Truth, it is said, is stranger than fiction.

In the spring of 1877, Tchaikovsky got a sort of “fan letter” from Antonina Milyukova, a former music student he barely remembered. Within the same month, a friend introduced him to Eugene Onegin, a novel by Alexander Pushkin, which the friend thought had all the makings of a great opera.

In Pushkin’s story, the title character receives a sweet love letter from a smitten young woman. He rejects her without giving it much thought – and comes to view that decision as disastrous.  

Perhaps Tchaikovsky was leery of repeating Onegin’s mistake. When he got another letter from his admirer, he agreed to meet her. Soon after, he proposed. He had finished two thirds of his opera by the time they wed.

Tchaikovsky and his new wife weren’t at all suited for one another. “The marriage proved disastrous … within three months the couple separated,” wrote Andrew Clements in The Guardian in 2006. “Tchaikovsky attempted suicide, and when he returned to work on the opera at the end of October 1877 it was in the knowledge that he was now sure of his homosexuality and that the world … was aware of it too.”

The opera ends on a tragic note – but it’s not because two people are locked in a loveless marriage. Onegin confesses his love to Tatyana. She says he’s only interested in her now because of her wealth. He denies it. She admits she still loves him, but she’s also duty-bound to the prince she married.  

“All of that biographical background, and the astonishingly rich texture of Pushkin’s masterpiece combines to give Eugene Onegin an extraordinarily powerful resonance,” continued Clements. “It is one of the most emotionally disturbing of all great operas … a human tragedy in which there are no good or bad characters, just normal, flawed human beings, who do the right things at the wrong times and blame it on fate.”

Article written by Page Leggett