Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) was born to a wealthy, highly-cultured land-owning family in provincial Imperial Russia. Reared by his over-protective and pampering paternal grandmother (who fed him sweets, wrapped him in furs, and confined him to her room – which was always to be kept at 77 °F), Glinka spent his youth studying music, becoming greatly captivated by Russian folk and liturgical melodies. At 13, Glinka was sent off to the Chief Pedagogic Institute in St. Petersburg, a boarding school whose charter was to prepare children of the affluent for government posts. Upon graduation, the 18-year-old Glinka hit the jackpot by being named the Assistant Undersecretary of the Department of Public Highways, a cushy, do nothing, well-paid civil service job which allowed him ample time to indulge his musical interests by writing and performing short piano works for his other gainfully employed high society friends in drawing room settings. This monotony continued for the next eight years. Tired of his slacker existence, the 26-year-old Glinka nominally obtained a medical leave of absence for the more temperate climate of Italy.
Happily, this medical advice coincided with his professional desire: to be a real composer. At this time in Russia, there really was no such thing as “Russian music” outside Russian folk and ecclesiastical melodies. Beethoven was as much the musical model for St. Petersburg as he was for Vienna. Glinka knew he had to leave home if he wanted to accomplish his dream. Three years in Italy, including a year at the Milan conservatory, were followed by a year of intense study in Berlin. When he returned to Russia in 1834, Glinka was determined to compose music that would be recognizably Russian, having wrote, “I could not sincerely be an Italian. A longing for my own country led me gradually to the idea of writing in a Russian manner.”
Through much encouragement by others also attempting to put Russian art on the international map (namely Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, and Pyotr Pletnyov), Glinka saw his dreams of distinctively Russian music a reality with his first opera, A Life for the Tsar (1836). The opera was not a triumph just for Glinka, but for Russia as the first Russian opera to be known outside Russia. The opera was authentically Russian in that it wasn’t simply peppered with Russian folk tunes, but the whole lot had a truly Russian feel from the story, the musical lyricism, to even the tonal musical progression which mimicked Russian native speech. The newly minted “Father of Russian Music” recalled of the premiere, “The success of the opera was complete. I was in a daze. I was called to the Imperial box. The Tsar thanked me for my opera. After he had thanked me, the Tsarina did too, and then all the grand dukes and grand duchesses! I soon received an imperial gift for my opera. A 4000 ruble ring made up of topaz and circled by three rows of the finest diamonds.”
Originally written for solo piano in 1839 and orchestrated in 1856, Valse-Fantaisie resembles the manner of Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to the Dance and the waltzes of the Strauss family. Russian folk melodies are apparent throughout, but they are expressed in a classical Viennese idiom. Much of the work is rather melancholy in character and does not exemplify the traditional musical scene of an intertwined couple progressing around a ball room, but more of wistful and pensive character. In his original manuscript for piano Glinka wrote the somber somewhat ominous remark in the margin, “All I know of love is the pain it causes!”
Program Notes by Luke Smith