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<<  -- 4 --  Roderic Dunnett    MAD ABOUT GLINKA

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'Another marvellous piece', says Gerard McBurney, is the Waltz-Fantasia (1856) : not quite a tone poem but a shimmering "dream of the dance" that presumably originated in Weber's Invitation to the Dance, and which Glinka kept returning to and rewriting. It leads on to all those other great waltz moments in Tchaikovsky and others of that generation; later Rachmaninov even quotes it in the Symphonic Dances.'

The composer, musicologist and Russian music expert Gerard McBurney. Photo: Alison McBurney
The composer, musicologist and Russian music expert Gerard McBurney. Photo: Alison McBurney

'Glinka was a mercurial figure, with a strange private life, never wholly at home with any social class : here he seems to take an indirect swipe at all that high life of St Petersburg, the Imperial grandeur, and the lotus-eaters of a luxuriant court.

'The Songs are wonderful too (one is called 'Bolero', though it actually sounds more Polish) : these were a genre he made wholly his own, and they're quite wrongly and unnecessarily neglected. They're Biedermeier drawing room songs, much closer akin to Mendelssohn, Weber, Donizetti than to Schubert and Schumann.

'That, I think, is the big, big point : people want to find in him the origin of all kinds of Russian high-minded seriousness. But it's not there : Glinka lacked the lofty attitudes we so often associate with the Russian upper classes : what he cared about most was pleasure.

'He was fantastic good company, a bon viveur (he died in 1857, aged 52, from liver failure), and -- amid bouts of depression -- unashamedly pursued a good time : wine, women, song, boys (he lived for a time with a Spanish boyfriend), tobacco and sleep.

'Musically he loved a good time too : he adored spectacle and pantomime, dragons and theatrical effects, all of which you find in both Susanin, with its elaborate painted backdrops, and especially in Ruslan and Lyudmila, which I think is severely underrated, and a much better opera than it's usually painted.

Gergiev conducts the Kirov Opera in 'Ruslan and Lyudmila' for Philips
Gergiev conducts the Kirov Opera in 'Ruslan and Lyudmila' for Philips

'But he was also a jeweller, interested in making fine and beautiful things. Susanin and Russlan were the crux : they pointed an operatic way forward for everyone : Musorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky, and even Prokofiev.'

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Copyright © 11 May 2003 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK

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