About Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades

By Roger Hecht, Orchestra Manager

Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky was Russia’s first truly professional composer and the first to achieve fame outside his country. Though musically precocious as a youth, he attended St. Petersburg's School of Jurisprudence and began a career as a civil servant. When the lure of music proved too strong, he enrolled at the new St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862. The Conservatory’s focus on the Germanic style of composition helped make Tchaikovsky the link between that approach and the Russian. That involved adapting Russian harmony to more varied practices, expanding blocky but colorful orchestration toward the more fluid Germanic scoring, and blending the Russian treatment of melody by repetition, sequences, modulations, etc., with German development.

Tchaikovsky’s life was full of emotional turmoil. His mother’s death devastated him, and revising his First Symphony led to a nervous breakdown. Keeping his homosexuality private was stressful, though he had support from family, friends, and particularly his brother, Modeste, also a homosexual. Relations with women were tenuous. An engagement to a Belgian soprano fizzled. Marriage to unbalanced former student Antonina Miliukova,  perhaps to mask his homosexuality, was a disaster that he abandoned three months later. There was no divorce, but Tchaikovsky was beset for years with Miliukova’s demands for money and reconciliation. His most positive and important relationship with a woman was with Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow and supporter of the arts. The two carried on a fourteen-year relationship from 1876 entirely through letters. Von Meck paid him a stipend through most of that period, but even more important was her role as a confidant providing emotional support, insight, and encouragement. She was also an advocate and friend of Debussy, who came to admire Tchaikovsky. Personal issues continued to plague Tchaikovsky in the 1880s, when he was a major composer with many major works completed and more to come. A few of his friends died around that time, stoking fears for his own mortality to the point where he wrote up his will. Several works, including Francesca da Rimini, Eugene Onegin, and the last three symphonies, revealed the effect of those fears and emotions on his life.


Another such work was Queen of Spades [1]. The story of Tchaikovsky’s journey to that opera is not entirely clear. After the close of the Italian theater, Director of the Imperial Theaters, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, wanted to commission three operas based on Alexander Pushkin to stimulate Russian opera. Tchaikovsky was his choice for Queen of Spades, the Pushkin novella, but the composer declined, either for lack of interest or because of criticism from conservatives for his daring to set Pushkin’s iconic Evgeny Onegin. Vsevolozhsky then engaged Nikolai Klenovsky. When Klenovsky’s slow progress drove his librettist to quit in 1887, the Director asked Modeste Tchaikovsky to provide a libretto, and apparently engaged another composer as a backup. Modeste preferred that his brother compose the opera, but Pyotr again declined, probably because he was composing another one, The Enchantress. Only then did Modeste join Klenovsky. After The Enchantress failed, an angry Tchaikovsky was determined to produce a major work to avenge the bad notices. Queen of Spades might have been an option, but he decided to compose an instrumental work, his Fifth Symphony (1888).

In December 1889, Tchaikovsky finally turned to Queen of Spades—his tenth and penultimate opera, his third based on Pushkin, and the first composed for singers of his choosing: Nikolai and Medea Figner. The problem was finding relief from distractions so he could work. Production ills were dogging Sleeping Beauty, and the mixed response to its January 1890 premiere included a mild “very nice” from the Czar that Tchaikovsky took as a sign he might be losing Imperial favor. Von Meck was ill, and their correspondence was falling off. The last straw was a letter from Miliukova demanding they reconcile, or she would expose his homosexuality.

In January, the now desperate Tchaikovsky fled to Florence, Italy with Modeste’s partial libretto and some Italian opera scores. The Pushkin story had gripped  him by this time, and he worked with such passion and total immersion that composing the confrontation between Gherman and the Countess horrified him, and Gherman’s death drew tears. After forty-four days, he completed the vocal score to what he knew was a masterpiece. Bored with Florence, he moved on to Rome to begin the orchestration. When his celebrity caught up with him there, he returned to Russia with a fresh appreciation of Florence’s tranquility that he later expressed in Souvenirs de Florence. In December 1890, Queen of Spades premiered successfully in St. Petersburg. Performances in Kiev and other cities followed, including premieres in Vienna and New York City conducted by Gustav Mahler.

Mixed in with all this were two major events of finality. While in Florence, Tchaikovsky learned that Miliukova had demanded a job at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Embarrassed and frustrated, he cut her allowance in retaliation. She never bothered him again. The second event did not turn out so well. In October, von Meck ended her stipend, claiming financial problems, though the cause was probably family difficulties. Tchaikovsky no longer had a great need for her money, but he was so hurt that he cut off their correspondence, creating an estrangement and loss that devastated them both.


Pushkin’s original Queen of Spades is a short, classically structured and cynical novella. Sparely stated, Gherman uses Liza, an attendant to a Countess, to gain access to her mistress and learn the secret of winning at faro. When Liza discovers his treachery, she leaves him and marries a civil servant. Gherman loses at faro, goes mad, and is institutionalized.

Tchaikovsky boldly took that story into the world of grand opera, with a libretto by Modeste, supplemented by texts from other writers including the composer. Liza becomes the Countess’s granddaughter, unhappily engaged to a prince. Gherman loves her from the start and gambles to win money so he’d be worthy of her. His obsession over the Countess’s secret does not strike until he hears Tomsky’s ballad about it. When Liza learns the truth, she dramatically kills herself. Gherman stabs himself at the gaming table after pulling the losing Queen of Spades. With his last words he declares his love for Liza and his repentance to the cuckolded prince. An interesting example of how such measures work in the theater is contained in Tchaikovsky’s explanation to his brother about why he kept Liza around so long. “Without her, the third act would be without women—that is boring…And  the audience must know what happened to Liza.”

In addition to those changes, Tchaikovsky added scenes derived from Mozart and some of the scores he took with him to Florence. He also changed the setting from the 19th to the 18th Century. Given Pushkin’s iconic status in Russia, it is no surprise that the changes were met with criticism in many quarters. The Soviet Union even sponsored a 1935 Leningrad production that set the opera to reflect Pushkin’s original.

Queen of Spades draws from many sources, including folk, popular, and salon music, along with Russian chant (composed by Tchaikovsky), the Bible, and Freemasonry. With his use of whole tones denoting otherworldliness in the scene with Gherman and the Countess, Tchaikovsky looks forward to Debussy and the 20th Century. There are even touches of Wagner’s leitmotif and parallels to Tristan und Isolde: helpless love, a maddened male lover, a royal rival, and supernatural influences—interesting, given Tchaikovsky’s public disdain for Wagner and Tristan.

Despite its forward looking nature, Queen of Spades is organized in an old-fashioned “numbers” structure of set arias, choruses, etc. Considerable attention is paid to balancing: spirited beginnings to Acts I and III; the quintet about foreboding in Act I and a septet about gambling in Act III; the storms in Acts I and III; surprise at the beginning and end of the opera that Gherman is about to gamble, etc. There are many contrasts involving class and mood, as well as devices like the cheery but eerie “chorus of maids and hangers-on” that accompanies the Countess as she goes about the mundane task of retiring to bed.

The result is a study in deception, ambiguity, and hidden meanings. Among the opera’s more prominent qualities is a feeling of evolution: light to darkness, real world to the “other” world, liveliness to tragedy, life to death, etc. Thus, we see candles doused, a storm darken the sky, three people die at night, specters, ghosts, etc. Prescience is in the air right from a prelude that introduces a motif from Tomsky’s ballad (to the rhythm of a figure from the Fifth Symphony), the “tri karti” subject in the brass, and the love theme. In the early quintet, each major character sings of fears that prove out; storms warn of worse to follow [2]. A motif from Tomsky’s ballad appears when Gherman confronts the Countess in Act II. Polina’s song about love leading to death appears in Gherman’s declaration of love to Liza. Later, a phrase is expanded into a dirge in Liza’s final scene. There are questions of free will. Did Polina want to sing such a morbid song? Did Gherman want to shift focus from Liza to the Countess? Even time is ambiguous, for example when the Countess sings an aria from Gretry’s Richard the Lion Hearted, written about a dozen years earlier than when the Countess lived but that she claimed to have sung decades earlier. The opera is also a cauldron of numerology, with the numbers assigned to the “winning” cards: 3, 7, Ace (1) the most important, along with 5. Thus, musicologist Simon Morrison sums up the opera’s structure as “3 acts, 7 parts, 1 score.” The “tri-karti” motif is 3 syllables, there are phrases of 5 and 7 syllables, and so it goes [3].

Queen of Spades may be Tchaikovsky’s most forward looking work [4]. Some have associated it with Russian Symbolism, a contemporary literary movement that sought to develop new ways to express language and use the imagery of words. Richard Taruskin called it Russia’s first Symbolist opera [5]. Morrison wrote that it “played out all of [the Symbolists’] creative obsessions: the relationship between fortune and fate, dream and reality, societal death and societal rebirth…[It also] helped convert the founders of the World of Art circle from literature and painting to opera and ballet”[6].

Not long after writing two great pieces dominated by death, Queen of Spades and the Pathetique, Tchaikovsky met his own demise at age 53 from drinking water during a cholera epidemic. Like the opera, his death was enshrouded in mystery. Theories include negligence, suicide, and execution by students from the School of Jurisprudence afraid of being tainted by the composer’s homosexuality. Whatever the cause, Tchaikovsky died at a time when Queen of Spades, the Pathetique, Iolanta, and Nutcracker showed that their creator was expanding his technique, harmony, and subtlety of orchestration. Had he lived longer, Tchaikovsky might have had an influence on early 20th Century composers similar to what he had on Russian music at the beginning of his career. As it was, he at the very least influenced Faure, Debussy, Scriabin, and Shostakovich. Like Mozart and Mahler, Tchaikovsky died too soon [7].


[1]Or Pique Dame. French was commonly spoken by the Russian aristocracy, so some works were published with French titles. More idiomatic is La Dame de Pique, Jacques Halevy’s opera on the subject. Pique Dame may reflect the Russian Pikovaya Dama.

[2]Verdi used a quartet and a storm in Rigoletto to similar purposes.

[3]Roland John Wylie’s Tchaikovsky discusses the numerology aspect of this opera in his analysis of the work.

[4]Queen of Spades and Evgeny Onegin are considered Tchaikovsky’s two greatest operas, but most of the others are worth investigating. In many ways, Tchaikovsky is one of opera’s best kept secrets.

[5]Richard Taruskin, “Another World: why Queen of Spades is the great symbolist opera” (Opera News, 12/23/1995).

[6]Simon Morrison, Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement. Morrison also provides a long study on the opera.

[7]Other good sources on this opera are  Anthony Holden’s Tchaikovsky: a Biography, David Brown’s Tchaikovsky: the Man and His Music, and Francis Maes’s History of Russian Music.