Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804-1857)
Glinka was born in the hamlet of Novospaskoye in the Smolensk Region, but lived in Saint Petersburg from 1817, where he studied at a boarding school for the children of aristocrats. In 1830 he traveled to Western Europe, where he established friendships with some of the leading composers of the day, including Bellini, Donizetti and Mendelssohn. He studied harmony and counterpoint in Berlin with Siegfried Dehn (1799-1858), whom he credited with giving him his only formal musical training. Glinka’s first opera, A Life for the Tsar (1836) was an immediate success. His second, arguably better opera Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842) was received less enthusiastically, yet later acknowledged as his greatest achievement.
In 1844, Glinka journeyed extensively through France and Germany. He became closely acquainted with Hector Berlioz, who included Glinka’s works in his own concerts. He spent two years in Spain, and composed numerous works inspired by native folklore—Jota Aragonesa and Recuerdos de Castilla. Glinka’s last years were spent traveling through western Europe and Russia. He died in Berlin in 1857.
Glinka composed about eighty romances. His earlier compositions were simplistic songs in the Italianate style of the early 1800’s, but his later works exhibited the skill of a more sophisticated composer. According to contemporary accounts, Glinka had a pleasant tenor voice and was known to perform his own compositions. Consequently, his song-writing was informed by an excellent knowledge of the human voice. He chose texts from various poets, including the greatest, such as Pushkin and Zhukovsky. He set many lyrics of his close friend Nestor Kukolnik (1809-1868) including the song cycle A Farewell to Saint Petersburg.
Glinka is regarded as Russia’s first truly significant composer. He infused western genres with a uniquely Russian flavor and is credited with establishing a Russian national school. He was followed by Alexander Dargomyzhsky, who in turn became a connecting link between Russian bel canto and the group of new nationalist composers led by Mily Balakirev.