Childhood & Early Years
Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka was born on June 1 (OS May 20), 1804, in Novospasskoye, which was part of the Smolensk Governorate of the Russian Empire at that time. It is now under the Yelninsky District of the Smolensk Oblast. For generations, the family was known for their loyal service to the tsars.
His father, Ivan Glinka, was a retired army captain of considerable means. His mother’s name was Evgenia Andreyevna Glinka-Zemelka. Mikhail was the eldest of the 11 surviving children of the family. He had four younger brothers and six sisters.
His four brothers were Andrei Ivanovich Glinka, Ivan Ivanovich Glinka, Aleksey Ivanovich Glinka, and Evgeny Ivanovich Glinka. His six sisters were Pelageya Ivanovna Sobolevskaya, Elizaveta Ivanovna Fleury, Maria Ivanovna Stuneyeva, Olga Izmaylova, Natalia Ivanovna Gedeonova, and Lyudamila Shestakova.
At the time of Mikhail’s birth, Ivan, an intelligent and homely man, was busy modernizing his park. Mikhail spent his early years under the care of his over-protective paternal grandmother, Thekla Aleksandrovna Glinka. She was an autocratic and strong-willed woman.
For the first 6 years of his life, he lived confined to his grandmother’s room. The temperature in the room was kept constant at 25°C. He was wrapped in fur and fed sweets. He thus grew up feeble and nervous. Even at this stage, music played an important part in his life.
From his room, he could hear the church bells ring, making his ear accustomed to loud harmony. He also listened to Russian folk songs sung by his nurse.
After the death of his grandmother in October 1809, 6-year-old Mikhail moved to his maternal uncle’s estate, located some 6 miles away from his home. There, he began his education under a governess, who taught him Russian, German, French, and geography.
He was introduced to professional musical performances at his uncle’s home, listening to the hired orchestra playing the works of reputed musicians such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
Mikhail became more interested in music when, at the age of 10 or 11, he heard a clarinet quartet by Finnish composer Bernhard Henrik Crusell. It impressed him so much that he decided he would study music. Subsequently, he was taught the piano and the violin by his governess.
Around 1817, as Mikhail turned 13, he was sent to St. Petersburg for further education. There, he attended a school meant for the children of the nobility and received training in the upper-class tradition, studying Latin, English, Persian, math, and zoology.
During his stay in St. Petersburg, he had wider exposure to music, learning to play the piano with John Field, a well-known Irish composer who had been living in St. Petersburg since 1811. Later, he studied with Field’s student, Charles Mayer, a Prussian pianist and composer. Soon, Mikhail started composing music under Mayer’s guidance.
In 1822, Mikhail graduated school. However, he continued living in St. Petersburg. It is not known what he did during the next 2 years. It is, however, believed that his father wanted him to join the foreign office but that did not materialize due to his chronic ill health.
During this period, he witnessed the turmoil that Russia was going through because of Western exposure. It is believed that he sympathized with the Decembrist uprisings that began in December 1825. Later, however, he changed his views and became more politically conservative.
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In 1824, 20-year-old Mikhail Glinka began his career as an assistant secretary at the ‘Department of Public Highways,’ St. Petersburg, a position he held until he was 24. The work was light, and therefore, it suited him well, enabling him to pursue his interest in music.
By then, he had composed number of romantic and sad songs. He now played them at social gatherings and the drawing rooms of the rich, becoming quite popular with his amateur listeners.
In 1828, Glinka left his job at the ‘Department of Public Highways,’ possibly because of his ill health. He traveled to Italy in 1830, on his doctor’s advice. In this journey, he was accompanied by tenor Nikolai Kuzmich Ivanov.
On the way, they visited Germany and Switzerland, finally settling down in Milan, where he studied with Francesco Basili at the ‘Milan Conservatory.’
Glinka remained in Milan for 3 years, meeting well-known music composers such as Bellini, Donizetti, Mendelssohn, and Berlioz. He also had a wonderful social life and romanced several women. However, he soon became disenchanted with life and decided to return home sometime in 1833.
Influenced by Donizetti and Bellini, known for composing quintessential Italian music, Glinka now wanted to create characteristically Russian music, devoid of Western influence. However, he did not return to Russia straightaway, stopping for a while in Vienna instead, where he heard the music of Franz Liszt.
From Vienna, he moved to Berlin, staying there for 5 months, studying composition with Siegfried Dehn. During this period, he began working on ‘Sinfonia per l’orchestra sopra due motive russe.’ ‘Capriccio on Russian Themes’ for piano duet and ‘Six Studies for Contralto’ were two other important compositions of this period.
In 1834, while he was still staying in Berlin, he came to know that his father had passed away. Therefore, he returned to Novospasskoye, without completing ‘Sinfonia.’ It was later completed and orchestrated by Vissarion Shebalin.
Back in Russia, he started working on his first major opera, ‘Ivan Susanin.’ The title was later changed to ‘A Life for the Tsar’ at the request of the tsar. It premiered on December 9, 1836, at the ‘Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre,’ St. Petersburg, and brought him instant fame.
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In 1837, Glinka was appointed as the instructor of the ‘Imperial Chapel Choir,’ a position he held for about 2 years. He received a yearly salary of 25,000 rubles, along with lodging at the court. This was also the year when he started writing his second opera, ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila.’
In 1838, as suggested by the tsar, he went to Ukraine, looking for new voices for the choir. He was immensely successful in this venture, bringing back 19 boys with him. Immensely pleased, the tsar rewarded him with 1,500 rubles.
Despite his preoccupations, Glinka continued to write music, producing ‘Waltz-Fantasia in B minor’ in 1839, ‘Prince Kholmsky’ in 1840, and ‘Tarantella’ in 1841. He also continued working on ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila,’ which turned out to be a great disappointment for him.
‘Ruslan and Lyudmila’ premiered on November 27, 1842, at the ‘Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre,’ St. Petersburg, but evoked little enthusiasm from the audience. Habituated to watching Italian opera, they could neither appreciate the Russian-inspired theme nor its boldly original music.
The failure of ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila’ sent Glinka into a deep depression. To overcome it, he left for France, where he was happy to hear Berlioz playing excerpts from his operas. He was equally impressed by Berlioz’s music and decided to compose some “fantasies pittoresques” for orchestra.
In 1845, after a short stay in Paris, he left for Spain, producing Spanish Overture No. 1 ‘Capriccio Brilliante on the Jota Aragonesa’ the same year. Its success helped him drive out his depression, and he started composing music once again.
Remaining in Spain until May 1847, he began to study Spanish folktales and folk music, concurrently producing a huge number of works. 'A Greeting to My Native Land,’ 'Toasting Song,’ 'Darling,’ 'Soon You Will Forget Me,’ and 'Meine Ruh' ist hin' are some of the works he wrote in 1847.
Around the same time, he met Don Pedro Fernández, who remained his secretary and companion for the rest of his life. Later, he also visited France. However, by 1848, he began to feel homesick and decided to return to Russia. In spite of this, he continued to produce a huge amount of work.
‘Kamarinskaya, Scherzo’ a symphonic fantasy on two Russian themes, was one of his most important works in 1848. In addition, he also wrote the orchestra composition 'Recuerdos de Castilla' and the voice and piano composition 'The Toasting Cup' and 'When I Hear Your Voice.'
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On his return to Russia in 1848, Glinka started working on his orchestral work ‘A Night in Madrid.’ However, he soon traveled to Warsaw, with the aim of working on a new mode of Russian symphonic music, concurrently producing quite a few voice and piano pieces.
In 1851, Glinka returned to St. Petersburg, completing ‘A Night in Madrid.’ Later that year, he moved to France, writing ‘Polka in B major’ and ‘Mazurka in C major.’ By then, he had become highly popular in Europe.
He remained in France for 2 years, leading a quiet life, often visiting botanical and zoological gardens. However, as the Crimean War broke out in October 1853, he decided to leave, returning to St. Petersburg in 1854 and remaining there until the end of 1856.
During his stay in St. Petersburg, Glinka wrote ‘Zapiski,’ which was published posthumously in 1887. It was a highly entertaining account of his lazy yet amiable character. He also continued creating music, among which ‘Festival Polonaise’ for Tsar Alexander II’s coronation ball (1855) was the most significant.
In 1857, he traveled to Berlin. He performed at a gala concert there in December. Highly successful, it was also his last performance.
Personal Life & Legacy
Possibly in 1835, 31-year-old Glinka married Maria Petrovna Ivanova. However, the marriage turned out to be unhappy due to Maria’s constant nagging and her disinterest in music. Eventually, he divorced her and moved in with his mother. He then stayed with his sister, Lyudamila Shestakova.
Glinka spoke Russian, Polish, German, French, Italian, and Spanish and also appreciated the cultural differences of these countries. He also had numerous affairs and lived a life surrounded by wine, women, music, and doctors.
After his successful concert in Berlin in December 1856, he threw an all-night party for his friends and caught a bad cold. He died in Berlin on February 15, 1857, from complications due to the cold.
Initially, he was buried in Berlin. After 4 months, his body was removed to St. Petersburg, where he was re-interred in the cemetery of the ‘Alexander Nevsky Monastery.’
Glinka is considered to be the founder of the Russian school of classical music. Although he had left a small amount of work, they were said to have laid the foundation for future Russian music and inspired future Russian composers, especially ‘The Five’ (five prominent Russian composers of the nineteenth century), to produce distinctive Russian music.