Russian Operatic Composer
(1804 - 1857)


Russia's more easterly isolation has allowed its Slavic musical heritage, derived from folk songs, to survive in more authentic form, while other Slavic music became relatively more diluted with their nations' respective (Poland, for example) proximity to Western Europe. But when the techniques of Europe did meet them: a happy marriage has resulted. What remains is the rhythmic freedom, minor keys timely interdispersed, remnants of Ancient Greek dance, and the Lydian influence that even Beethoven borrowed in Opus 132. But, one favorite (and first) son among many Russian composers is Mikhail Ivánovitch Glinka.

Not so Humble Beginnings

June of 1804 was when "Michael John's son" was born in the village of Novospaskoyé in Smolensk. Ivan was a retired captain, and he left the boy with Thekla, the grandmother, who spoiled her sometimes unhealthy charge. Before he returned to his strict mother upon the elderly grandmother's death, he devoured books, even difficult ancient Biblical texts, drew, and showed his musical abilities by copying the Church-bell music on brass wash tubs.

His big influence, musically was at his titled father's large parties, where several different orchestras would entertain, but, usually the uncles' own, composed of serfs. One of these serfs, back in 1770's promoted the first musical magazine in Russia. The Imperial Orchestra had each of the 49 horn players play one note each that amazingly produced complicated pieces. It was at this time the young Glinka declared, "Music is my very life!"

After the French governess taught him the essentials of music, he then was taught, with some difficulty, the violin, until his final home school instructor was Böhm who tried also complaining, "Me Sieu klinka, fous ne chourez chamais du fiolin." {sic} (Mr. Glinka, you will never learn to play the violin.)

Finally the 14 year old was sent to the nobleman's Palaological Institute at St. Petersburg. Here the best of upper class instructors could mold him, like the:

Sub-Inspector Kolmakof
Is a fellow old enough.
With his eyes he's always blinking,
And his vest fits to his thinking.

This sarcastic students' poem, Glinka set to music, and was sang en chorale after supper to Kolmakof's dismay. But, Glinka started to really progress under the Irish piano-teacher, John Field famous in his time for his nocturnes, who then left, and Michael continued under another of that teacher's students, Osman. Though his next instructor was the famed Zeuner, his philosophical, and rote memorization drove Glinka to be understudied with another of Fields' protegés, German pianist Karl Mayer. It was with this teacher that he played for his graduation in 1822, Hummel's A-minor Concerto for Two Pianos.

But, it was back during the summertime, at his father's house, where sitting in with the orchestra, and learning first hand with a variety of instruments that gave him important experience working with the large ensembles. In Petersburg, he initially resumed studies enthusiastically and enjoyed the operas and ballets, especially Rossini, but increasingly a lethargy developed that almost kept him from achieving the noble chin (Russian rank) of Collegiate Councillor, and composing and publishing a few works using strings, harp, and or piano.

Budding Career

In the mid 1820's, following a cousins's example, portentious seeing, and hypochondriac leaning Glinka went to seek not only the mineral waters of the Caucasus Mountains, but to undergo the hypnotism that was being tried there. But, those waters exascerbated his ill health instead, and he returned to Petersburg to take "gravy" employment, courtesy of his father, as an assistant secretary in the chancellory of the Department of Public Highways. His hour a day schedule of work left him with free time to pursue his social endeavors which were mainly with fellow music lover, Count Sievers. This time of leisurely, living out a fantasy, enjoying pastoral settings, and swept up by Zhukovsky's syrupy love poems; was when he wrote: variations on Benedetta sia la Madre and improved the beginning of Death of Alexander and Accession of the Emperor Nikolaî by General Apukhin. By 1827 he was severed from even the minor inconveniance of his job, and now, also because of his father's fortunate financial investments, could dedicate his full resources to music. This, he did with a collaboration with an admirer, promoter and writer of verses, Prince Sergyéï Galitsin (by way of Prince Yuri). On royal cruises down the Chernaya River he would serenade his new friends, and eventually would perform operatic comedies for the likes of the President of the Imperial Council, Prince Kotchubey. Glinka even assumed, complete with crimson wig and fancy dress, the character, Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giavanni.

Abroad for Health (and Influences)

1828 Glinka's doctors advised the stamina deprived young man to travel abroad, first trying the restorative waters of Aix, for a least three years, and in 1830 he finally started his tour accompanied by a singer and frequent visitor to Italy and France, Nikolaï Ivénof. After Dresden and the stop at that recommended Swiss town, they stayed in Milan, Turin, and Naples where they visited other cities including Rome and Venice. Ironically, an untinned cooking utensil they used almost killed them. He wrote quite a bit of music at this time, including a sextet and a trio; initially enraptured by the Italian style: of not only Rossini, but Bellini and Donizetti, but eventually distanced himself from this overly voluptious style. He went from suffering feverish visions to finding homæopathic relief, and evolved from a hesitant singer to a powerful high tenor; because of his residence in the former cultural mecca , Vienna. It was here in the mid 1830's that the osmosis of the oeuvres of Chopin, Strauss, and Lanner infused him with inspirations that he would thematically use in his latter Russian operas.

Russian National Artist

In 1835 he married his love at first sight, Mérya Petrovna Ivénova, which came about only because he had now returned to Russia because of this father's death. He would have been traveling again, but for this happier event. His settling in Petersburg was a time when all the intellectuals and artisans were working hard on that dream of developing great Russian masterpieces. A national Russian opera of this magnatude became Glinka's passion; even though Caterino Cavos, wrote and lived in Petersburg in 1775, he was Venetian, and even the native writers copied these styles and subject matter, albeit a love of music and arts was growing. (Araja, Sarti, Cimaros, Paiseiello and Boïeldieu also toured here.) Zhukovsky encouraged Glinka to write the opera on the tumultous Russian history being penned by Baron Rosen, while his wife hindered him -- scolding him about squandering lined paper, and warning him about artists winding up like the loser in a fatal duel: Pushkin. The mother in laws' meddling was the last straw in that troubled union, and he was single again, able to write his great opera, Zhizn za Tsari, or, A Life for the Tsar and was performed at the Bolshoï Theater smashingly for the Emperor and an illustrious crowd, on a Friday, the ninth of December, 1836. This motivational story of the Romanof's rise in power to stop chaos started by evil Boris Godunóf and his assassination of Prince Dimitri after the death of Iván the Terrible appealed to everyone's patriotism. When the Poles were involved, in the story, Glinka would invoke Chopin styled themes, and used leading motifs ahead of his time with Ványa and Antonida influences. He was invited to the Emperor's box, filled with the whole Imperial Family to personally congratulate him immediately afterward. He received, unasked for, the payment of 4000 ruples, and was appointed beginning the next year, their Court Chapel's Kapellmeister. Before he retired from this position a couple of years later due to family and health problems, he earned 1500 ruples procuring singers from the Ukraine (source of the Balalaï), one being the famed Gulak-Artemovsky.

1842 was the year his better, yet less well recieved (critically and in popularity) opera, Rulan i Liudmíla made its debut. Inspired from an Oriental and Tsar theme that had been proposed by Prince Shakóvskoï it was based on the Pushkin narrative concerning an exotic woman wooed by many eastern characters. He was helped by a genius drunken writer, Bakhturin, and a Persian influenced Aïvazovsky (who helped him earlier for the saga of Finna).

On the Road Again

The unacceptance of this less topical opera prompted him to resume foreign expeditions, first going to Paris where Berlioz prepared the way for exhibiting, a dance, Leshchinka from his Ruslan, and a Tsar catavina, which the French didn't receive openly. When he tried again in front of a better audience comprised of many of the Russian expatriates there in the "City of Lights", he lost 1500 francs; this in spite of playing "Chernomor's March" from Ruslan, a waltz-scherzo and a romantic Italian Il Desídero.

Final Travels and Return Home

Spain became his itinerary in 1845, writing and gathering folk-songs for two years, producing; the danse fantastique, La Jota Arragonesa, and symphony A Night in Madrid. His elderly mother finally begged his return to Russia where for 5 years until her death he travelled back and forth between Petersburg, Warsaw, Moscow and Smolensk. At this time he wrote for Prince Varshavsky, Recollections of Castile and still renown Kamaránskaya. While travelling in the spring of 1856 through Paris and Toulouse (where his ill health stopped his attempted return to Spain) he wrote his autobiographical Recollections.

He visited his sister a couple of years later, Liudmíla Ivánovna Shetákova at Tsarkoyé Seló, and in Petersburg and wrote, but did not finish due to illness, for the diva, Lenova -- Dvumuzhnitsa (The Bigamist ) (or also to be titled: The Robbers of the Volga.

The late spring of 1856 he went to the musica antigua school in Berlin for the ecclesiastical modes and he was thrilled to see the King of Germany's band play Life for the Tsar for the first time. Unfortunately he died here and he was found with an Holy Ikon resting on his lips. They sent him back to be buried in Nevsky Monastary cemetary in the Motherland in that year 1857 in February.

We are fortunate to have his music and portraits of this man live on to this day. He was the author of the instrumental version of the Russian National Anthem (until 2000.)

Source: Famous Composers, Nathan Haskell Dole; Thomas Y. Crowell, Co., 1925