Tchaikovsky Research

Undina (Ундина) is an opera in 3 acts (TH 2 ; ČW 2) [1], composed and orchestrated between January and July 1869, and adapted from a story by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (1777–1843). It was Tchaikovsky's second completed opera, and the only one not to have been given a complete performance. After re-using the music in other works he subsequently destroyed the score, but a few extracts were reconstructed after his death.


The opera was scored for solo voices, mixed chorus, and an orchestra comprising piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in B-flat), 2 bassoons + 4 horns (in F), 2 trumpets (in F), 3 trombones, tuba + 3 timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum + piano + harp, violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, and double basses [2].

The singing roles included:

  • Undina (Ундина )— soprano
  • Huldbrandt (Гульбранд) — tenor
  • Goldmann (Гольдман) — bass
  • Berthe (Берта) — mezzo-soprano
  • Berthalda (Бертальда) — mezzo-soprano
  • Duke (Герцог) — bass

Movements and Duration

Only three numbers have survived in full score (Nos. 1 to 3 below), while two other numbers from Act III are also known in some form (see the notes below).

[No. 1] Introduction (Интродукция)
Moderato assai
Re-used as the Introduction (No. 1) in The Snow Maiden
Act I [No. 2] Undina's Song (Песнь Ундины)
Водопад мой дядя, ручеек мой брат
Vodopad moy dyadya, rucheyek moy brat
Re-used as Lel's First Song (Act I, No. 6) in The Snow Maiden
[No. 3] Chorus (Хор)
Спасайтесь, спасайтесь
Spasaytes, spasaytes
Duet (Дуэт)
О, счастье, миг блаженный
O, schaste, mig blazhenny
Finale (Финал)
О, смерти час, последний час
O, smerti chas, posledniy chas
Act III [No. 4] Wedding Procession (Свабедное шествие)
[Andante marziale quasi Moderato]
Re-used in the second movement of Symphony No. 2
[No. 5] Duet of Undina and Huldbrandt (Дуэт Ундины и Гульбранда)
[Andante non troppo]
Ундина, забудь мои преступленья
Undina, zabud moi prestuplenya
Re-used in Var. V of the Dances of the Swans (Act II, No. 13) in the ballet Swan Lake

A concert performance of Nos. 1 to 3 lasts approximately 10 to 15 minutes.


Undina's libretto was compiled by Vladimir Sollogub (1813–1882), based on a translation by Vasily Zhukovsky (1783–1852) of the novel Undine (1811) by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (1777–1843).

The idea of composing a new opera occurred to Tchaikovsky while he was working on his first opera, The Voyevoda. In February 1868, he wrote to Anatoly Tchaikovsky about his wish to finish The Voyevoda by the summer, adding: "I have already another libretto in mind" [3]. The libretto for Undina had been written by Vladimir Sollogub for the composer Aleksey Lvov, whose opera of the same name premiered in 1848 in Saint Petersburg.


Act I. The fisherman Goldmann and his wife Berthe are sitting in their hut, worrying about the absence from home of their adopted daughter Undina, a mermaid. Suddenly Huldbrandt, a knight, arrives seeking shelter for the night. He tells them that he found himself lost in a dark forest, but was saved by a very beautiful young woman. Their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of Undina, whom Huldbrandt recognises from the forest. The knight, now forgetful of his fiancée Berthalda, confesses his love for Undina; the latter flirts with him, but then she flees. Huldbrandt falls asleep, and is awakened by Undina's reappearance. The two of them decide to marry; they leave the fisherman and his wife and make their way from the hut as a storm begins. The knight struggles over a waterfall, carrying Undina on his shoulder.

Act II. Huldbrandt's marriage to Undina has enraged the Duke, who is the adoptive father of the Knight's former fiancée, Berthalda. Undina comes with her father to attend Berthalda's birthday party. The latter is still in love with Huldbrandt, and very jealous of Undina. However, Huldbrandt also feels stirrings of love for Berthalda. Undina surprises them together, and she reveals that Berthalda is really the daughter of Goldmann and Berthe, Undina's own adoptive parents. The knight angrily drives Undina away, and she throws herself into the Danube. He wants to save her from certain death, but is restrained by the guests.

Act III. Huldbrandt is again in love with Undina and laments her death. But he is promised in marriage to Berthalda. The knight follows her reluctantly to the church, but the wedding procession is interrupted by the Duke, who says that Undina has visited him during the night, demanding that the wedding should be cancelled. The Duke is followed by the fisherman Goldmann who, on the same grounds, refuses consent for his daughter Berthalda to marry the knight. While Berthalda protests, Undina emerges from a well, and the wedding procession disperses in alarm. In the midst of the turmoil, Huldbrandt rushes in, greatly agitated, followed by Undina. After they sing a love duet, he collapses dead at her feet. Undina sings a lament over his body, and she is transformed into a fountain [4].


The first reference to Tchaikovsky's composition of the opera Undina dates from January 1869 (to Anatoly Tchaikovsky): "I have already begun to write another [opera], but I won't tell you what the subject is, because for the moment I want to keep the fact that I'm writing it a secret; everyone will be amazed to find out that during the summer... I've already written half the opera" [5]. On 15/27 February, Tchaikovsky told him: "I've set about Undina with great enthusiasm. Even now the greater part of the first act is ready" [6].' At the beginning of April he wrote to Modest Tchaikovsky: "I'm writing to you so infrequently now because all my free time is dedicated to an opera. I find the subject terribly fascinating, and I really want to finish it soon, so that I can start orchestrating it in a good mood in the summer" [7]. By mid/late April the rough draft of the opera was finished: "I'm now taking great pains over the instrumentation of the first act; the other two are already composed, and I will score them during the summer... This time I'm very pleased with my opera, and working enthusiastically" [8].

Even while he was working on the opera, Tchaikovsky began to petition for it to be produced On 19 April/1 May he wrote to Anatoly Tchaikovsky: "The other day I wrote to Gedeonov, asking whether my opera ("Undina") might be put on next season in Petersburg. Through his secretary he replied that my opera will be produced in November, if I send them the full score by September" [9].

In accordance with Stepan Gedeonov's instructions, Tchaikovsky finished the full score in July, and on 6/18 August sent it to the Saint Petersburg office of the Imperial Theatres" [10].


On 11/23 August 1869, Tchaikovsky told Anatoly Tchaikovsky: "The opera was sent to Saint Petersburg through Begichev, and now—silence; whether or not it's being put on, I've finished with it and have moved on to new work" [11].

The promise by the theatre's director, Stepan Gedeonov, to stage the opera in November was not fulfilled. In letters to Anatoly Tchaikovsky and Aleksandra Davydova, Tchaikovsky complained that he had heard nothing about his opera. On 18/30 November, he told Anatoly Tchaikovsky: "Yesterday I received dreadful news from Saint Petersburg—my opera is not going to be put on this season, because they are having trouble finding the time even to put on two others which were in the repertoire before mine... This news has come as a great blow to me, since I was very much counting on receiving my fee. It has also had a devastating effect on my morale, since at the moment I'm feeling a strong aversion to any form of composition, and I know that if this continues it could be months before I'm able to write anything. It seems that the Petersburg directorate only found out last week that my opera had been lying there for three and a half months" [12].

Tchaikovsky's hopes that the opera would be put on in the next season were not fulfilled, and Undina was never produced [13].

However, on 16/28 March 1870, at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre, Eduard Merten conducted extracts from the opera Undina — the Introduction, Undina's aria and the Finale from Act I (chorus of villagers and duet for Undina and Huldbrandt), with Aleksandra Aleksandrova-Kochetova as Undina, and Aleksandr Dodonov as Huldbrandt [14].

Critical Reception

In the "Musical Notes" column of the newspaper Moscow Register, a writer signing himself "P" reported on the forthcoming concert by Eduard Merten, and noted in particular that the performance would include "four extracts from P. I. Tchaikovsky's new opera Undina, which has become highly regarded in the musical world, even before it has been produced on the stage" [15].

César Cui wrote of this in the Saint Petersburg Gazette: "Undina, Mr. Tchaikovsky's second opera, has been rejected, and will not be performed; As I heard, it was turned down because, of it supposedly tended towards ultra-modern music, carelessly scored, and melodically deficient. I admit that all this has come as no little surprise to me. Mr Tchaikovsky's first opera The Voyevoda was given an adequate production in Moscow, yet the author's second opera remains unknown, once again submitted for discussion by the committee but not approved for production!... I don't know Undina at all, but I am familiar with Mr Tchaikovsky's talent as a composer; he is an outstanding orchestrator and melodist, and he is completely devoid of modern operatic and vocal tendencies..." [16].

On 23 April/5 May 1870 Tchaikovsky told his brother Anatoly: "In spite of its roughly hewn libretto, the story of Undina was well-suited to my temperament, it came very quickly and easily" [17].

Looking back at Undina some years later, Tchaikovsky saw many deficiencies in his opera. In a letter to Nadezhda von Meck of 27 November/9 December 1879, he wrote: "I stubbornly refused to admit my misunderstanding of the essential requirements for opera, and Undina (the opera I burned), The Oprichnik and Vakula were all deficient in this respect. Little wonder that I have learned my lesson" [18].


The manuscript of the opera was misplaced by the directorate of the Imperial Theatres, but was later found by the publisher Vasily Bessel. In 1873, while working on the music for Aleksandr Ostrovsky's story The Snow Maiden, Tchaikovsky wanted to use music from Undina, and so he asked Bessel to send him the full score of the opera: "Send by post or bring my Undina to me (which I am eternally grateful to you for rescuing); I have great need of it" [19].

As noted above, individual movements from the music to Undina were used by him in other works: partly in the music for The Snow Maiden, the Symphony No. 2, and in the ballet Swan Lake. Shortly after this, in 1875 or 1876, he destroyed the full score of Undina.

In 1878 Tchaikovsky told Nadezhda von Meck: "While rummaging through my sister's library, I came upon Zhukovsky's Undina, and re-read this tale, which I loved terribly in my youth. I should tell you that in 1869 I even wrote an opera on this subject and submitted it to the theatre directorate. The directors rejected it. At the time I considered this decision to be very offensive and unjust, but subsequently I became disenchanted with this opera, and was very relieved that it did not find its way on to the public stage. Three years ago I destroyed the full score" [20].

However, the extracts from Undina performed in 1870 survived in manuscript copies, which are now preserved in the Klin House-Museum Archive (a1, Nos. 230–261). The same archive also holds Tchaikovsky's sketches for Huldbrandt's death scene in Act III (a1, No. 3) [21].


Undina's Aria and the Finale from Act I were published for the first time (full and vocal-piano reductions) in volume 2 of Tchaikovsky's Complete Collected Works, edited by Rostislav Berberov (1950).

Series 1, Volume 3 of the Academic Edition of the Complete Works, edited by Aleksandra Maksimova (2016) includes the full and vocal-piano reductions of all the surviving excerpts (i.e. the Introduction, Undina's Aria, the Act I finale, Wedding March, and the reconstructed duet for Undina and Huldbrandt).

Related Works

The Introduction to Undina was re-used in the same capacity in Tchaikovsky's music for The Snow Maiden (1873), while Undina's Song from Act I was re-used, with different words and orchestration, as Lel's First Song (Act I, No. 6) in The Snow Maiden.

According to Modest Tchaikovsky and Nikolay Kashkin, the music for Huldbrandt and Berthalda's wedding procession in Act III was reworked in the second movement of the Symphony No. 2 [22]. The duet from Huldbrandt's death scene in the same act was reworked in the fifth variation from the Dances of the Swans in Act II (No. 13) of the ballet Swan Lake [23].

Tchaikovsky subsequently considered the subject of Undina for a new opera (1878) and ballet (1886), neither of which were ultimately composed.


See: Discography

A rare concert performance of the surviving numbers can be viewed on YouTube (published 23 November 2015). This was recorded on 13 November 2015 at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow, with the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra and the Chorus of the Popov Academy of Choral Arts, conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev. Soloists: Anna Aglatova (Undina), Aleksey Tataritsev (tenor), with Mikhail Fillipov reciting extracts from Zhukovsky's story (in Russian). The musical items are:

  • Introduction (5:08)
  • Undina's Aria (10:40)
  • Act I finale (17:30)
  • March (25:45)
  • Duet for Undina and Huldbrandt (34:15)

External Links

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Undine' in ČW.
  2. The disposition of the orchestra can only be inferred from the surviving excerpts.
  3. Letter 113 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, written between 12/24 and 17/29 February 1868.
  4. From The Tchaikovsky Handbook. A guide to the man and his music, vol. 1 (2002), p. 16.
  5. Letter 129 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, mid/late January 1869.
  6. Letter 131 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 15/27 February-16/28 February 1869.
  7. Letter 135 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 3/15 April 1869.
  8. Letter 136 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 19 April/1 May 1869.
  9. See Letter 136 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 19 April/1 May 1869.
  10. See Letter 144 to Pavel Fyodorov, 6/18 August 1869.
  11. Letter 145 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 11/23 August 1869.
  12. Letter 160 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 18/30 November 1869. See also Letter 161 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 18/30 November 1869, and Letter 169, 19/31 December 1869, and Letter 179, 5/17 February 1870, to Aleksandra Davydova.
  13. See Letter 183 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 2/14–3/15 March 1870.
  14. See Letter 183 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 2/14–3/15 March 1870, and Letter 184 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 7/19 March 1870.
  15. Музыкальная хроника (1870).
  16. Музыкальные заметки (1870).
  17. Letter 189 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 23 April/5 May 1870.
  18. Letter 1358 to Nadezhda von Meck, 27 November/9 December–28 November/10 December 1879.
  19. Letter 293 to Vasily Bessel, 7/19 March 1873.
  20. Letter 820 to Nadezhda von Meck, 30 April/12 May 1878.
  21. Sketches for this duet were published in Оперное творчество Чайковского (1957) in a facsimile (pp. 48–49) and transcription by Boleslav Rabinovich (pp. 53–56). In 1958, Vissarion Shebalin reconstructed the duet from these sketches.
  22. See Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1900), p. 416, and Nikolay Kashkin, Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1896), p. 87.
  23. See Nikolay Kashkin, Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1896), p. 87.