Opera in 3 acts (1869).
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)..
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.
The Tchaikovsky Handbook, vol. 1 (2002), p. 16
The idea of composing a new opera occurred to Tchaikovsky while he was working on the 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" . The libretto for the opera Undina was originally written for the composer Aleksandr Lvov by Vladimir Sollogub, for an 1848 production in Saint Petersburg.
The first reference to work on the opera Undina dates from January 1869: "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 an the opera" . 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" .' At the beginning of April he wrote to Modest Tchaikovsky: "The reason I’m writing to you so infrequently at the moment is because all my free time is spent on the opera. I find the subject terribly fascinating, and really want to finish it quickly so that in the quiet summer air I can set about the orchestration" . 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" .
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" .
On 11/23 August, 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" .
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 it this continues it could be months before I'm able to write anything. It seems that the Petersburg directorate on1y found out last week that my opera bad been lying there for three and a half months" .
On 16/28 March 1870, at Moscow’s Bol’shoi 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) .
The "Musical Notes" column of the newspaper Moscow Register, a writer signed "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" .
Tchaikovsky's hopes that the opera would be put on in the next season were not fulfilled . Undina was never produced.
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..." .
In 1878 Tchaikovsky wrote about this to 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" .
Tchaikovsky also wrote about his view of the opera to his brother Anatoly on 23 April/5 May 1870: "In spite of its roughly-hewn libretto, the story of Undina was well-suited to my temperament, it came very quickly and easily" .
The manuscript of the opera was misplaced by the theatre directorate, but was later found by 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" .
It is not possible to establish exactly when Tchaikovsky destroyed the full score. 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 . It is known that the duet for Undina and Huldbrandt was used in Act II of the ballet, and bearing in mind the composer's letter to Nadezhda von Meck of 30 April/12 May 1878, we might suppose that the opera was destroyed in 1875 or 1876, while he was working on the ballet Swan Lake.
Looking back at his opera, Tchaikovsky saw many deficiencies in Undina. 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" .
The extracts from Undina performed in 1870 survived in manuscript copies, and were published for the first time in 1950 .
Музыкальное наследие Чайковского (1958), pp. 18–22
This page was last updated on 02 April 2013