Love and pain inspired Glinka’s Trio Pathètique

Solitude. © Charles Thibo

A forceful statement by the strings and the piano mark the beginning of this trio, and my immediate idea was Ludwig van Beethoven. But no, this piece was not written by the Vienna master, it stems from the “Father of Russian music”, Mikhail Glinka. The Trio Pathétique in D minor was written in 1832. Glinka was at that time 28 years old, a student at the Milan Conservatory. He had immersed himself in the works of opera composers such as Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini, which, according to writer Michael Jameson, “in part explains the character of this peculiarly un-Russian sounding work”.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky was a great admirer of both Glinka and of Beethoven and ranked them at an equal level with respect to their symphonic works. Glinka laid the groundwork for the next generation of Russian composers, for Tchaikovsky of course, but also for the “Mighty Five”, that we have met already a few times and will meet once more in the next post on Mily Balakirev, who intended to achieve what Glinka had begun: the building of a true Russian music tradition.

Emotional depth

The trio is laid out in the conventional four-movement form of the post-Beethoven piano trio and the original instrumentation is clarinet, bassoon, and piano. Since there seem to be not too many recordings of Glinka’s trio, I suggest you try the arrangement for violin, cello and piano recorded by the Borodin Trio. The piece was apparently inspired partly by a wrecked love affair Glinka had had; he wrote on the score: “The only way I know love is by the pain it causes.”  The trio is characterized by a remarkable emotional depth, which is even more astonishing if you consider that Glinka wrote it without having had any formal training in composition.

“In the first movement, the winds [the strings in the case of the recording by the Borodin Trio] serenade one another while the piano imitates and ripples underneath”, says Jessie Rothwell, an US musician and writer. “The second movement is […] playful yet balanced. The emotional center of the work is the Largo, the longest of the movements, in which the clarinet [the violin; see brackets above] sings, the bassoon [the cello] answers, and then the two play lyrically together. The finale, the shortest movement, begins with the first movement’s theme, then continues with arpeggios and ends with stormy emotion.”

A clash of temperaments

Glinka had learned to play the piano and the violin at an early age and was a very gifted natural composer; however during his stay in Italy he grew tired of Italian music which did not fulfill his artistic needs. He experienced a clash of temperaments and in his memoirs he explains that the “sentimento brillante, this relish felt by the body as a result of the sunlight in the South” did not appeal to him as a source of inspiration”. Homesickness compelled him to write music whose expressiveness was closer to the Russian mentality; furthermore early childhood experiences of Russian folk songs reminded him that there was a stock of melodies and themes just waiting to be exploited.

In 1834 Glinka moved to Berlin and took composition lessons with Siegfried Wilhelm Dehn, a German cellist, music theorist and counterpoint teacher. Upon his return to Russia he starts to write a symphony, abandons the sketch and focuses on his first opera:  “Ivan Susanin”, later called “A Life for the Czar”. It would guarantee Glinka a lasting fame as a composer and the title “Father of Russian music”. A French critic would emphasize the opera’s originality by calling it “[the Russians’] first piece of art that does not try to imitate […] It is, as a poem and as a piece of music, a true summary of Russia’s sufferings and songs, its hate and its love, its tears and its joys, its dark night and its radiant sunrise”.

© Charles Thibo


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