Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila

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            Before there was Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and even Mussorgsky, there was Glinka.  The latter is the precursor of all the great Russian composers so familiar to today’s concertgoer, but ironically, in this country, he is known to audiences for only one composition:  the sparkling overture to his opera, Ruslan and Lyudmila.   Composer of many songs, chamber works, and other compositions, his major contributions to musical history are both that opera (1842) and his earlier opera, A Life for the Tsar (1836).  Both works are infused with Russian elements--musical and narrative—and are ample evidence of his position as the father of the Russian nationalist school.

            Scion of a distinguished and wealthy family, Glinka received a musical education along with a thorough general education that was intended to lead him, like so many of his ilk, into the Russian governmental bureaucracy.  A good job in the Board of Communication ultimately was pushed into the background by ever-increasing musical activities, culminating in a three-year trip to Italy (ostensibly for reasons of health) where the blandishments of Donizetti and Bellini, among others, dominated his attention.  He moved on to Vienna and Berlin, and the die was cast for his career in music as a composer rooted firmly in the Western European tradition.

            Back in Russia by 1834, he came under the literary influence of Russian nationalism, and his opera, A Life for the Tsar, was the perfect vehicle for the official state dogma exalting the tsar, the Russian Orthodox Church, and Russian ethnicity.  Glinka’s talents shone brightly in the work—especially his gift for scintillating orchestration.  The latter, of course, went on to characterize almost all of our favorite Russian composers.

            A Life for the Tsar was a great success, and paved the way for his treatment of Pushkin’s Ruslan and Lyudmila.  Pushkin was not able to collaborate with the composer, owing to the poet’s death in an ill-advised duel, but, Glinka worked with others, and the fantastic tale of magic, sorcerers, and the supernatural became his second opera.   And it must be said, that in it a tradition that leads right through Rimsky-Korsakov and on to Stravinsky was born:  innovative harmonies and scales, supernatural tales, brilliant orchestration—all in the service of dramatic music.  Unfortunately, the opera was not a great success, its structural weaknesses, complicated plot, and the rising popularity of Italian opera in Russia led to its relative obscurity.  The overture did survive, however, and it became a worthy chestnut of the orchestral literature.

            Cast in the familiar sonata form, it opens with a driving frenzy in the strings serving as the first theme, with the usual broad, lyrical contrasting theme following shortly in the lower strings.  Snatches of the tune are developed in an atmosphere that clearly evokes a bit of the mysterious, magical elements of the opera, followed by a recap that spurs the cheerful ferocity even further.  A loud, descending (and quite progressive, for the times) whole tone scale in the low brass evokes the opera’s evil sorcerer, as this brilliant curtain raiser careens to a rousing conclusion.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan