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Mikhail Glinka: Mikhail Glinka (b. Novospasskoye, 1 June 1804; d. Berlin, 15 Feb 1857).
It is ironical that the composer generally regarded as the 'father of Russian music', a national school remarkable for its earthy and virile style, should have been a pampered, cosmopolitan dilettante. Mikhail Glinka did not so much achieve greatness as have it thrust upon him by later generations of Russian composers of richer talents who were never more eloquent than when declaring their indebtedness to his trail-blazing. All of them treated with reverence a man who has remained a somewhat shadowy figure to Western eyes and whose two uneven operas, A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Ludmilla, have found no very wide favour outside Russia. Mikhail Glinka's own Memoirs tell us a good deal about the man himself, but throw little light on his creative ideals or practices, while the reminiscences of his sister and others who knew him tend merely to gossip or romanticise over him. It is difficult to place Mikhail Glinka in proper perspective, because while he was undoubtedly a composer of originality and vision, he was not a positive genius in the sense that Beethoven, Verdi or Wagner were. Perhaps Tchaikovsky summed him up most accurately: he admired Mikhail Glinka's music so much that he could compare him with Mozart, yet he once wrote that 'Mikhail Glinka is a talented Russian gentleman of his time, pettily proud, little developed, full of vanity and self-adoration.' Even so, Tchaikovsky regarded Mikhail Glinka as 'the acorn from which the oak of Russian music sprang'.
To understand Mikhail Glinka we need to know something about his family and social background and also about the general state of Russian music before he came on the scene. He suffered all his life from a childhood spent in the care of his maternal grandmother, who brought him up, physically and morally, in an enervating hothouse atmosphere. Born in the year when Napoleon became emperor, he lived through a period of tremendous political, social and intellectual upheaval to which he never made any positive response. He enjoyed financial security all his life, working for only two brief periods - first in the Ministry of Communications, then as Master of the Imperial Chapel - because it was always an easy matter for him to exploit the generosity of his doting mother. He was attracted to pretty teenage girls, and if they were empty-headed, so much the better. The one he married, to whom he was consistently unfaithful, finally turned the tables by marrying someone else without taking the trouble to divorce him first. Admittedly he suffered from weak health, but he exaggerated it to provide an excuse for regular travels to warmer climates.
Russia at that time had its own highly individual liturgical music and folk song, but foreign influences dominated in the concert hall and opera bouse. Curiously, it was the amiable, weak-willed Mikhail Glinka, whose youthful facility was not developed at the time, who finally threw off these influences and created a true Russian style. This was a slow process, however, his earliest songs and chamber compositions (later discarded) following conventional patterns, and his first real studies taking place on his visit to Italy in 1830 when he was twenty-six years old. During this three-year period he worked with Italian teachers, meeting Bellini, Donizetti and, more briefly, Mendelssohn. More serious studies followed in Berlin, and when he eventually returned home in 1834 on the death of his father he was already resolved to compose a national opera. The result was A Life for the Tsar (known in Russia today under the title Ivan Sussanin), which was premiered in the presence of the imperial family in St Petersburg on the 9th December 1836. It proved a wild success, admired on the immediate level for its freshness and patriotic appeal while more perceptive critics and fellow-musicians appreciated it as something radically new, a work which could well establish a genuine school of Russian opera. The vocal writing may owe a great deal to Italian influences, which is not surprising since, on his own admission, he had 'shed copious floods of tears of emotion' over Bellini's La Sonnambula; but the imaginatively-varied orchestration represented a considerable advance on his Italian models and was to influence all the later Russian nationalist composers including Rimsky-Korsakov. The story of Russia's defeat of an invading Polish army, with Ivan Susasin as the hero who sacrifices his own life by leading the Poles on a false trail, gave Mikhail Glinka scope to bring in music of strongly contrasted Polish and Russian character. A Life for the Tsar also pioneered the use of leitmotifs long before Wagner began to elaborate this system of giving unity to a dramatic score. Sussanin's final aria, one of the glories of the opera, is in fact made up of themes already heard in earlier scenes.
Six years later Mikhail Glinka completed his second opera, Ruslan and Ludmilla, a fantastic tale of magical plot and counter-plot adapted from a poem by Pushkin. Curiously, Mikhail Glinka abandoned the leitmotif system that he had used with such skill and imagination in A Life for the Tsar, but in other respects he established stylistic patterns that his successors were all to continue. The opera combines heroic declamatory writing with more lyrical flowerings which are distinctively Russian in flavour. It also abounds in unusual harmonies which effectively express the supernatural elements of the story, as well as incorporating authentic oriental themes to create the fantasy atmosphere which Rimsky-Korsakov, in particular, was later to favour so much. Finally, he provided a variety of exotically scored dances and choruses which anticipated those of Borodin's Prince Igor and other Russian operas. At times, however, he would slip back into florid arias in slavish imitation of the Italian school. Ruslan and Ludmilla, therefore, was not wholly original or purely Russian in style, but considering that Mikhail Glinka was virtually working in a vacuum it is a miracle that he was able to progress as far as he did along a new road. Without his two operas, uneven as they are, it is unlikely that Mussorgsky could have composed Boris Godunov, or Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin. The failure of Ruslan and Ludmilla to please the public threw Mikhail Glinka into the deepest despair, and his last years were sadly unproductive. He continued to produce occasional orchestral, choral and chamber works, as he had done before during his major effort to establish himself as a composer of opera, but his inspiration had lost momentum.
For most of the last thirteen years of his life Mikhail Glinka travelled around Europe, spending considerable periods of time in Paris, Berlin, Madrid and Seville. In Spain he made a close study of the cante jondo as well as the local dark-eyed beauties. Occasionally he returned to Russia, but always the more sophisticated capital cities lured him back, and it was in Berlin that he died and was originally buried. Four months later, with cultured Russians paying extravagant tributes to the composer they had neglected to their loss, the remains of the 'father' of their national music were taken from Berlin to be reinterred in St Petersburg.
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