Most incorrectly, many people regard Russian Music pre-westernized to be just about non-existent. If you review my past post on the “History of Early Russian Music” you will surely realize the error of your ways and be enlightened. However, I can recognize a clean revolution in Russian music history at the beginning of the 19th century when the east met the west. For the purposes of this blog, I will introduce you to the composer that many music historians refer to as “the first important Russian composer”, Mikhail Glinka.
The early life of Glinka was, well, privileged. Born (June 1st, 1804) to a high-ranking military family in service of the Tsar, Glinka enjoyed an easy childhood of sweets, furs, and a doting babushka. He was so coddled that indeed he developed a fragile disposition and remained in frail health throughout his life. Glinka was often exposed to Russian Folk music via traveling musicians. He heard the church bells tuned to dissonant chords, thus shaping his early understanding of harmony. Glinka was lucky enough to have had a private teacher who introduced him to Russian, German, and French language as well as their respective geographies. This also put him in touch with the popular western style music that he studied as a pianist and violinist. At 13 Glinka was sent to St. Petersberg to study under the piano professor Charles Meyer and it was not long before the young Glinka was recognized as a virtuoso. In 1830 he was even taken on a meandering tour through Italy where he took lessons at the conservatory in Milan (this was the thing to do if you were an up and coming composer in Russia because even its own people disregarded their own music for some misguided reason). Obviously this trip had a profound effect on the development of Mikhail’s musicality; however, Glinka fast became disenchanted with the Italian ways as he recognized that his duty was to his homeland in Russia and Russia’s own music culture.
In 1834, when Glinka was in Berlin, he received a fateful message that his father had died. This prompted him to return to his hometown in Novospasskoye. While in Berlin, Glinka had become enamored with a beautiful and talented singer, (for whom he composed Six Studies for Contralto). He contrived a plan to return to her, but when his sister’s German maid turned up without the necessary paperwork to cross to the border with him, he abandoned his plan as well as his love and turned north for Saint Petersburg. There he reunited with his mother, and made the acquaintance of Maria Petrovna Ivanova. After courting her for a brief period, the two married. The marriage was short-lived, as Maria proved to be utterly without tact and uninterested in his music. The silver lining here is that Glinka used his nagging ex-wife as inspiration for his most famous opera “A Life for a Tsar”.
The significance of “Ivan Susanin” (the original title for “A Life for a Tsar”) lies in the fact that this was the first Russian Opera sung in Russian Language. The work was premiered on December 9, 1836, under the direction of Catterino Cavos, who had written an opera on the same subject in Italy. Although it still retained a plethora of characteristics distinctly European, Glinka’s work was a grand success. In essence, he paved the way for future Russian composers (including of course the “Russian Five”) who would dedicate their lives as composers to writing Russian nationalist music in the traditional style.
Glinka lived his last years in Berlin. He died suddenly on 15 February 1857, following a cold. Glinka 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.
Below I am including a recording of Glinka’s Grand Sextet for piano, two violins, viola, cello and double bass. You’re welcome 🙂