in From the Archives

Ernest Pingoud shapes the future

by Erkki Salmenhaara

The Russian-born composer Ernest Pingoud (1887–1942) emigrated to Finland to escape the revolution in 1918 and spent most of his working life there. He became one of the champions of musical modernism in Finland at its height in the 1920s, together with Väinö Raitio and Aarre Merikanto.

On leaving school in 1906, Pingoud continued his musical studies with Hugo Riemann in Germany, also spending three years with Max Reger, who regarded him as one of his most talented pupils. But – possibly on his father’s order – he also studied other subjects, such as mining and metallurgy, philosophy and literature at Jena, Munich, Bonn and Berlin. Despite his extensive musical studies, he chose as his main subject German literature and submitted a doctoral thesis entitled Der junge Goethe und die Romantik. This was not, however, approved, because some pertinent new source material came to light at the same time.

Even as a student Pingoud became launched on his significant literary career with the St. Petersburger Zeitung, for which he was musical correspondent in Berlin 1908–11 and for which he wrote concert and opera reviews in St. Petersburg 1911–14. The 12-volume series of essays Studien zur Musik der Gegenwart proves that he was extremely well informed about the new musical trends of the times. In the 1920s he continued his literary pursuits in Finland, mostly in the Swedish-speaking press. His command of Finnish was not good enough to allow him to publish in Finnish, and the few articles by him that did appear in Finnish were translations.

The first concert of works by Pingoud, given in Helsinki on November 16, 1918, marked the advent of modernism in Finnish music. Works displaying the influence of Strauss, Debussy and Scriabin, the Prologue symphonique, La dernière aventure de Pierrot, the piano concerto no. 1, Confessions, and, especially, the Danse macabre were the boldest music people in Finland had ever heard, and the composer was called futuristic, cubist, ultramodern, and even a musical Bolshevik (just as he had managed to escape from Bolshevism!).

Pingoud’s copious output in the early 1920s is reflected in the high frequency of first performances. A second concert of his works followed in February 1919, a third in March 1920, a fourth in February 1922, a fifth in April 1924 and a sixth in April 1925. In addition to these he held successful concerts of his works in Berlin in 1923 and Viipuri in 1936. The Berlin concert included the first performance of his third piano concerto with Leonid Kreutzer as the soloist, and the other items on the programme were Un chevalier sans peur et sans reproche, the first symphony, Le prophète and Danse macabre. The reception was for the most part favourable. Die Zeit wrote that &this man – one of the most talented youngsters – undoubtedly deserves our full attention&.

Pingoud was fundamentally an orchestral composer, and his works mainly concentrated on the idealistic-symbolic symphonic poem in the spirit of Scriabin; his three symphonies also come close to symphonic poems. By contrast, the piano concertos represent a more traditional style showing the influence of Liszt and Rakhmaninov. The symphonic poems often have literary titles or mottoes, yet they cannot be regarded as descriptive programme music proper in the manner of Richard Strauss – to whom Pingoud took a critical attitude. The titles or mottoes are more in the nature of an introduction to the themes of the work and its spiritual world. Pingoud was at his most modern in his chamber music-like Five Sonnets, which come close to the early aphoristic style of Schönberg, Berg and Webern. Atonality was, however, alien to Pingoud, and he also rejected neoclassicism.

The trilogy Cor ardens, Narkissos and Le chant de l’espace composed in the late twenties and early thirties are in simpler, more crystallised style. Pingoud’s last two works, La face d’une grande ville and La flamme éternelle, were heard in Helsinki in the late 1930s. La face d’une grande ville is the first Finnish composition that may be classified as urban machine poetry. La flamme éternelle was premiered in honour of Pingoud’s 50th birthday (!) in December 1938. Nikolai van der Pals, who conducted a number of his works, wrote in his review that &the composer’s great talent is now at a stage that could lead to the highest possible goals&. At the end of the work the eternal flame blazes on in a C major chord in the large orchestra and giant organ, a chord which, in the tradition of Beethoven, gains victory over C minor.

Pingoud entertained a number of plans for large-scale works, among them a Scriabin-like Birth and Death of Prometheus and a fourth symphony, but they were not fulfilled before he threw himself under a railway engine in 1942. Like Arthur Honegger, he was a steam engine enthusiast. As a student he had been greatly impressed by Emile Zola’s La bête humaine on the theme of an engine, and even in those days he thought the finest way to die would be under an engine.

Pingoud was an outstanding phenomenon in Finnish music. In the 1920s and 1930s there was scarcely a composer in Finland who did not write a single work on a theme taken from the national epic, the Kalevala, who did not attempt even a suggestion of a folk song arrangement and who, when the need to compose something in more popular vein came over him, did not write shimmies and foxtrots under a pseudonym. In his writings he took exception to narrow national strivings. National art is “art in its infancy&, he wrote in the magazine Ultra in 1922, describing Finnish music as follows:

“The Finnish music of today is marked by its battle with formal and, in a sense technical problems. In place of architecture we are offered rhapsody, in place of drama epic, in place of the universal Finnish, in place of nakedness a national costume.“