Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (June 1, 1804 – February 15, 1857) was the first Russian composer to gain wide recognition within his own country, often regarded as the fountainhead of Russian classical music, whose compositions were an important influence on future Russian composers, notably the members of The Five, who took Glinka’s lead and produced a distinctive Russian style of music. Glinka was born a child of privilege on June 1, 1804, in the village of Novospasskoye, not far from the Desna River in the Smolensk Governorate of the Russian Empire, later in the Yelninsky District of the Smolensk Oblast. His wealthy landowner father had retired as an army captain, and the family had a strong tradition of loyalty and service to the tsars, while several members of his extended family had also developed a lively interest in culture. His great-great-grandfather was a Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth nobleman, Wiktoryn Władysław Glinka of the Trzaska coat of arms.
As a small child, Mikhail was reared by his over-protective and pampering paternal grandmother, who fed him sweets, wrapped him in furs, and confined him to her room, which was always to be kept at 77 °F. Accordingly, he developed a sickly disposition, later in his life retaining the services of numerous physicians, and often falling victim to a number of quacks. The only music he heard in his youthful confinement was the sounds of the village church bells, the folk songs of passing peasant choirs, and singing by his nurse. After his grandmother’s death, Glinka moved to his maternal uncle’s estate and was able to hear his uncle’s orchestra, whose repertoire included pieces by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The music produced such an indelible impression upon Glinka that he asked to be taught music, so while his governess taught him Russian, German, French, and geography, he also received instruction on the piano and the violin, and in his uncle’s orchestra he played these very instruments. His first violin teacher was a bondsman from Smolensk.
At the age of thirteen Glinka went to the capital, Saint Petersburg, to study at a school for children of the nobility. Here he learned Latin, English, and Persian, studied mathematics and zoology, and considerably widened his musical experience, taking piano, violin and voice lessons from the Italian, German, and Austrian teachers there. He had three piano lessons from John Field, the Irish composer of nocturnes, who spent some time in Saint Petersburg. He then continued his piano lessons with Charles Meyer, and began composing. When he left school his father wanted him to join the Foreign Office, and he was appointed assistant secretary of the Department of Public Highways, a post he held for four years – from 1824 to 1928. The work was light, which allowed Mikhail to settle into the life of a musical dilettante, frequenting the drawing rooms and social gatherings of the city. He was already composing a large amount of music, such as melancholy romances which amused the rich amateurs. His songs are among the most interesting part of his output from this period.
In 1830, at the recommendation of a physician, Glinka decided to travel to Italy with the tenor Nikolay Ivanov. The journey took a leisurely pace, ambling uneventfully through Germany and Switzerland, before they settled in Milan. There, Glinka took lessons at the conservatory with Francesco Basili, the famous Italian composer and conductor, although he struggled with counterpoint, which he found irksome. During this period Glinka concentrated on writing pieces on the theme of famous operas. Although he spent his three years in Italy listening to singers of the day and meeting many famous people including Mendelssohn and Berlioz, he became disenchanted with Italy. He realized that his mission in life was to return to Russia, write in a Russian manner, and do for Russian music what Donizetti and Bellini had done for Italian music. His return route took him through the Alps, and he stopped for a while in Vienna, where he heard the music of Franz Liszt. He stayed for another five months in Berlin, during which time he studied composition under the distinguished teacher Siegfried Dehn, the great German music theorist, editor, teacher and librarian. A Capriccio on Russian themes for piano duet and an unfinished Symphony on two Russian themes were important products of this period. While in Berlin, Glinka became enamored with a beautiful and talented singer, for whom he composed Six Studies for Contralto.
When word reached Mikhail Glinka of his father’s death in 1834, he left Berlin and returned to his native village of Novospasskoye and then on to Saint Petersburg. There he reunited with his mother, and made the acquaintance of Maria Petrovna Ivanova, the musician’s distant relative. After he courted her for a brief period, the two married. A Life for the Tsar was the first of Glinka’s two great operas. It was originally entitled Ivan Susanin. Set in 1612, it tells the story of the Russian peasant and patriotic hero Ivan Susanin who sacrifices his life for the Tsar by leading astray a group of marauding Poles who were hunting him. The Tsar himself followed the work’s progress with interest and suggested the change in the title. It was a great success at its premiere on December 9, 1836, under the direction of Catterino Cavos. Although the music is still more Italianate than Russian, Glinka shows superb handling of the recitative which binds the whole work, and the orchestration is masterly, foreshadowing the orchestral writing of later Russian composers. The Tsar rewarded Glinka for his work with a ring valued at 4000 rubles. Following this, Glinka composed some of his best songs.
In 1837, Glinka was installed as the instructor of the Imperial Chapel Choir, with a yearly salary of 25,000 rubles, and lodging at the court. In 1838, at the suggestion of the Tsar, he went off to Ukraine to gather new voices for the choir; the nineteen new boys he found earned him another 1,500 roubles from the Tsar. He soon embarked on his second opera: Ruslan and Lyudmila. The plot, based on the tale by Alexander Pushkin, was concocted in fifteen minutes by Konstantin Bakhturin. The opera is a dramatic muddle, yet the quality of Glinka’s music is higher than in A Life for the Tsar. He uses a descending whole-tone-scale in the famous overture. This is associated with the villainous dwarf Chernomor who has abducted Lyudmila, daughter of the Prince of Kiev. There is much Italianate coloratura, and a lot of the borrowed folk material is oriental in origin. When it was first produced on December 9, 1842, it met with a cool reception, although subsequently it gained popularity.
Glinka went through a dejected year after the poor reception of Ruslan and Lyudmila. His spirits rose when he travelled to Paris and Spain. In Spain, Glinka met Don Pedro Fernandez, who remained his secretary and companion for the last nine years of his life. The trip helped. In 1845 Glinka wrote the overture “Aragonskaya Hota,” which got across the footlights. In Paris, Hector Berlioz conducted some excerpts from Glinka’s operas and wrote an appreciative article about him. Glinka in turn admired Berlioz’s music and resolved to compose some fantasies pittoresques for orchestra. Only in 1848, having returned to Russia, did Glinka write another opera in the Spanish style and character – “A Summer Night in Madrid.” Another visit to Paris followed in 1852 where he spent two years, living quietly and making frequent visits to the botanical and zoological gardens.
Between 1852 and 1854 Glinks was again abroad, mostly in Paris, until the outbreak of the Crimean War drove him home again. His closest friend in his last difficult years was his beloved sister Lyudmila Shestakova; and Glinka even composed several piano plays for her small daughter Olga. His last notable composition was Festival Polonaise for Tsar Alexander II’s coronation ball (1855). From there he moved to Berlin where, after five months, he died suddenly on February 15, 1857, following a cold, either from cancer of the stomach or pneumonia, having suffered throughout his life from poor health. He was buried in Berlin but a few months later his body was taken to Saint Petersburg and reinterred in the cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.
Mikhail Glinka, the first Russian composer to win international recognition, was the founder of the nationalist school of Russian composers and is often regarded as the father of Russian classical music. He has been described as a dilettante of genius. His slender output is considered the foundation of most later Russian music of value. Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila provided models of lyrical melody and colorful orchestration on which Mily Balakirev, Aleksandr Borodin, Anton Rubinstein, and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov formed their styles. Glinka’s orchestral composition Kamarinskaya (1848) was said by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to be the acorn from which the oak of later Russian symphonic music grew. In 1884 Mitrofan Belyayev (a Russian music publisher and an outstanding philanthropist) founded the annual “Glinka Prize.” Three Russian conservatories are named after Glinka. Outside Russia several of Glinka’s orchestral works have been fairly popular in concerts and recordings. Soviet astronomer Lyudmila Chernykh named a minor planet “2205 Glinka” in his honor. It was discovered in 1973.
The following works by Mikhail Glinka are contained in my collection:
Memory of Friendship for symphony orchestra, arrangement of Nocturne op. 99 of J. N. Hummel.
Overture in DM.
Overture in gm.
Prayer (after M. Lermontov). T
Ruslan and Ludmila (1842): Overture.
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources