Tchaikovsky – Polonaise from Eugene Onegin

by Max Derrickson

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky     b Kamko-Votinsk, Russia, May 7, 1840; dSt. Petersburg, November 6, 1893

Polonaise from Eugene Onegin

Though we know Tchaikovsky best for his orchestral works,  he longed to be championed as an opera composer.   To this end his output was admirable, creating 11 operas.  Of these, his three most successful were all based on his near-contemporary Alexander Pushkin’s works: Eugene Onegin, Mazeppa, and The Queen of Spades.  What makes Eugene Onegin Tchaikovsky’s most successful opera is the very vehicle that makes Pushkin’s verse-novel such a masterpiece: both are built from a series of many scenes depicting various moments in Onegin’s life, less concerned with plot than with the storytelling, and all told, adding up to a poignant canvas of the human condition.  In the opera, this formula of many short scenes in three acts allows for Tchaikovsky to add frequent instrumental interludes, and some of the richest moments in the opera come from the purely musical moments.  Without the voice, Tchaikovsky explores the unspoken psychological depths of the story.  The Polonaise is one of those wonderfully rich moments.

The 1800’s tale narrates the life and fate of the Russian dandy, Eugene Onegin.  The fiancée of Onegin’s friend has a rather country-ish, unsophisticated sister, Tatyana, who fancies Onegin so much as to go against all societal etiquette and declare her love for Onegin in an impassioned letter.  At the heart of the story lies Onegin’s disillusionment with life.  Not understanding himself, his emotions, or the value of life, Onegin rejects Tatyana, and flirts instead with his friend’s fiancée.  A duel ensues leaving the friend dead,
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From Pushkin’s narrative, “She went – and Eugene, all emotion, stood thunder-struck.  In what wild round of tempests, in what raging ocean his heart was plunged!”  (Verse XLVIII; translated by Charles H. Johnston).


In a tragic instance of life imitating art, Tchaikovsky found himself trapped in a parallel narrative while writing Onegin in 1877.  Though he declared he was not the least bit in love with her, and knowing himself to be homosexual, Tchaikovsky reluctantly or perhaps impetuously, never-the-less married Antonina Milyukova.  She was a former student, and Tchaikovsky acquiesced to marriage after receiving from her an impassioned letter declaring her undying love for him.  The ill-conceived nuptials lasted for all of several weeks
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came to his senses in the spring of 1878, in Clarens, Switzerland, his reserves of musical genius were stirred so feverishly that he soon completed this opera, Eugene Onegin, as well as Symphony No. 4, and his extraordinarily ebullient Violin Concerto.  With regards to his opera, it seems ironic that Tchaikovsky claimed he related most closely to Tatyana – but perhaps like Onegin, Tchaikovsky could not yet grapple with his own emotions.

Onegin’s Polonaise, so full of grandeur and beauty, seems to hide the denouement to come for Onegin, and to mask Tchaikovsky’s own personal tragedies.  The scene of the grand ball begins Act III with Tchaikovsky’s jubilant Polonaise, a folkdance form native to Poland that by the Nineteenth Century had become an art form in the parlor and the concert hall.  It’s a brilliant piece for its operatic moment. The fanfare-ish main theme accompanies
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its splendid melodies and brimming energy, those talents for which Tchaikovsky was so uncannily gifted, has made the Polonaise as much a success as the opera itself.