From Tsarist Russia to the Siege of Leningrad, Rosamund Bartlett uncovers the hidden history of the soprano Alexandra Panaeva
When the idea of composing an opera based on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin was first suggested to Tchaikovsky in the spring of 1877, he was doubtful, and for good reason. The celebrated novel in verse by Russia’s greatest writer was a sacred text, but the letter in which the ingenuous Tatyana pours out her love for Pushkin’s Byronic hero seized Tchaikovsky’s imagination, and provided him with the musical point of departure for the whole opera.
It so happened that Tchaikovsky had himself just received a confession of love from a young woman, and as a 37-year old homosexual, anxious to wed in order to please his father and deflect attention from the reality of his personal life, he determined he would not follow Onegin’s callous example by spurning her. The drama of Tchaikovsky’s disastrous marriage forms a famous backdrop to the composition of Eugene Onegin. Less well known is another story of unrequited love which Tchaikovsky became embroiled with while he was writing the opera, involving his younger brother Anatoly and a talented and beautiful young singer from St. Petersburg.
The soprano Alexandra Panaeva was engaged in a pursuit of a different kind: she wanted to become the first Tatyana. She fell in love with Tchaikovsky’s vocal music when she was a teenager. After she acquired his Six Romances, Op 6, meeting their composer became her most fervent wish. She turned 18 in 1871, and a few years later went to study in Paris with Pauline Garcia-Viardot, formerly the most celebrated diva of her time. She sang for Turgenev, Flaubert and Zola, but it was Tchaikovsky she most wanted to sing for.
A mutual friend tried to bring Alexandra together with her “musical idol” when Tchaikovsky passed through Paris in January 1876, but he cried off at the last moment, and again at the end of the year. She was crestfallen that the composer still seemed so reluctant to meet her, but she continued her mission to popularise his vocal works when she returned home to St. Petersburg in the autumn of 1877. This is when Anatoly first encountered her, and he immediately wrote to his brother to recommend her as a potential Tatyana. She looked the part, and she had a magnificent voice.
For Prince Sergei Volkonsky, future Director of the Imperial Theatres, Alexandra Panaeva was one of the four most remarkable singers he heard in his lifetime. He attended the first St. Petersburg recital she gave after returning from Paris, and recalled vividly decades later that “it was not a woman who stepped on to the concert platform, but a vision”. “Tall, shapely, black-haired, blue eyes, thin waist, with a magnificent bosom”, she seemed to him, and to many others, to be the embodiment of Pushkin’s dark-haired, self-possessed heroine Tatyana. Even her family called “Tatusya” or “Tatochka”.
Tchaikovsky at this point was abroad. A few weeks after his wedding, by now only too aware of the ghastly mistake he had made, the traumatised composer had resumed work on Eugene Onegin at his sister’s estate, having left his wife behind in Moscow by prior arrangement. By early October the nightmare of his three months of marriage was effectively over, and he escaped abroad for the winter, accompanied by Anatoly for the first two months. When Anatoly returned to St. Petersburg, he met Alexandra Panaeva again and was soon madly in love with her.
Tchaikovsky was in San Remo orchestrating the third act of Eugene Onegin when Anatoly began confiding in him. First of all he wrote that he had recently succumbed to a “terrible melancholy” which he did not explain. He then casually mentioned that he had met with Alexandra Panaeva, and ascertained that “she would agree to anything for a chance to sing a part in your opera”. Not putting two and two together, Tchaikovsky asked about the source of his brother’s melancholy, then gave him some (highly ironic) advice: “Fall in love, Tolichka!.. Oh, if only your plan concerning Panaeva could come off – might she be Tatyana?”
In early February Anatoly finally confessed everything to his brother: “Petrusha, dearest, should I open up my heart to you or not? I’ve fallen head over heels in love like never before… ” Tchaikovsky wrote straight back when he received this letter: “I read your diary as if it was the most wonderful novel… If Panaeva falls in love with you, I will write her a whole song cycle, and in general make myself her grateful slave.”
Tchaikovsky began to fantasise about the possibility of Alexandra Panaeva being the ideal Tatyana. “If Mlle Panaeva, the one [Anatoly] is in love with, could go on stage, then no better Tatyana could be imagined, according to the assurances of my brothers”, he wrote to his patron Nadezhda von Meck; “alas, her Papa considers it would be scandalous for her to be a professional artist. As for all the other Russian primadonnas I know, there is not one of them that I could allow to take on the role of Tatyana.”
After he arrived back in Russia in April 1878, Tchaikovsky wrote his Six Romances, Op. 38, and dedicated them to Anatoly. Incorporating such well-known settings of poems by Alexey Tolstoy as “Amid the Din of the Ball”, the songs in Op. 38 all express longing for a beloved, with a poignancy that can only be enhanced for listeners who know something of the context in which they were composed. Tchaikovsky then spent the summer correcting the proofs of the piano score of Eugene Onegin. Alexandra Panaeva obtained a copy as soon it was published in October 1878, and found the music so extraordinarily moving that she had soon learnt Tatyana’s role by heart.
On 6 March 1879, she achieved her dream of becoming the first person to sing Tatyana at a high society concert performance of Eugene Onegin in St. Petersburg, with the Tsar’s nephew Grand Duke Konstantin substituting for the orchestra on the piano. She then persuaded her father to take her to the first staged performance of the opera by Conservatoire students at Moscow’s Maly Theatre a little over a week later. Their friend, the great piano virtuoso Anton Rubinstein invited them to sit in his box in the dress circle. When he learned to his astonishment that she had never met the composer, he contrived to go and entice Tchaikovsky to join him in the box, but the ruse backfired. The composer remained tightlipped, and made his apologies as soon as he could. Nor could Alexandra meet him at a celebratory dinner the following day, as her father was determined to take the train home back to St. Petersburg straight away.
Less than a week later, however, Alexandra received a visit from Anatoly. She learned that Tchaikovsky had taken the train back to St. Petersburg with his twin brothers, and wished to call. But there were conditions: he would only come to lunch if he could be accompanied by Modest and Anatoly, as well as two mutual friends from the Imperial School of Jurisprudence days, the poet and civil servant Alexey Apukhtin, and Alexander Zhedrinsky, a lawyer. Further, Tchaikovsky insisted that he be seated between his brothers at table, and that Alexandra should pay him as little attention as possible and not draw him into conversation.
It was certainly a memorable occasion. The twins kept their eyes fixed constantly on their brother, who sat silently in a state of embarrassment while the two friends, as decoys, maintained a flow of witty conversation. After lunch Alexandra was asked to sing, and Tchaikovsky sat down at the piano, but she was immediately warned not to approach. The twins again sat down on either side of their brother like faithful guards. Tchaikovsky requested Anatoly to ask her to sing something by Mozart, then emitted a deep sigh after she had performed arias from The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute, and asked Modest to request her to sing something else. Finally she was able to perform some of Tchaikovsky’s own songs, and he gradually become more animated, while still continuing to address her via his brothers.
When to her great surprise Pyotr Ilyich arrived unannounced to call on Alexandra the following day on his own, he had overcome his crippling shyness and was a different person – debonaire, lively, and charming. They began to forge a strong friendship. Anatoly fell in love with Alexandra all over again that spring, but was finally persuaded by his brother to give her an ultimatum, as a consequence of which he later married а wealthy linen merchant’s daughter from Kostroma. Tchaikovsky, meanwhile, had fallen in love with Alexandra Panaeva’s voice.
In March 1880 he attended the “all-Tchaikovsky” gala which took place in St. Petersburg, at which Alexandra sang a programme of his songs and “Tatyana’s Letter Scene”. Visiting Apukhtin after the dress rehearsal for this concert, Tchaikovsky suggested that he dedicate a poem to Panaeva. Apukhtin sat down with pencil and paper forthwith and wrote “Whether the Day Reigns”. Quickly scanning its short verses before leaving, Tchaikovsky returned a few days later with the composed song, which was later included in the set of Seven Romances, Op. 47, that he composed later that year and dedicated to Alexandra Panaeva.
Alexandra’s Tchaikovsky recitals at the Winter Palace must have played their part in the young Tsar Alexander III personally requesting that Eugene Onegin be staged by the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg. He did after all own them and control their repertoires (he was famous for striking out Boris Godunov with a blue pencil), and Tchaikovsky could not refuse. The experience of seeing and hearing Alexandra Panaeva perform had encouraged him to dream again about her taking the role of Tatyana, but in 1884 she became betrothed to his second cousin, and was not available.
The fourteenth performance of the season, on 16 January 1885, happened to take place on the day when Alexandra married Georgy Kartsov, a handsome officer in the most aristocratic regiment in St. Petersburg – the elite Chevalier Guards, founded by Catherine the Great. She was 32, he was 23. Apukhtin, who was enamoured with both of them, had made the introduction the year before, and he declaimed the poem he had written for them at the reception. Tchaikovsky accompanied the bride in a performance of two of his songs, this time without being bookended by his brothers, then headed to the opera house for Onegin, while the newlyweds departed that night for Nice. Olga, the first of their three children, was born on 21 October that year.
In September 1886, Alexandra Panaeva-Kartsova finally made her operatic debut in Gounod’s Faust at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan. She later joined starry Italian opera companies in London and in St. Petersburg in following seasons, but it was sadly too late to start a career on the stage. Konstantin Makovsky’s 1889 portrait of Alexandra shows the singer in her best guise, holding a score by Tchaikovsky. After the composer’s untimely death in 1893, she retired from the stage to become a teacher and raise her children: her first daughter was called Olga, so it was inevitable the second would be called Tatyana, like in Eugene Onegin.
Alexandra continued to teach after the Revolution, when she witnessed first the removal of most of Tchaikovsky’s music from concert and opera repertoires as pessimistic and bourgeois, and then its rehabilitation in 1940, on the centenary of his birth. She died at the age of 88, three months into the Leningrad Siege in December 1941. Her daughter Tatyana, who had cared for her, outlived her by four months. The place of their burial is unknown.
Rosamund Bartlett has written widely on Russian music, including on Tchaikovsky, for both scholarly publications and the programmes of the Royal Opera House and English National Opera, and led Opera Holland Park’s panel discussion of Eugene Onegin in February 2020. The author of Wagner and Russia, she is also a biographer and translator of Chekhov and Tolstoy.