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GP741 - GLINKA, M.I.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 1 - Variations (Fiolia)
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MIKHAIL IVANOVICH GLINKA (1804–1857)
COMPLETE PIANO WORKS • 1

 

One of the most famous portraits of Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka is a meticulously observed likeness by the realist artist Ilya Repin. Painted in 1887, some thirty years after the composer’s death, this picture shows a pensive Glinka reclining on his bed clad in a stylish dressing gown. His head is supported by a plump pillow and bolsters, and he appears to be chewing the end of a pencil as he stares abstractedly into the middle distance. A manuscript is loosely propped against his raised knee, and an empty medicine glass with a silver spoon sticking out of it stands on his bedside table. By artistically juxtaposing Glinka’s languor and delicate constitution, Repin strengthened the view that his subject was a hypochondriac. However, it might perhaps be kinder to describe Glinka as an inveterate valetudinarian: rather than actually being permanently ill he was obsessive in his endeavours to avoid becoming so.

In 1824 he was offered a rather undemanding civil service job in St Petersburg, the kind of work that was the mainstay of countless young Russian gentlemen of the day. Before taking up this post, however, he relieved his well-bred ennui by spending several months enjoying what we would now call a ‘gap year’. He visited the Caucasus and was spellbound both by the region’s wild and romantic scenery and its exotic folk music. It was after this sojourn that he began to tease out the ideas behind his later and oft-quoted remark: ‘A nation creates music—the composer only arranges it.’ There were, of course, Russian composers before Glinka, but it is not too fanciful to describe him as the fertile acorn from which the mighty oak of nineteenth-century Russian national music subsequently grew.

As a teenager, Glinka had taken a few private lessons from the Irish composer and pianist John Field, who had settled in Russia, and after he left school in 1822 he set about building secure foundations for his musical career. He conscientiously studied the scores of the major Classical Viennese composers—Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven—but he also paid great attention to leading Parisian composers, especially Luigi Cherubini and the recently deceased Étienne Méhul (both of whom were admired by Beethoven). Later, he would become friends with Berlioz, who liked to feature Glinka’s works in his concerts.

His earliest surviving works include the graceful Variations on a Theme by Mozart, which Glinka originally composed for harp in 1822 before making a later arrangement for piano. It is said that the theme is based on material from The Magic Flute, but if so, it has been remodelled so extensively that it has effectively become an original theme. The work owes its very survival to the diligence of Glinka’s sister Ludmila. After Mikhail had composed it, the score was lost, but Ludmila later rewrote the piece from memory. It is not improbable that she significantly recomposed the variations, enhancing her brother’s youthful efforts.

In 1824, at around the time that he began his career in the civil service, Glinka composed his Variations on an Original Theme, which bears the tantalisingly vague inscription ‘Dediées à … ich werde es nicht sagen’ (Dedicated to … I’d rather not say).

Over the next three years, he produced several more sets of variations for use in the salon. The earliest of these came about as the result of a visit to Smolensk at the end of December 1825. Glinka noted: ‘During my stay there music was, of course, all the rage. To please my sweet niece I wrote variations for piano on the Italian romance Benedetta sia la madre (in E major), which was popular at the time. These variations were corrected a little … and given to a publisher (exactly when, I do not recall). Thus the piece became the first of my compositions to be published.’ In 1826 Glinka composed a set of variations on the Russian the Russian folk-song Sredi dolinï rovnïya (‘In the Shallow Valley’). For thirteen years it remained unpublished until it was printed in 1839 along with several other short pieces composed at various times. This collection also included the Variations on a Theme from Cherubini’s ‘Faniska’, which Glinka probably composed around 1826/7. He greatly admired Cherubini’s opera and he used a theme from Act 1 to form the basis of his set of variations.

In 1830 Glinka, concerned as ever about his health, decided that the warmer Italian climate would suit him better. He made Milan his base and stayed in Italy for three years, becoming well acquainted with many notable operatic stars in addition to composers such as Bellini and Donizetti.

A novelty of the 1831 season was a highly popular ballet sequence called Chao-Kang, which was an assemblage of numbers from works by Rossini, Spontini and Romani. Glinka attended a performance and then composed his Variations on Two Themes from the Ballet ‘Chao-Kang’, which he dedicated to the Russian envoy at the Sardinian court.

While he was resident in Milan, Glinka achieved considerable fame through his ability to reproduce on the piano the peculiarities and nuances of the human voice. His listeners immediately recognised whether he was imitating the singing of Giuditta Pasta, Giovanni Rubini or any of the other celebrities of the day. A spin-off from this enviable facility was the composition of two sets of operatic variations. The Variazioni brillanti on a Theme from Donizetti’s ‘Anna Bolena’ date from 1832, and in the composer’s words were written ‘to keep up some of the fame’ that he had acquired. In the same year, he produced his Variations on a Theme from Bellini’s ‘I Capuleti e i Montecchi’. It is drawn from Tebaldo’s cavatina in Act 1 of the opera.

After spending three years in Italy, Glinka was convinced that he was not following his true path ‘and that I could never become a genuine Italian. Gradually my homesickness forced me to write in the Russian style’. In 1833 he travelled to Berlin with the intention of taking formal lessons in fugal technique. In December of that year, as relief from his studies, he composed his Variations on Alabiev’s ‘The Nightingale’, a characteristically melancholic Russian song in which a girl tells a nightingale that no one can be more miserable than she is, for her lover left her in the spring.

Coincidentally, after many years of travelling, Glinka died in Berlin in 1857, just a few days after meeting Meyerbeer in the royal palace. His lifelong obsession with health finally let him down when he carelessly caught a chill through being insufficiently wrapped up on a cold February day. One of his last musical acts had been to revise his early Variations on a Theme of Mozart.

When his body was transported back to Russia, someone scribbled on the box: ‘Handle with care. Porcelain.’ This gesture was a play on Glinka’s name, which loosely translated means ‘little clay’.

Anthony Short


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