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Russlan and Ludmilla - Overture

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Mikhail Glinka
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Andrew Litton, conductor/Lang Lang, piano, plays Beethoven & Prokofiev Fri., Nov. 13, 2009, 8:00 PM
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Mikhail Glinka was the father of Russian concert music. When his first opera, A Life for the Czar (also known as Ivan Susanin), appeared in 1836, it was hailed as a breakthrough in the use of native folk music as the basis of a serious musical work. The opera, whose plot was based on an incident from Russian history in which the people played a vital role, was an immediate popular success and had a profound influence on such later nationalistic composers as Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Important not only in his own country, Glinka was the first Russian composer whose works received widespread attention outside his native land.

Glinka was born into a noble family in Smolensk and educated for a life in government service. His real interest, however, was music, which he studied informally from childhood. On a recuperative visit to the Caucasus in 1823, he discovered the treasures of Russian folk song from the local peasants and determined to become a professional musician. During four tedious years of service in the Ministry of Roads and Communications (1824-1828), he wrote a number of songs and studied composition and performance with several eminent teachers, among whom the British pianist John Field is the best remembered. While on a visit to Italy in 1830, Glinka met the celebrated opera composers Bellini and Donizetti. He learned from them much about the techniques of writing for the musical stage and began to visualize a distinctly Russian musical style that would combine the melodies, harmonies and rhythms of the folk and church styles of his native land with the form and drama of Italian opera. He returned home at his father's death and began work on the epochal A Life for the Czar.

Russlan and Ludmilla of 1842, the second of Glinka's two operas, was less well received than the earlier A Life for the Czar because it moved somewhat away from the folksy style of the first opera toward a more elevated idiom. It was not until after the composer's death that Russlan and Ludmilla acquired its popular success. Glinka spent most of his final years in travel. In Spain, he collected folk songs which he employed in two orchestral works. In Paris in 1844, he met Berlioz, who had high praise for the orchestral concerts the Russian composer gave in the French capital. Glinka lived for three years in Warsaw and died in Berlin while on a visit in 1857 to Siegfried Dehn, one of his composition teachers.

The libretto of Russlan and Ludmilla is based on Pushkin's fairy tale. Just prior to her betrothal to Russlan, Ludmilla has been spirited away from her father, the Grand Duke of Kiev, by the evil dwarf Tchernomor. Russlan perseveres through many fantastic adventures to regain his beloved, and they are finally united in marriage in the opera's final scene. The exuberant Overture is based on themes from the opera. The opening section uses two melodies from the marriage scene--the tutti chord and rushing scales of the first measures and the fleet theme presented by the strings and flutes. The contrasting, lyrical second theme (played by bassoons, violas and cellos) is from Russlan's second-act aria in which he sings of his love for Ludmilla. The development section employs all three themes. The recapitulation begins with the rushing scales and the fleet melody, and continues with an abbreviated version of the second theme. The coda, like the development, uses all three melodies, but adds to them a descending whole-tone scale in the basses. This was the first use of this melodic device in an opera --here depicting the evil dwarf--that was to become a common technique in the music of the French Impressionist composers a half-century later. The pesky dwarf is quickly banished, and the Overture ends with an energetic galop as the fitting conclusion to this fantastic tale.