The Queen of Spades: a tale of an obsession, and much more?

Francis Maes

Photos: Yannick Schuette / Connected Archives

Alexander Pushkin is widely regarded as the writer responsible for taking Russian literature to a new level. With his versatile oeuvre he proved himself the equal of the great writers of Western Europe. His example stimulated Russian artists in other disciplines as well. His writings inspired the emergence of a distinctive Russian tradition of opera. The composers of the pioneering generation of Russian opera - Glinka, Dargomïzhsky, Musorgsky - relied on his works for themes and ideas. Spanning from Ruslan and Lyudmila, through Boris Godunov, and extending to Stravinsky's Mavra, Pushkin's influence remains an enduring presence in the landscape of Russian opera. Peter Tchaikovsky wrote three operas based on the works of this great writer: Yevgeni Onegin(1878),Mazeppa (1883) and The Queen of Spades (1890).

Of these three operas, Yevgeni Onegin adheres most closely to its literary origin, Pushkin's eponymous "novel in verse". Literary critics have heaped scorn on the opera, accusing Tchaikovsky of having been unfaithful to Pushkin's original. Vladimir Nabokov stands out as an extreme example in his outright rejection of the opera, as he believed it to be an affront to Pushkin's masterpiece in every conceivable aspect. The reservations of literary critics are understandable, as Pushkin's exceptional storytelling is impossible to adapt to another medium without considerable loss. In Yevgeni Onegin, Pushkin keeps the plot deliberately simple, in order to focus even more on his extraordinary manner of storytelling. Reduced to its core, only a minimal plot remains.

Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky's opera remains in its own way faithful to the original. The libretto preserves much original text. The situations that the opera represents are either taken directly from Pushkin's source or are slightly expanded with only small additions. These additions remain, after all, within plausible limits.  An example is the aria of Prince Gremin, through which the characterization of Tatiana's husband is developed in the opera. Tatiana is a young woman from the province who falls in love with a young man from Saint Petersburg, Yevgeny Onegin. He rejects her. Disappointed, she agrees to a marriage of convenience with a wealthy aristocrat. We do not learn more about this man from Pushkin. Tatiana's husband has neither a name nor a face. Tchaikovsky calls him Prince Gremin. However, he gives him more than just a name. In his aria, Gremin gets the chance to express his feelings for his wife. Detractors of this dramatization of Pushkin's work staunchly consider it anomalous.  However, the aria's inclusion in the drama is not as far a stretch as it may initially seem. Even recent commentators speculate that Tatiana's husband should deserve some credit. Olga Peters Hasty puts it this way:

"Whoever he may be, and whatever his girth, Tatiana's husband has at the very least to be commended for his discriminating choice of partner. Although now justifiably proud of his wife's social success, it was clearly not for this that Prince N married an unsophisticated girl of scant means and no connections who failed to attract much attention at the time of her Moscow debut."


Tatiana's social success in the heart of Saint Petersburg's high society validates his discernment of her exceptional qualities. He was not mistaken in recognizing her merit.

Tchaikovsky probably undertook the adaptation of Yevgeni Onegin himself, while crafting the musical form to Pushkin's scenes. Konstantin Shilovsky receives credit as co-librettist, but his role was likely minor. For Mazeppa and The Queen of Spades, however, Tchaikovsky opted for a preexisting libretto by a professional librettist: Victor Burenin for Mazeppa, Modest Tchaikovsky for The Queen of Spades. Both libretti were not written specifically for him. Mazeppa was intended for Karl Davïdov and The Queen of Spades for Nikolai Klenovsky. In contrast to Tchaikovsky’s treatment of Yevgeni Onegin, both librettists made additions to Pushkin's original works. Burenin developed a new plot line centered around unrequited romantic love on the basis of a detail in Pushkin's epic poem Poltava. The modifications and augmentations to Pushkin's short story The Queen of Spades extended even further. Modest Tchaikovsky tinkered with virtually every aspect of the narrative: the time in which the tale is set, the social relationships between the characters, the intensity of the drama, and psychological portrayals.

From short story to opera


The Queen of Spades (1833) is a short story that revolves around Hermann, an engineering officer with a passion for card playing. He manages to keep his inclination under control, until he happens to hear the story of an old countess who allegedly knows the secret of three winning cards at the game of Faro. He is drawn to the countess's house, where he notices her companion Liza. She, in turn, finds herself drawn to the first man who seems to take an interest in her. She arranges a secret meeting, which should guide him through the countess's bedroom to her own room. Hermann conceals himself in the bedroom, awaiting the opportune moment to convince the countess to reveal her secret. Having posed the question, Hermann is met with the countess's untimely demise. Compelled by a sense of guilt, he attends her funeral to seek solace for his troubled conscience. Upon returning home, he reflects about the funeral. At that moment, the countess enters. She tells him the secret: three, seven, ace. He could play the three winning cards on the condition that he would only play one card per evening and never touch cards again afterwards. For two evenings, things turn out as expected. The third evening he bets on the ace, but holds the Queen of Spades in his hand. He loses the game and his mind. He spends the rest of his life in an asylum.

The story provides scant material for the development of a full-length opera plot. It was to be expected that Modest Tchaikovsky would make additions to the narrative. The way he performed the task had considerable influence on the shape and character of the opera that Peter Tchaikovsky would eventually write.

Modest set the work further back in time to the late eighteenth century. Pushkin's short story is set in the early nineteenth century. Modest chose the period of Catherine the Great. This transposition gave him the opportunity to supplement Pushkin's story with material borrowed from Russian writers of that period. His libretto utilizes a small anthology of poets from the eighteenth century or from the early romantic period. In the use of poems by Zhukovsky and Batiushkov there might be a slight anachronism with the time in which the opera is set, but historical accuracy was not Modest's goal. The duet between Liza and Polina in the second scene incorporates a poem by Vasily Zhukovsky. Polina then sings a romance to Epitaph for a Shepherdess by Konstantin Batiushkov. Gavrila Derzhavin is present in two places, during the ball scene and in the song performed by Count Tomsky in the playhouse. The pastoral intermezzo in the ball scene is based on a text by Peter Karabanov.

The tribute to the culture of the eighteenth century was a formula for success of the Imperial Theaters under intendant Ivan Vsevolozhsky. He was an ardent Francophile who loved to saturate his productions with references to the glory days of Versailles. The Francophile fashion he introduced carried an implicit political message. By paying tribute to the pinnacle of absolute monarchy, the Imperial Theaters honored the autocratic rule of the Russian Tsar. Even Catherine the Great makes an in-person appearance in the opera. At the end of the ball scene, her entrance is announced and she is flanked for the occasion by the French ambassador. The fact that she does not actually enter the hall before the curtain falls is due to a Russian censorship regulation of the time. It forbade any appearance of an historical tsar in opera. Catherine the Great is, therefore, represented by the sounds of a polonaise that Osip Kozlovsky wrote in 1791 to celebrate her victories in the Russo-Turkish war.

The idea of setting the opera in the eighteenth century appealed to Peter Tchaikovsky, once it became clear that Klenovsky would not compose the opera. The love for eighteenth-century genres and styles permeates his entire oeuvre, from Variations on a Rococo Theme to Mozartiana. This affection was further stimulated by his boundless veneration for Mozart. The pastoral intermezzo in the ball scene offered an opportunity to pay tribute to the Viennese master.

This transposition to the eighteenth century merely scratches the surface of Modest's adaptation. His interventions in the psycho-social situations of the characters are even more pronounced. The character of Liza was transitioned from a poor ward of the countess to her wealthy granddaughter. The original Liza had neither money nor background to make her attractive to a suitor. She was little more than a companion attached to the old lady. Pushkin calls her a most unhappy creature. 

In the opera, Liza is a coveted match for marriage in the highest circles. In fact, when we first encounter her she is engaged to a prominent aristocrat, Prince Yeletsky. Not only does her family ties make her socially inaccessible for the impecunious Hermann, but he has a romantic rival for her affections as well.

As in the original story, Hermann's obsessions for the card game and for Liza intersect. In the story, the obsession with the game comes first. Hermann uses Liza to gain access to the countess. The opera, however, begins with Hermann's infatuation with Liza. The obsession for the three cards settles in his mind only later. As is the case of Pushkin's Hermann, his obsession for the game and the resulting promised fortune ultimately gains the upper hand.

In January 1890, Tchaikovsky took the libretto with him to Florence. He thought of secluding himself to write a new opera for the next season. Modest's servant Nazar Litrov accompanied him. We are indebted to him for providing vivid memories of the composer during the time of composition. Nazar was particularly struck by the discipline with which Tchaikovsky worked:

"I entered at seven o'clock. Peter Ilyich wasn't finished yet. I said: "Time to finish." He replied right away but continued to draw little looks. "Yes." I said, "it'll soon be seven o'clock." "Coming," he said, and did one more little hook, and struck the lid of the piano with his hand. I stood still. He took out his watch and opened it. "It's only twenty of, I can work another ten minutes." I said something. And he: "Let me work just another ten minutes." I left. In ten minutes he came out to me . "Well, I'm finished," and began to ask me what I had been doing… For the first time I heard Peter Ilyich talk about his future composition with praise. "It'll be an opera, God grant, it'll work out so well that you'll burst out crying, Nazar."


Tchaikovsky composed the opera in forty-four days. He needed somewhat more than two months for the orchestration. The opera was finished in June 1890. On 7 December 1890, The Queen of Spades premiered at the Mariinsky Theater of Saint Petersburg. Eduard Nápvravník conducted, with Nikolai and Medea Figner in the leading roles of Hermann and Liza.

The ideal and the real


The eighteenth-century period style was certainly a feature that drew Tchaikovsky to the subject matter. Another was the opportunity to explore further the psychology and social relationships that he had worked out in Yevgeny Onegin. The outlines of both plots highlight both similarities and differences between the two operas. Similarities lay in the theme of the relationship between idealized love and reality. The distinction lies in the heightened intensity of the drama in The Queen of Spades, reaching a point that borders on the fantastical. In Yevgeny Onegin the conflict remains confined within strictly human terms. Tatiana and Onegin  certainly have their specific characters, but they are perfectly normal people. Neither of the two lovers dies. Tatiana leaves Onegin. He is devastated at that moment, but his fate after the ending of the opera remains undecided. The Queen of Spades, on the other hand, ends with the double suicide of both lovers.

In Yevgeny Onegin, the idealization of love is the impetus of Tatiana's actions. Like her counterpart in Pushkin, she constructs her inner world through her reading of romantic novels. She cherishes an idealized image of love, which she projects onto Onegin when she meets him. She experiences a consequent disappointment when faced with the harshness of reality. Onegin reveals himself to be a man devoid of commitment and lacking any sense of responsibility. Tatiana comes to her own conclusions. She attempts to reconcile herself with this reality by entering into a marriage of convenience. She becomes a revered princess who commands the admiration of the highest echelons of nobility. In her newfound role, she, in turn, emerges as an ideal figure for Onegin. Tatiana brings him back to reality.

In The Queen of Spades the stakes are considerably higher. For Tatiana, her dealings with her romantic ideal had been a phase in the process of her inner development. For Hermann, it is an obsession. His passion for the unknown beauty who has touched his soul is absolute. His uncompromising pursuit of the ideal places his obsession outside reality. He accepts no compromise with the social world, as it exists. Seeing his coveted beauty become engaged to another is a powerful confrontation with reality which provokes destructive jealousy in him.

Hermann's passion is truly demonic

The process of choosing between reality and the ideal is similar for Liza. She also feels that her upcoming marriage does not fulfill all her desires. Her feelings also become entangled in the passion for an unattainable ideal outside social conventions. Unlike Hermann, she comes to realize that she has made a mistake. However, it is too late for her to retrace her steps. Her suicide is the logical dramatic denouement of her misguided choice.

Hermann's passion assumes a supernatural character. The fervor with which he pursues an idealized lover elucidates why he is also susceptible to his other destructive passion for card playing. Pushkin explains that passion as driven by an inner urge within Hermann, an urge he was not conscious of and managed to restrain for a long time. In Tchaikovsky's opera, the cause of his obsessions seems to lie deeper. Hermann's passion is truly demonic. He immediately senses that he and the countess are linked by a mysterious force beyond their control.

mind or demon?


In works of art that deal with the supernatural, the question always arises as to where the demonic should be located. Is it merely an aberration of the human mind, a feat of the imagination, or does it belong to a reality of its own - spiritual, transcendent, and outside our world?

Pushkin's short story is a masterpiece of the genre of the fantastic tale. There is an air of the mysterious at play. In Pushkin’s narrative, Hermann's obsession could entirely be attributed to his inner nature. He is described as endowed with a strong imagination and a fair amount of superstition. It is entirely plausible that his encounter with the ghost of the countess only happens in his imagination.

It does not mean, however, that Pushkin's tale would not leave the door open to the fantastic. How is the fatal error of Hermann explained? Did his greed mislead him, or did some supernatural influence impact his fate and change the card at the last moment? Pushkin's tale does not give us an answer. The ambiguity between the real and the fantastic is one of the key attractions to his narrative.

Pushkin's short story is a masterpiece of the genre of the fantastic tale

Tchaikovsky's opera, however, suggests that the supernatural is indeed at work in the drama. its origins can be situated on a transcendent level. The supernatural looms over reality, seizing possession of it. This unfolds through the characters of Hermann and the countess. The first scene shows how closely the two are linked in their relation to the supernatural. They mutually recognize that the other carries a secret that will be fatal for them. The music underlines that impression. The countess is musically introduced by the leitmotif of the three cards. In the plot, the provenance of the theme has not yet been clarified. This only happens when Count Tomsky sings his ballad. In his tale, the mysterious Count Saint-Germain who passed the secret to the countess is portrayed as a demonic character. Hermann's possession by a demonic spirit is in turn demonstrated in the power he seems to have over the elements. In the plot as Tchaikovsky develops it, Hermann's jealousy unleashes the storm that concludes the first scene.

In the dream scene in which the ghost of the countess reveals the secret of the three cards, Tchaikovsky exploits the tension between the demonic and the sacred to the full. Pushkin does mention Hermann's memory of the funeral, but Tchaikovsky's music makes that memory tangible.  Tchaikovsky's use of the whole-tone scale for the appearance of the countess deploys a code that had come to stand for the supernatural in Russian opera from the moment Glinka had used it in Ruslan and Lyudmila as the leitmotif of an evil sorcerer.

The idea of the metaphysical battle between good and evil comes to a close at the end of the opera. Hermann's death is lamented by the sounds of Orthodox chanting. It is very unlikely that the gamblers in the gaming room would start such a chant. We might hear it either as a final spark of recognition in Hermann's spirit before his actual death - or as the voice of the sacred that holds a promise of forgiveness and redemption.



The representation of eighteenth-century society forms a counterbalance to the fantastic. The eighteenth-century period style represents normality. Tchaikovsky connected the representation of social order with the poetic image of the pastoral. The instrumental prelude immediately announces that the pastoral has a role to play in what follows. The first musical thought is a siciliano, one of the markers of the pastoral in music. The pastoral refers to both the depiction of country life and the human emotions associated with it, such as simplicity and innocence. As the opera shows, the pastoral should not be restricted to the representation of country life alone. The first scene could be characterized as an urban pastoral.  A pleasant morning during spring in the Summer Garden of Saint Petersburg represents  the equivalent of the pastoral for city dwellers. The playing children point at innocence. However, the idyll proves not to be untouchable. The storm that disturbs it points to the sudden presence of negative and destructive emotions that may disrupt human relationships.

The function of the pastoral in the development of the drama becomes truly clear in the second scene. Liza's meeting with her friends takes place in a room in a country house, overlooking a park at twilight. The duet Evening that Liza and Polina sing indicates that nature is subject to change in the cycle of day and night. The depiction of change undergoes a dramatic transformation in the romance of Polina. Idyllic Arcadia is subject not only to the cycles of the day and the seasons, but also to the transience of human life. The song Polina sings - Epitaph for a Shepherdess - is a classic expression of the idea known in Latin as Et in Arcadia ego: “I too am in Arcadia,” which means that death is also present in the ideal landscape. Batyushkov's verses are closely related to the classic expression of the theme in art: the Arcadian Shepherds by Nicolas Poussin in the Louvre. The verses seamlessly align with the inscription on the gravestone being read by Poussin's shepherds. Polina's romance serves as a foreboding glimpse into the fate that awaits Liza.

The image of the shepherdess in love is continued in the ball scene. During the party, guests are offered the spectacle of a pastoral intermezzo entitled "The Faithful Shepherdess". The simple story tells about the choice a shepherdess has to make between a suitor who promises her wealth and a shepherd who can only offer true love. She chooses the faithful love of the shepherd. The representation refers to Liza's situation, in the sense that she imagines herself exchanging wealth for love in her infatuation with Hermann.  She might interpret the play as support for her decision to forgo the security of her imminent aristocratic marriage. Yet, as the drama unfolds, it becomes clear that she is mistaken about the true nature of the love for which she sacrifices everything.

The fictional story of the shepherd and the shepherdess stands for love in human terms. It values selflessness and faithfulness. Liza sees her attraction to Hermann in these terms. She underestimates the demonic nature of Hermann's passion. When she realizes her mistake, she finds no way to return.

The dilemma Liza faces is made even more complicated due to the positive character of her fiancé, Prince Yeletsky. Like Prince Gremin in Yevgeny Onegin, he is given the opportunity to musically express his feelings for her. He shows himself to be a dignified man with his heart in the right place. His love and care for Liza are genuine. He is not a vain aristocrat, who only offers wealth. He exudes a moral quality that ultimately will enable him to act as the righteous opponent for Hermann in his fatal game of cards.

three incomparable scenes


The libretto for The Queen of Spades hassuffered its share of criticism. As a skilled librettist, Modest exchanged elements of Pushkin's narrative for certain dramatic effects in the opera. The use of the eighteenth-century period style may be viewed as an equivalent for local color in conventional opera. Also the symbolism that is present in his plan for the opera remains rather transparent and superficial: the numbers of the three cards - three, seven, ace - are symbolized in the structure in three acts, seven scenes, resulting in one opera.
Tchaikovsky employed all his imagination and musical sophistication to breathe life into the libretto. While a significant part of the opera remains firmly rooted within the conventions of the genre, Tchaikovsky went further than the composition of a standard opera. In three pivotal scenes, he transcended all previous norms and precedents. These three consecutive scenes are the countess's bedroom (4), the barracks in Hermann's quarters (5) and the scene by the Winter Canal (6). In these scenes, Tchaikovsky's music ventures into uncharted territories of expression that opera had not explored before.
The three scenes can be described as studies in abnormal psychological behavior. With the exception of the song the countess sings in the bedroom, Tchaikovsky abandoned the period style altogether. The song is a quote of an aria by the French composer André Ernest Modeste Grétry. Modest probably introduced it as a reference to Pushkin's characterization of the countess, as someone who preferred to live in the past. The memory of her youth serves to keep her fears of aging and impending death at bay.

What musically connects the three scenes is a striking use of ostinato patterns. Tchaikovsky constructs textures with several layers of ostinati superimposed. In this way the music erases any normal sense of time. It gives us direct access to the psyches of the characters.

The music gives us direct access to the psyches of the characters

Hermann enters the countess's bedroom completely absorbed by his longing for the secret. The scene does not come to a close musically. The ostinato pattern could continue indefinitely. These ostinati point to the distortion of Hermann's sense of reality. The music of the scene in the barracks also operates with different musical layers. The music of the funeral service haunts Hermann's mind. The direct experience of his actual surroundings - musically present in the distant military signals - has been temporarily suspended. Also this scene lacks musical closure. The ostinato indicates that Hermann will no longer wake up from his illusion.
The scene at the Winter Canal also begins with heavy ostinati. They reflect the turmoil of Liza's mind. She tries to control her fear in a beautifully styled arioso. When she realizes that Hermann is indeed insane, the ostinati return. They almost literally crush her by their massive force and their intentionally unbalanced, distorted instrumentation.

The musical portrayal of a troubled mind in these three scenes is so compelling that critics have felt compelled to draw connections between this music and broader cultural movements. Recent interpretations argue that there is more at stake in The Queen of Spades than a fantastic drama in its own right. The term surrealism has been suggested to explain the distorted impression the music makes of the darkness within the human mind.
Recently, the view has become widely accepted that The Queen of Spades should be heard as an early manifestation of what would become the Symbolist movement. The extreme tension between eighteenth-century pastiche on the one hand and a distorting study of the abnormal and the demonic may seem to be a harbinger of fin de siècle decadence. Despite Tchaikovsky no longer being alive during the Silver Age, as Russian fin de siècle culture is called, it does not change the fact that artists and critics of that era were exceptionally aware to his music. What is certain, however, is the fact that Tchaikovsky's opera was able to arouse such associations by virtue of its exceptional musical content. Tchaikovsky was a supreme master in the characterization with tones. In Yevgeny Onegin, the characterization of human behavior remained within recognizable human terms. In The Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky's music entered unknown territory in the exploration of the deepest corners within the human soul.


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Oper in drei Akten (1890)