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Valery Gavrilin (1939 - 1999)

Russian composer Valery Alexandrovich Gavrilin, born in 1939 in Vologda, an historical city in the Northwest of Russia, had a difficult start in life: his father was killed at the Siege of Stalingrad when he was 3 and his mother was imprisoned when he was 10. Sent to an orphanage, he entered a school of music where luckily, a teacher at Leningrad Conservatory (now St Petersburg Conservatory) heard him. For the next few years, he studied clarinet, piano and composition at the Leningrad Conservatory, and graduated in 1964 with degrees in composition and musicology. Shortly thereafter, he published the vocal cycle that started his fame, The Russian Notebook.

Gavrilin’s music style, considered neo-romantic with a passion for melody, is brilliant, original, and recognizable at once, with its modern but still national tone and heartfelt compassion, at the same time joyous and intimate.

A prolific composer, he wrote 4 ballets, 3 operas, some 60 pieces for piano for two and four hands, more than 50 art songs, symphonic works, vocal-symphonic works, instrumental and vocal chamber music, and music for 38 theatre plays and 11 films.

Probably the last great Russian classical composer of the 20th century, he died in 1999 at age 59 in St Petersburg from two severe heart attacks.

Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804 - 1857)

Mikhail Glinka was born in the village of Novospasskoye in the Smolensk Guberniya of the Russian Empire. His father was a wealthy retired army captain. His great-great-grandfather was a Polish nobleman. The only music he heard in his youthful confinement was the sounds of the village church bells and the folk songs of passing peasant choirs. The church bells were tuned to a dissonant chord and so his ears became used to strident harmony. After his grandmother’s death, Glinka was moved to his maternal uncle’s estate some 10 km away, and was able to hear his uncle’s orchestra, whose repertoire included pieces by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Among other subjects he studied during that period, he also received instruction on the piano and the violin.

At the age of 13 Glinka was sent to the capital, Saint Petersburg, to study at a school for children of the nobility. Here he was taught Latin, English and Persian, studied mathematics and zoology, and was able to considerably widen his musical experience. He had three piano lessons from John Field, the Irish composer of nocturnes, who spent some time in Saint Petersburg. He then continued his piano lessons with Charles Meyer, and began composing.

When he left school his father wanted him to join the Foreign Office, and he was appointed assistant secretary of the Department of Public Highways. The work was light, which allowed Mikhail to settle into the life of a musical dilettante, frequenting the drawing rooms and social gatherings of the city. He was already composing a large amount of music, such as melancholy romances which amused the rich amateurs. His songs are among the most interesting part of his output from this period.

In 1830, at the recommendation of a physician, Glinka decided to travel to Italy with the tenor Nikolay Ivanov. While traveling in Europe, Glinka took lessons at the Milan conservatory with Francesco Basili, and met many famous people including Mendelssohn and Berlioz. However, he became disenchanted with Italy. He realized that his mission in life was to return to Russia, write in a Russian manner, and do for Russian music what Donizetti and Bellini had done for Italian music. On his way back he stopped for a while in Vienna, where he heard the music of Franz Liszt. He stayed for another five months in Berlin, during which time he studied composition under the distinguished teacher Siegfried Dehn. A Capriccio on Russian themes for piano duet and an unfinished Symphony on two Russian themes were important products of this period.

When word reached Mikhail Glinka of his father's death in 1834, he left Berlin and returned to Novospasskoye.

While in Berlin, Glinka had become enamored with a beautiful and talented singer, (for whom he composed Six Studies for Contralto) and wanted to return to her and even reached the border but soon abandoned his plan as well as his love and turned north for Saint Petersburg.

A Life for the Tsar was the first of Glinka's two great operas. It was originally entitled Ivan Susanin. Set in 1612, it tells the story of the Russian peasant and patriotic hero Ivan Susanin who sacrifices his life for the Tsar by leading astray a group of marauding Poles who were hunting him. The Tsar himself followed the work’s progress with interest and suggested the change in the title. It was a great success at its premiere on December 9, 1836, under the direction of Catterino Cavos. Although the music is still more Italianate than Russian, Glinka shows superb handling of the recitative which binds the whole work, and the orchestration is masterly, foreshadowing the orchestral writing of later Russian composers. The Tsar lavishly rewarded Glinka for his work.

In 1837, Glinka was installed as the instructor of the Imperial Chapel Choir, with a high yearly salary, and lodging at the court.

He soon embarked on his second opera: Ruslan and Lyudmila. The plot, based on the tale by Pushkin, was written by Konstantin Bakhturin. There is much Italianate coloratura, and Act 3 contains several routine ballet numbers, but his great achievement in this opera lies in his use of folk melody which becomes thoroughly infused into the musical argument. Much of the borrowed folk material is oriental in origin. When it was first produced on 9 December 1842 it met with a cool reception, although subsequently it gained popularity.

Glinka went through a dejected year after the poor reception of Ruslan and Lyudmila. His spirits rose when he travelled to Paris and Spain. In Paris, Berlioz conducted some excerpts from Glinka’s operas and wrote an appreciative article about him. Glinka in turn admired Berlioz’s music and resolved to compose some fantasies pittoresques for orchestra. During his stay in Berlin he died suddenly on 15 February 1857, following a cold. He was buried in Berlin but a few months later his body was taken to Saint Petersburg and reinterred in the cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.

Grave of Mikhail Glinka on Tikhvin Cemetery in Saint Petersburg.