Glinka’s Italian Sextet with a Russian Touch

Southern brilliance. © Charles Thibo

Here is a piece for the heart, radiant, full of light and optimism, and an excellent contrast to the dark moods à la Kafka and Shostakovich, that I have bothered you with. In 1832 Mikhail Glinka, the Russian composer considered as the father of Russian classical music, wrote his Grand Sextet in E flat major (IMG 15), a piece in three movements and scored for two violins, viola, cello, double bass, piano. It was published by the Moscow editor P. Jurgenson in 1881 and ranks among the best known works of this composer.

In 1830, when Glinka traveled to Italy, he was 26 years old. He came from a musical family, went to school in St. Petersburg and took violin and piano classes and made himself a reputation as a chamber musician playing works composed by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The trip to Italy mirrored similar trips by German and French composers and poets. 19th-century-Italy, as an echo of the Roman glory and its sophisticated society, was a landmark for Romanticists all over Europe. His memoirs testify that Glinka heard operas from Rossini, Zingarelli, Donizetti and Bellini. He met Felix Mendelssohn, who did not impress him, and Hector Berlioz.

If Glinka’s experiences in Italy were useful in terms of a general musical education and even if they inspired him to compose vocal, piano and chamber music works, e.g. the Grand Sextet, he rejected the Italian notion of aesthetics. He would not merely copy the Italian style, but develop a musical language of his own which in turn would be the founding piece of a Russian school of composition. He judged the brilliance and the superficiality of the southern temperament incompatible with the Nordic soul. “Impressions either leave us cold or touch us deeply in our soul”, he noted, “our joy is exuberant, our tears bitter.”

I listened very often to a recording of the sextet by the Moscow String Quartet joined by Tigran Alikhanov (piano) and Rifat Komachkov (double bass) for the simple reason that it is on a recording of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence”. By now I don’t know which piece I like better, I have heard both so many times and never grew tired of it. In terms of style Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s and Schubert’s quintets may count as prototypes, while the themes reflect ideas from Bellini’s operas and explain the original title in Italian: Grand Sestetto Originale.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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