaya
    Olga - Bronislava Zlatogorova
    Larina - Maria Boutienina
    Filipievna - Konkordiya Antarova
    Triquet - Ivan Kovalenko
    Zaretsky - Anatoly Yakhontov
    Captain - Igor Mantchavin


    It's difficult to appreciate in the 21st century how much of a novelty was Onegin, when it premiered in Moscow, back in 1879. Most of Russian and Slavic opera was devoted to political topics (A Life for the Tsar, Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina,...), fairy tales (Ruslan and Ludmila, Rusalka, May Night,..) or even Biblical adaptations like Serov's Judith. However, Onegin was centered in the life and passions of standard human beings.

    Onegin is a Romantic opera. It's also full of melody, there are no formal experiments here, it was the perfect daughter of her times. Of course, with such a crafted instrumental music composer for the orchestra as Tchaikovsky was, we can find many fine details in the orchestration, as well as some motif building, but the prominent role is never in the pit, it's in the voices of the singers. Not that there is any spectacular vocal pyrotechnics, that was very far from Tchaikovsky's intention, nor do they fight a huge orchestra. He just wanted from his singers expressiveness, and flawless delivery of the text.

    His aim was to write an intimate opera. The first Onegin ever was sung by students of the Conservatory, with a small orchestra, and a reduced string section. There was a revision in the 1880s, especially for the last Act, but nothing very significant was changed.


    Two flutes, one piccolo
    Two oboes
    Two clarinets
    Two bassoons
    Four horns
    Two trumpets
    Two trombones
    Two harps
    String section

    Let's start by a brief mention of the main musical numbers and their context, then we'll talk about the general musical structure of this opera.

    There is a short prelude that includes the later theme of Tatyana's Longing, with very romantic music, which seems to intend to introduce already the notion that she is a very romantic girl. It is done Andante con moto, in order to produce a sense of anticipation.

    Act 1 Sc 1

    Olga and Tatyana open the opera with a duet based on Pushkin's The Poet.
    This is immediately followed by a dialogue between Mme Larina and Filipyevna about the former's love life and marriage.

    A chorus and a Dance of the Peasants follow. The chorus - classified as a protyazhnaya or 'drawn out song' - My nimble feet are sore from walking - is Tchaikovsky's original, while the second one - Accross the little bridge - has been identified as belonging to the Russian oral tradition. It is full of zest and boasts a hammering rhythm.

    Olga's song - I am no good at languid melancholia - is next. The peasants leave, Lensky and Onegin are introduced, and we get a sizing-up quartet which Tchaikovsky compared to the quartet in act 2 of Gounod's Faust.

    In an arioso Lensky confesses his feelings for Olga, and directly says 'I love you.' He sounds sincere but immature, both conventional and poetic.

    Onegin and Tatyana go for a stroll, during which Onegin sings the famous stanza from the opening of the novel, in which he cynically says that his uncle had a 'timely death' and left him a fortune.

    Act I Sc 2

    This is the famous Letter Scene. Wagner excluded, this is arguably one of the longest monologues in all of opera. The introduction is an extended version of Tatyana's leitmotif, then there is the Letter Aria itself in whichTatyana sings for 12 uninterrupted minutes while she writes her letter to Onegin. It is sandwiched in between an opening and a closing duet with her nurse - some notes are recovered from the Russian dance, and from Tatiana's Longing theme. The solo that follows is a complex and self-contained music drama. It starts over an orchestra that plays a heavy, ominous message, repeating the theme when Tatyana was telling her nurse how upset she was. In spite of her fears, she rushes into a burst of happy song (an Allegro non troppo). She tries her hand at writing the letter a first time, but it's no good, then the orchestra becomes expectant with a ping-ping harp beat, and continues like this while she writes. It's a simple oboe line crossed by the dropping fourths and fifths of flute, clarinet, and horn. The light splashes of the harp convey the naive and romantic character of the girl, but also pantomimically reproduce the act of writing (Mussorgsky has used the same effect in writing scenes in both Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina).

    The orchestra next goes into an andante that is the motto for the whole opera, the Tatyana Longing leitmotif.

    As she reads the result to herself and is pleased, the orchestra runs into a rising melody, and as Tatyana reaches her most excited state while begging the absent Onegin to put her mind at rest, there is a fortissimo in the orchestra that has been closely compared to the Symphonie Pathéthique. The scene ends by being interrupted by a shepherd's pipe - the oboe is evocative of Rossini's shepherd tunes.

    Act I Sc 3

    Peasant girls sing an imitation folksong, also drawn from the novel. Tatyana is scared while she waits for Onegin's input on the letter she wrote to him, in recitatif form that reminds us of some tunes from the Letter Scene. Onegin arrives and delivers his bad news in a two-part aria, the first one melodious, the other sort of patronizing.

    Act 2 Sc 1

    The entr'acte is again based on the center theme of the Letter Scene, symbolizing Tatyana's passion. This introduces a sprawling waltz that goes on for eight minutes, and covers a lot of plot as various intrigues happen during it, when a bored Onegin flirts and dances with Olga. We get a comic relief in Monsieur Tricquet's couplets. They are a sort of pastiche, similar to what Tchaikovsky did in a comparable scene in The Queen of Spades.

    A mazurka follows, forceful at first, but then it fades into the background as the confrontation between Onegin and Lensky starts (a device also used by Verdi). Lensky reflects on past happy times in a whiff of nostalgia (a Tchaikovsky forte), followed by a mini-chaos as the guests are shocked with the behavior of the two gentlemen, through a quintet with chorus (this differs from the novel, in which there is no scandalous scene, and Lensky only launches his duel challenge the next day).

    Act 2 Sc 2

    Kuda, Kuda, vï udalilis also known as Lanky's Farewell comes next and is spectacular, being a well deserved piece of the tenor recital circuit. It is affecting and full of pathetic melancholia, with great lyrical outpouring. His death on the hands of a guilty Onegin ensues (ironically, Pushkin himself was killed in a duel six years after writing the novel).

    Act 3 Sc 1

    It opens with a Polonaise, which serves the purpose of contrasting the urban sophistication of the setting with the prior naively rural setting. This is followed by a danced scottische or Ecossaise - a cosmopolitan dance showing the transformation of setting - which morphs again into a slow waltz in D flat when Prince Gremin and Tatyana enter the ballroom - a clever device to impact some gravitas on the moment. The waltz then continues as background, which is something that Tchaikovsky was very good at doing - grace and elegance to accompany the courtly conversations. Gremin's love song to Tatyana is remarkable, made of a 3-part bass aria similar to a da capo structure, since after the middle part, the beginning is repeated. This structure impacts on the aria a distinctive nobility.

    When a shocked Onegin realizes how attractive a woman the former naive girl has become, he sings his aria Uvï, somnen'ya net' - Alas, there is no doubt - which is an ironic recapitulation both in music and in text of Tatyana's Letter Scene. There is a second danced scottische.

    Act 3 Sc 2

    The last scene is musically a bit strange since the Tatyana/Onegin duet is not as intense as the Letter Scene and there is no new tune. While some might feel that this is anticlimatic, there is a reason for this, which we will explain below. This let down is effective enough to match the plot and Onegin's pathetic state, but does even more than this like we'll see.


    What is notable about Eugene Onegin is that it achieves its Russianness without relying heavily on folk songs, which merely seem to add some colors and some context. Western ears have come to expect this folk quality to identify something as Russian, but Tchaikovsky here is more sophisticated, more urban.

    While the novel benefits from a pervasive narrative voice to underline its irony, here - and this is a condition sine qua non for great opera - it is the music that carries the narration.

    From the very first notes sung - a duet to the harp by the two sisters - the music is busy and mediates all the feelings, and reflects exactly the atmosphere of first the domestic/household music, then the theatrical and ballroom urban Russian music of the time. Tchaikovsky does it to situate the narration in a specific time/space. The genres and conventions that he uses are carefully picked.

    For example, the orchestra engages in comically exaggerated courtly flourishes while Lensky and Onegin first appear, with the intention of underlining how fastidious they are. The libretto doesn't highlight this like the novel does - but then, the music comes to the rescue. Another example is the fact that Tatyana's music starts by being rustic and charmingly simple, open-hearted, rhythmically upbeat and in major key. Onegin's initial music, however, is made of stark, minor key phrases, already underlining the fact that these two characters are basically incompatible. Lensky is also initially musically depicted as light and good-natured, but then turns darkly mournful.

    The Letter Scene is equally masterfully composed, being a string of romances linked by recitatives, and its resonances with the other thematic material that accompanies Tatyana since the opening scene are there to deliberately evoque the girls' conflicting position between her inner and her outer worlds - her initial insouciance as a young almost pre-puberal girl, and her passionate turmoil. Interestingly, both worlds include her leitmotif.

    The construction of this leitmotif - which begins on the sixth degree of the minor scale and descends to the tonic - is done in the typical interval of the Russian domestic romance of the early 19th century - what has been called by scholars a sekstovïy or sixthy. Tatyana's - and by the way also Lensky's - music is very much into this sixthy structure.

    The harp-heavy orchestration of the first two sections also evokes this domestic kind of music. When she jumps from this outer world into her passionate inner world, what we get is as good a tone painting of her emotions as we find in Mozart, as defined in the letter that he wrote to his father about The Abduction from the Serail and how he wanted the music for Belmonte and Osmin to make the listener see and feel them. Similarly, Tatyana's orchestral accompaniment when she is writing the letter with the non-arpeggiato that punctuates the woodwind (the second of the four romances separated by recitatives) tone-paint a very clear portrait of the love-sick girl.

    When Onegin's desperate attempt to seduce Tatyana in act 3 opens with a fleeting reference to the music by which he had rejected her in Act 1, there can't be a better *musical* narration of the fact that the tables have turned - which is also expressed by Onegin's arioso that ends the first scene of act 3 being set to the same tune of the first romance in the Letter Scene.

    While in the novel we can see Tatyana visiting Onegin's library, perusing his annotations in his books and realizing that he is an empty and shallow soul - which is absent from the libretto - his fickle and erratic music in Act 3 conveys the same idea.

    So, what's up with the last duet? Well, it is again made of stringing together romances (a predilection that Tchaikovsky got from his teacher Anton Rubinstein) - but then, Tatyana's melody here recalls her husband's love aria in the preceding scene, which indicates already that she won't fall into Onegin's trap. This tune derived from Gremin's aria is heard played by flute and clarinet in octaves in the orchestral prelude to the scene.

    When she rejects him, she sings grandly in D flat, which dominates the rest of the scene (andante molto mosso). This repeats as a theme when she confesses that deep inside she still loves him. It is interesting to notice that the two voices don't really mingle during this 'duet' except very briefly and fleetingly in a third repetition of this D flat theme - but the fact that it is the same theme as her forceful rejection signals that Tatyana has moved on, that she may be ambivalent, but is determined.

    Because, see, there is no real love duet in Eugene Onegin! This seems strange for a major romantic opera, but is very deliberate. It's because Pushkin's novel is more ironic than romantic! It is not for nothing that Tchaikovsky preferred to call his work Lyric Scenes rather than an opera. These scenes are snapshots of Onegin's empty soul, not really odes to love. The entire music structure grows outwards from the Letter Scene, and gets modified in directions that are not properly romantic, as a reminder to the listener that the piece of ideal love expressed by the infatuated teenager has no more place in the crude real world of the adults.

    A Night at the Opera by Denis Forman
    The New Kobbé's Opera Book by The Earl of Harenwood and Antony Peattie
    The Grove Book of Operas edited by Stanley Sadie and Laura May
    The Rough Guide to Opera by Matthew Boyden
    Opera - Composers, Works, Performances by András Batta

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