Mikhail Glinka


Biography of Mikhail Glinka

Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (June 1 1804 – February 15 1857), was the first Russian composer to gain wide recognition within his own country, and is often regarded as the father of Russian classical music. Glinka's compositions were an important influence on future Russian composers, notably the members of The Five, who took Glinka's lead and produced a distinctive Russian style of music.

Mikhail Glinka was born in the village of Novospasskoye, not far from the Desna River in the Smolensk Guberniya of the Russian Empire. His father was a wealthy retired army captain, as the family had a strong tradition of loyalty and service to the Tsar, while several members of his extended family had also developed a lively interest in culture. His great-great-grandfather was a Polish nobleman Wiktoryn Władysław Glinka of Trzaska Coat of Arms. As a small child, Mikhail was reared by his over-protective and pampering grandmother who fed him sweets, wrapped him in furs, and confined him to her room, which was always to be kept at 25 °C (77 °F); as such, he developed a sickly disposition, later in his life retaining the services of numerous physicians, and often falling victim to a number of quacks. The only music he heard in his youthful confinement was the sounds of the village church bells and the folk songs of passing peasant choirs. The church bells were tuned to a dissonant chord and so his ears became used to strident harmony. While his nurse would sometimes sing folksongs, the peasant choirs who sang using the podgolosnaya technique (an improvised style — literally under the voice - which uses improvised dissonant harmonies below the melody) influenced the way he later felt free to emancipate himself from the smooth progressions of Western harmony. After his grandmother’s death, Glinka was moved to his maternal uncle’s estate some 10 km away, and was able to hear his uncle’s orchestra, whose repertoire included pieces by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He was about ten when he heard them play a clarinet quintet by the Finnish composer Bernhard Henrik Crusell. It had a profound effect upon him. "Music is my soul," he was to write many years later, recalling this experience. While his governess taught him Russian, German, French, and geography, he also received instruction on the piano and the violin.

At the age of 13 Glinka was sent to the capital, Saint Petersburg, to study at a school for children of the nobility. Here he was taught Latin, English, and Persian, studied mathematics and zoology, and was able to considerably widen his musical experience. He had three piano lessons from John Field, the Irish composer of nocturnes, who spent some time in Saint Petersburg. He then continued his piano lessons with Charles Meyer, and began composing.

When he left school his father wanted him to join the Foreign Office, and he was appointed assistant secretary of the Department of Public Highways. The work was light, which allowed Mikhail to settle into the life of a musical dilettante, frequenting the drawing rooms and social gatherings of the city. He was already composing a large amount of music, such as melancholy romances which amused the rich amateurs. His songs are among the most interesting part of his output from this period.

In 1830, at the recommendation of a physician, Glinka decided to travel to Italy with the tenor Nikolay Ivanov. The route was leisurely, ambling uneventfully through Germany and Switzerland, before they settled in Milan. There, Glinka took lessons at the conservatory with Francesco Basili, although he struggled with counterpoint, which he found irksome. Although he spent his three years in Italy listening to singers of the day, romancing women with his music, and meeting many famous people including Mendelssohn and Berlioz, he became disenchanted with Italy. He realized that his mission in life was to return to Russia, write in a Russian manner, and do for Russian music what Donizetti and Bellini had done for Italian music. His return route took him through the Alps, and he stopped for a while in Vienna, where he heard the music of Franz Liszt. He stayed for another five months in Berlin, during which time he studied composition under the distinguished teacher Siegfried Dehn. A Capriccio on Russian themes for piano duet and an unfinished Symphony on two Russian themes were important products of this period.

When word reached Mikhail Glinka of his father's death in 1834, he left Berlin and returned to Novospasskoye.

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