A Life for the Tsar : Work information
- Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka ( Music, Images,)
- Performed by
- USSR State Symphony Orchestsra, Yevgeny Svetlanov (Conductor)
- Work name
- A Life for the Tsar
- Work number
- 1836-01-01 02:00:00
- Recording date
- 1977-01-07 00:00:00
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.
Glinka's first major success, Zhinzn'za tsarya (A Life for the Tsar), is based on the tale of Ivan Susanin, a Russian peasant who sacrificed his life to save the first Romanov tsar. Imbued with Russian flavour, though much of the musical language is Western, A Life for the Tsar established Glinka as the leading Russian composer of his day.
Work on the opera began in 1834 and Glinka worked quickly, the themes suggesting themselves almost immediately. Many of the melodies have some folk-like characteristics, though only two of them are completely borrowed from folk sources.
The tsar followed Glinka's progress avidly and agreed the title of the work, which was originally to have been simply Ivan Susanin, should be changed to A Life for the Tsar. The first production took place in St. Petersburg on 9 December 1836 and was a resounding success.
The opera is particularly significant for its use of sung recitative; before A Life for the Tsar, all Russian opera used spoken dialogue to link the musical numbers. Glinka also makes use of a basic form of leitmotiv; in Act IV Susanin recalls members of his family, each one accompanied by their own theme.
Popular extracts include the Bridal Chorus from Act III and the Polish dances from Act II.