Tchaikovsky considered writing an opera Béla (Бэла) (TH 233 ; ČW 463), after the first part of the novel A Hero of Our Time (Герой нашего времени) (1839) by Mikhail Lermontov, on at least two occasions between October 1889 and March 1893, with either Anton Chekhov or Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko as possible librettists.

On 15/27 October 1889, the composer visited the playwright Anton Chekhov in Moscow to thank the writer personally for dedicating to him his new collection of stories Gloomy People (Хмурые люди), which was soon to be published. It appears that amongst other things they discussed a possible opera libretto, although it is not known which subjects were considered. The composer's library contains a collection of stories by Chekhov, inscribed by the author on 14/26 October 1889: "To Petr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, from his future librettist".

Two months later, on 19/31 January 1890, Modest Tchaikovsky wrote to the composer from Florence: "I've seen Chekhov on two occasions... He wants to suggest to you Lermontov's Béla for an opera subject" [1]. Unfortunately the composer's response is not known, but Mikhail Chekhov recalled a meeting between his brother Anton Chekhov and Tchaikovsky: "I remember both of them discussing the contents of an intended libretto for an opera Béla, which Tchaikovsky was preparing to compose. He had wanted the libretto to be written for him after Lermontov by my brother Anton. Béla was to be a soprano, Pechorin—a baritone, Maksim Maksimovich—a tenor, Kazbich—bass. "Only, you know, Anton Pavlovich", said Tchaikovsky, "there must be no processions with marches. Speaking candidly, I do not like marches" [2].

Nothing more was heard of Béla until 1892, when press reports appeared in Moscow and Saint Petersburg that the composer was about to write an opera on this subject. In April 1892, Tchaikovsky was interviewed for the Moscow newspaper Daily News (Новости дня), when he was asked: "What truth is there in the rumour that you are composing an opera based on Lermontov's Béla and that the libretto is being written for you by V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko?". "Yes, Vasily Ivanovich, whose acquaintance I recently made in Moscow, very much tried to talk me into writing an opera on this subject", the composer replied, "In view of his exhortations I suggested to Vasily Ivanovich that he should draw up a libretto. Anyway, once I have returned from my trip abroad I shall meet up with him again" [3],

On 17 February/1 March 1893, the Odessan Herald (Одесский вестник) newspaper reported that "We are pleased to be able to pass on some information concerning the new grand opera Béla by P. I. Tchaikovsky, on which the talented composer is at present working. According to the author, the opera will not be ready until the next season, so that its production on the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg will not take place this year. The successful composition is being hindered by the disruption caused to Pyotr Ilyich's work as a result of his frequent tours. The title role is written for a dramatic soprano. Pechorin, the hero of the opera, is a baritone, as in Yevgeny Onegin. The opera is in 4 acts" [4].

It is possible that the source for this story was V. P. Sokolnikov, who was present in January 1893 when Tchaikovsky attended a dinner with artists from the Odessa Opera Theatre. Sokolnikov recalled that on this occasion, Tchaikovsky showed him a scenario for the opera Béla, and even played some of the themes from the opera [5]. However, there are no later references to the subject.

Notes and References

  1. Letter from Modest Tchaikovsky to the composer, 19/31 January 1890 — Klin House-Museum Archive.
  2. M. P. Chekhov, Вокруг Чехова (1933), p. 134. Mikhail Chekhov, in his memoirs, suggests that this conversation about Béla took place during Tchaikovsky's visit to Chekhov on 14/26 October 1889, but all the evidence suggests that on that day they merely agreed to work together on an opera without actually having decided on a subject.
  3. See With P. I. Tchaikovsky (TH 323).
  4. Одесский вестник (17 February 1893).
  5. Quoted in Музыкальное наследие Чайковского. Из историй его произведений (1958), p. 147.