A well-educated child of privilege, Glinka became a fervent Russian nationalist. He is considered the father of Russian music, and exerted a significant influence on such great later composers as Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Stravinsky.
Glinka took piano, violin, and voice lessons, but he did not study music or composition seriously as a youth. His first job was as a government official, but, realizing how strongly he was drawn to music, he left to pursue both a general and a musical education. He studied for a time in Italy and spent the year 1833 studying composition in Berlin. He had composed some works during and prior to this time, but these were still derivative of prevailing Western European styles, and the year in Berlin only reinforced the non-Russian influences he felt.
Returning to Russia, he discovered the works of writers such as Pushkin and Gogol, who uncovered for him the wealth and depth of his Russian cultural heritage. Moved, he wrote his seminal, truly Russian work, A Life for the Tsar. It recounts how villainous Poles, in 1613, attempted to capture the Tsar and how a young hero, Ivan Sussanin, led the pursuing Poles on a wild goose chase at the ultimate cost of his life. The work premiered in 1836 and was an immediate success. It intermingled Russian and Polish folk tunes with Italian-style operatic passages and even anticipated Wagner’s use of the leitmotif by employing recurring themes identified with specific characters. It also marked a new approach to orchestration in which the orchestra was essentially a member of the cast, not merely background accompaniment for the singers.
The year 1842 saw the premiere of Glinka’s second great Russian opera, Ruslan and Lyudmila. It was not as immediately successful as A Life for the Tsar, but ultimately was more influential. It contained Persian influences and made use of a seven-step whole-tone scale for the first time in European music.
His influence upon the Russian composers who followed him was immense; specifically he inspired Mily Balakirev, who gathered four other young Russian composers around him to form the so-called “Mighty Handful,” and extended Glinka’s effort to foster Russian nationalism in music and the arts in general.