The Captain's Daughter

Tchaikovsky Research

The Captain's Daughter (Капитанская дочка) was the title of an unrealised opera (TH 223 ; ČW 460) which Tchaikovsky considered between January 1885 and May 1888. The libretto was to have been written by Ippolit Shpazhinsky, after the novel of the same name (1836) by Aleksandr Pushkin.

The subject of The Captain's Daughter was suggested to Tchaikovsky by Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the Director of the Imperial Theatres, in January 1885. Vladimir Pogozhev later recalled that "Apparently there were considerable limitations for creativity in this work, since it was impossible to avoid a musical development of the Pugachev rebellion, a sensitive topic at that time. This problem caused the composer continual doubt and hesitation. Vsevolozhsky, notwithstanding his customary modesty and shyness when dealing directly with the Emperor, was so carried away with the idea of staging The Captain's Daughter that he decided to discuss with the Emperor the creative difficulties presented by the Pugachev rebellion... The permission was granted. But Pyotr Ilyich was totally absorbed at this time in his ideas for reworking his opera Vakula the Smith as Cherevichki and, primarily, in composing The Enchantress. The plot of The Captain's Daughter apparently did not inspire him" [1].

Tchaikovsky wrote to Emiliya Pavlovskaya on 14/26 March 1885: "As for The Captain's Daughter, I can tell you that if some day I manage to find a librettist who is sufficiently skilled to cope with the difficult task of transforming it into an operatic libretto, then I shall without fail, and gladly, set about it. But for the time being I am counting on Shpazhinsky's The Enchantress. The latter is now busy turning it into a libretto" [2].

On 21 April/3 May 1885, Tchaikovsky wrote to Pavel Pereletsky regarding The Captain's Daughter "I have actively been discussing the subject of "The Captain's Daughter" with some people in the world of theatre — but these discussions have led to nothing, because although I like a great deal in Pushkin's novel, the Pugachev element frightens me, and on mature reflection I have decided to put aside the idea of writing an opera on this subject" [3].

However, Vsevolozhsky continued his attempts to persuade Tchaikovsky to write the opera, and he even engaged Ippolit Shpazhinsky to write the libretto. The latter was enthusiastic, but writing to Tchaikovsky on 11/23 April 1888 he pointed out that "the draft scenario would have to be approved by the authorities, which, given your contacts in Petersburg, should not be too difficult to organize. The censorship on its own would never allow Pugachev on the stage, but in my scenario he appears in the 1st, 3rd, and 4th acts. As for Catherine [the Great], it is the same of course, yet she is essential for the final scene" [4].

Reports appeared in the press that after Tchaikovsky had completed work on The Enchantress, he would be starting work on The Captain's Daughter. "Everything that is written in the newspapers concerning my new works is false", Tchaikovsky told Nadezhda von Meck on 24 April/6 May 1888. "I really did once consider, and am still considering, an opera on the subject of The Captain's Daughter; I really also considered taking up a suggestion from the Director of Theatres to write music to a ballet Undina, but these are just possibilities, and I have not decided anything" [5].

On 11/23 May 1888, Tchaikovsky wrote to Ivan Vsevolozhsky: "On the subject of The Captain's Daughter, something strange happened to me recently: I suddenly, and I believe irrevocably, feel cold towards it. This happened after I re-read the story while I was in Tiflis, and from that moment I could not feel warmly or inspired by the characters in The Captain's Daughter. And without such warm feelings, I can produce nothing. Besides this, Shpazhinsky alarmed me, writing that he could not produce a libretto for The Captain's Daughter with fewer than 5 enormous acts!!!" [6].

By 30 May/11 June 1888, Tchaikovsky told Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich:

I am not writing [an opera] The Captain's Daughter and it is hardly likely that I shall ever do so. Upon mature deliberation I have come to the conclusion that this is not an operatic subject. It is much too fragmentary, it requires far too many conversations, explanations, and actions which are not susceptible of musical illustration. Moreover, the heroine Marya Ivanovna is insufficiently interesting and original, because she is just an irreproachably good and honest girl, and nothing more — and that is not enough for music. When dividing the scenario into acts and scenes it turned out that there would have to be an awfully great deal of these, no matter how much one strives for brevity. However, the most important obstacle (at least for me, since it is quite possible that it wouldn't bother someone else at all) is Pugachev, the Pugachev rebellion, Berda, and all these Khlopushkas, Chikas, and so on [7]. I feel incapable of portraying them artistically using musical colours. Perhaps it is a feasible task, but I'm just not up to it. Finally, in spite of the most favourable conditions, I don't think it would be possible to have Pugachev appear onstage. I mean, dispensing with him is impossible, and he would have to be portrayed as he comes across in Pushkin's novel, that is, essentially as a surprisingly likeable villain. I think that however well-disposed the censorship may be, it will find difficulty in passing a stage production from which the spectator will come away utterly enchanted by Pugachev. In a novel that is possible, but in a drama or opera hardly so — at least not in our country [8].

Tchaikovsky's final words on the subject were written to Ivan Vsevolozhsky on 13/25 August 1888:

I have firmly rejected "The Captain's Daughter", at least in the form of this story devised by Shpazhinsky. Firstly, he firmly declines to do it any differently, while at the same time he comes up with an opera of absolutely impossible duration, in six acts with a multitude of scenes, with such fractured, complex action, that it would take more than my whole lifetime to write all this music. Secondly, I do not know why, but I have cooled not towards "The Captain's Daughter" itself, but towards all terre-à-terre [9] subjects. For some time I have been drawn towards subjects not of this world, where jam is not boiled, people aren't executed, mazurkas aren't danced, no-one is drunk, no petitions are served, etc. etc. [10]

Notes and References

  1. See Tchaikovsky through others' eyes (1999), p. 145.
  2. Letter 2672 to Emiliya Pavlovskaya, 14/26 March 1885.
  3. Letter 2690 to Pavel Pereletsky, 21 April/3 May 1885.
  4. Letter from Ippolit Shpazhinsky to Tchaikovsky, 11/23 April 1888.
  5. Letter 3553 to Nadezhda von Meck, 24 April/6 May 1888.
  6. Letter 3566 to Ivan Vsevolozhsky, 11/23 May 1888.
  7. The Don Cossack Emelyan Pugachev (1742-1775), leader of the rebellion named after him which swept through east and south-east Russia in 1773, established one of his camps in the settlement of Berda. Khlopushka and Chika were the nicknames of two of his lieutenants. The rebel forces were mainly drawn from the peasantry who were keen to take revenge on the gentry after centuries of exploitation.
  8. Letter 3578 to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, 30 May/11 June 1888.
  9. "Terre-à-terre" (French) = 'down to earth'.
  10. Letter 3643 to Ivan Vsevolozhsky, 13/25 August 1888.