Today, Mikhail Glinka's fame and genius are recognised all over the world. His operas, waltzes, concerts and romances are regarded as classics. However, his life and work in Russia were hard.
He was born into a rich noble family in the Smolensk region and spent his childhood surrounded by loving nannies. Even the war against Napoleon seemed like a fairytale full of warriors to him.
Glinka revealed his talent for music at an early age. The child adored the chime of church bells and so when he fell ill, his parents brought a small set of bells into his room, which helped him make a swift recovery.
Imbued with a love for music, Glinka started playing the piano at the age of 11, while he wrote his first compositions when he was 18. His family then moved to St Petersburg, where he finished a boarding school attached to the Main Teacher Training Institute. His parents hesitated over his future. He had a good voice, which meant he could become a fine signer, but there was also the option of pursuing a career in state service.
Indeed, Glinka's various talents turned his life into a labyrinth and he could not decide how to use his gifts for a long time. After composing a number of brilliant romances, he went to Italy to study singing and lived there for four years. However, his love for composing gradually overpowered him and so he went to Berlin to study musical theory under Professor Siegfried Dehn. While he was there, his homesickness led him to form plans to compose a grandiose Russian opera. All he needed was the plot.
Poet Vasily Zhukovsky helped him solve this problem. He proposed to set the famous feat of Ivan Susanin to music. Glinka was carried away by this idea. His friend Baron Rosen wrote the libretto and two years later the great opera was finished. Its premiere on the imperial stage caused a sensation in Russia.
With a brilliant future seemingly pre-destined, Glinka started a new opera "Ruslan and Lyudmila" based on Alexander Pushkin's poem. However, the composer was too critical of himself, trying to bring his music to perfection, and it took him six years to compose the opera, which was only completed in 1842. Just then he had to face his first misfortunes: illness, divorce and tedious work as a choirmaster. Moreover, Italian operas became highly popular in Russia at that time. So,"Ruslan and Lyudmila" was received without enthusiasm and struck from the repertoire after 32 performances.
The imperial stage had been entirely given to the Italians.
Today "Ruslan and Lyudmila" is considered a masterpiece. But at that time Glinka's life had been cast into shadow by his public failure. He left Russia and spent the rest of his life travelling, visiting Madrid where he tried himself in Spanish music, Paris, Rome and Berlin, where he turned to church music. His wandering lasted for long 23 years.
Mikhail Glinka died a sudden death in Berlin on February 3, 1867. His body was brought back to his homeland and was buried at the Alexander Nevsky Lavra cemetery in St Petersburg.
All the while, throughout those long years, the Italians had been delighting St Petersburg audiences with arias from "Life for the Tsar" and "Ruslan and Lyudmila".