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Glinka, Mikhail Ivanovich (1804 - 1857)

Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka was born in 1804 in Novospasskoye near Smolensk in western Russia into a rich family of landowners. In his early years, he was profoundly educated at home and played the violin and the piano. His first musical impressions were Russian folk songs and chants, church bells and his neighbouring uncle's private orchestra. The latter allowed him to practice conducting and to explore the possibilities of an orchestra. Besides that, Glinka heard these musicians playing a clarinet quintet by Finnish composer Bernhard Crusell, which turned out to be important for his decision to start a musical career. From 1818 to 1822 he went to an exclusive school in St. Petersburg, where he took three piano lessons from Irish composer John Field. He then studied with Carl Meyer, one of Field's pupils, and also took singing lessons and began composing.

From 1824 to 1828, Glinka worked in the Department of Public Highways, a job that left him enough time for his musical activities. During that time, he composed preferably light music for dilettantes and listened to many of Rossini's operas. In 1830, after he had left government service, Glinka travelled to Italy, where he met Donizetti, Bellini, Mendelssohn and Berlioz. He also studied counterpoint and composition with German theorist Siegfried Dehn in Berlin in 1833, who helped him a lot with developing his style. After his father's death, Glinka returned to Russia. During the following period, he often met Russian artists and intellectuals.

On December 9, 1836, his first opera "A Life for the Tsar" premiered as an attempt to blend Russian styles with Italian Belcanto. This patriotic work was a great success and allowed him to become the instructor of the famous Imperial Chapel Choir. The following opera named "Ruslan and Lyudmila", first produced on December 9, 1842, is based on a fairy tale by Alexander Pushkin and thus resembling Mozarts "Zauberflöte". It could not gain the same popularity though, which disappointed Glinka. The second was his last opera.

From 1844 on, Glinka often travelled through Europe again. In Paris, he had the opportunity to work with Berlioz and his stay in Spain in 1845 resulted in some successful Spanish overtures. Later, he also met Giacomo Meyerbeer and studied with Siegfried Dehn again. He supported the young Balakirev, which turned out to be important for the further development of Russian music. He suddenly died as a result of a cold in Berlin in 1857.

Glinka is often called "the father of Russian music", mostly because of the influence of the "Mighty Five" in the second half of the nineteenth century. This group of composers, that included Balakirev, utilized Glinka's music to establish a nationalistic Russian way of composition - in contrast to conservative, "more western" composers like Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein or Tchaikovsky. But this was a simplification. Glinka only tried to integrate Russian elements into western musical structures as he was not very interested in politics. His music should rather be judged in the context of the early nineteenth century.

Nevertheless, these conflicts made his symphonic and chamber works and his operas quite popular - not only in Russia. Glinka was the first significant Russian composer who composed for orchestra due to his early experiences with his uncle's orchestra. While his early, sometimes immature works (not so his dark "Trio Pathétique", composed in 1832) show a distinct Italian influence, his later works like the fantasy "Kamarinskaya" (premiered in 1850) were indeed very important for later Russian composers, though not as political as suggested by the "Mighty Five".

Glinka composed little for piano and most of these pieces are yet to be explored. Besides a number of very short miniatures like the mazurkas, there are many variation works, mostly upon opera themes, and the longer "Valse-Fantaisie", which the composer later orchestrated. His "Patriotic Song", originally set for piano and without lyrics, was the Russian national anthem from 1990 to 2000.

-- Jan-Felix Lebenstedt (more on the autor...)


  1. Mazurkas
  2. Nocturnes
Jan 5, 2016
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