Glinka: A Life for the Tsar Overture

Glinka was born into a wealthy family and initially became a government bureaucrat before studying music in Italy and Berlin. In 1834 he returned to Russia and rediscovered his Russian heritage, reading the works of Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol. This led him to undertake composing a national opera, for which he chose the subject of Ivan Susanin. The opera – afterwards known as “A Life for the Tsar” – tells the story of a young Russian peasant who, at the expense of his own life, saves the Tsar from a group of Polish kidnappers. It was given its first performance on 27 November 1836 in St Petersburg conducted by Catterino Cavos. It was a resounding success.

Glinka changed the title to “A Life for the Tsar” as a goodwill gesture after Nicholas I attended a rehearsal. In 1924, under the Soviet regime, it appeared under the title “Hammer and Sickle”. That production was not successful and was shelved. In 1939 a new libretto was prepared by Sergey Gorodetsky and it reappeared under the “Ivan Susanin” title Glinka had originally chosen.

As a result of this work, thought to be the first truly Russian opera, Glinka is considered to be “the father of modern Russian music”. However, the piece was structured according to conventional Italian and French models of the period. Several passages are based on Russian and Polish folk themes that become a full part of the musical texture. This prefigured the use of the leitmotif – a recurring theme for a particular character – that Richard Wagner would refine in his operas. Glinka’s romantic and nationalistic style was an influence on all Russian composers who came after him such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Borodin and Stravinsky.

The innovative overture is introduced with a characteristic Russian melody, played by the oboe. This is followed by the main movement in sonata form. The main theme is played by the first violins. A transition section based on the main theme, leads to the second theme, played by the clarinet. The development follows and makes reference to the first theme. Then comes the recapitulation and a long and elaborate coda.

Lynne Haslam, 2nd violin