The Birth of Russian Music: Glinka’s Kamarinskaya

The Birth of Russian Music: Glinka’s Kamarinskaya

On September 14, the Houston Symphony officially begins its 2019–20 Season with a spectacular Opening Night Concert of Russian classics, including Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Yefim Bronfman. Beneath the soulful melodies and glittering orchestral sonorities, guest conductor Leonard Slatkin has cleverly arranged the program as a mini-lesson in the history of Russian music. In this post, discover Glinka’s Kamarinskaya, arguably the piece that started it all. Visit houstonsymphony.org for tickets and more information. 

A Musical Acorn

“[M]any Russian symphonic works have been composed; it can be said there is a real Russian symphonic school,” Tchaikovsky reflected in 1888. But when did this “Russian symphonic school” begin? “It’s all in Kamarinskaya, just as the whole oak is in the acorn,” he declared.

Glinka composing, as imagined by painter Ilya Repin.

Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka is generally credited as the father of the Russian style of classical music. Although he began as an aristocratic amateur, his operas A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila established him as a master of rare originality and inventiveness. One of his last important works was Kamarinskaya, a piece whose brevity and tunefulness belie innovations that would influence generations of composers to come.

The “Kamarinskaya” of the title is simply the name of a traditional Russian folk melody used for dancing. Specifically, it is a naigrïshi, a short, repeated lick that lends itself to improvisation—not unlike “Chopsticks” or “Heart and Soul.” Indeed, the critic Vladimir Stasov participated in a piano four-hands duet with Glinka that would be recognizable to anyone familiar with the aforementioned tunes. Stasov reports that he “played the theme for him in the treble of the piano” as Glinka improvised below “with a million newer and newer variations.” Stasov “frequently asked [Glinka] to repeat this or that variation which he had just played or had played the time before. Often, however, he had already forgotten them, and instead he would continue to play new variations, endlessly. Our admiration knew no bounds!”

Glinka would bring this technique of melodic repetition with varied harmonies and accompaniment to the orchestra, creating a famous “changing background” technique that would be further developed by later Russian composers, especially Tchaikovsky. This method of composing was completely different from the German processes of thematic fragmentation and development that characterized the works of composers like Beethoven, and pointed out a uniquely “Russian” way of composing, although it has since grown beyond national boundaries. Film scores, for instance, frequently make use of Glinka’s “changing background” technique (consider this fine example by John Williams).

Hidden Kinship

Glinka first attempted to compose a piano piece based on the Kamarinskaya tune in 1840, but to no avail. As he related in his memoirs, it was only in 1848 when he “noticed quite by accident a kinship between the wedding song ‘From Beyond the Mountains High,’ […] and the dance song ‘Kamarinskaya,’ which everybody knows,” that the idea of combining the two in an orchestral piece occurred to him.

The piece begins with a brief introduction based on a fragment of “From Beyond the Mountains High,” which then leads to the presentation of the same tune in the strings:

Glinka begins to repeat the melody with increasingly complex orchestrations and accompaniments, employing the “changing background” technique, until the violins seize upon a fragmentary idea that accelerates into the “Kamarinskaya” tune. After manifold variations, Glinka reveals the hidden “kinship” between the two melodies. The first notes of “From Beyond the Mountains High” are embedded in “Kamarinskaya”:

The Kamarinskaya melody is simplified to just the relevant notes and gradually slows, transforming into a reprise of “From Beyond the Mountains High,” and the piece ends with more brilliant variations on the Kamarinskaya theme.

The Seed Is Planted

Throughout, Glinka’s inventive orchestration, harmonies, and counterpoint disguise the fact that we hear the “Kamarinskaya” tune no fewer than 34 times. Pizzicato strings imitate balalaikas, and it is easy to imagine the famous kicking dances that would have been done to this tune in a folk-music setting. Glinka’s bold orchestrations seem to have been partly the result of trial and error—as he was composing the piece, his friend the Prince Paskevich lent him the use of his serf orchestra (back in those days Russian aristocrats often employed small orchestras on their estates): “[Glinka] threw several parts of [Kamarinskaya] together on paper and tried them out with the prince’s orchestra, which sometimes gathered at his house, as he wanted,” recorded a witness by the name of Dubrovsky. “Several times I was present at these rehearsals and witnessed the dirty work….”

The experimentation paid off, however; at the premiere, one attendee recalled that the Kamarinskaya “was incredibly funny, original, so masterfully finished, and the audience enjoyed it so much that it had to be repeated. The musicians themselves played and laughed with emotion, and the servants in the halls left their masters’ coats and listened open-mouthed to the familiar tune, tapped their feet, and looked at each other, their faces beaming with satisfaction….”

None however, could match Glinka’s own rendition of the piece at the piano. “He accompanied with his lips, struck the keyboard with all ten fingers in tutti passages, tapped his heels, sang and whistled along, and with striking picturesqueness conveyed the movement and colors of the instruments,” recalled a fellow guest at a party. “Whenever I heard the piece later on in concerts, so inimitable in its purely Russian recklessness, the orchestral performance added almost nothing and even diminished a little the fire and impetuousness of its transmission.” —Calvin Dotsey

Don’t miss Glinka’s Kamarinskaya on September 14! Visit houstonsymphony.org for tickets and more information. 

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