Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky / Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский

May 7, 1840 [O. S. April 25*] (Kamsko-Votkinsk, Vyatka Oblast, Russia) – November 6, 1893 [O.S. October 25*] (St. Petersburg, Russia) * Russia employed a Julian calendar (indicated by O.S., or Old Style) until 1918, when the Soviet Union switched to the Gregorian calendar.

“If this opera won’t be a masterpiece in general, it will be my masterpiece! Its simplicity of style is absolute. The forms are uncluttered,” Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modeste in January 1879. Hard at work on his sixth opera, The Maid of Orléans (Russian: Орлеанская дева, Orléanskaja deva), the composer was simultaneously composing and adapting several literary sources for the libretto. His work as a music critic (1867-1878) had allowed him to travel widely, including to Wagner’s inaugural Ring cycle in Bayreuth. He appreciated the staging, but not the music, calling it “unlikely nonsense… through which sparkle unusually beautiful and astonishing details.”

This lesser-known dramatic work by one of our most beloved Romantic symphonists, composed just after his Eugene Onegin (1879), is scored for soloists, mixed chorus, organ, harp, an optional military band, and a typical Romantic orchestra. It was composed between December 1878 and March 1879 and orchestrated between April and August 1879 (with revisions in December 1880). After its premiere on 13/25 February 1881 at the Mariinsky Theatre, further adjustments were made in 1882. It was the first of his operas to be heard outside of Russia.

Based on the historical legend of Joan of Arc, the four-act Maid of Orléans represents Tchaikovsky’s closest attempt at the most lucrative and crowd-pleasing genre of his day, Parisian grand opera. After its premiere, the opera was attacked by Tchaikovsky’s enemies (above all, the composer César Cui) as a craven sellout to internationalism. They criticized the brassy ceremony, historical figures, gargantuan choruses, garish spectacle, German source for the libretto, French setting, and especially the Act II ballet (often excised for the sake of concision and dramatic unity in modern productions). But Tchaikovsky’s music sounds more Wagnerian than Meyerbeerian. It shares with Wagner’s opera Lohengrin huge choral scenes, heroic tests, a medieval religious story, and male figures who try to undermine the hero’s mission (Friedrich and Ortrud in Lohengrin; Thibaud in The Maid of Orléans).

Tchaikovsky hoped The Maid of Orléans would be considered his greatest contribution to the operatic canon, combining French and German styles with contemporary Russian concert music: “I have come to the conclusion that opera must be the sort of music that is the most accessible of all. Operatic style should relate to symphonic and chamber music, like decorative paintings to academic ones. Of course it does not follow from this that operatic music should be the most banal or most vulgar. No! It is not about the quality of thoughts but the style, the means of expression.” Tchaikovsky’s vivid and splendidly paced scenes, thrilling choral writing, and onstage brass bands show him to be a master of the same techniques that thrilled the audiences of Meyerbeer, Verdi, Wagner, and (later) Puccini.

The Russian libretto was inspired by Friedrich Schiller’s Die Jungfrau von Orléans (1801, translated by Zhukovsky). Tchaikovsky developed the text himself, consulting Jules Barbier’s five-act historical play Jeanne d’Arc (1873, with choral and incidental music by Gounod), Auguste Mermet’s libretto for his own four-act opera (1876), and Henri Wallon’s biography of Joan of Arc. Tchaikovsky modeled his dramatic technique on the French writer Eugène Scribe, and he dedicated the opera to its first conductor, Eduard Nápravník (1839–1916), chief conductor of the Imperial Theatres in Saint Petersburg.

A showpiece for soprano (or mezzo-soprano, depending on the version), the cast is led by seven characters with additional soloists emerging from French crowds, military groups, and angelic choruses. The most important characters are Joan of Arc (Иоанна д’Арк, soprano or mezzo-soprano); her father Thibaut d’Arc (Тибо д’Арк, bass); the uncrowned Dauphin of France, Charles VII (Король Карл VII, tenor); the Dauphin’s mistress Agnès Sorel (Агнесса Сорель, soprano); the French knight Dunois (Дюнуа, baritone); the Burgundian knight Lionel (Лионель, baritone); and a Cardinal (Кардинал, bass). Other vocalists include French peasants Raymond (tenor) and Bertrand (bass), soldiers, angels, and a variety of French courtiers.


The Maid of Orléans tells the story of Joan of Arc, the fifteenth-century French heroine who freed the citizens of Orléans, led French troops to victory over the English, and helped Charles VII to be crowned king. This season, Odyssey Opera will present six musical treatments of her life, from Donizetti’s rarely heard Seige of Calais (Oct. 26 and 28) and Verdi’s virginal Giovanna d’Arco (April 5 and 7) to modernist masterpieces such as Honegger’s oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (February 17), the concert premiere of Norman Dello Joio’s NBC commission The Trial at Rouen, and his Triumph of Saint Joan Symphony (December 1).

Tchaikovsky decided to interpret the courageous woman’s story in a new way, imbuing her heroic persona with complex psychological contradictions. She had fascinated him from early childhood: at the early age of six, Tchaikovsky composed a poem about her in French. In the last decade of his life, his personal stationery featured her image. Tchaikovsky (like Verdi) struggled to focus Schiller’s drama about Joan, but working thirty years after Verdi, Tchaikovsky chose to add authentic biographical facts and feature a love story at the heart of the plot. Mark Twain, similarly intrigued by Joan, would follow his lead, later scouring almost a dozen sources for his own last novel (Personal Recollection of Joan of Arc, 1897).

Tchaikovsky did not compose this opera in a through-going, systematic way. In his daily letters to his brother Modeste over the first months of 1879, he gave constant updates: “I worked very successfully on the first act, when the chorus of peasants appears, running from the pursuing Englishmen” [3/15 Jan]; “I finished the big ensemble from the first act before the closing scene (Joan’s solo, the chorus of angels)” [5/17 Jan]; “I’m up to my neck in the opera. It has progressed so much that in a matter of three days I’m going to have finished the large first act” [7/19 Jan].

Then he began to slow down and focus on more complicated dramatic moments, writing, “Before supper I sat and sweated over the scene between the King and Dunois, and fretted over rhymes” [9/21 Jan]; “ I dawdled over the second part of the text of King and Dunois duet for three hours, but emerged victorious” [9/21 Jan]; “Now I have the smaller first half of the second act left to write (the second half I did in Florence)” [11/23 Jan]; “Today I wrote the love duet in the second act, and it is very complicated… I jumped from the first scene of the third act to the fourth, because I wanted to get the most difficult scene – between Lionel and Joan – off my mind. [24 Jan/5 Feb]; and “I have written the grand coronation march which starts the second scene of the third act” [3/15 Feb].

On 6/18 February, Tchaikovsky went to Paris and dove into the septet from Act III, which, in his words, presented “big technical obstacles.” Two days before the completion of the opera, he found himself in “an extraordinarily favorable mood” and wrote to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, “I have written it remarkably quickly. The whole secret is to work every day and carefully. In this matter I impose an iron will on myself, and when there is no particular desire to work I always force myself to overcome my disinclination and become carried away.”

On 26 April/8 May 1879 Tchaikovsky reported from Kamenka: “I began the instrumentation of the opera today. It is a very large, but very pleasant task.” One week later, Tchaikovsky left for Brailov and was distressed that he “did a foolish thing in not taking the score along.” His orchestration work resumed on 15/27 May in Kamenka: by 29 May/10 June Tchaikovsky had orchestrated the “bulky” first act, writing to his patroness, “To me every orchestral score is not merely a foretaste of aural delight, but also a joy to look upon. For this reason I am painfully particular about my scores, and cannot bear any corrections, erasures, or blots.” After beginning work on Act II, he took a break to visit his sick friend Nikolay Kondratyev at Nizy, and then returned to Kamenka. Over the course of a week he orchestrated “the whole of the very complicated first scene of the third act,” and mentioned suffering from “physical and mental exhaustion.” He finished “the whole fourth and last act” and signed the score “Simaki, 15 Aug. 1879” [O.S.] and “Started in Florence on 23 November 1879. Finished in Simaki on 23 August 1879” [O.S.].

In the process of preparing the opera for the stage it was slightly amended, as Tchaikovsky explained to Eduard Nápravník in a letter of 11/23 December 1880 accompanying the original full score and a proof copy of the vocal score: “1) In the duet of the King and Dunois, in accordance with your suggestion, I deleted the allegro and instead slightly extended the previous phrase; 2) In Act III I discarded the finale and the music around the time of the third thunderclap, and remodeled it.”

Then he added a more personal note concerning the leading soprano: “Here are important changes. In the case of the E-major episode in the duet from the last act, after a long and tormented hesitation I preferred (considering Kamenskaya’s voice) to disfigure the melody rather than to change its key. My sensibilities are vehemently opposed to the transposition of this passage. After all, Kamenskaya isn’t the only singer, is she? We cannot, in my opinion, impose on Makarova to sing lower than it is written. If she is to sing the part, let her at least sing this passage as it is. I have made every possible change in Joan’s part for Kamenskaya, but I must tell you frankly that this was terribly difficult for me. It may very well be that I spent insufficient time reducing the number of high notes in her part. All in all, I’ve done everything I can.”

In 1880, when the opera was presented for performance, the censor would only permit its staging if several more alterations were made. Tchaikovsky begged his publisher Pyotr Jurgenson to intercede: “I’m sending you a document from the Censorship department that director Kondratyev sent me along with the libretto they’ve censored. Could you be so kind as to petition the chief printing office to allow me to change the Archbishop not to a Pilgrim but to a Cardinal; the Pilgrim makes no sense, and if there’s a Cardinal in [Meyerbeer’s] opera La Juive, then they must allow me to have one too.”

According to his contemporaries, in the 1890s Tchaikovsky was going to revise the third and the fourth acts of the opera so that Joan could die in battle. Just before the composer’s death, his brother Modeste remembered: “On the day his deadly illness began, Pyotr Ilyich talked much to me of his wish to change the last scene, to make it correspond to Schiller; for this purpose he bought Zhukovsky’s complete works, but did not even have the opportunity to re-read the tragedy.”


The premiere of the opera was a resounding success, in spite of the fact that the Imperial Theatres did not build any new costumes or sets for the production. The opening night took place in Saint Petersburg under Eduard Nápravník on 13/25 February 1881, with soloists including Mariya Kamenskaya (Joan), Mikhail Vasilyev (Charles), Wilhelmina Raab (Agnès), Ippolit Pryanishnikov (Lionel), Mikhail Koryakin (Thibaut), and Igor Stravinsky’s father Fyodor (Dunois). Two months earlier, Nápravník had already presented Joan’s farewell aria from Act I at a Russian Opera Concert in the Mariinsky Theatre.

By January 1882, the opera was withdrawn. In September, the directorate asked Tchaikovsky to transpose Joan’s part for mezzo-soprano. Tchaikovsky blamed his leading soloist: “Kamenskaya strained her voice with an unsuitable part, and the opera was taken off for a year. I had to make new cuts and new disfigurements to the original score, so that it was presented not at all in the form in which it was written and intended. In the meantime, looking through The Maid of Orléans, I found it had the necessary ingredients for success, if the first edition could someday be restored…” He made the alterations for 1882-1883 performances (“I’ve spent ten days confined to my desk over this exhausting task”), including changing keys and the orchestrations, abridging Joan’s narrative in Act II, and shortening Joan’s capture.

The Maid of Orléans was the first of Tchaikovsky’s operas to be staged outside Russia, in a Czech translation by Novotný in Prague (1882). The complete opera was revived under the direction of Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov in Tiflis (1886) and Moscow (1899). The Hymn (Act I, No. 6) had already been performed by students of the Moscow Conservatory at the 4th Arts and Industry Exhibition in Moscow on 6/18 June 1882. Mariya Korovina sang Joan’s Aria (Act I, No. 7) at the tenth Russian Musical Society concert on 8/20 February 1886.

Tchaikovsky conducted the same aria with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Society in 1888 (soloist: Mariya Kamenskaya), and in Warsaw in 1892 (soloist: Nina Fride). Two further performances of extracts took place in Kiev during the composer’s lifetime: the Chorus of Maidens (Act I, No. 1) was heard at a choral concert of the Russian Musical Society on 14/26 December 1882, and Joan’s Aria was heard at the second RMS symphony concert on 2/14 March 1885. The Soviet premieres of the opera were in 1942 (in Saratov, with Joan as a soprano), and in 1945 (at the Mariinsky in Leningrad, with Joan as a mezzo-soprano).

Although Tchaikovsky traveled to the United Stated to conduct his Festival Coronation March at the inaugural concert of Carnegie Hall in 1891, the first complete production of the opera in the US was not given until 1976 (Nevada Opera, Reno). Carnegie had featured excerpts from the opera in 1910 including Joan’s Act I aria (sung by Sara Anderson), the Act II ballet music, and the Chorus of Angels (conducted by Walter Damrosch). A complete concert performance in Russian, was given at Carnegie Hall in February 1990 by the Opera Orchestra of New York, the Yale Russian Chorus, and New York Choral Society, conducted by Eve Queler.


Tchaikovsky’s score contains an introduction and 23 individual numbers, with the last two acts divided into two scenes each. Joan of Arc (called a “killer role” by critic Joshua Kosman), has been sung by legendary sopranos from the young Sofia Preobrazhenskaya to the 70-year-old Mirella Freni. Joan is acclaimed as a visionary and a hero, but is ultimately executed for heresy.

The story begins in Domremy, France in the early fifteenth century, during the Hundred Years’ War with England. Act I introduces us to Joan’s wary father Thibaut. A villager (Bertrand) warns of English attack, and Thibaut suggests that Joan settle down. Joan says she has a higher calling, predicting the demise of the attacking English commander. She is acclaimed as a prophet, but her father suspects the devil is at work. Joan leads a hymn of thanks, then sings “Farewell, you native hills and fields.” Act II takes place at the royal castle at Chinon, where the Dauphin, Charles, distracts himself from war with courtly delights. Agnès (his mistress) and Dunois (one of his knights) vie for attention. A chorus announces Joan’s victory. She demonstrates her powers of prophecy to Charles and is blessed.

The second half of the opera shows the hand of Tchaikovsky in shaping the narrative: Joan is leading troops on the battlefield when she encounters Lionel, a Burgundian knight who has chosen to fight for the English. He and Joan face off and Lionel surrenders, asking to switch sides and fight for the French (“Rumor has it that you do not spare enemies, why mercy for me, alone?”). The victorious Joan leads King Charles to his coronation at Rheims. Her father Thibaut confronts her (“Do your believe yourself holy and pure?”), and the crowd turns against her. Lionel urges her to flee but as the act ends, Joan is banished.

Act IV finds Joan distraught and alone (“How dare I give the soul promised to the creator?”). Lionel joins her in the forest, but heavenly voices condemn Joan for her passion: she can redeem herself only through martyrdom. They are surprised by a patrol of English soldiers, and Joan is taken captive. In the final scene, Joan has been sentenced and is led to the stake. The mob denounces her as a sorceress, but is won over by her calm bearing and ethereal expression [this scene is borrowed largely from Barbier]. As the flames grow around her, angels are heard, inviting Joan to join them in heaven.


The Minstrels’ Chorus (Act II, No. 10) includes the French song “Mes belles amourettes”, which Tchaikovsky also used as the Old French Song (No. 16) for his Children’s Album (1878). Ironically, César Cui’s The Saracen, composed in 1896-1898, may be considered a historical sequel to this opera, at least in regard to the period and setting. It revives the characters Charles VII and Agnès Sorel, but unlike its predecessor does not include a ballet.

The vocal-piano score was passed by the censor and published in August 1880, but its distribution for sale was delayed at the insistence of Tchaikovsky himself. In 1881 a piano arrangement by Eduard Langer and the vocal-piano score appeared. The full score of the opera was published by Pyotr Jurgenson in 1899 with a supplement containing all the changes made by Tchaikovsky. The original full score and vocal-piano arrangement were published in volumes 5 (1964) and 37 (1946) respectively of the composer’s Complete Collected Works, edited by V. D. Vasilyev. Tchaikovsky’s manuscript full score and several revisions are preserved in the Glinka National Museum Consortium of Musical Culture in Moscow.

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