Mikhail Glinka

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Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)

Russian composer (b. 20 May/1 June 1804 at Novospasskoye, near Smolensk; d. 3/15 February 1857 in Berlin), born Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (Михаил Иванович Глинка).

Tchaikovsky and Glinka

Tchaikovsky's admiration for Glinka's music was second only to that which he felt for Mozart — and a very close second at that. As in the case of Don Giovanni, his lifelong affection for Glinka's A Life for the Tsar (1836), in particular, was based on an early childhood impression: on 22 August/3 September 1850, the ten-year-old Pyotr attended with his mother a performance of Glinka's first opera in Saint Petersburg, and he would never forget this experience [1]. Not even the greater musical richness of Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), which, as Herman Laroche would later point out, Tchaikovsky did not hear on the stage until 1864, could displace A Life for the Tsar in the composer's affections. This led Tchaikovsky, in an extensive discussion of both of Glinka's operas as part of two articles he wrote in 1872 (TH 263]] and TH 264), to side with Aleksandr Serov against the so-called 'Ruslanists' (Vladimir Stasov and the "Mighty Handful") in placing A Life for the Tsar above Ruslan as the more perfect work of art.

Where Tchaikovsky and the members of the "Mighty Handful" most definitely agreed, though, was in acknowledging that Glinka was the "father of Russian music". Just as Musorgsky hailed him in 1879 as "the immortal creator of a Russian musical school who first pointed out the path of truth" [2], so Tchaikovsky, in one of the last interviews he gave, called Glinka "the corner-stone of Russian music" (see A Conversation with P. I. Tchaikovsky). Many of Tchaikovsky's observations listed below confirm that he saw in Glinka the founder not just of Russian opera, but also of Russian symphonic music.

Significantly, at the end of 1862, a few months after his enrolment in the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, Tchaikovsky had a conversation with his elder brother Nikolay, who had disapproved of his decision to resign his post at the Ministry of Justice in order to devote himself fully to the study of music. Among other things, Nikolay told him that he could not count on having Glinka's talent, and that he was therefore condemned to the wretched existence of a second-rate musician. Tchaikovsky had replied: "I may not be able to come up to Glinka, but you'll see: one day you will be proud of being related to me" [3]. Another episode which illustrates Tchaikovsky's reverence for Glinka took place during the inauguration of the Moscow Conservatory on 1/13 September 1866. After the banquet which was held that evening many of the assembled guests were keen to hear the virtuoso German cellist Bernhard Cossmann (1822-1910), who had been invited to join the Conservatory's staff, play some chamber music by Beethoven. "Tchaikovsky, however," as Nikolay Kashkin later recalled, "decided that the first music which was to sound within the newly-opened Conservatory had to be that of Glinka, and he therefore sat down at the piano and played from memory the overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila" [4].

Tchaikovsky in many ways tried to follow Glinka's example of combining Russian and Western European traditions. In this respect it is significant that when teaching harmony at the Moscow Conservatory he would illustrate his lectures with examples from Mozart and Glinka because of the "simplicity, clarity of thought, smoothness of form, transparency [and] lightness" that one could find in their scoring [5]. Tchaikovsky drew inspiration from the treatment of Russian folk themes in Glinka's Kamarinskaya (which he once famously described as the acorn from which the oak of Russian symphonic music had grown) in the final movement of his Symphony No. 2 (1872), which contains similarly explosive variations on the Ukrainian folk tune "The Crane". In his review of this symphony Laroche praised it as a milestone because, apart from Glinka's Jota aragonesa, as he observed, Russia was so deficient in instrumental music [6]. Tchaikovsky, too, admired the Jota aragonesa for its "astonishing beauty", but of course he would also have pointed to the Kamarinskaya as a model of Russian symphonic writing. In 1880, however, he did consciously take his cue from the Jota aragonesa (which Glinka had written during his two-year stay in Spain, 1845-47) when he started work on the Italian Capriccio. As he explained in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck: "I have begun to make sketches for an Italian Fantasia on folk themes. I want to write something in the manner of Glinka's Spanish Fantasia" [7].

Apart from Laroche, the connection between Glinka and Tchaikovsky was also made early on by Hans von Bülow in an 1874 article for a German newspaper about a production of A Life for the Tsar in Milan (Glinka's opera was staged in Italian as Vita per lo Czar — see also TH 289). Bülow had pointed out that amongst the many talented young Russian composers there was only one "who like Glinka is tirelessly exerting himself […] it is the young professor of composition at the Moscow Conservatory, Herr Tschaikowsky!" [8]. However, as is clear from the letters to Nadezhda von Meck quoted below and from some of his articles TH 264 and TH 281), Tchaikovsky knew better about Glinka's irregular working habits and he would often lament that the aristocratic milieu in which Glinka had grown up had condemned him to dilettantism and prevented him from making full use of his tremendous natural gifts. This was the one aspect in which Tchaikovsky sought to distance himself from his great predecessor, for otherwise he was full of unmitigated admiration for Glinka's music.

Thus, in the summer of 1885 he travelled to Smolensk, near Glinka's birthplace, in order to attend the unveiling of a monument to the composer. A year earlier Tchaikovsky had been among the first recipients of the Glinka Prize for his overture-fantasia Romeo and Juliet. (This prize was founded by Mitrofan Belyayev in November 1884 to be awarded annually for the best works in Russian classical music). Tchaikovsky was also keen for Glinka's music to become better known outside Russia (although already in the 1840s Berlioz and Liszt had championed some of his works), and one of his unrealised hopes for his first Western European tour as a conductor in 1888 was to organize a concert in Paris featuring Glinka's works (see Chapter II of TH 316). However, even in Russia at the time Glinka's orchestral music was not that well-known, and in a very interesting letter to the German conductor Julius Laube, who was due to come to Russia with his orchestra in the summer of 1888 to give some concerts in Pavlovsk, Tchaikovsky exhorted him: "You should play Glinka as much as possible; I recommend to you the two Spanish Overtures and the music for the tragedy Prince Kholmsky" [9]. Tchaikovsky himself would conduct the Jota aragonesa at a concert in Moscow on 28 October/9 November 1889.

Arrangements and Editions by Tchaikovsky

  • A Life for the Tsar (Жизнь за Царья) (1836) — Tchaikovsky made an arrangement for unison choir and string orchestra of the chorus Glory (Славься) from the opera, to be performed at the coronation celebrations of Alexander III (1883) [lost].
  • Ho perduto il mio tesoro, aria for tenor and piano (1828) — translated from Italian to Russian by Tchaikovsky (1877).
  • Mio ben ricordati, aria for soprano and piano (1827–28?) — translated from Italian to Russian by Tchaikovsky (1877).
  • Mi sento il cor trafiggore, aria for tenor and piano (1828) — translated from Italian to Russian by Tchaikovsky (1877).
  • Prayer (1828) — Tchaikovsky adapted Russian text for Glinka's wordless quartet of the same name (1877); the author of the text is anonymous, and it is possible that Tchaikovsky was the author, rather than translator
  • Pur nel sonno, aria for soprano and piano (1828) — translated from Italian to Russian by Tchaikovsky (1877).
  • Skylark (Жаворонок), No. 10 of the song cycle A Farewell to Saint Petersburg (Прощание к Петербургом) — orchestrated by Tchaikovsky in 1868 [lost].
  • Tu sei figlia, aria for soprano and piano (1828) — translated from Italian to Russian by Tchaikovsky (1877).

General Reflections on Glinka

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

  • TH 263 — Tchaikovsky calls A Life for the Tsar "the first and best Russian opera".
  • TH 264 — compares Glinka's two operas, giving preference to A Life for the Tsar for its cohesion of form and dramatic power in spite of the greater musical richness of Ruslan and Lyudmila; he argues that in terms of intensity of musical inspiration Glinka deserved a place in the pantheon of the greatest composers, but unfortunately the social milieu in which he grew up condemned him to remain "a lion in the sheepskin of dilettantism" and had prevented him from developing his symphonic talent, as, in Tchaikovsky's view, Glinka was "first and foremost a lyrical symphonist".
  • TH 270 — mentions Glinka, together with Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann as examples of the type of "hard-working artist".
  • TH 281 — during a discussion of Dargomyzhsky's Rusalka Tchaikovsky laments again how the social milieu in which Glinka grew up had condemned him to dilettantism and prevented him from securing a place in the pantheon of truly great European composers.
  • TH 298 — in an appraisal of the Prince Kholmsky music he calls Glinka "one of the greatest symphonists of the century", comparable to Beethoven in certain respects.
  • TH 302 — referring to the "music of genius" in Ruslan, he calls Glinka "our best Russian composer".
  • TH 311 — points out that, like "Dargomyzhsky, Serov, A. Rubinstein, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Musorgsky, etc", Glinka had been inspired by Russian folksong.

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

  • Letter 862 to Nadezhda von Meck, 24 June/6 July 1878, in which Tchaikovsky is replying to her question as to whether he always needed inspiration in order to compose:
Sometimes inspiration slips away and refuses to be caught. However, I consider it to be the artist's duty never to give in, since laziness is very strong in people. There's nothing worse for an artist than to succumb to laziness. Inspiration is a guest who doesn't like to drop in on those who are lazy. It comes to those who summon it. Perhaps the Russian national character is faulted, not without reason, for a lack of original creativity precisely because the Russian is lazy par excellence. The Russian likes to put things off. He is talented by nature, but it is by nature, too, that he suffers from a lack of will-power and endurance. It is necessary, nay, essential to overcome oneself in order not to lapse into dilettantism, which even such a colossal talent as Glinka suffered from. This man, who was endowed with tremendous, original creative powers, lived if not till old age, then certainly till he was well into his years of maturity, and yet he wrote surprisingly little. Read his Memoirs. You will see from them that he worked like a dilettante, i.e. by fits and starts, when he happened to be in the mood for it. No matter how much we take pride in Glinka, we must nevertheless admit that he did not fulfil the task which was incumbent on him, bearing in mind his astonishing gifts. Both his operas, in spite of amazing and truly original beauties, are marred by a striking unevenness, as a result of which alongside passages of genius and unfading beauty we come across utterly childish and naïve numbers. But what would have been if this man had been born into a different milieu, if he had lived under different conditions, if he had worked like an artist, conscious of his strength and of the duty to perfect his gifts as far as possible, rather than as a dilettante who composes music for want of anything better to do!
Amongst other things I found in your musical library [on the Brailov estate] a separately bound book of music which consists of Glinka's dances. Almost all of these polkas, waltzes, and polonaises were new to me, and I was very interested. Glinka is such an exceptional phenomenon! When you read his memoirs, which show him to have been a kind and nice person, albeit with a shallow and even banal character; when you play through his smaller pieces, it is simply impossible to believe that the one and the other were written by the same person who created, for example, the "Glory" chorus [at the end of A Life for the Tsar] — that work of arch-genius, which is on a par with the highest manifestations of the creative spirit of great geniuses! And how many other amazing beauties there are in his operas and overtures! What a staggeringly original thing the Kamarinskaya is, which all later Russian composers (including me of course) are to this day still drawing on, in the most overt fashion, for contrapuntal and harmonic combinations, as soon as they have to elaborate a dance-like Russian theme. This is not done deliberately, of course, but simply because Glinka was able to concentrate in a small work everything that whole dozens of second-rate talents might manage to devise and hatch out by dint of strenuous efforts.
And suddenly this very same person, when he has already reached full maturity, composes such a feeble, disgraceful banality as a polonaise for the coronation [of Alexander II] (he wrote this a year before his death) or a childish polka, which he talks about so smugly in his memoirs as if it were some masterpiece. Mozart, in his letters to his father and all throughout his life, also displays naivety, but that is something quite different. Mozart is a child-like and pure being, endowed not only with genius but with dove-like meekness and maidenly modesty — it is as if he were not of this world. With him you never come across any complacency, any self-glorification; he seems almost not to suspect all the greatness of his genius. Glinka, in contrast, is bursting with self-adoration. He tells us in detail about every insignificant circumstance or the composition of this or that short piece imagining that it is of historical value. Glinka was a Russian landowner's son [барич] of genius and very much of his time, pettishly vain, intellectually underdeveloped, full of vanity and self-adoration, impatient and morbidly touchy regarding the evaluation of his works [...]
And yet he wrote the "Glory" chorus!

In Tchaikovsky's Diaries

  • Entry for 30 March/11 April 1887:
After supper, read the orchestra score of Glinka's A Life for the Tsar. What mastery! And how did he accomplish it all? Incomprehensible, that from such an extremely limited and commonplace dilettante, judging by the autobiography, there should develop such a colossus??!! [10].
  • Entry for 27 June/9 July 1888:
An unprecedented, astonishing phenomenon in the sphere of art. A dilettante, who could play the violin and the piano a bit, who had composed utterly colourless quadrilles, fantasias on fashionable Italian themes, who had even tried his hand at serious musical forms (quartet, sextet), as well as songs, but who had not written anything else apart from banalities in the style of the 1830s, suddenly, at the age of 34, creates an opera, which in terms of its genius, sweep, novelty, and faultless technique, is on a par with the very greatest and profoundest works of art. One's amazement becomes still greater when one remembers that the author of this opera is at the same time the author of the Memoirs, written twenty years later. The author of the Memoirs produces the impression of a man who is kind and nice, but empty, insignificant, and ordinary. It just haunts me sometimes, this question as to how such colossal artistic power could be combined with such nonentity, and how Glinka, from being a colourless dilettante for so long, could suddenly, in one step, draw level (yes, level!) with Mozart, with Beethoven, with anyone you care to name. For it is no exaggeration at all to say that about someone who created the "Glory" chorus! But let this question be decided by people more able than I to delve into the mysteries of the creative spirit, which elects for its temple a vase so fragile and apparently incongruous. But I will say that probably no one appreciates and loves Glinka's music more than I do. I am not an unconditional 'Ruslanist' and am even inclined to prefer A Life for the Tsar overall, even though it may well be the case that there are more musical gems in Ruslan. But the elemental force manifests itself more strongly in the first opera, and the "Glory" chorus is something truly overwhelming, gigantic. And there was no model at all; antecedents do not exist in Mozart, in Gluck, or in any of the masters. Amazing! Wonderful! We find no less a manifestation of extraordinary genius in the Kamarinskaya. Thus, in passing, without intending in the least to create something which would surpass, in terms of its scope, a simple humorous trifle, this man gives us a small work in which each bar is the product of the most intense creative power (in the sense of creating from nothing). Almost fifty years have passed: many Russian symphonic works have been written since then, and one can say that we have a real Russian symphonic school. But what do we find? Why, all of it is in the Kamarinskaya, just as the whole oak is in the acorn! And for a long time yet Russian composers will continue to draw on this rich source, since it will take a lot of time and energy to exhaust all this richness. Yes! Glinka is a real creative genius! [11].

Views on Specific Works by Glinka

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

It all comes down to talent. For the latter there are no limitations, and out of nothing it is able to create beautiful music. For example, is there anything more banal than the following melodies: Beethoven, Seventh Symphony [finale]:
0862 ex4.jpg
or Glinka, Jota aragonesa?:
0862 ex5.jpg
And yet look at the wondrous musical edifices which Beethoven and Glinka constructed out of them!
  • Kamarinskaya, orchestral fantasia on two Russian folksongs (1848) — Letter 1527 to Nadezhda von Meck, 4/16–7/19 July 1880 (quoted above); diary entry for 27 June/9 July 1888 (quoted above; it is here that Tchaikovsky says that the whole Russian symphonic school is contained in the Kamarinskaya "just as the whole oak is in the acorn")
  • Notes from My Life (Записки из моей жизни) (serialized in 1870) — TH 264; Letter 862 to Nadezhda von Meck, 24 June/6 July 1878 (quoted above); Letter 1527 to Nadezhda von Meck, 4/16–7/19 July 1880 (quoted above)
  • Prince Kholmsky, incidental music (1840) — TH 277, TH 298
  • Ruslan and Lyudmila, opera (1842) — TH 258, TH 264, TH 302
  • Overture – TH 278
  • Souvenir d'une nuit d'été à Madrid = Spanish Overture No. 2 (1848) — TH 287

External Links


  • Korabelnikova, L. entry on Glinka for the Belcanto Tchaikovsky Pages (in Russian)

Notes and References

  1. See Letter 33 to Aleksandra Tchaikovskaya, 26 August/7 September 1851.
  2. Letter from Modest Musorgsky to Lyudmila Shestakova (Glinka's sister), 9/21 September 1879.
  3. Modest Tchaikovsky, Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 118.
  4. Kashkin's reminiscences are quoted in Modest Tchaikovsky, Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 234.
  5. See the memoirs of Rostislav Genika, a student at the Conservatory in the early 1870s, in Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1979), p. 75; English translation in Tchaikovsky remembered (1993), p. 32.
  6. Herman Laroche's review (January 1873) is quoted in: An Tschaikowsky scheiden sich die Geister. Textzeugnisse der Čajkovskij-Rezeption, 1866-2004 (2006), p. 52–53.
  7. Letter 1408 to Nadezhda von Meck, 16/28 January 1880.
  8. Quoted in Petr Il'ič Čajkovskij und Hans von Bülow (1998), p. 356.
  9. Letter 3587a to Julius Laube, 10/22 June 1888. The original letter is in German and has been published in Paris vant bien une messe! Bisher unbekannte Briefe, Notenautographie und andere Čajkovskij-Funde (1998), p. 220.
  10. See The Diaries of Tchaikovsky (1973), p. 165.
  11. Partly quoted in Дни и годы П. И. Чайковского. Летопись жизни и творчества (1940), p. 449-450; English translation in The Diaries of Tchaikovsky (1973), p. 250.