Opera in 3 acts and 6 scenes (1881–83).
Tchaikovsky's original score contains an introduction and 19 individual numbers. The first two acts are divided into two and three scenes respectively. The titles of numbers in Russian (Cyrillic) are taken from the published score, with English translations added in bold type. Vocal incipits are given in the right-hand column, with transliterations below in italics. The numbering, titles and tempo are taken from the first edition of the full score (published in 1899).
The action is set in the Ukraine in the eighteenth century.
Act I. In the garden of the Cossack Kochubey, overlooking the River Dnepr (Scene 1), Kochubey’s daughter Mariya remains behind while the other girls sail down the river. She loves the elderly hetman Mazepa, but the cossack Andrey is in love with her. The peasants dance a gopak to honour Mazepa. Mazepa asks Mariya’s father for her hand in marriage, but Kochubey says that Mazepa is too old for her and refuses his consent. After an argument, Mariya again declares her love for Mazepa and she leaves with him. Inside Kochubey’s house (Scene 2), Kochubey sends Andrey to Moscow, to denounce Mazepa to the Tsar for conspiring with the Swedes.
Act II. In a dank dungeon beneath a palace at Belaya Tserkov, Kochubey is chained to a pillar (Scene 1). The Tsar does not believe Kochubey’s accusations against Mazapa and delivers him and his comrades into Mazepa’s hands. Orlik, Mazepa’s henchman, tortures Kochubey, and demands to know where he keeps his treasure. Later, in a room in Mazepa’s castle (Scene 2), Orlik tells Mazepa that Kochubey has not revealed his secret under torture. Mazepa decides that Kochubey must die the next day. Mariya enters, unaware of her father’s fate, and Mazepa tells her of his plans to rule over an independent Ukraine. After they reaffirm their love, Mazepa leaves. Mariya’s mother Lyubov appears, and tells her that Kochubey is to be executed. The following morning, in a field with a scaffold (Scene 3), a crowd has gathered to witness the execution. Mazepa watches on horseback as Kochubey and Iskra are led to the scaffold. Mariya and her mother arrive just as the axes fall.
Act III opens with a symphonic tableau depicting the Battle of Poltava. Mazepa’s forces are defeated. In Kochubey’s garden, now neglected and overgrown, Andrey and other Russian soldiers are pursuing fleeing Swedish soldiers. Andrey hides when he hears Mazepa and Orlik approaching. Andrey attacks Mazepa and is mortally wounded. Mazepa discovers Mariya wandering about in a daze, but he is forced to flee without her. Andrey dies in Mariya arms as she sings him a lullaby.
The Tchaikovsky Handbook, vol. 1 (2002), p. 54–55
Composed at Kamenka and Grankino (except for some scenes created in Rome) in the period from June 1881 to September 1882. The first act was orchestrated in Kamenka and Moscow between September and December 1882, and the remaining acts in Paris between January and April 1883.
On 5/17 May 1881, soon after arriving at Kamenka, Tchaikovsky asked the composer Karl Davydov to send him a previously unused libretto on the subject of Pushkin’s poem Poltava: "I am feeling inclined to start an opera once again, and the subject of Poltava is greatly tempting to me" .
On 10/22 May, Karl Davydov forwarded Tchaikovsky the libretto, the author of which was Viktor Burenin . However, the decision to write an opera had, it seems, not been firmly settled, since the libretto did not stir the Tchaikovsky’s interest , and he had set about other work (the All-Night Vigil, and editing Bortnyansky's works).
"I do not know how long I will be disinclined to write anything", the composer wrote to Eduard Nápravník on 18/30 June 1881, "but if circumstances change and I am again seized with the urge to write then the thing which above all else stirs me to try my hand again at an opera is a libretto on the subject of Pushkin’s Poltava" .
Judging from Tchaikovsky’s diary for 1881 , he spent most of June working on the opera. The evidence for this includes notes of parts of the text for Andrey’s aria in Act I (No. 2), dated 8/20 and 10/22 June. Mariya’s solo from the same scene (G minor, 3/2), was evidently composed at the same time, since the sketches for a preliminary version of this solo date from 13/15 May 1881 (the music was written to an extract from Canto V of Dante's Inferno, sketched on a printed copy of the Obikhod). On 15/27 June a further sketch was made with the note "Trostianka. Dances. Mazepa", and under it the note "See 4 March". The diary entry for the latter date (at the start of his work on the opera) contains sketches with the heading "For the storm". Evidently this sketch was conceived as the start of another work, but was used as the E♭ theme of the Gopak (No. 4 in the opera, grazioso). His diary entry for 23 June/5 July again includes musical sketches, similar to the opening of the quarrel scene (No. 6).
In a letter of 23 August/4 September–25 August/6 September, Tchaikovsky told Sergey Taneyev: "I was considering embarking on an opera; I have a decent libretto to hand, and I have already written four numbers in my spare hours. But they are all loathsome to me, and I can sense that this exertion of my will-power just sufficed for these four numbers and no more. That with regard to which Mr Cui has always been reproaching me for failing to do has come to pass, that is, I have started "to adopt a critical attitude towards myself". And what do we see? As soon as this process began, the tap from which I had drawn so much music before (even if it was mediocre), when I was not yet "self-critical", ran dry immediately" .
The composer quickly abandoned his work. "Mazepa displeases me, and it cannot engage me", he wrote in a letter of 3/15 October 1881 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky . However, the composer continued to consider other possible subjects , before returning once again to Poltava.
At Rome in late November/early December 1881, Tchaikovsky began to compose music for the scene with Mazepa and Mariya (No. 11 in the opera) . He later wrote about this phase of work: "One wonderful day I re-read the libretto and re-read Pushkin's poem, and was moved by the beauty of some of the scenes and verses to start on the scene between Mariya and Mazepa, which was preserved unchanged from the poem in the libretto... Although generally I composed steadily without having great feeling for the characters, I now realise that this was something successful after all. As far as Karl XII is concerned, I must disillusion you, my friend. He will not appear in my opera, since he only bears an indirect relation to the drama between Mazepa, Mariya and Kochubey" .
Two editions of the poem Poltava are preserved in Tchaikovsky’s personal library (1869 and 1880), which contain notes characteristic of the composer’s artistic processes. Tchaikovsky’s chief concern was to preserve the moments of psychological drama—the scenes between Mariya and Mazepa, Mariya and her mother. The latter scene is significantly altered and expanded when compared with Pushkin’s original. Real-life historical events served as the basis for the opera, depicting Peter the Great’s Russia at the beginning of the 18th century. Tchaikovsky’s work on the libretto ran in parallel with his composition of the music. This is evident from his Notebook No. 6, in which his notes for the text alternate with the musical sketches.
In Rome, Tchaikovsky regularly forced himself to write for several hours each day , but finding inspiration lacking, he discontinued work on the opera and resumed composition of the Piano Trio and other works .
It was only in May 1882 at Kamenka that the composer returned to the subject he had set aside. "I am in a mood for writing", he wrote to Adolph Brodsky, "and provided nothing intervenes I should be able work well" , but on 15/27 May in a letter to Modest Tchaikovsky he reported: "I’m working assiduously, but not with enthusiasm, and I’m not experiencing a twentieth of that inspiration and love for my creation that I usually feel" . On 21 May/2 June in another letter to Modest, Tchaikovsky again referred to the opera: "I’m writing an opera, or in any case some scenes for Mazepa, which barely holds my interest. I am writing with difficulty. However, something of substance is emerging..." .
Returning to Kamenka in order to work on Mazepa, in early June Tchaikovsky left for Grankino, where he stayed until 25 July/6 August. At Grankino work was resumed, and in the course of the summer and early autumn the composer completed the rough sketches for the opera. The surviving notebooks and sketches and numerous references in his letters enable us to establish with some precision the course of work during this period. The composer amended the text of the libretto and his original outline sketches for the earliest scenes of the opera, supplementing them with freshly-written material.
First came sketches for Act III: themes for Andrey’s aria (No. 16) and the last scenes (Nos. 17, 18, 19). At the same time the composer outlined the themes for the Introduction and the opening of the Chorus of Maidens (No. 1). In late May/early June (according to the author’s date in his notebook) came sketches for the remaining scenes of Act I: themes for Finale (No. 8), Mariya’s arioso and her scene with Andrey (No. 2). Evidently while continuing to make rough sketches, the composer was occupied with bringing them to their final form. On 24 June/6 July in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck we read: "I am working with as much zeal as possible; now the opera is coming along in such a manner that, provided I remain alive and healthy, I will be able to begin the instrumentation in the autumn" , and on 30 June/12 July he told her: "I am working very enthusiastically and punctiliously. I am gradually experiencing, if not a passion for my subject, then at least a warming towards the characters. Like a mother who feels a love for her children, even though they cause her worries, anxieties and agitations, I am already experiencing a paternal tenderness for my new musical offspring, which on many occasions has caused me moments of despondency and disappointment, and yet despite all this it is now taking shape and growing healthily" .
On 5/17 July the composer wrote to Nadezhda von Meck: "This week I hope to complete the rough sketches for a second act of the opera , but there is still one whole enormous act in three scenes still to write" . I hope to finish this work by early autumn, and then travel abroad to some peaceful corner—Clarens, for instance—and make a start on the instrumentation" . On 13/25 July he reported: "Today I completed a second third of the opera, i.e. one out of three acts" .
Returning from Grankino to Kamenka on 25 July/6 August, Tchaikovsky continued working on Mazepa. "I am far from writing with the same facility as before; rather, I am doing so slowly, cautiously, and without exhilaration and enthusiasm", he wrote to Sergey Taneyev .
During late July/early August, the composer’s notebooks show that he worked on the dungeon scene. After a trip to Moscow (between 5/17 August and 20 August/1 September), the composer wrote to Modest Tchaikovsky from Kamenka on 23 August/4 September, reporting that he had resumed his work on the opera: "I’ve already managed to write very successfully the introduction to the second act" . "After a successful start I think that in four more weeks the opera will be completely ready in draft", he wrote two days later to Nadezhda von Meck . From late August/early September, Tchaikovsky simultaneously worked on the opera and the Six Pieces (Op. 51) for piano .
"My work is progressing", the composer noted on 9/21 September in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck, "but I cannot hide the fact that I am very tired" . "I have assigned myself such an improbably difficult task (to write the remaining three scenes of the opera, and at the same time six pieces for piano)", we read in a letter to Modest Tchaikovsky of 10/22–13/25 September, and further on in the same letter: "I’m going all out to finish the rough sketches of the opera" . Tchaikovsky wrote to Nadezhda von Meck about his work on the opera: "Never have I had such difficulties with a large scale composition as with this opera. I do not even know whether this is due to my waning talents or, possibly, I have become more strict with myself... I used to give myself up to the task of composition with such ease and naturalness, like a fish swimming in the water or a bird flying through the air. But no longer. Now I have become a person who takes a costly and heavy burden upon himself, that must be carried through to the bitter end. And I will carry it through..." .
Two days later he told Modest Tchaikovsky: "Now I have completely finished the sketches for the opera and piano pieces, and have set about the instrumentation of the opera. This task is pleasant, and not difficult" . After several days he wrote to him again: "I’ve started orchestrating the opera. There is a good effect in the introduction (where I have Mazepa furiously galloping on his horse!) . "I have been working a great deal recently", the composer told Eduard Nápravník in a letter of 21 September/3 October. "The urge to write has returned to me, and I hope in the spring to submit the opera Mazepa to the Directorate of Theatres" .
Tchaikovsky remained at Kamenka until mid/late November, where he orchestrated Act I. Initially he worked with ease and enthusiasm . Between 1/13–7/19 October he had to spend time revising The Maid of Orleans, which made him extremely tired, and the pace of work on the instrumentation of Mazepa slowed. "I very much want to finish the first act of Mazepa at Kamenka, but am unlikely to do so—for some reason this work is taking me longer than before" .
In a letter to Nadezhda von Meck on 3/15 November, Tchaikovsky wrote: "My work is gradually moving forward; in a few days I hope to finish the full score of the first act of the opera, which comprises three sections in all". Later in the same letter Tchaikovsky expressed very interesting ideas which reveal his attitude to the genre of opera. "I will not say, like you and many others, that opera is the lowest class of musical art; on the contrary, it seems to me that in combining so many disparate elements to serve a single purpose, opera may be one of the richest musical forms. But I feel that I am personally more inclined towards symphonic form. At least, I certainly feel that I have more freedom and independence when I am not subservient to the rigours and constraints of theatrical conventions" . On 13/25 November the composer told Aleksandra Levenson: "I have worked a great deal over the last three months, and my opera has come on markedly. I hope to finish it by the spring" .
In mid/late November, Tchaikovsky travelled to Moscow, where he completed the instrumentation of Act I . "I’ve finished my work at last" , he wrote in a letter of 12/24 December to Nadezhda von Meck, "and tomorrow evening I leave, completely exhausted to the point of foolhardiness" . During a short stay in Saint Petersburg, according to Modest Tchaikovsky, the composer was busy "copying out" Mazepa .
Evidently, work on the opera continued while Tchaikovsky was abroad. In a letter to Lev Davydov of 25 December/6 January the composer made the following request: "Please instruct Stepan to find my yellow notebook, which I have had with me the whole summer during my travels. It contains almost the whole of my opera, and is essential to me. Send this notebook to Jurgenson, who will forward it to me wherever I am stopping, since I don’t yet know myself where I will be going. Please do all this quickly, since without this notebook my opera is lost" .
At the end of December/beginning of January, Tchaikovsky left for abroad. In early/mid January, he reported to Nadezhda von Meck from Paris: "I have begun to work with great enthusiasm and during my two days here I have written for six hours each day" . While awaiting an answer from Eduard Nápravník to his letter concerning possible changes and cuts to the libretto of the opera , the composer put aside the instrumentation of Act II, and moved on to Act III, writing on 11/23 January: "My work is going very well, and I have almost orchestrated half an entire act" .
However, the speed of work soon slowed. In a letter to Sergey Taneyev of 2/14 February, the composer lamented: "The orchestration of Mazepa is going at a snail’s pace. In five weeks I have barely managed to score three fifths of one act" . This is corroborated by a letter to Pyotr Jurgenson of 26 February/10 March 1883: "All my available time must be devoted to the opera, which strains me terribly. However, I am in a good frame of mine, notwithstanding my pains in giving birth to my offspring" .
In March, Tchaikovsky received a commission to compose a cantata Moscow and the Coronation March, and proceeded to compose these works; the full scores of the new compositions, together with the completed Act III of Mazepa were sent to Saint Petersburg on 26 March/7 April . After scoring each act the composer made a piano arrangement. In a letter of 26 March/7 April to Pyotr Jurgenson, Tchaikovsky reported that the arrangement of Act III was ready (without the parts for soloist and chorus), and he was working on Act II .
As he neared the end of the work, so the strain increased: "I am governed by an overwhelming desire to finish the opera", we read in a letter to Modest Tchaikovsky of 9/21 April 1883 . "I’m writing now with a feverish haste, and am extremely tired, but the work is going quickly", the composer told his brother two days later, and on 16/28 April he reported that he had finished the full score and the piano arrangement .
On 28 April/10 May he wrote to Pyotr Jurgenson: "Tomorrow, the 29th [OS], I will be sending you by express delivery the following parts of Mazepa: 1) A revised ending to the eighth scene and opening of the ninth scene in the first act—in other words, the point where I divided the first act into two scenes. The alterations are minor, involving just a few bars. These changes need to be inserted into the piano arrangement; I have written them on separate sheets, which can be pasted into the score. 2) The libretto for the opera Mazepa in the form in which it should be printed. 3) The whole of the second act, which is divided into three scenes. The piano arrangement is written on the bottom of the full score, except in the third scene where there was insufficient space, and it, i.e. the arrangement, has been done separately, leaving space for the voice parts to be inserted. And so now my opera Mazepa is entirely finished, and in your hands. For two years I have sat over it, and it has caused me a great deal of trouble. I entrust its future fate to you" .
During the summer of 1883, Tchaikovsky left Moscow for his brother Anatoly’s dacha at Podushkino, where he corrected the proofs of the opera. On 14/26 July he wrote to Modest Tchaikovsky: "I’m busy with the proofs... I’ve now developed an unhealthy obsession with the misprints and errors which disfigure the majority of my compositions. I’m doing all three sets of proofs myself in an enormous rush, so that I am ready to leave at the beginning of August [NS]" . Throughout July the composer was weighed down with the enormous burden of proof-reading . The proofs were completed at the end of July/beginning of August .
The piano arrangement was passed by the censor on 27 July/8 August 1883. After the first edition of the opera had been issued, it seems that at the first rehearsals Tchaikovsky fulfilled a request from Bogomir Korsov, performing the role of Mazepa, that he should write an additional arioso for Mazepa to text by Vasily Kandaurov (Act II, Scene 2, No. 10a), to be performed in Moscow .
There appear to have been two versions of this arioso. Tchaikovsky’s notebook for 1883 contains a note dated 30 November/12 December: "Left Ivan’s for Jurgenson’s (not home) and to Korsov’s. The latter rejected my arioso, requiring a love melody". Nikolay Vilde, son of an artist at the Maly Theatre, later wrote of this: "I remember meeting Tchaikovsky at the dress rehearsal of Mazepa, and recall that he had written an additional arioso "O, Mariya" at Korsov’s request. I remember... Korsov rejected the number... which Tchaikovsky had brought rolled up in his hands... Tchaikovsky unrolled the manuscript and sat at the piano... and can still remember its theme. It began with the words "I will subdue with the sounds of death", but it did not satisfy Korsov. "Not that", he said. "It needs to be something amorous which depicts the feelings of Mazepa and Mariya, and needs love and passion". "I will think about it...", said Tchaikovsky. And a few days later... the arioso "O, Mariya" was ready" .
The opera was staged for the first time at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 3/15 February 1884, conducted by Ippolit Altani, and at the Bolshoi Theatre in Saint Petersburg on 6/18 February the same year, conducted by Eduard Nápravník. Tchaikovsky attended the rehearsals and premiere in Moscow, and on 4/16 February (the day after the premiere, he left to travel abroad.
In March 1884, returning from his trip outside Russia, Tchaikovsky decided "to make some slight changes" to the scoring of Mazepa . On 26 March/7 April the composer, having completed the changes, wrote about them to Eduard Nápravník: "I have made the following changes: 1) At the end of the first scene in Act I, after Mazepa’s words "So men, to your horses" [Эй люди, на коней], I have made a shorter ending in E major in order not to hold up the action, which suffers here from an excess of music... 2) In the second scene of Act II, I have made an enormous cut in the scene between Mazepa and Mariya (here Mazepa’s part is not only cut, but is practically written afresh... Mariya also has something new, but very brief). 3) In the last number of Act III the lullaby has been somewhat lengthened, and it now concludes the opera" .
Further on in this same letter, Tchaikovsky touched on the scene with the Drunken Cossack, which had been criticised by Eduard Nápravník: "Regarding the Drunken Cossack, I assure you that with a good performance this will not seem inappropriate, and in any case I would not want to make a change here, since I feel deeply that this whole number is constructed in such a rounded manner that making cuts or alterations would render it meaningless". On 1/13 April, Tchaikovsky wrote to Sergey Taneyev: "I have made three important changes in Mazepa. One of them you will be upset about—but I had to do this to for the sake of the staging" .
The changes in Act I affected the finale to the first scene, where a significant cut was made. In the second scene of Act II, Tchaikovsky shortened the scene between Mariya and Mazepa, which required some alterations to the music. In its first version the whole scene was conducted as a dialogue. The new version culminated in a more dramatic duet (Molto ritenuto—Moderato: "You are everything to me" («Ты мне всего»). Leaving Maria’s part untouched, the composer joined it to Mazepa’s part, preserving the preceding words, which were now set to new music. However, from bar 13 the entire scene was written afresh, as a result of which it was shortened by 69 bars. In Act III, Tchaikovsky changed the finale, abandoning the end of the scene with Mariya’s impulsive suicide, and concluding the opera with the lullaby which Mariya sings over Andrey’s body.
In October 1884, Bogomir Korsov pressured Tchaikovsky into making a further small change to the scene between Mazepa and Mariya (replacing some bars of Mariya’s recitatives to Mazepa with the words: "Is it your father or your husband who is dearest to you?" («Отец или супруг тебе дороже») . This change was included in the Moscow production that autumn, and in a letter of 5/17 January 1885 Tchaikovsky suggested to Eduard Nápravník that it should also be made in the Saint Petersburg production. It is not known whether the latter complied with this request.
In Act I the Chorus "There is no way through" («Нету, нету тут мосточка») uses the folk song "There is no crossing, there is no ford" («Нету хода, нету брода»). The finale to the first scene of Act I includes the Ukrainian folk-song "Spring is coming" («А вже весна»); in the Crowd Scene (No. 13), Tchaikovsky used the song "At the end of the street" («Как из улицы в конец»). In the symphonic picture The Battle of Poltava, the traditional folk-hymn "Glory" («Слава»), and the prayer "Lord, preserve thy people" («Спаси, господи, люди твоя») are heard.
The posthumous edition of 1899 by Pyotr Jurgenson (vocal score and piano score), described on the title page as "Second edition, corrected by the author"  only includes the first three cuts made by Tchaikovsky; the others described to Eduard Nápravník were not included.
Музыкальное наследие Чайковского (1958), pp. 60–68
This page was last updated on 02 April 2013