The Glorious Music of Onegin

By Caroline Dickie
October 3, 2023

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Svetlana Lunkina in Onegin. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.

At least 75 years separates Onegin from the great legacy ballets of the 19th century, but devotees of John Cranko’s 20th century production – and they are plentiful – rank it among the best full-length works in the classical canon. With good reason. Onegin has literary roots in Alexander Pushkin, five substantial principal roles, a sumptuous design and a level of musicality that feels exceptional, even for dance. Contrary to expectation, the score retains none of the music from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. Instead, Cranko opted for a selection of Tchaikovsky’s other works arranged specifically for his ballet.

“Cranko’s musical arranger, Kurt-Heinz Stolze, turned to Tchaikovsky’s lesser-known opera, Cherevichki, and to smaller more intimate works for solo piano, re-arranging and orchestrating them for Onegin,” says Music Director and Principal Conductor David Briskin. ”The result is a pastiche of gorgeous and expansive Russian melodies that weave their way through the emotional world that Onegin explores.”

That world is decidedly human, comprised not of fairies or mythical villains, but complex individuals. The story hinges on the unrequited love of Tatiana and Onegin and the relationships of passion and friendship in their midst, encompassing Olga, Lensky and Prince Gremin. Their overlapping experiences of love and loss are the substance of the ballet and the music reflects this. In his note on the score, Stolze writes: “In line with the ballet’s dramatic action, which, in Onegin is carried out almost exclusively by the main characters, I felt it was best to treat the orchestra on the whole in more chamber-music-like fashion than is usually the case in Tchaikovsky’s original ballets, and to reserve the use of the full orchestra mainly for the dramatic climaxes and endings.”

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Guillaume Cote in Onegin. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.

One such ending is Tatiana’s farewell pas de deux with Onegin, which occurs many years after he rejects her innocent declaration of love. This poignant duet echoes the pas de deux in Act I, when a young Tatiana envisions Onegin reciprocating her love. But the movements feel entirely different by Act III, the shadow of time and tragedy imbuing them with a sense of loss rather than possibility. Fittingly, Stolze used a duet from Romeo and Juliet as a sketch for the main theme in the pas de deux from Act I and chose a darker musical reference for Act III.

“A stroke of genius and imagination, Stolze sets the end of the ballet to an excerpted arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s tone poem Francesca da Rimini, based on a section of Dante’s Inferno from his epic Divine Comedy,” says David Briskin. “In these passages, historical figures overcome by sexual desire come to an unhappy ending.”

Stolze’s arrangement supports the exquisite symmetry of Onegin, with its many pairings, mirror imagery and twin love letters that cast a line to the past. As Stolze notes, the concept of the leitmotif – a repeated musical theme – allowed for similar connections to be made in the score: “The dramatic structure of the ballet required a continuity so that the different pieces had to be connected. For this reason, some of the themes were used like Leitmotivs. In their recurrence, they are often changed harmonically and rhythmically. Some scenes are accompanied by free variations of themes cited earlier in the score.”

Ultimately, the perfect union of music and storytelling in Onegin rests largely on Cranko’s gifts as a choreographer – his restraint and depth of feeling, his sensitivity to character and, above all, his musicality. “Cranko is deeply musical in his phrasing and his simplicity,” says Hope Muir, Joan and Jerry Lozinski Artistic Director. “There is never any excess and you are never left wanting more.”

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Heather Ogden in Onegin. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

Onegin is onstage November 22 – 26, 2023. Learn more

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