In May 1877, while working on his opera of Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin, Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky received a passionate love letter from a former music student named Antonina Milyukova, who said she had fallen in love with him while attending his lectures at the Moscow Conservatoire. Absorbed in composing Tatyana's famous "Letter Song," he set the letter aside and forgot about it until another arrived, this time threatening suicide if he continued to ignore her. Suddenly, the composer saw himself as Onegin and this unknown woman as Tatyana: "Indeed it seemed to me that I had behaved even more shabbily than Onegin. I grew fearfully angry with myself for the heartless way in which I had treated this girl who was in love with me."
Within days he had met Antonina and precipitously proposed marriage. Ever ambivalent about his homosexuality, the cause of deep soul-searching throughout his life, the composer somehow thought the union might not merely win him social acceptance, but "cure" him of what he saw as his "unnatural" state. He could not, of course, have been more wrong. From the very wedding night, the marriage proved a disaster. In less than three weeks it was over, and Tchaikovsky was attempting suicide by wading into the ice-cold Moscow River.
So sturdy was his constitution that he barely even caught a cold. But the mentally fragile Antonina was to haunt him for the rest of his days, not least by blackmailing him with regular threats of exposure and disgrace unless he came up with more money. It was in the midst of one such episode, a dozen years later in 1889, that the director of the
Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, suggested an
opera based on Alexander Pushkin's novella
Pikovaya Dama‹The Queen of Spades.
At the time, Tchaikovsky was talking to his young friend and admirer Anton Chekov, medical student-turned-writer, about collaborating on an opera based on "Bela," the first part of Lermontov's A Hero of our Time. But a rereading of his beloved Pushkin left him in no doubt that The Queen of Spades offered all the ingredients for his best work since Onegin. The central roles were custom-made for his friends Medea and Nikolay Figner, then the opera stars of the moment in St. Petersburg; for the first (and only) time, he could compose an opera with specific singers in mind. As it happened, moreover, a libretto had already been begun by his own brother Modest, a writer of modest talents who had adapted three scenes from the Pushkin for another composer, Nikolay Klenovsky. But Klenovsky had abandoned the project, and the prospect of working with Modest now persuaded Tchaikovsky to abandon Chekov and "Bela."
Such was the grief Antonina was causing him‹she threatened to tell a friend in the police of his illegal sexual habits, and even suggested that they get back together‹that Tchaikovsky developed a frantic urge to flee not just Moscow, but his beloved Russia itself. He would have left at once, to find a safe European haven in which to start writing his new opera, were it not for the imminent premiere of his ballet The Sleeping Beauty. In January 1890, when this masterpiece had opened to indifferent reviews but popular acclaim, he was finally able to escape to Florence, where he set to work with grim determination.
But it still took him a while to settle to his task. "I am living through a very bizarre phase on my journey to the grave," he wrote to the young composer Alexander Glazunov. "Something is going on deep within me, something I myself do not altogether understand, a distinct weariness with life, a sense of disillusion, at times a crazed anxiety.... At the same time, none the less, I still have a powerful urge to write. The devil alone knows what is the matter with me. One day I seem to find that my song is sung, the next I wake up with an irresistible impulse to carry on with it‹or, even better, write a new song."
And the very next day Tchaikovsky did indeed note in his diary that he had "worked better, in the evening with real inspiration." His enthusiasm for this new opera quickly got the better of his despair over Antonina; after only 44 days, on March 15, he declared the sketches finished. Back in St. Petersburg, Modest had been hard-pressed to keep up with his brother's progress, rushing him the libretto scene by scene. Pushkin's dark tale of a fatalistic gambler, prepared to kill for the secret that will supposedly win him a fortune, wrung a similarly obsessive mood from Tchaikovsky, who found himself moved to some of his darkest, most dramatic music. The scene in which the gambler, Hermann, confronts the Countess in her bedroom, determined to discover her three-card secret at any price, is perhaps the most gripping he ever wrote, so much so that he himself confessed to being unnerved by it for several days, as if he had been possessed by some alien force while pouring out music beyond his control.
And yet, of course, it is precisely because he was at his most controlled while composing The Queen of Spades that the opera sustains such raw dramatic power. Tchaikovsky paid conscious homage to several previous works, notably Bizet's Carmen, as he humanized the darkly detached characters of Pushkin's bleakly ironic novella. The composer himself, for instance, introduced the scene where Lisa, the object of Hermann's fatal love, throws herself into the Winter Canal; in the original Pushkin, once she has served her turn, Lisa disappears into marital obscurity. Nor does Pushkin kill off Hermann, but consigns him to an asylum where he sees out his life obsessively muttering the three-card secret: "Three-seven-ace, three-seven-ace...." Tchaikovsky has Hermann kill himself when the trick goes wrong, as the ghost of the Countess appears to trump his ace and ruin him.
In Hermann, for the only time in his musical life, Tchaikovsky found himself more preoccupied by his leading male character than by the women whose deaths he precipitates. And, equally unusually, he is more fascinated by the elderly, unsympathetic Countess than by the doomed young female lead, Lisa. On the penultimate day of his work on the sketches, according to his diary, he "wept copiously" when Hermann breathed his last. The next day's entry reads: "Before dinner I finished everything.... I thank God that he has given me the strength to complete the opera." After which, in a fit of postpartum exhaustion, he promptly fell ill for the best part of a month.
There was just time to see William "Buffalo Bill" Cody's roadshow, then touring Europe, before sending the vocal score to his publisher in Moscow and moving on to Rome, where he worked on the opera's orchestration by day and enjoyed a busy social life by night. But smart Roman society soon began to lionize the composer, which he could never bear; so by May, the month of his 50th birthday, he was back in St. Petersburg in time for his niece's wedding to Rimsky-Korsakov.
Still, he worked feverishly. Back at his home in Frolovskoye, Tchaikovsky continued orchestrating the second half of The Queen of Spades while correcting the proofs of the vocal score. Both tasks were complete by June 20. Over the next month, as if to float gently down from this great adrenalin rush, he sketched and scored his charming chamber piece Souvenir de Florence (Op. 70), by way of thanks to the city which had seen him through this frantic burst of inspired work.
The Queen of Spades was premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, on December 19, 1890. Amid the usual critical indifference, the rapturous response of his adoring public did little to lift the composer's spirits at the end of an unhappy autumn, soured by the abrupt end of relations with his treasured patron, Nadezhda von Meck. Deprived of her support, and distracted by the thought of the troublesome Antonina, all Tchaikovsky's familiar neuroses resurfaced.
When the opera was dropped after only a few performances‹all of them sold out‹he persuaded himself that he had incurred the Tsar's displeasure; in truth, as Vsevolozhsky patiently explained, the real reason was the intransigence of his friend Figner, the tenor singing Hermann, who refused to countenance any replacement for his wife Medea, singing the role of Lisa, but forced to withdraw because she had become pregnant. Despite this interim disappointment, the opera was produced in Kiev within days of the St. Petersburg premiere, and in Moscow the following year. Soon the critics were echoing the audience's acclaim, and it traveled via Odessa and Saratov to Prague and beyond.
So intense had been Tchaikovsky's exertions on The Queen of Spades that his friend Nikolay Kashkin noticed that he had suddenly become an old man: "As his 50th birthday approached, the marks of tiredness and old age became all too clear... His thin hair turned completely white; his face became wrinkled; his teeth began to fall out. Pyotr Ilyich had aged drastically." He could not know it, of course, but 50-year-old Tchaikovsky had less than three years left to live.
Currently music critic of The Observer, Anthony Holden has written biographies of Shakespeare, Laurence Olivier, and the Prince of Wales as well as Tchaikovsky.