Mikhail Glinka was the father of Russian music. Where before itinerant troupes of Italian, French, or German musicians had dominated, Glinka staked out his territory and became the musical inspiration for generations of composers and listeners who followed him. He created a uniquely Russian music, planting its roots firmly in the European tradition but fertilizing it with music from Russian, Middle Eastern, Persian, and other Asian folk traditions. As a young man, Glinka had conducted the serf orchestra on his uncle's estate near Smolensk, digesting a large chunk of the mainstream European repertoire while encountering the vital tradition of Russian folk music that thrived in peasant culture. A visit by an Italian opera company to St. Petersburg in 1828 gave Glinka an opportunity to immerse himself in Rossini's stage works, and the young composer went on to meet Donizetti and Bellini during a visit to Italy in the early 1830s. He took what he had learned and created two operas, A Life for the Tsar (1836) and Ruslan and Ludmilla (1842), which came to stand as monuments to later generations of Russians. Composers like Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov all looked to Glinka as their musical Adam, and the two works are still frequently performed in Russia.
The Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla is quite a curtain-raiser, with an energy worthy of Rossini and a uniquely Russian combination of earthy exuberance and heroic feeling. The overture dispenses with the then-usual weighty introduction, bursting forth with an assertive motto for brass, winds, and timpani connected by scurrying strings. This boisterous theme yields to a more lyrical passage sung by the cellos before being taken up by the violins. The development of these themes gives way to a coda that brings the overture to a rousing conclusion.
- John Mangum is President and Artistic Director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.