Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka 

Portrait of Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka

Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka was the first Russian composer to gain recognition within his own country. He born on 1st June 1804 in Novospasskoye, Smolensk, Russia and died on 15th February 1857 in Berlin, Germany aged 52.

Major Works

Ivan Susanin” or “A Life of a Tsar” (1836)
“Ruslan and Lyudmila” (1842)
“Jota Aragonesa” (1845)
“Kamarinskaya”. “A Night in Madrid” (1848) 

Biography Timeline

Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka was born on 1st June 1804 in Novospasskoye, Smolensk, Russia. His father was a retired army captain from a family loyal to the Tsars. Mikhail was looked after by protective paternal grandmother who wrapped him in furs. This led him to become a hypochondriac in later life.

1814: After his grandmother’s death he is looked after by his uncle who has a private orchestra which specialised in western music, particularly Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. A performance of Bernhard Henrik Crusell’s clarinet quartet has a particular effect on him and establishes his interest in music. He receives tuition on the piano and violin.

1818: He moves to St Petersburg where he studies at the Pedagogic Institute and receives music lessons from the composer John Field and piano lessons from the Prussian composer Charles Mayer. He begins composing.

1822: He leaves school and his father wishes him to join the Foreign Office however, he is appointed as Assistant Secretary at the Department of Public Highways and later works for the Ministry of Communications. The work is not onerous giving him time to compose melancholy romances and chamber music as well as attend many social gatherings at houses of the nobility.

1830: One of the many doctors he consults recommends he seek the sun in Italy and he travels there, via Germany and Switzerland, with the singer Nikolai Kuzmich Ivanov. He finally settles in Milan where he meets famous composers such as Felix Mendelsohn and Hector Berlioz and is impressed by the music of Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti. He takes lessons with Francesco Basili at the Conservatory.

1834: He studies composition with Sigfreid Dehn in Berlin and begins his “Sinfonia per l’Orchestra Sopra due Motive Russe” (Symphony for Orchestra on Two Russian Motifs) and a “Capriccio on Russian Themes” for piano duet.  His father dies and as soon as news reaches him, he returns to Novospasskoye and reunites with his mother. While in Berlin, he falls in love with a beautiful singer for whom he had composed “Six Studies for Contralto” but, unable to get the correct paperwork, he had to leave her behind in Germany.

1836: He begins work on his first opera which establishes his fame, “Ivan Susanin which the Tsar says he should rename “A Life of a Tsar”. Set in 1612, it tells of the Russian peasant hero who sacrifices his life for the Tsar by heading off a group of invading Poles. Its premiere is held on 9th December and is a great success. Tsar Nicholas the First gives him an expensive ring as a reward. He marries Maria Petrovna Ivanova but the two are incompatible and it does not last. Glinka becomes known as a founder of Russian music.

1837: He is appointed as the instructor of the Imperial Chapel Choir with a substantial salary and lodgings at court.

1838: The Tsar suggests he travel to Ukraine to employ new members for the choir.

1842: His second opera, “Ruslan and Lyudmila” is produced, based on a story by Alexander Pushkin with a libretto by Konstantin Bakhturin. Sadly, the plot is rushed and the story is muddled but it contains a great deal of folk material. The performance on 9th December is not a success, although Franz Liszt expresses his delight at the novelty of the music. The work does however influence other members of the “The Five” such as Mily Balakirev, Aleksandr Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. When his marriage breaks down irrevocably, he moves in with his mother, and later with his sister, Lyudmila Shestakova.

1844: Disgruntled with the failure of his music and his marriage he leaves Russia on the journey to Spain. There he meets Don Pedro Fernández who becomes his secretary and companion for the last years of his life. 

1845: In Paris he sees Hector Berlioz conduct some excerpts from his operas, the first performance of Russian music in the west. In Spain he collects material for his “Spanish overtures” and the capriccio brillante “Jota Aragonesa” (Aragonese Jota). 

1847: He leaves Spain.

1848: “Summer Night in Madrid” and “Kamarinskaya” are first performed. Pyotr Tchaikovsky declares the latter to be “the acorn from which the oak of later Russian symphonic music grew”.

1852: He travels abroad widely and lives mainly in Paris. 

1854: The outbreak of the Crimean War drives him to leave for Russia, who are on the opposing side to the French.

1855: His last major composition is “Festival Polonaise” produced for Tsar Alexander the Second’s coronation ball.

1857: He moves to Berlin where he spends five months.

Mikhail Glinka died suddenly on 15th February 1857 in Berlin, Germany after contracting a cold. He was buried there, but after a few months his body was taken to Saint Petersburg and reinterred in the cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. His memoirs (“Zapiski”) were first published in St Petersburg in 1887.

Further Information

List of compositions by Glinka.