Mikhail Glinka (1804 - 1857)
Glinka spent his early childhood in the care of his overprotective grandmother. She kept him confined to a warm room, wrapped in furs and fed sweets. The only music he heard was the sound of the local church bells, and the folk songs sung by passers-by. When his grandmother died he was sent to live with his uncle, and it was here that he first heard an orchestra. Later, when he was sent to school in St Petersburg, he briefly took piano lessons with John Field, the Irish composer who invented the nocturne, and began to compose.
Upon leaving school his father decided that he should work for the Foreign Office, and Glinka duly found himself employed at the Department of Public Highways. The job was hardly taxing, and so he had plenty of time to compose. The major turning point in his development came in 1830 when he travelled to Italy. Hearing the Italian style that was being forged by composers such as Bellini and Donizetti, he determined to create a distinctive Russian music. On his return to Russia he composed his first opera, A Life for the Tsar. This proved to be a great success and Glinka was rewarded by the gift of a ring from the Tsar worth 4,000 Roubles, and more importantly a post as director of the Imperial Chapel Choir. Shortly afterwards he began work on his second opera, Ruslan and Lyudmila.
The poet who devised the plot of Ruslan and Lyudmila, Konstantin Bakhturin, did so by his own admission in a quarter of an hour while drunk. It shows: dramatically the opera is a mess, and is rarely performed now outside Russia. While the quality of the opera as a drama is suspect, however, the music Glinka produced for it though is some of his finest. It was the seed of a major transformation of Russian music undertaken by the next generation of Russian composers, including Rimsky-Korsakov.
The rollicking overture has found an enduring place as a concert opener, and encapsulates the qualities that would prove so influential. It showcases Glinka’s dazzling deployment of the orchestra to full effect as well as his use of folk-derived thematic ideas. The closing bars move beyond conventional Western harmony and melody with the introduction of a descending whole-tone scale. This was the first time this had been heard in European music, but by the end of the century composers such as Debussy would make it a familiar sound. In the opera it stood as the theme of the evil dwarf Chernomor, who kidnaps Lyudmila; thereafter it became the standard Russian way to portray sorcery or villainy in music.