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About this Piece

Mikhail Glinka is often considered the father of Russian Nationalist music. He was the first composer in Russia to write operas and chamber music based on Russian folk melodies. Born into a noble family in Smolensk, near the border of Belarus, Glinka was educated for a life in government. He studied his real interest, music, informally from childhood, even working briefly with the Irish virtuoso pianist John Field, who was living in Petersburg. But it wasn’t until he was 26 that Glinka was able to study music more seriously, which he did living in Italy and Germany for several years.

Glinka was an inspiration to many of the Russian composers that followed him, including The Mighty Five, a group of Russian composers (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov) who believed Russia should have its own music. Indeed it is Glinka who is often credited with inspiring Balakirev to start a school of Russian music. Tchaikovsky was also greatly influenced by Glinka.

His instrumental music is a combination of the traditional and the exotic, but given that he is often called the “father of almost all things dealing with Russian music,” it is surprising to learn that he did not consciously use Russian folk music in his compositions until he was nearly 30. The Western European school, including Chopin and Mendelssohn, influenced most of his early works. This Trio was apparently inspired partly by a wrecked love affair Glinka had; he wrote on the score: “The only way I know love is by the pain it causes.” So even if Glinka wasn’t yet quoting Russian folk music, he was certainly expressing the intense emotion often associated with Russian music and culture.

The original instrumentation of the Trio pathétique is clarinet, bassoon, and piano, but the work is also lovely when played by a traditional piano trio. It comes from 1832, and is one of the only works for this instrumentation. Glinka’s concurrent works are mainly for voice, and the way the clarinet and bassoon sing in the Trio pathétique echoes the lyrical qualities of those vocal works.

In the first movement, an Allegro moderato, the winds serenade one another while the piano imitates and ripples underneath. The second movement, a Scherzo, is typically playful yet balanced. The emotional center of the work is the Largo, the longest of the movements, in which the clarinet sings, the bassoon 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.

— Jessie Rothwell is a writer, musician, and piano teacher who lives in Washington, D.C.