Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka


Mikhail Glinka led an excessively sheltered childhood, and his early exposure to music was very narrow; the chants sung at church, the folksongs his nurse sang and the sound of the bells of the Smolensk region in which he lived.  All three were influential - the early assimilation of folk music led to him becoming one of the first Russian nationalist composers and, as with Bohuslav Martinu, the resonant overtones of the bells led to an uncommon tolerance of dissonance.  Once exposed to Western music he developed a deep love for it, which he was able to pursue at school in St Petersburg, where he boarded from 1817.  A patchy musical education was enhanced by three lessons from John Field and a meeting with Hummel.

Glinka's early compositions belie his lack of instruction - banal melodic material is slotted into standard forms, and only the songs show promise.  It was only after moving to Berlin and taking lessons from Siegfried Dehn that he was able to complete his Symphony on two Russian Themes (1834).  From then until 1836 he was engaged with the composition of his first complete opera, A Life for the Tsar.  Glinka used Western resources as he saw fit - Italian recitatives and French ballet, but it was fresh and exotic enough to be a great success with Berlin audiences.  Spurred by its reception, Glinka immediately began work on Ruslan and Lyudmila.  Hopes that his acquaintance Pushkin might write the libretto were dashed when the poet died in a duel, and he turned his attentions to his new appointment as Kappellmeister of the imperial chapel, eventually completing the opera in 1842.

Initially Ruslan and Lyudmila was not a success, and his resulting despondency eventually led to Glinka travelling Europe.  First he went to Paris, where he was championed by Hector Berlioz, then to Madrid, where he composed the First Spanish Overture inspired by the Frenchman's artistic theories.  Returning to Russia in 1847, subsequent works show another popular Russian trait - the influence of Fryderyk Chopin.  Later projects were hindered by travel and ill health, and his main legacy proved to be the nationalist fervour he imparted to composers such as Tchaikovsky and the "Mighty Handful" - Balakirev, César Cui, Moussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov.


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