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Tchaikovsky started work on an operatic treatment of Eugene Onegin, Pushkin’s great verse novel, in the spring of 1877, at the same time his extraordinary epistolary affair with Antonina Milyukova began. He was deeply struck by the parallels between Tatiana’s love and Onegin’s treatment of her and the similar letters from Antonina and his own response. Tchaikovsky’s emendations of Pushkin reinforce the biographical connections, as life became an odd counterpoint to art in the creation of his new opera, or, as he preferred, “lyric scenes.”

The inevitably disastrous marriage of Tchaikovsky and Milyukova took place in July 1877. The composer almost immediately fled the relationship. He had completed the sketches for Onegin during his correspondence with Antonina, and finished orchestrating the opera in the early months of 1878, while travelling in Italy in the highly charged emotional aftermath of the marriage.

Onegin is a group of telling, deeply felt character portraits in the context of a sharp social critique. The scenes that open Acts II and III of the opera are vivid social vignettes, parties complete with vivacious dance music. The centerpiece of the Moscow ball in Act III is a polonaise, a robust dance of Polish origin, done in Tchaikovsky’s grand manner. The party for Tatiana’s name day that begins Act II is a provincial version of the scene, with a surprise appearance by a regimental band that provides a plump waltz in which Onegin flirts with both Tatiana and her sister Olga.

— John Henken