Ruslan and Lyudmilla : Work information

Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Yuri Simonov (Conductor)

This work

Work name
Ruslan and Lyudmilla
Work number
1842-00-00 02:00:00

This recording

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Alan Peters
Dick Lewzey
Recording date

Track listing

  • Overture 5:10 min


Glinka's greatest achievement, Ruslan and Lyudmilla, was begun soon after the success of his other great opera A Life for the Tsar. Based on the poem by Pushkin, work on the opera was interrupted by Glinka's marital difficulties; his wife married another man bigamously in March 1841. The opera was finally performed on 9 December 1842 but was cooly received. Appreciation grew steadily until its reputation as a seminal work in the history of Russain music was established.

As a piece of drama, Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmilla fails miserably; it patches together set pieces, misses out important structural elements of the poem, and places undue emphasis on others.

Musically, Ruslan and Lyudmilla is a triumph. Glinka created a score of refreshing novelty, touched with local colour and oriental folk song. The opera also makes prominent use of the whole-tone scale, an exotic device that allows Glinka to experiment with unusual harmonies. The Russian exuberance of the rhythms adds to the magical effect of an opera that influenced generations of Russian composers.

The Composers

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.