The very same night the suggestion was made, Tchaikovsky re-read Pushkin’s work and was inspired to sketch out the structure of the opera. He wrote Tatiana’s famous Letter Scene in one sleepless night, and used it as the basis for his operatic vision.
It is perhaps no surprise that Pushkin’s life so closely resembled the events in Eugene Onegin, right up to and including the fatal duel. The poet wrote himself as the narrative character, and his fingerprints are evident in every verse. For Tchaikovsky, the composer of the opera, it was not art imitating life, but rather the other way around.
Tchaikovsky and Eugene Onegin
When it was first suggested to Tchaikovsky to adapt Pushkin’s poem into an opera, the composer was appalled. In a letter to his brother, Tchaikovsky called the idea “wild”. How could he dare take such perfect verse— and nationally treasured verse, at that!— and transform it into an opera?
As Tchaikovsky delved deeper and deeper into Eugene Onegin and its characters, he found that he was moved most by the young, passionate Tatiana. As the book and libretto took shape, the composer found in Tatiana a muse and a heroine. Her sincerity touched him, and he abhorred Onegin’s cruel mistreatment of such an innocent and courageous girl.
It is undeniably Tchaikovsky’s infatuation with the fictional Tatiana that led him to make a mistake that nearly ended his life.
An Unfortunate Marriage
Little is known of Antonina Miliukova’s life before her marriage to Tchaikovsky. She was a student at the Moscow Conservatory, where she and Tchaikovsky met briefly, and spent much of her adult life working in Moscow and Kronstadt as a music teacher.
Although Tchaikovsky could not recall having met Antonina, the brief interlude made quite an impression on her. Twelve years after their first meeting, Antonina sent Tchaikovsky a letter confessing her love for him. Tchaikovsky rebuffed her, stating that he could never return her love and that their life together could only be one of sorrow and resentment.
Tatiana was a girl of 17 when she encountered Onegin and fell in love. Antonina had been 16 when she first met the man she would marry, though by the time she wrote her own confessional letter she was nearly 30-years-old. Nonetheless, Antonina’s letter contained a similar sweetness, turmoil, and intermingling of hope and despair to that which characterizes Tatiana’s letter.
The parallels between Antonina and Tatiana did not escape Tchaikovsky. Neither, to his horror, did the parallels between himself and Onegin. Appalled at his own behavior, Tchaikovsky rushed to set things right with Antonina, proposing to her in an effort to convince himself that he was nothing like the selfish, jaded Onegin. Tchaikovsky wrote in a letter to his friend and patron, Nadezhda von Meck: “It seems to me as if the power of fate has drawn to me that girl.”
Tchaikovsky and Antonina married a few months after she sent her letter. In the following weeks, the composer finished Eugene Onegin, suffered a deep depression, and attempted suicide by throwing himself into a river in the hopes of catching pneumonia. He wrote letter upon letter to his friends and family of how he despised his wife, and the temporary fever induced by his opera that had led him to make such a regrettable choice.
After only a few months of marriage, Tchaikovsky and Antonina separated. They never lived together again.
The End of the Tale
We can imagine many scenarios for what became of Onegin after Tatiana’s rejection of him. Perhaps, awakened at last to love, he moved on from Tatiana and found it with another woman. Maybe he spent the rest of his life a bitter man. The same is true of Tatiana. She could well have found true joy with her husband, despite Onegin’s presence in her heart. Or, the second encounter with Onegin may have soured her marriage for her, and the lonely years that passed left her a shadow of her former self.
In the opera, Madama Larina tells her bright-eyed daughter that life is not like a novel, a lesson that Tchaikovsky, like Tatiana, failed to heed. And though the end for Tatiana and Onegin was bittersweet, it was nothing but bitter for Tchaikovsky and Antonina. They remained married until the composer’s death, but Tchaikovsky felt nothing for his wife other than resentment and hatred. It is recorded that the mere mention of Antonina’s name could send him into a panic attack.
Antonina’s tale ends sadly. She spent several years in a live-in relationship that produced three children, all of whom Antonina was forced to surrender to orphanages and all of whom died in childhood. The last twenty years of her life were passed in an asylum, where she eventually died. Though history has often been harsh to Antonina, framing her as a stupid and selfish woman, some sympathetic scholars describe her as warm and sincere, and utterly bewildered by how her powerful love could end in such sorrow. In this light, it is possible that Tchaikovsky was never mistaken about her similarities to his beloved Tatiana.