A photograph of Glinka in 1856
Mikhail Glinka (1804-57)

Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804-57) was hailed as the founder of Russian music both by the members of the "Mighty Handful" and by those who, like Tchaikovsky, were more sceptical of the ideas and tendencies of the Balakirev circle. Tchaikovsky particularly admired the tragic nobility of Glinka's first opera A Life for the Tsar (1836), and with regard to the Kamarinskaya (an orchestral piece composed by Glinka in 1848 which is based on a lively peasant dance) he would write in his diary that the whole Russian symphonic school was to be found in this work "just as the the whole oak is in the acorn" [1]. Continuing his reflections on the significance of Glinka for the development of Russian music, Tchaikovsky observed that "probably no one appreciates and loves Glinka's music more than I do" [2]. For us today there is no doubt as to the genius of Glinka and that his creative transformation of Russian folk song, as well as his distinctive gift for melody, brought a fresh current of air into European music—as was already recognised by such outstanding contemporaries as Liszt and Berlioz. Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky, whilst enthusiastically praising Glinka's achievement, also drew attention to certain signs of dilettantism in his predecessor—in particular, to the fact that Glinka had produced relatively few works.

Now, Turgenev as a layman was less familiar with Glinka's oeuvre, but in many ways he shared Tchaikovsky's attitude towards the composer of A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila: that is, he (eventually) recognized the high quality of Glinka's music, but lamented that circumstances in Russia at the time—especially the lack of a professional musical culture—had prevented Glinka from fully developing his talent.

Glinka musing over «Ruslan and Lyudmila». An 1887 painting by Repin
Glinka musing over Ruslan and Lyudmila.
A painting by Ilya Repin, 1887.

Even though Turgenev generally felt great sympathy for Glinka—with the exception of some aspects to be discussed further down—as a "Westernist" he couldn't help being repelled by the way Glinka's legacy was invoked by the most ardent supporters of the "new Russian school of music". These praised him to the skies, sometimes giving the impression that Glinka was greater than all western European composers of the past and present! Thus, Vladimir Stasov, who did so much for Russian opera in the second half of the nineteenth century and with whom Turgenev often argued about the merits of this or that new work of Russian art, wrote in an article in 1859 about Ruslan and Lyudmila:

"For us Glinka is the same as Gluck and Mozart for Germany [...] we must pride ourselves in his Ruslan as one of the greatest works of art ever created [...] This opera, together with the few other works of Glinka's final years, will prove to be the foundation of a future independent Russian school of music..." [3]

And, eight years later, reporting on the successful staging of Glinka's two operas in Prague, with Balakirev conducting, Stasov noted that the Czechs had decided to place the bust of Glinka next to that of Shakespeare in their National Museum and affirmed that it couldn't be otherwise: "for the bust of the greatest opera composer ever, there can be no other place than next to the bust of the greatest playwright!" [4] But even the fanatic Stasov didn't go as far in his panegyrics to Glinka as César Cui. The latter, in his capacity as music critic of the Saint Petersburg Gazette, asserted in 1864 that Ruslan was "the foremost opera in the world [...] With this opera, Glinka, by virtue of the diversity and freshness of his creative imagination, which are second only to Beethoven, occupies a place higher than all other composers" [5]! Turgenev was always irritated by Cui's articles, and such high-flown eulogies, which were also peppered with disparaging remarks on the western European cultural heritage, must have reminded him of the jingoistic patriotism which had been all the rage in his youth, during the reign of Nicholas I. Accordingly, in his novel Smoke (1867) he had Potugin—the spokesman of his most cherished Westernist convictions—expess the following thoughts on such propagandists of Glinka as Stasov and Cui:

The young Glinka. A drawing of 1834
A drawing of Glinka in his youth
"Even in this case, too, we Russians just couldn't resist the temptation of boasting! If people had simply said, for example, that Glinka was a truly splendid musician whom circumstances—both external and inner ones—prevented from becoming the founder of Russian opera, then no one would seek to deny that. But no! of course, that isn't enough for some Russians! They feel compelled to promote him to the rank of general supremo or 'Oberhofmarschall' in music, and to have a dig at other countries as well, since these, of course, have nothing to compare with 'our' Glinka" (Ch. XIV)

It is very likely that one of the main reasons why the young Turgenev, who attended the première of A Life for the Tsar at Saint Petersburg's Bolshoi Theatre on 9 December 1836, didn't warm to the opera, was the highly patriotic atmosphere which already then surrounded this first great work of Glinka's. But there were other reasons, too, as will become clear.

The clash of opinions over "A Life for the Tsar" (1836)

Although Nicholas I gave his personal approval for the staging of Glinka's first opera—as well as crossing out with his own hand the composer's original title on the score "The Death of Ivan Susanin" and changing this into "A Life for the Tsar"—most of the audience at the première seem to have applauded this new work in order to satisfy the Tsar rather than out of any real enthusiasm. The young Turgenev was no exception to the general opinion at the time regarding this truly innovative work. Recalling, in 1868, how as a young man he had attended the premières of both Glinka's opera and Gogol's famous comedy The Inspector-General in the same year, he confessed:

"I was present at both performances—and I must admit in all sincerity that I didn't understand the significance of what was taking place before my eyes. At the performance of The Inspector-General I was at least able to laugh a lot, just like the rest of the audience. But at the performance of A Life for the Tsar I was just bored. True, the voice of Anna Vorobyova (Petrova), which had recently delighted me in Rossini's Semiramide, had already cracked, and Mrs Stepanova (who was performing the part of Antonida) was shrieking horribly... But all the same, I should have been able to understand Glinka's music." [6]

However, Turgenev was by no means the only spectator who was bored at the première of Glinka's opera, in which for the first time in the history of the Russian theatre a simple peasant appeared as the tragic hero. For instance, Prince Pyotr Vyazemsky, a friend of Pushkin's, wrote in his review of the opera:

"We will do better to discuss the opera on another occasion, when I have been able to hear it two or three times. Because, on the whole, it has no striking effects: there is nothing here which enters instantly into the minds and ears of us non-musicians, as opposed to the operas of Rossini, Bellini, Meyerbeer, and others. Consequently, one has to listen attentively and accustom oneself to this music, in order to be able to pass judgement on it." [7]

Glinka's sorrowful melodies, so close in spirit to the long drawn-out (protiazhnye) songs of the Russian peasantry, were quite unlike the sweet melodious recitatives and arias which Russian aristocratic audiences were used to hearing in their favourite Italian operas. Equally novel was the role of the chorus in A Life for the Tsar: in contrast to the Italian operatic composers, Glinka didn't use the chorus merely as an effective remplissage between solo arias and ensemble numbers. He gave the peasant chorus its own distinctive voice, and thus pointed the way forward to the next generation of Russian composers, who, in their operas, always paid great attention to the musical characterization of the Russian common folk. But back then, in 1836, it is not surprising that Glinka's music seemed so strange and incomprehensible to the majority of the audience. For instance, the eighteen-year-old Nikolai Milyutin, a future key figure in the emancipation of the serfs, wrote to his parents that he had almost fallen asleep at the première of this opera,

Osip Petrov, who created the role of Susanin in 1837
The great Russian bass Osip Petrov, who
created the role of Ivan Susanin. 1837.
"because all the while I imagined myself at some post-horse station, where our Russian coachmen stop to have a rest and break into their interminable melodies which are always monotonous and tiring" [8]

Those who were envious of, or hostile to, Glinka (there were enough of such people to make life in Russia unbearable for him) even ridiculed the opera as "music for coachmen". So it is understandable why Turgenev, then barely eighteen himself and not yet as competent in his appreciation of music as he later became, should have been left indifferent by this opera. Besides, he seems to have attended only that single performance and so wasn't able to accustom himself to the opera's music. Anna Petrova-Vorobyova, who was the wife of the great Russian bass Osip Petrov (the first Ivan Susanin) and who created the contralto role of Vanya (Susanin's adoptive son)—it was her voice that Turgenev unfairly described as "cracked"—recalled in 1879 how at the opera's première some parts had, in fact, been well received by the audience,

"but the wonderful recitatives of Susanin weren't appreciated at all—they were too different to the Italianate music then in vogue. Many people found them boring." [9]
Osip Petrov in the role of Susanin as he awaits his imminent death at the hands of the Poles
Osip Petrov in the role of Susanin
as he prepares for his martyr's death.

It is worth listening carefully to Susanin's long aria and recitative, which begins with the words: "My dawn will soon rise! Listen to Susanin's wistful aria! (Susanin is here taking leave from everything that is dear to him in life, knowing that the Polish troops will soon kill him after seeing through his ruse to divert them from the hiding-place of the young Mikhail Romanov, the future Tsar of Russia), and it should hopefully become clear why the contralto Vorobyova-Petrova called this music wonderful. It is understandable why such fine musical critics as Nikolai Melgunov and Prince Vladimir Odoevsky, soon after the première, began talking about how Glinka was the first Russian composer to have succeeded in creating truly "Russian" music and elevating it to the heights of tragedy. So even twenty years before Vladimir Stasov made his mark as the champion of the "new Russian school of music", one could read in an article by Odoevsky the following no less spirited tribute:

"With Glinka's opera we have something which the Europeans have been looking for in vain for a long time: a new elemental force in music, and it is with this work that there opens up a new period in the history of art: the period of Russian music. Hand on heart, we may confidently say that such an achievement is the work not just of a talented person, but of a genius!" [10]

But apart from the strangeness of Glinka's style for the ears of aristocratic music-lovers at the time, there were other reasons why Turgenev couldn't really have been too enthusiastic about A Life for the Tsar. As alluded to earlier, Nicholas I saw in this opera an apotheosis of his notorious doctrine of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality" and ordered that the opera season in Saint Petersburg was henceforth always to be opened by this work. To the Westernist Turgenev, who wasn't an orthodox believer, who detested the tyranny of Nicholas I, and who distrusted affirmative statements about Russian "nationality", such an outwardly monarchic opera must inevitably have seemed suspect! Incidentally, even Stasov, for whom Glinka's name was sacred, was put off by that opera's loyalist message and always gave preference to Ruslan and Lyudmila. In a private letter to Balakirev he once referred to the figure of Susanin as follows:

"It is quite possible that no one has committed a greater disgrace to our people than Glinka by turning, through his music of genius, the vile slave Susanin, faithful like a dog, into a Russian hero for all posterity" [11]
The scene of the epilogue from «A Life for the Tsar»
The scene of the epilogue from A Life for the
Tsar, as painted by A. Ryabushkin for
the poster of a performance in honour of
the coronation of Nicholas II in 1896.

Significantly, the joyful final chorus "Slavsya!" ("Glory!") Listen to the «Slavsya!» («Glory!») chorus from «A Life for the Tsar», which is one of the most remarkable sections of Glinka's opera, would become the non-official hymn of the Romanov dynasty (the official one being Aleksandr Lvov's "God protect the Tsar!"). 

In mid/late February 1880, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the accession to the throne of Alexander II, who had recently survived yet another attempt on his life [12], popular festivities were organized on the streets of Saint Petersburg, and on 19 February/2 March there was a special gala performance of A Life for the Tsar at the Mariinsky Theatre in the presence of the imperial family. Turgenev happened to be in Saint Petersburg at the time, and he attended this production—with a certain degree of apprehension, because many people in the audience feared that the terrorists might strike again in the darkness of the theatre. Fortunately, nothing of the sort happened, but the performance of Glinka's opera as such did not impress Turgenev, as is clear from how he described it in a letter to Pauline Viardot:

"I have just got home from the gala performance of A Life for the Tsar: the audience demanded that the hymn ("God protect the Tsar") be repeated 11 times, there were cries and spontaneous bursts of applause; the whole imperial family was present, except for the Tsar himself, and everything turned out very well. Everything, that is, except for the performance of the opera, which was very poor [...] the choruses were bad, and even the "Slavsya!" ("Glory!")—that very "Slavsya!" which almost brought tears to my eyes when I heard it at the Trocadéro [during the World Exhibition in Paris, in 1878]—didn't make any impression on me at all. Glinka's music [in A Life for the Tsar] contains much that is beautiful, but, on the whole, it is not as good as in Ruslan. I even noticed in it what seemed to me influences by Mozart and Weber, which, by the way, is not a bad thing at all" [13]

A few days earlier, at a soirée in the flat of his good friend the poet Yakov Polonsky, Turgenev had also recalled how moved he had been by the performance of the "Slavsya!" Listen to the «Slavsya!» («Glory!») chorus from «A Life for the Tsar» chorus at the Russian concerts conducted by Nikolai Rubinstein during the World Exhibition in Paris in 1878:

"I heard Glinka's "Slavsya!" at the Trocadéro, and there it caused such an impression that I don't know what to compare it with. I mean, on the stage I saw these pot-bellied boyars, and that Mikhail Fyodorovich [Romanov], who had a rather stupid face, and the bells kept ringing and ringing. Still, I was prepared to fall on my knees before all this. That's how strong an impression it made. Now, I'm a Russian of course, but the point is that the French too were ecstatic"

Reflecting on the way that such profoundly Russian music could appeal to foreign audiences, Turgenev observed: "We Russians like Glinka and even Verstovsky [the composer of the opera Askold's Tomb (1835)] because they are close to us, whereas foreigners like them because they are so remote from them" [14]. The fact that in Paris Turgenev was moved to tears by the wonderful music of the "Slavsya!" Listen to the «Slavsya!» («Glory!») chorus from «A Life for the Tsar» chorus, despite its ultra-patriotic and monarchic associations, once again confirms that he was much more attached to Russia than his detractors would admit!

"Ruslan and Lyudmila" (1842)

Turgenev was not able to attend the première of Glinka's second opera in Saint Petersburg on 9 December 1842, because he was in Germany at the time, trying to help his friend Bakunin out of financial difficulties, so he did not return to Russia until the end of the month. All the same, it is clear that after having eventually familiarized himself with Ruslan and Lyudmila at some later point, it appealed to him much more than A Life for the Tsar. Pushkin's fairy-tale setting and playful verses, on which the libretto was based, couldn't be exploited so easily to bolster the Autocracy! Furthermore, Glinka's music in this work shows a remarkable variety—from the heroic sweep of the famous overture Listen to the «Ruslan» overture! to the languorous aria of the oriental prince Ratmir: "She is my life, she is my joy!"Listen to Ratmir's aria! (Pauline Viardot would sometimes perform this aria at concerts). It is not surprising that both Liszt and Berlioz were captivated by this music and wrote articles full of praise which were immediately translated into Russian and would later serve as a boost to the composers of the "Mighty Handful" in their veneration for Glinka. Turgenev himself, at a concert in the Mariinsky Theatre, on 26 February 1871, had the opportunity to listen to the inspired finale Listen to the final scene of «Ruslan»! of this opera, with its beautiful quartet: "That was a harrowing dream!" and the joyful chorus: "Glory to the great gods!". In a letter to Pauline Viardot he did not conceal the enthusiasm which this music had awakened in him: "The grand finale of Ruslan (Glinka) seemed to me very beautiful, original, and poetic" [15].

The young soprano Mariya Vasilenko, who after graduating from the Saint Petersburg Conversatory in 1881 went to Paris to study with Pauline Viardot for a year and then took up an engagement at the Kiev opera-house in September 1882, received shortly afterwards a letter from Turgenev, in which he wished her good luck for her debut as Lyudmila in Glinka's opera and also gave her some advice:

Lyudmila in the garden of Chernomor. A Palekh lacquer plate made in 1962 by the artist Tamara Zubkova (1917-73)
Lyudmila in the enchanted garden of Chernomor.
Lacquer plate by the artist Tamara Zubkova (1917-73)
"In this wonderful role you will find everything. It requires a splendid technique, as is so desirable for many singers wishing to show off their virtuosity and thereby win recognition. But it also offers rewarding material for a true actress. Pay particular attention to the latter, and avoid being an operatic statue. Try as best as you can to enliven this delightful character through artistic inspiration and your acting on the stage. [...] I wish you may turn out to be a real Lyudmila" [16] 

Thus, beyond the brilliant coloratura passages in Lyudmila's part in Act I when she is teasing her suitors, Turgenev was able to discern the dramatic potential of her role after she has been abducted by the evil wizard Chernomor. Turgenev's advice to this young soprano reflects his conviction that Russian singers should not strive for technical effects alone, but should sing with their soul and express genuinely felt emotions. This view was shared by all of Glinka's successors, both by the composers of the "Mighty Handful" and by Tchaikovsky.

Turgenev's overall appraisal of Glinka

Turgenev met Glinka a number of times before the latter's premature death in Berlin, on 3 February 1857. But since he only saw the composer in the last years of his life—when Glinka had already fallen into a severe state of depression for various reasons and had taken to drink—it was unfortunately the less appealing sides of his character that he was able to observe. About a month after Glinka's death, Turgenev wrote to the minor composer Vladimir Kashperov (who was in Berlin at the time and had been informing Turgenev about Glinka's state in the last stages of his illness, spitefully adding various false, demeaning details about him, as the music historian Abram Gozenpud has pointed out [17]), and made the following comment on Glinka's demise:

"He had great talent, but then he ended up in the swamp of Saint Petersburg society life and let himself be infected by the patronage of the mighty. Apart from that, his natural laziness came to the fore, there turned up various parasitical 'friends', plenty of liquor, affectations of genius—and it all went to the dogs!" [18]  

It was precisely this unjustified notion of the alleged degeneration of Glinka in the last years of his life that would later tinge those remarks by Potugin in the novel Smoke (quoted above), although there the note of condemnation which we find in the letter to Kashperov is absent. Because of Potugin, Turgenev quarrelled not just with Dostoevsky when the latter visited him in Baden-Baden in July 1867, but also with Stasov, who was incensed by Turgenev's apparent suggestion that Glinka was no more than a "rough diamond", or a gifted dilettante. However, Potugin does not actually deny the significance of Glinka for the development of Russian music, and Turgenev himself, in a letter written immediately after learning of the composer's death, stressed this with some truly prophetic words:

"...The sad news of Glinka's death has just reached me. Although it was no longer possible to expect very much from him, I really do feel very sorry about his death, especially bearing in mind how much that man could have achieved, and how little he has actually left us. Still, let us be grateful for what little there is. His name will never be forgotten in the history of Russian musicand if our music is ever destined to develop further, it is to him that it will trace its origins" [19]


  1. Diary entry for 27 June/9 July 1888. Quoted here from Wladimir Lakond (transl.), The Diaries of Tchaikovsky (1973), p. 250 [back]

  2. Ibid. [back]

  3. From Stasov's article «Мученица нашего времени» (A martyr of our times; 1859). See: V. V. Stasov, Izbrannye stat'i o muzyke (Leningrad / Moscow, 1949), p. 155 [back]

  4. V. V. Stasov, Stat'i o muzyke, 6 vols (Moscow, 1974-80), iii, p. 109. Also cited by: Richard Taruskin, 'Glinka's Ambiguous Legacy and the Birth Pangs of Russian Opera', Nineteenth-century Music, 1: 142-62 (156) [back]

  5. Ts. A. Kiui, Izbrannye stat'i (Leningrad, 1955), p. 43 [back]

  6. From Turgenev's memoir 'A literary soirée at P. A. Pletnev's' (1869). See:  I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 28 vols (Leningrad, 1961-68), Sochineniia, xiv, p. 15-16 [back]

  7. Quoted in: T. Livanova and V. Protopopov, Glinka: Tvorcheskii put', 2 vols (Moscow, 1955), i, p. 182 [back]

  8. Ibid., p. 184 [back]

  9. Ibid., ii, p. 196 [back]

  10. Ibid., i, p. 201 [back]

  11. Quoted in: A. Gozenpud, I. S. Turgenev. Issledovanie (Saint Petersburg, 1994), p. 57 [back]

  12. On 5/17 February 1880 a bomb exploded in the banqueting hall of the Winter Palace which had been placed there by a workman, Stepan Khalturin. The Tsar, who arrived late for a reception, was unharmed, but eleven soldiers of his guard were killed and many others were wounded [back]

  13. Letter to Pauline Viardot, 19 February/2 March 1880. See: H. Granjard and A. Zviguilsky (eds), Lettres inédites de Tourguénev à Pauline Viardot et à sa famille (Lausanne, 1972), p. 219-20. Here is the original text in French: "Maintenant je rentre d'une représentation de gala de la Vie pour le czar—le public a demandé onze fois l'hymne (Boje Tsaria), on a crié et applaudi—toute la famille impériale sauf l'Empereur assistait et tout s'est très bien passé—tout sauf l'exécution de l'opéra qui a été très mauvaise [...] les choeurs pas bons—le «slavsia» même ce «slavsia» qui m'a fait presque pleurer au Trocadéro—ne m'a fait pas aucun effet. La musique de Glinka renferme de grandes beautés—mais, en somme, ne vaut pas le Rousslane; j'ai cru remarquer une grande influence de Mozart et de Weber, ce qui du reste n'est pas un mal" [back]

  14. Turgenev's words as recorded in the diary of Dmitry Sadovnikov (1847-83), a minor poet and ethnographer who was a frequent guest at the soirées which took place at Polonsky's apartment every Friday. This particular soirée took place on 1/13 February 1880. See: D. N. Sadovnikov, 'Vstrechi s I. S. Turgenevym', Russkoe proshloe (Istoricheskie sborniki) 1923, no. 3, p. 100-02 [back]

  15. Letter to Pauline Viardot, 14/26-15/27 February 1871. See: H. Granjard and A. Zviguilsky (eds), Lettres inédites de Tourguénev à Pauline Viardot et à sa famille (Lausanne, 1972), p. 170. This letter has been incorporated into the second Academy edition of Turgenev's Complete Works: I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 30 vols (Moscow, 1978-), Pis'ma, xi (1999), p. 25. In the original French: "Un grand final de Rousslane (de Glinka) m'a semblé fort beau, original et poétique" [back]

  16. Letter to Mariya Vasilenko, October 1882-early 1883. First published in: M. Vasilenko-Leviton, 'Vospominaniia o Turgeneve i Poline Viardo', Sovetskaia muzyka 1951, no. 7, p. 76. This letter was subsequently incorporated into: I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 28 vols (Leningrad, 1961-68), Pis'ma, xiii/2, p. 173-74. Mariya Vasilenko-Leviton (1856-1948) retired from the stage when she was quite young, but subsequently worked as a singing teacher for more than fifty years, first in Odessa and then in Perm [back]

  17. See: A. Gozenpud, I. S. Turgenev. Issledovanie (Saint Petersburg, 1994), p. 58-62 [back]

  18. Letter to Vladimir Kashperov, 13/25 March 1857. See: I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 28 vols (Leningrad, 1961-68), Pis'ma, iii, p. 111 [back]

  19. Letter to Vladimir Kashperov, 23 February/7 March 1857. See: I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 28 vols (Leningrad, 1961-68), Pis'ma, iii, p. 95. The emphasis is mine [back]