About this Recording
GP782 - GLINKA, M.I.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 2 - Dances (Fiolia)
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In a gesture characteristic of his exceptional generosity, the Russian philanthropist, timber merchant and music publisher, Mitrofan Belyayev, established a major prize for composition in 1884. Awarded annually, its early recipients included many seminal figures in Russian musical life, such as Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. The prize was named after Mikhail Glinka to honour his role in formulating a distinctly Russian musical style that closely paralleled Alexander Pushkin’s creation of a modern Russian literary style.

The 60th anniversary of Glinka’s death was celebrated amid the social unrest and political turmoil of the revolutionary year, 1917. Among the tributes to ‘the greatest of our national composers’ was an article in the short-lived Petrograd daily Russkaya Volya (which, incidentally, was denounced by Lenin as one of the most disreputable of bourgeois newspapers). By pure coincidence, the author of this piece was also someone named Belyayev, albeit a different one—Viktor Belyayev—who later became a prominent musicologist in the new Soviet Union. Sections of his tribute to Glinka were quoted at length in London’s Musical Times, and these highlight Belyayev’s disappointment at British indifference to a staging of Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar. He was clearly stung by the critics’ general failure to discover in Glinka’s work ‘that national colour which is so clearly expressed in the creations of his followers and imitators’. He added that, ‘enraptured by Mussorgsky and Borodin, they [the British critics] hear, in Glinka’s music, only Italianisms, and are almost prepared to deny him the right to the designation of national Russian composer.’

Glinka is unlikely to have been at all perturbed by the charge that his musical thinking was partially inspired by the charms of Italy. After all, he chose to live in that country for some years during the early 1830s and was unashamedly smitten by the seductive simplicity of the bel canto operas of Donizetti and Bellini. However, he would surely have challenged the implication that his extensive travels in Western Europe, including Germany (where he died), did little to develop the national music of his homeland. On the contrary, his time spent abroad enabled him to absorb Italian and German musical techniques at first hand, and then transplant them to Russia where he would cultivate them further, allowing them to come to fruition in a manifestly national style. Viktor Belyayev developed this point, saying that Glinka’s greatest service to Russian music was to make it unnecessary for later composers to go abroad to study because the heritage bequeathed by him ‘placed Russia at a bound on a level with the musically cultured countries’.

Tchaikovsky is the supreme example from the first generation of post-Glinka Russian composers to have undertaken their musical education more or less wholly in their native land. Indeed, so ardent was Tchaikovsky’s advocacy of Glinka’s major works that he rated them second only to Mozart’s and called them ‘the cornerstone of Russian music’. He enthusiastically built on Glinka’s teachings and encouraged his own pupils at the Moscow Conservatoire to combine Russian and Western European musical traditions in their harmony exercises. This blended approach to music teaching in Russia filtered down through several generations well into the 20th century, and in 1966 it was enshrined by the Soviet authorities in the form of a new Glinka State Prize. Important recipients over the next 25 years included the composer Dmitri Kabalevsky, the pianists Lev Oborin and Sviatoslav Richter, the conductor Kirill Kondrashin and the Borodin String Quartet.

Despite the high esteem in which Tchaikovsky held Glinka’s influential folk-based compositions such as the orchestral fantasy Kamarinskaya, ‘from which all later Russian composers (and I, of course, among them) draw, in the most obvious fashion,’ he was discriminating about many other aspects of Glinka’s work and personality. In a letter to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, for example, Tchaikovsky wrote:

‘Glinka was a talented Russian gentleman of his time, pettily proud, little developed, full of vanity and self-adoration, intolerant and pathologically touchy as soon as it came to the evaluation of his own compositions. All these qualities usually belong to mediocrity, but how they could find their place in a man who, it would seem, ought to have been assured and to have recognised his own strength with proud modesty—that I emphatically do not understand!’ In the same letter, Tchaikovsky also referred to some of Glinka’s less distinguished pieces and wondered how an artist in his full maturity could ‘compose such a flat, shaming banality as the Coronation Polonaise (written a year before his death) or the Children’s Polka about which he speaks with such self-satisfaction and such detail in his memoirs as though it were some chef d’oeuvre.’

Tchaikovsky’s dismissal is surely a little harsh. After all, in writing his piano miniatures Glinka was only doing what Tchaikovsky himself also did on many occasions, which was to produce little pieces suitable for performance in the drawing rooms and salons of the comfortably-off middle classes. Glinka was simply following in the well-trodden footsteps of illustrious musical figures such as Beethoven and Schubert, who composed numerous short piano pieces of a similar nature for gifted musical amateurs.

Some of the more substantial numbers in this collection, such as the Grand Waltz in G major and the Polonaise in E major, date from 1839 and were initially scored for orchestra, though these versions have now been lost. The longest original work, the Waltz-Fantasia in B minor, also dates from 1839 and was subsequently orchestrated twice (in 1845 and 1856). Of the pieces based on existing melodies, the earliest is Variations on a theme of Mozart, which dates from between 1822 and 1827 and is inspired by a melody drawn from Die Zauberflöte. In 1840, Glinka made a piano arrangement of a polonaise based on a Spanish bolero. Its origins lie in a song called O my beautiful maiden. Three years later, in 1843, he produced the Tarantella in A minor, a rhythmic adaptation of the Russian folk song, In the field there stood a birch tree.

The contredanse was an 18th-century French development of the English country dance, and as it migrated across Europe it underwent various transformations, not least at the hands of Mozart and Beethoven. Glinka wrote several sets of piano contredanses during his career. A common feature within sets of contredanses is the inclusion of dance forms like the quadrille and its precursor the cotillion. Glinka also wrote a number of works of this type, such as the Cinq Nouvelles quadrilles françaises (about 1826) and the Cotillon in B flat major (1828). Other familiar dance forms used by Glinka are the polka, mazurka, galop and waltz. Examples of these are the Polka in D minor (1849), Children’s Polka in B flat major (1854), Mazurka in G major (1828), Mazurkas in F major and A flat major (both from 1833 or 1834), Mazurka in F major (1835, and dedicated to his wife), Mazurka in C minor (1843), Mazurka in C major (1852) and the Galop in E flat major (1838 or 1839). The Waltzes in B flat major and E flat major also both date from 1838, and the popular and charming Farewell Waltz in G major that concludes this recital was written in 1831.

Anthony Short

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