Monday, 9 April 2012

One heck of an acorn!

Russian Music lovers are very familiar with the name of Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857), who has long been known as 'The Father of Russian Music'. We in the West, however, are far less familiar with his actual music - except for the much-loved overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila (about which more later!)

Glinka's music fascinates me. Stravinsky said of him, "His music is minor, of course; but he is not". The second part of that proposition is undeniably true. You find foretastes of pretty much everything we know and love about Russian music in Glinka. The 'Mighty Handful' (Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Cui) were his disciples and Tchaikovsky famously described his orchestral masterpiece Kamarinskaya (about which more later!!) as "the acorn from which grows the mighty oak of Russian music". What of the first part of Stravinsky's proposition though? Is his music "minor"? Well, there's some truth in that but I'd say it's only a half-truth. 

Glinka is so interesting because you find yourself listening to, say, a song of his and you think, 'Ah, that sounds very Italian!' and then you listen to another song of his and you think, 'Wow, that sounds so like Mussorgsky!" There are so many contradictory strands in this man's music that you could happily spent an age trying to unravel them - whilst simultaneously revelling in them. 

I want to start with a song, as Glinka is a fine songwriter. Please give a listen to The Night Review. A "minor" song or a premonition of the mighty Mussorgsky (as in the stunning Songs and Dances of Death) which is wonderful in its own right? Absolutely the latter for me. Russian basses love this, as they can sound as black as the darkest night. (Try Chaliapin.) Military rhythms in non-obvious patterns and fanfare figures mix with a strong melody and harmonies to match. I think it's a unqualified masterpiece. 

Another anticipation of Mussorgsky can be heard with the Hebrew Song from the song-cycle A Farewell to St. Petersburg.

Another favourite of mine is the Cradle Song from the same cycle. This pensive lullaby is, I'd say, one of the loveliest songs ever written. What a melody and what a engaging play of minor and major harmonies! Please try it and see if you are smitten too. 

The most popular form of song in 19th century Russia was the romance - an elegant French-inspired kind of lyrical song that could be sung in parlours and salons. Tchaikovsky, among many others, wrote a stack of them. Guess who helped cement their popularity in Russia? Yes Glinka, as in The Poor Singer. I'm not a huge fan of this style of Russian song but this example is a fine specimen, with some unexpected placings of rhythmic accents and some (doubtless Italian-inspired) vocal turns.

Another attractive example of a Glinka romance is The Fire of Longing - a passionate, two-verse song. You might also like to try I remember a wonderful moment, a tender but impassioned romance with a lovely postlude for the piano. 

Another touch of Italian opera may be heard in the Farewell song from A Farewell to St. Petersburg. Its resolute marching rhythms are countered by several subtleties of harmonies. 

This other side of Glinka - the European-travelling, Italian bel-canto-loving Glinka who comes across as being Russia's rather pale answer to Chopin - can be heard, I would say, in the pretty (and "minor") Nocturne for harp. 

That same Chopin-like side of Glinka can also be heard in another nocturne, this time for the piano - the Nocturne in F minor (Separation). This is a "minor" piece for sure, but charming nonetheless, with attractive textures, winning suspensions and a lovely melody.

The example of virtuosos like Chopin and Liszt can be heard in the Capriccio on Russian Themes for piano duet. There's plenty of virtuosity in the variations Glinka spins here on three Russian tunes, presented in turn at the start. That they are Russian tunes (and two of them sound like folk songs) is a matter of historic importance. The treatment of them can be conventional but there are passages where the tunes are giving 'the Glinka treatment' - i.e. repeated more or less as they are against a changing background. This method - which can be called the 'changing background' method - was highly influential (though it wasn't this minor work that made it so).

For a diversion into undemanding variation form, please try the charming Variations on a Theme by Mozart for harp. The fourth variation on the tune from Don Giovanni comes close to being a translation from bel canto opera.

Let's step back up and bring on the famous Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture. This bustling gem is always a joy to hear. I'm not sure there's much in it that sounds remotely Russian - unlike many things in the opera itself - but who cares when there's such a feast of first-class tunes in such a short, perfectly harnessed space of time, some glittering, some lyrical. Great stuff!

Sticking with the orchestra, there's also a single-movement Symphony on Two Russian Themes. This is an unfinished work, completed by other hands - which is the start of another Russian tradition in itself (think Borodin and Mussorgsky and their operas)! It tries out good old Austro-German techniques on Russian folk songs and is, therefore, another of Glinka's "acorns" given how many Russian composers followed his lead. Pace Stravinsky, it's not great Glinka but Glinka is great! 

Not exactly profound either but profoundly influential is the colourful and entertaining Capriccio brillante on the Jota aragonesa - think Rimsky Korsakov's Capriccio espagnol. In this, his first Spanish Overture, Glinka takes a Spanish dance tune and builds an exuberant orchestral fantasy around it - so exuberant that the word "brilliant" is entirely justified. You will hear the 'changing background' technique in action. Good fun!

There's a second Spanish Overture too, Recollections of a Summer Night in Madrid. This also includes a Jota aragonesa, as well as several other Spanish dance dances. Each is presented in its own section like a sequence of postcards. Rimsky Korsakov is ever closer here. The introduction, evoking the bliss of Castille late on a summer's day, is beautiful and imaginative. Later Russian composers would become masters of atmosphere too. It's brilliant carnival music and even more fun than the first Spanish Overture.

Neither, of course, was as influential as that "acorn", Kamarinskaya. This orchestral fantasy takes two Russian themes and clothes then in coats of many colours. The first is a 'Wedding Song' and has a noble character that is precisely the kind of tune many musical Russophiles think of when they think of Russian music. The second tune is a 'Dance' which Glinka whirls up to a noisy climax at the very end. It's certain true that you can hear the future of Russian music - Borodin's and Tchaikovsky's symphonies,  Stravinsky's Firebird, etc - in this brief masterpiece.

Moving back to the songs, a touch of the drawing-room romance can be heard winningly wound into the Mussorgsky-anticipating spirit of Glinka in Adèle

One of the best known Glinka songs is The Lark (again from A Farewell to St. Petersburg). The lyricism is that of the Russian romance, albeit a particularly memorable example. The piano adds to the charm with its likeable refrain imitating the song of the lark. Oddly, the piece has become even more familiar to the world in a beautiful transcription for piano by Balakirev. 

For a striking anticipation of the melodic style of Tchaikovsky, there's the Valse-Fantasie for orchestra, which has touches of both melancholy and comedy. It has a smashing main tune and, as befits the form, passes through several subsidiary tunes. There's bags of charm here and it deserves to become a popular light classic.

Another area where Glinka was very influential (was there an area where he wasn't?) was in helping reinvigorate Russian choral music. When you listen to late-Romantic Russian choral music you might now recognise how influential Glinka was when you listen to this gorgeous Cherubic Hymn for mixed chorus. It dates from as early as 1837. 

What of Glinka's chamber music? We do get to hear occasional performances of his Trio pathetique in D minor, and with good reason. Many a Russian composer followed Glinka into chamber music and we have other fine Trio pathetiques to thank him for (indirectly), such as from Tchaikovsky and from Rachmaninov. The scoring is unusual, being for clarinet, bassoon and piano. The opening Allegro shows the Classicist in Glinka opening up to Romantic impulses and has a lovely cantabile melody that sounds not too far away from the world of Robert Schumann. The second subject, however, a wind duet, seems to come from Italian opera. The charming Scherzo, a skipping child of graceful brilliance, is very winning. Its Trio section again seems to breathe the spirit of Mendelssohn. A tremolo-based transition carries us to the Largo, a 'pathetic' aria-without-words in which the clarinet followed by the bassoon sings a long bel canto melody. This pretty movement is followed by a brief but brilliant Finale, occasionally touched by melancholy.

From the Trio we may deduce that Glinka's chamber music is genial and essentially lyrical in nature. The Viola Sonata in D minor confirms that impression. The opening Allegro has good tunes bound gracefully into sonata form which fans of Mendelssohn will take to easily. As in the Trio you won't find any Russifying going on here. The Larghetto is rather touching and a fine piece of writing. 

There's nothing remotely Russian-sounding about the Grand Sextet in E flat major either. That doesn't matter because it's a fabulous piece. Glinka's gift for writing good tunes is everywhere here and he comes quite close to the lighter side of Schubert in this piece. The structure of each movement is crystal-clear and the scoring is for two violins, viola, cello, double bass and piano. The main tune of the first movement is eminently whistleable and the second subject has something of the Italian serenade about it. The slow movement is a dreamy John Field-like nocturne with a livelier, lilting serenade at its heart. It sounds like a romantic night in Venice to me! It's a particularly wonderful movement. Another tremolo-based transition carries us to the sparkling Finale, which is again full of delightful themes. This Sextet is feel-good music, crafted with great panache. 

What I've not yet reviewed are the two great operas, A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila. I don't know the former but I've listened to the latter throughout the course of today and hope to get to know it a lot better before commenting on it in detail. All I will say is that I loved a lot of what I heard. Ruslan and Lyudmila is another of those works whose influence was massive. I heard a chorus in 5/4 time - a time signature Tchaikovsky was to later make very famous - plus all manner of oriental touches that were taken up by too many Russian composers to mention. Russian folk song was there too and so was the use of whole-tone scales and chromaticism to conjure up the world of the fairy tale fantasy - both massively influential on so many things from Borodin and Rimsky Korsakov operas to Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky ballets. Plus - and on the other hand - there were lots of passages where contemporary Italian opera was foregrounded. All in all, a fascinating hotchpotch I look forward very much to getting better acquainted with.

This short survey might, I hope, interest you further in Glinka's output. He's a minor master, yes, but a master nonetheless with quite a string of superb works to offer us.

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