Nationality and Glinka’s Opera A Life for the Car′

Jeffrey S. Eagen, Ohio State University

The nineteenth century was a critical period in the development of Russian culture: art, literature and music. Realism also came to the fore in all aspects of art in Russia and was an important element of the ideology of that time period. This is especially true when discussing the development of music in the nineteenth century. Glinka’s opera A Life for the Car′, or Ivan Susanin, was proclaimed to be the beginning of Russian National Music when it was first performed in 1836. Much has been argued about why this particular piece is considered the beginning of Russian national music by musicologists; examining Glinka’s use of Russian folk melodies and how he incorporated them into the music of his opera. It is my contention, however, that there are other important considerations outside the world of music that were important in proclaiming Glinka’s work as the beginning of Russian national music. Glinka’s opera was not the first opera written in Russian by a Russian. The claims as to how he incorporated folk melodies into his opera are not sufficient, although his style was innovative and unique for his time, to mark his opera as significantly more Russian, than say Verstovskij’s Askol′d’s Tomb, which premiered just one year prior to Glinka’s Susanin. In this paper I intend to show that the political climate and the concept of nationality under Nicholas I, and especially after the writings of Count S. Uvarov (head of the ministry of education from 1833–1846 and credited as being the founder of the idea of “Official Nationality”) was a major factor in determining what was considered “national”. Uvarov’s proclamation of nationality, autocracy and orthodoxy as the most important part of Russian culture were well known to everyone at the time Glinka started working on Susanin and when it was eventually performed. Since Glinka’s opera contained these three important concepts, it set the stage for Glinka’s work above all others to be considered the foundation for Russian “national” music. Thus the development of Russian national music was not solely about the use of Russian folk music or folk themes as well as it was also about the politics and polemics of the time period in the first half of the nineteenth century.