Mikhail Glinka is universally considered the father of genuinely Russian music. His works were a new word in the musical world of our country. He was the first to create romances, operas and other pieces to the Russian theme using Russian folk motives. His music is so truthful in all that Russia has suffered and poured out into a song; in his works the expression of Russian love, hate, joy and sorrow is heard; it’s darkening gloom and shining dawn. That is how A. Merime, a French writer, characterized one of Glinka’s operas.
Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka was born on June, 1, 1804 in the village of Novospasskoe near Smolensk in Belarus. His father who was a retired captain owned this manor. His brother, Glinka’s uncle, visited Novospasskoe quite often. Glinka’s first musical experience was connected with the orchestra of serf musicians which his uncle was bringing with him, where young Mikhail played the violin and the flute.
From 1818 to 1822 Glinka studied in St. Petersburg, in a privileged school for children of noblemen. Even before that he spent two years in Tsarskoe Selo and studied at the same lyceum where Alexander Pushkin did. He met young Alexander at the lyceum, made friends with him and became one of the first who highly appreciated his works. Also, Glinka was on friendly terms with Pushkin’s associates.
In St. Petersburg Mikhail took music lessons, visited the theater very often where listened to the operas of Mozart, Kerubini, Rossini. His gift was quickly developing having been influenced by the cultural atmosphere of St. Petersburg. In summer Glinka worked in his uncle’s orchestra.
Glinka was a well-educated person, he knew 6 languages that allowed him to communicate easily with other musicians all over the world. Also, he was very easy-going and well-balanced and could make friends with people very quickly.
In 1820s Glinka wrote a lot of small musical plays, such as songs and romances. He became quite well-known in musical circles, and not only musical, for he communicated a lot with such writers and poets as Pushkin, Griboedov, Zhukovsky, Odoevsky, Mitskevich, Delvig (who had his own musical circle). At Delvig’s parties Glinka performed romances to his (Delvig’s) lyrics. He had a strong voice and was very good at singing.
In 1830-34 Glinka went abroad and visited Italy, Germany, and Austria. He listened to the most famous operas and had a lot of new wonderful impressions which were stored to be used afterwards in creating of his own works. The two major musical influences in his life were the folk music that he grew up with in the country and the operas of Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti whom he got acquainted with personally while in Italy. There he also got to know Berlioz and Mendelson.
It was there in Italy that an idea came to him to compose a Russian opera. He started it in 1836 upon the return to Russia. This opera that is well-known all over the world now is called Ivan Susanin. The second name was at first Death for the Tsar but when the emperor heard the opera, he ordered to rename it to Life for the Tsar. The subject of the opera was taken from the Russian history. In 1613 after the period of the “Trouble time” in Russia and choosing Mikhail Fyodorovich, the first Romanov (Peter the Great’s grandfather), to be a new tsar after Boris Godunov’s death, the Polish intervention was not over, and the tsar had to flee to Kostroma to be rescued for the Russian throne. The Poles spied him out and knew approximately where he was hiding. They asked a Kostroma peasant Ivan Susanin to take them to the place where the tsar was which he claimed he knew. Ivan led the way and brought the Poles to the very wild of the wild forest where he announced to them that their way was over. The Poles killed Ivan, but they could not get out of the forest, and all perished there.
Glinka himself could not imagine what a novelty such an opera was! For the first time a simple peasant became the main character of the opera, and a heroic and tragic personage, too! It was the celebration of the Russian patriotism in which the characteristics of Russian and Polish national music are vividly contrasted. For the first time, genuine Russian music was heard on the operatic stage with stunning effect, particularly in the choral scenes.
The first performance of Ivan Susanin took place on November, 27, 1836 in the St. Petersburg Bolshoi Theater (now does not exist). The success was enormous! Glinka wrote to his mother the next day: “Last night all my wishes came true, and my work was estimated to the full. My opera was a brilliant success; the public was extremely enthusiastic about it, the actors were performing beyond their ability, the Emperor thanked me personally and talked to me for a long time…”
In 1842 Glinka started to work on his second opera, Ruslan and Ludmila, based on a fairy tale poem by Alexander Pushkin. Glinka wanted Pushkin himself to write a libretto and help him with creating the plot. But unfortunately Pushkin died in 1837. This opera was Glinka’s second greatest achievement. The first performance took place on November, 27, 1842, exactly in 6 years after the premiere of Ivan Susanin. The new opera was a success, too, though it could not be compared to the success of the first opera. Glinka was quite upset with this fact and in 1844 he decided to take up another trip abroad, and made for France and Spain.
This trip increased the European popularity of the “Russian genius”, how he was often called. Glinka’s personal concert in Paris was a huge success. In Spain he studied the culture, customs, and language of the people, gathered Spanish folk songs and melodies, observed local holidays and traditions. These impressions were summed up in two symphony overtures – Jota Aragonesa (1845) and Summer Night in Madrid (1848-51).
In 1848, having nostalgia for his faraway Russia, he also created a symphonic fantasy Kamarinskaya with Russian folk motifs. This extraordinarily cheerful fantasy full of humor arouses associations with Russian folk holidays, Russian folk musical instruments, and folk chorus singing. In this work he established a new type of symphonic music and laid the foundation for its further development.
In the spring of 1856 Glinka took up his last trip abroad – to Berlin. He was full of creative plans but his health was damaged by constant emotional strain and depressions. Glinka’s family received his last letter on January, 15, 1857, where he wrote: “On January, 9 my opera Life for the Tsar was performed in the King’s Palace. I was invited there, too, and if I’m not mistaken I am the first Russian who was granted with such an honor… I’ve got a bad flu, and the weather is disgusting, nothing at all can be seen in this fog and snow…” Glinka seemed to foresee his quite an early death. He died on February, 15 there in Berlin, and later his relatives brought his remains back to Russia. Mikhail Glinka was buried at the cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra.
Glinka’s revolutionary ideas that he did not manage to carry out in life were later taken up by Sergey Rakhmaninov, Sergey Taneev and other Russian composers. Glinka’s operas are immensely popular in contemporary Russia as well as abroad. They assemble full houses and are marked deeply in people’s hearts. Why? Because Glinka’s music is beautifully and dearly Russian.