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Tchaikovsky A-Z: Letter P

Letter P
Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)

The Russian writer Alexander Pushkin suffered the same fate which befell Lensky in his verse novel, Yevgeny Onegin (the story which Tchaikovsky turned into his own most successful opera): he died as a result of a duel.

Alexander PushkinMoscow-born Pushkin is considered the greatest of all Russian poets - the writer who introduced the vernacular into his poems and plays, expanding the vocabulary and laying the foundations for modern Russian literature. Published from the age of 15, his talent was widely recognised by the time he graduated from the Imperial Lyceum at Tsarskoe Selo, near St Petersburg, where he based himself; Pushkin's radical, reforming ideas brought him into conflict with the authorities, resulting in periods of exile in southern Russia (where he took up the cause of Greek independence) and at his mother's estate in the north. Pushkin successfully petitioned Tsar Nicholas I for release from government control; but since dissidents involved in the December uprising of 1825 were known to have drawn inspiration from Pushkin's early writings, he was unable to travel or publish freely.

Pushkin's admission to court circles was circumscribed by the low rank assigned to him by the Tsar; this granted few privileges other than attendance at court balls at which his wife, Natalya Goncharova, could be admired, not least by the Tsar - Pushkin regarded this as an expressly contrived humiliation. This and mounting debt led to the fateful challenge issued to Natalya's alleged lover.

Yeygeny Onegin was published serially over an eight-year period, and was completed in 1831. Tchaikovsky's opera was premiered in 1879, but the earliest Pushkin-inspired opera was Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila; throughout the 19th century composers continued to draw inspiration from Pushkin's stories: among the best-known operas which resulted were Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Dargomyzhsky's The Stone Guest, and three Rimsky-Korsakov operas: Mozart and Salieri, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, and The Golden Cockerel. Tchaikovsky's other 'repertoire' operas - Mazeppa and The Queen of Spades - are also based on Pushkin. His influence continues: Peter Shaffer's play and film, Amadeus, was based on Pushkin's Mozart and Salieri.
© Graeme Kay/BBC

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