Glinka: Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila

MIKHAIL IVANOVICH GLINKA

BORN June 1, 1804. Novospasskoye, near Yelnya, Smolensk District of Russia

DIED: February 15, 1857. Berlin, Germany

COMPOSED: 1837 to 1842, with the Overture falling at the end of that span, in the fall of 1842

WORLD PREMIERE: December 9, 1842, at the Bolshoi Theatre in Saint Petersburg

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 5 mins

In his memoirs Mikhail Glinka recalled his early fascination with the folk songs the family’s serfs would sing, and also play when they assembled into a private orchestra on his uncle’s estate. For a young aristocrat, however, a career as a composer was out of the question; so, at his father’s insistence, Glinka passed several years in the government bureaucracy. It was at that time that he became friendly with the poet Alexander Pushkin.

In the fall of 1830, Glinka found himself torn between filial duty and artistic yearnings, and so he took a trip abroad, to Italy. It was a watershed moment to be in Milan, where that winter Glinka heard Donizetti and Bellini conduct the premieres of their respective operas Anna Bolena and La Sonnambula. By the time he returned to Russia, upon his father’s death in 1834, there was no turning back on his career as a composer. His first opera, A Life for the Tsar, met with great enthusiasm at its premiere in 1836, and Glinka quickly set his sights on a second opera that he would base on the satirical fairy tale Ruslan and Ludmila by his friend Pushkin.

He hoped that Pushkin would draw up the scenario, but the possibility was obliterated when the poet, only thirty-eight years old, was killed in a duel in January 1837. Glinka started composing the opera without a libretto, and the literary side of the project moved ahead when a fellow named Konstantin Bakhturin listened to the composer play excerpts from the score. Glinka largely stuck with Bakhturin’s plan even as he enlisted other writers to refine the text.

Ruslan and Ludmila still holds the stage in Russia, but performances elsewhere are rare. Not so the opera’s Overture, written late in the game, when the opera was already in rehearsal. It’s a quicksilver piece, an irresistible curtain-raiser and undoubtedly the most frequently enjoyed of Glinka’s compositions. Its ebullience suggests that Rossini was its spiritual ancestor.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback.

This note originally appeared in a different form in the program book of the New York Philharmonic. Copyright © New York Philharmonic.

(September 2019)