Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) was regarded by his successor composers as the founder of the Russian 'national' school. Such terms aren't always meaningful but in this case there are sound reasons for offering such a pedestal to the composer of the operas A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Ludmila. But Glinka was an unconventional hero of Russian music, often described as having had greatness thrust upon him by later, greater talents, rather than achieving it by his own efforts alone. This is slightly unfair and stems from the fact that he wasn't a career composer in the sense of having a vocation which carried him from private teacher to conservatoire and on into the musical world.
In fact, Glinka came from a wealthy family and had no need to work, although he did a couple of stints in the Russian civil service. The study of music began as an adjunct to Glinka's schooling and foreign travel broadened his musical horizons: he spent three years in Italy, where he met Bellini, Donizetti and Mendelssohn - the trip fired Glinka's ambition to write a 'national' opera and the result duly became a success: A Life for the Tsar, performed before the imperial family in December 1836. The significance of the opera was that it moved the Russian music scene - hitherto notable only for liturgical music, folk song, and domination by external musical influences - on to an altogether higher plane: Glinka's orchestrations were new and freshly imaginative; and the music even made use of recurrent themes in ways which anticipated Wagner's 'total art work' system of Leitmotivs ('leading motives'). His later opera Ruslan and Ludmila, based on a poem by Pushkin, incorporated musical ideas which served his successors well: lyrical phrasing of a distinctively Russian character; unusual harmonies reflecting the supernatural aspects of the story; the inclusion of oriental themes, contributing to an atmosphere of fantasy; and exotic choruses and dances - the spoor of Glinka can be traced all through the work of Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Though Tchaikovsky was enthusiastic enough to compare Glinka's talent to that of Mozart, he held the elder composer in balanced perspective: 'Glinka is a talented Russian gentleman of his time,' he wrote, 'prettily proud, little developed, full of vanity and self-adoration.' All true. But he also went on to say that he regarded Glinka as 'the acorn from which the oak of Russian music sprang.'
Tchaikovsky had met Glinka when he was 18. The elderly composer confided to his sister: 'Never have I met a man in whom I found views so close to my own on everything concerning music. He will in time become a second Glinka.'
© Graeme Kay/BBC
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