Mikhail Glinka, Biography

Mikhail Glinka was the founder of the nationalist school of Russian composers 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 Mighty Five, who took Glinka's lead and produced a distinctive Russian style of music.

Mikhail Glinka was born in 1804 in the village of Novospasskoye, not far from the Desna River, in Smolensk Province in the Russian Empire. His father was a wealthy retired army captain, intelligent and homely; he was busy laying out and modernizing his park so the boy was brought up by his grandmother (his father’s mother) – an autocratic woman, a “thunderbolt” of bondsmen and the whole family.

Mikhail was a feeble, nervous, weak child, manipulated by his grandmother until she died when he was six years old. After that, Glinka was moved to his maternal uncle’s estate 10 kilometers away from home, and once, quite by accident, heard his uncle’s orchestra, whose repertoire included Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Music produced such an indelible impression upon Glinka that he asked to be taught music along with the lessons of Russian, German, French and geography that his governess was in charge of. The future musician was especially charmed by the sounds of the violin and the flute, and in his uncle’s orchestra he played these very instruments. His first violin teacher was a bondsman from Smolensk.

At the age of 13 Glinka was sent to the then capital, Saint Petersburg, to study at a school for children of the nobility. He took piano, violin and voice lessons from the Italian, German, and Austrian teachers there.

When Mikhail left school his father wanted him to join the Foreign Office, and the young man was appointed assistant secretary of the Department of Public Highways (a post he held for four years – from 1824 to 1928). Glinka did not particularly like civil service, at the age of 19 he had already decided to dedicate his life to music, but at the beginning of the 19th century the profession of a musician was considered at best odd and at worst disgraceful among representatives of the nobility. Thus Mikhail gave in to his father’s demands. The work was not tough, which granted Glinka much free time, which he spent frequenting drawing rooms and socializing in the cultural circles of the city. At this time Glinka started composing music; he focused on romances that entertained rich amateurs.

In 1830 Glinka decided to travel to Italy with the tenor Nikolay Ivanov. In Milan he took lessons at the conservatory with Francesco Basili (the famous Italian composer and conductor). Glinka spent three years in Italy listening to trendy music, gallanting women and meeting famous people including Mendelssohn and Berlioz. The country charmed the young composer - after evenings spent listening to new operas, he returned home and recalled the music and arias he had heard. Glinka continued to work hard on new compositions which were no longer immature and imitative, but self-contained and formed. During this period Glinka concentrated on writing pieces on the theme of famous operas; he also paid special attention to instrumental ensembles and wrote two eccentric compositions – a sestet for piano, two violins, viola, cello and contrabass and a pathetical trio for piano, clarinet and fagotto. These musical compositions are considered to best illustrate the unique composition “signature” of Mikhail Glinka.

His return journey took him through the Alps; he stopped for a while in Vienna, where he heard the music of Franz Liszt. Glinka spent the next five months in Berlin - during this time he studied composition under the guidance of Siegfried Dehn (the great German music theorist, editor, teacher and librarian).

In 1834 the sad news of his father’s death reached Glinka, who collected his gear and hastily left Berlin and returned to his native village of Novospasskoye. ...


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