Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka

The composer Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804-1857) was the earliest important musical figure of 19th-century musical nationalism in Russia—indeed, Russia's first musical personage of importance. He is known as the father of Russian music.

Mikhail Glinka was born on May 20, 1804, in Novospasskoe, a village in Smolensk Province. From the age of 13 he was raised in St. Petersburg. His training was in the upper-class traditions of the capital. He moved in the circles that passed as enlightened for the time, and he experienced the atmosphere of ferment and question that prevailed in Russia with Western exposure, military and social, after 1812. He was said to have been sympathetic toward the Decembrist uprisings of 1825, yet later times found him politically conservative.

A prodigy, Glinka studied music with visiting foreigners in St. Petersburg. Of them, John Field should be mentioned as a strong influence, although the close relationship reported between the two is doubtful. He also studied in Italy, and in Berlin at the age of 33 he studied theory and composition with Siegfried Dehn.

Glinka adopted the practice of the numerous Italians dominating music in St. Petersburg: using stories and tunes from Russian historical and folk sources. Thus, his first opera, A Life for the Czar, or Ivan Susanin (1836), told the story of a Russian peasant's sacrifice as he misled Polish troops marching against the Czar. Although willing to accept the occasional folk reference from visiting Italians, many St. Petersburg opera goers found Glinka's effort "music for coachmen." Others, however, approved, and among them was the Czar.

With A Life for the Czar, Glinka not only opened Russia's first significant musical chapter but became one of the important figures of European 19th-century romantic nationalism. This coincidence of Russia's first musical efflorescence with the romantic-national phase of Western musical history has left an indelible mark on Russian and Soviet musical thinking to this day.

In his second opera, Ruslan and Ludmilla (1842), Glinka's effort at a "national" style was more marked. The same effort is heard in his numerous songs, a number of which are settings of texts by Aleksandr Pushkin. Glinka ventured also into symphonic music with overtures, the popular Kamarinsky (a fantasy on two Russian folk songs), and music for what has latterly been hailed as the "first Russian symphony" (1834; finished in 1948 by Vissarion Shebalin). His devotion to folk idiom was not limited to the Russian; he treated Middle Eastern, Finnish, Polish, Italian, and Spanish tunes as well. Ruslan and Ludmilla's disappointing reception led Glinka to spend more and more time abroad.

Glinka's influence on all subsequent Russian musical development was profound, not just as romantic and nationalist but also as essentially conservative in means. He encouraged Aleksandr Dargomyzhsky and Mily Balakirev on the one hand, Anton Rubinstein and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky on the other. That he was not as distinctly "Russian" as was fondly held in earlier decades is no slur on his talent, which was great. He died in Berlin, on his way to confer further with Dehn, on Feb. 3, 1857.


Further Reading on Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka

The newest view of Glinka in English is in Mikhail O. Zetlin, The Five: The Evolution of the Russian School of Music, translated and edited by George Panim (1959). Chapters on Glinka appear in M. D. Calvocoressi and Gerald Abraham, Masters of Russian Music (1936) and Donald Brook, Six Great Russian Composers (1946). Paul Henry Lang, Music in Western Civilization (1941), attempts to place Glinka in some historical perspective.

Additional Biography Sources

Brown, David, Mikhail Glinka: a biographical and critical study, New York: Da Capo Press, 1985, 1974.

Glinka, Mikhail Ivanovich, Memoirs, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980, 1963.

Montagu-Nathan, M. (Montagu), Glinka, New York: AMS Press, 1976.