Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804 - 1857) in village Novospasskoe, Smolenskaya oblast.
Not for nothing was he dubbbed 'the father of Russian music'. Just as the poet Alexander Pushkin raised to a new level of perfection the poetic Russian of his elders, so Glinka - Pushkin's contemporary - fused lessons learnt abroad with a native inflection barely detectable in the previous generation of composers. His influence on the next generation of composers, like that of all founding fathers, was perhaps disproportionate to the modest genius of his music, but his uncanny instinct for the right orchestral colours and his well-proportioned tunefulness were good role models for Chaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and others.
The story of Glinka's early years reveals a pattern to be repeated in the case of several other great Russian composers. The son of wealthy parents with an estate in the Smolensk district, he came to know his music through the rich folk tradition of the family servants; he played violin and piccolo alongside the serfs in his uncle's orchestra. He also enjoyed a few lessons with the famous pianist John Field, pioneer of the Nocturne. In 1824 he entered the Ministry of Communications in St. Petersburg, thus setting the familiar Russian example of the composer as a pen-pusher dabbling in music in his spare time. Six years later, he enjoyed a sense of release by travelling to Italy, where he studied rather half-heartedly in Milan and met the reigning operatic masters Donizetti and Bellini; much of his music from this period shows an Italianate, bel canto flair. His real training took place in Berlin where, at the age of 29 he at last acquired some thorough working knowledge of harmony and counterpoint.
Glinka's years in the west finally led him to one conclusion: that the musical airs of his homeland were utterly different in inflection and general characteristics to the western forms which had held him spellbound for so long, and he determined to do otherwise. For his first major opera he turned to a theme which had been already been set to music by a Petersburg-based Italian composer, Caterino Cavos, two decades earlier: the sacrifice made by a simple Russian peasant, Ivan Susanin, to save the first Romanov tsar from a Polish invasion. Glinka's A Life for the Tsar opened in St Petersburg on December 9 1836 - a momentous date in Russian musical history. While there are still traces of Italian operatic style in many of the arias and ensembles, a new note enters Russian music in the authentic peasant choruses and above all in the powerful final lament of the self-sacrificing Susanin - a model for Russian operatic heroes to come.
Glinka's second opera, Ruslan and Lyudmila, takes several steps forward in the exotic orchestral means engaged by the composer to depict the supernatural subject-matter. A dramatically cumbersome adaptation of Pushkin's early verse tale, it is also the first of many great Russian operas to set the 'father of Russian literature' to music. Pushkin himself was killed in a duel before he could help Glinka with the libretto.
The mixed reception of Ruslan and Lyudmila at its 1842 premiere discouraged Glinka from pursuing his operatic quest, and the works of his final years tended to be on a smaller scale. Tchaikovsky later said of one of them, Kamarinskaya, a skilful and jolly fusion of two folk tunes, that all Russian symphonic music was in it 'as the oak is in the acorn'. Much of his time was taken up with further foreign tours; Berlioz welcomed him in Paris, and a trip to Spain fired his enthusiasm for Spanish music, resulting in the Capriccio brillante on the Jota Aragonesa and Night in Madrid. One of his last enthusiasms was for the music of the Italian Renaissance, which he studied in the hope of revitalising Russian church music, but further lessons with Dehn in Berlin were cut short by a cold which hastened his death in February 1857.