Trio Pathétique by Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)

Allegro Moderato
Allegro con Spirito

Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka was born in Russia in 1804.  His older brother died in infancy; therefore, his grandma spoiled and coddled Glinka to ward away another family misfortune.  Glinka was kept in a warm room at all times as a child.  He was often sick.  He was a very devote child who drew churches on the floor and longed to hear bells.  Sadly, this upbringing turned him into a horrible hypochondriac.  Throughout Glinka’s life he was always suffering for some (or many) maladies.  He ended up dying of syphilis but that was only one problem in a never-ending line.

The vast majority of what we know about Glinka is from his own Memoirs.  Glinka started writing his autobiography in June of 1854, three years before his death, after being heavily persuaded to do so by his sister, Lyudmile.  Glinka felt that he was an important enough figure in Russian music that he would have people write about him.  He confided in his friend Nestor Kukolnik:

I am writing these reminiscences without any attempt at stylistic beauty, but am recording simply what happened and how it happened in chronological order, excluding everything that did not have a direct or indirect relationship to my artistic life.1

Luckily, Glinka loved his sister enough to give us this valuable insight into his character and the time period.  Every day he would faithfully write his “notes,” as he called them, and every day he would take what he had written to his sister so she could go through it.  It should be noted that no part of his Memoirs appeared in print until 15 years after his death.2

Glinka was an avid traveler.  He was often going from city to city to try new doctors and improve his health.  He also enjoyed women, all women.  He would impress them with his compositions and many of his songs were written for the ladies he met on his journeys.  Sadly his wife, Maria Petrovna Ivanovna, did not even like music.1  She would often write to her friends that Glinka’s true love was music, not her.

Glinka is often called the “Father of Russian Music,” the “Father of Russian Opera” and the “First National Russian Composer.”  It is no surprise that he is often cited as inspiration to many of the Russian composers that followed him.  The Mighty Five, were a group of Russian composers (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov) that believed Russia should have its own music.  Balakirev, the leader of the group, was encouraged to pursue a career in music by Glinka.  They were friends and Glinka served as a mentor to him; Glinka is often credited with inspiring him to form a school of Russian music, the result was the Five.  Glinka’s contribution to the future of Russian music did not stop at the Five.  Tchaikovsky was also deeply influenced by Glinka; one of Tchaikovsky’s happiest memories as a child was going to see Glinka’s Life of the Tsar with his mother.3

Considering Glinka is often called “the father of almost all things dealing with Russian music,” it is surprising to discover that he did not actually consciously use Russian folk music in his compositions until he was nearly thirty.1  The Western European school largely influenced the vast majority of his early works.  Glinka’s first and most famous opera, A Life for the Tsar (1836), is a prime example of Western ideals presented in Glinka’s works.  The opera exhibits the arias that are characteristic of the Italian Opera, the ballets and huge choruses that are characteristics of French Grand Opera, and melodies completely of Glinka’s imagination.  In other words, no traditional Russian folk music is in the opera; however, Neverov, a critic at the time exclaimed:

Mr. Glinka…has looked deeply into the character of our folk music, has observed all its characteristics, has studied and assimilated it – and then has given full freedom to his own fantasy which has taken images which are purely Russian, native.  Many who heard his opera noticed something familiar in it, tried to recall from which Russian song this or that motif was taken, and could not discover the original.  This is high praise to our maestro; in fact in his opera there is not one borrowed phrase, but they are all clear, comprehensible, familiar to us simply because they breath a pure nationalism, because we hear in them native sounds.1

By looking into Neverov’s comment, Glinka didn’t need to consciously borrow from the Russian folk idiom.  Glinka had internalized all that was Russian and was able to produce original melodies that evoked national pride in the Russian people.

Trio Pathétique was written in 1832 (although some sources incorrectly say 18274) in Milan.  The original instrumentation was clarinet, bassoon and piano; however, the work is often played with violin, cello and piano.  Interestingly, the work was written before Glinka took serious composition lessons.  Glinka learned to play the piano at an early age and was a very gifted natural composer; however, in 1833, after the Trio was written, Glinka grew tired of his travels in Italy feeling that Italian music “did not fulfill his artistic needs.”4 Glinka left Italy and on his way through Berlin was introduced to Siegfried Dehn who became his main composition teacher.  Glinka worked with Dehn for five months, writing three and four part fugues on themes from well-known compositions; this time period marked his first formal training in the art of composition.

Considering Glinka only had natural compositional skills and exemplary piano skills when writing the Trio Pathétique, it is an incredible work.  The first performance of the work was in Milan with Glinka himself playing the piano part, the clarinetist was Tassistro and the bassoonist was Cantú.  After the performance Cantú remarked of the passionate piece:

Why that is a thing of desperation!2

The desperation of the Trio can be attributed to one of two things in Glinka’s life at the time.  First, Glinka was extremely ill, as usual, at the time of composition.  He had some perceived illness that had the doctors putting plaster on his chest.  Glinka wrote of this particular illness:

I remember during the performance of this piece the plaster benumbed my arms and legs to such a degree that I had to pinch myself to see if there were still life in them.  But I was still struggling somehow with my miseries and discomforts and wrote a trio for piano, clarinet and bassoon.2

I was deprived of appetite [and] sleep.  And I fell into the cruelest despair which I expressed in the above-mentioned trio.1

Clearly he was an uncomfortable man during the composition of the Trio Pathétique.  However, the second reason for desperation in the music could be that of a love affair.  Though Glinka doesn’t discuss this in his Memoirs, the epigraph on the score makes no mention of illness but instead says:

Je n’ ai connu l’ amour que par les peines qu’ il cause.

I knew the love only by the sorrows which it causes.5

Regardless for the reason behind the desperation, Trio Pathétique is a fantastic work.  One of the few works available for this instrumentation, it suits the lyrical bel canto qualities of the clarinet and bassoon while showcasing the technical virtuoso of the piano.  The other works written around the time of the Trio are mainly for voice; the lyrical expressive singing qualities of the vocal works are prevalent in the wind parts in the Trio Pathétique.  The solo winds seem to sing out a torrid love affair in the first movement.  The third movement is extremely moving with a solo declaration of agony first from the clarinet and then the bassoon.  This is in stark contrast with the playful Scherzo that precedes it.  The finale is a rush to the finish and a sigh of relief at completion.


1.    Brown D. Mikhail Glinka : a biographical and critical study. London; New York: Oxford University Press; 1974.

2.    Glinka MI. Memoirs. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press; 1980.

3.    Brown D. Tchaikovsky : a biographical and critical study. London: Gollancz; 1978.

4.    Montagu-Nathan M. Glinka. New York: AMS Press; 1976.

5.    Orlova AAe. Glinka’s life in music : a chronicle. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press; 1988.

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