“Unbridled idealism, a profound ethical pathos that led one’s thoughts towards Dostoevsky, and an immense intelligence probing the issues of his day were hallmarks of this great and exceptional individual, a ﬁgure with a sculptured thinker’s head, a broad high brow, and a sullen, smouldering look.”
The description of Ernest Pingoud comes from 1948, from writer Ralf Parland. Certainly Pingoud was an exceptional figure in Finnish music. During the 1920s and 1930s there can have been no other composers in the country whose works did not include a single solitary Kalevala-inspired composition, who had not drafted even one tentative folk song arrangement, and who when he felt the need for a drop of something more earthy composed (perish the thought!) shimmy-shakes and foxtrots under an assumed name. Ernest Pingoud was the cosmopolitan of the Finnish music scene.
All the sources have Pingoud as born in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad, of course) in 1888, and as a result the man duly had his 100th anniversary celebrated in Finland last year. Unfortunately, however, it has recently come to light that we were all a year late, since he was actually born in 1887! The Pingoud family were originally from France.
Through his mother, who was from Vyborg — in what is now Soviet Karelia — Ernest Pingoud had ties to Finland. Summers in his youth were spent at Tikkala near Vyborg, where the nearest neighbour was the pianist and conductor Aleksander Ziloti, who became Ernest’s first music teacher and later a good friend. Pingoud also studied in Petersburg at the conservatory, with his teachers there including Anton Rubinstein, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Glazunov.
On his graduation from high school in 1906, the family sent Ernest to study in Germany for several years. He took music theory under Hugo Riemann and for three years was the composition pupil of Max Reger, both privately and at the Leipzig Conservatory, but his education included several other subjects — among them theology, German literature, and mining & metallurgy — and took him to Jena, Charlottenberg, Munich, Bonn, and Berlin.
While still a student Pingoud began his literary activities, writing in German for the St. Petersburger Zeitung and in Russian in the Russkaja musikal’naja gazetta. For the former he sent off musical dispatches from Berlin in 1910-11, and from 1911-14 he wrote concert and opera reviews. Another major contribution — again for Zeitung — was the comprehensive 12-part series Studien zur Musik der Gegenwart, which shows the writer to have steeped himself thoroughly in the new musical currents of the day. It takes in Skryabin, Rakhmaninov, Nicolas Medtner, Reger, Richard Strauss, and Debussy among others. Right from the outset Pingoud was a powerful champion of contemporary music. He also published a series articles on modern writers.
In 1915 Pingoud found himself conscripted into the army in Finland, where he met his wife-to-be. At least in 1917 he was back in St. Petersburg, where he composed his first orchestral works, including the tone-poem Confessions, which Ziloti conducted there in February of that year. In 1918 Pingoud emigrated to the now independent Finland, got himself married, gave his first concert of his works in Helsinki, and settled down in Vyborg, staying there until 1922.
After two years in Turku, he moved in 1924 to Helsinki. He became director of Fazer’s concert bureau and general manager of the Helsinki Philharmonic, a post he held until his death in 1942. As one result of Pingoud’s wide international connections, Finland was able to host visits from numerous internationally-known artists.
“A musical Bolshevist”
Ernest Pingoud’s first appearance before a Finnish audience took place at the abovementioned concert in Helsinki on November 16, 1918. The programme featured the following works: Prologue symphonique, La dernière aventure de Pierrot, Piano Concerto No. 1, Confessions, and Danse Macabre. The names alone should offer an insight into Pingoud’s composer-persona. The symphonic poem created by Liszt and Richard Strauss and a fin de siècle, ]ugendstil form of composition, coloured by his attractions for symbolism and things literary, was his starting point. From there he moved in the direction signposted by Debussy, and above all by the leading name in Russian modernism, Alexander Skryabin. The piece that stood out from the others that night was the Piano Concerto, with its more traditional and worldly, less philosophical air. As with Pingoud’s later piano concertos, in style it primarily rubs shoulders with the work of Liszt and Rakhmaninov. One pointer to tradition in the concertos is the fact that — in contrast to his other works — Pingoud here uses key-signatures.
What of the concert, then? Well, certainly nothing as bold as this had been heard in Helsinki before, and Pingoud’s concert naturally aroused great attention amongst audiences, musicians, and critics alike. The composer was pigeonholed as a futurist, a cubist, an ultramodernist and a man of extremes, even a musical Bolshevist. The very first reviews showed the way for the standard response to Pingoud’s music. The composer was universally congratulated on his fine grasp of the expressive resources of his orchestra, but slated with almost equal unanimity for his pursuit of extremes.
Also in his role as a writer on music, Pingoud the European brought a fresh, open-minded, and international approach to the narrow circles of Finnish music. When Lauri Haarla’s and Hagar Olsson’s periodical Ultra (est. 1922) sought to stir up some debate on the topic of Europeanism, Pingoud set himself to pondering the question of nationalism in music:
“Young nations, whose self-esteem is still excessively strong, always have a tendency to give tangible form to this self-esteem in their art. Nations at this stage in their cultural evolutionary process create nationalist art and are proud of it. Nothing can shake their belief in things popular; it is fundamental and all-consuming. Art is given a chosen direction and aims, and international appreciation is ignored. Nationalist art is the childhood phase of all art”
“One particularly characteristic feature of nationalist art is its lack of development of form. It is in the first place scenic, or descriptive — epic. In the place of developed form we have national colouring. In place of architecture we are offered the rhapsodical, in lieu of drama the epic, in place of humanity at large we find Finnishness, and in the place of nakedness there is the ubiquitous national costume. All the way down to the present, the Finnish composer has set his personal message in counterpoint against the national cantus firmus.”
The background to Pingoud’s views was an extensive personal experience of new music, compositions which had scarcely been heard of by name in Finland. Already in his writings during the decade from 1910, Pingoud had comprehensively set out the musical trends and aims of the era. These writings naturally also reflect the points from which his own style of composition took off.
The impact of Skryabin
For the young Pingoud in 1911, Alexander Skryabin was the Messiah who was opening the gates to the music of the future. Pingoud published a long, ecstatic analysis of Skryabin’s Prometheus, The Poem of Fire. “Prometheus is one of the most tremendous songs of yearning that has ever been sung”, he wrote at the time.
But only a couple of years later Pingoud was showing a more critical face towards Skryabin. And in 1914, when there were signs of the beginnings of a Skryabin school forming in Russia, he warned young Russian composers of submitting too easily to the “beguiling hypnotic” charms of the man’s music. In 1922 Pingoud went still further:
“In Skryabin’s music one does not move ahead, only around, up and down, to and fro; it does not flow, it revolves, it does not rise, it spirals.”
To some extent these comments on Skryabin can also be applied to Pingoud’s own music, which is in places hampered by a certain static quality and an impulsiveness in the formal structures. But although Skryabin seems to be the most important source of stimuli for Pingoud’s art, there are stylistic features in the Finn’s music that differ from the Skryabin line. Pingoud never finally abandoned tonal elements, but rather used triads alongside dissonant harmonies, though consistently avoiding traditional functional cadences. Then Pingoud also has bouncily humorous, even light-hearted “fun” works to place alongside the all-embracing visions of eternity.
Of the composers of his period, Skryabin may have been the centre-pin of Pingoud’s musical ideology, but this did not prevent him from bringing up other modernists in his contributions to Finnish music literature. He was probably the first in Finland to offer a definition of expressionism in music, and he presented detailed analyses of Schoenberg’s music.
The critical critic
Although he himself served as a music critic, Pingoud seems to have taken a fairly dim view of the critical fraternity of the time. His impression was that the critics had adopted from the art historians the false habit of clubbing artists together into given schools.
Pingoud’s pen-picture of the reviewer is pretty vitriolic stuff: “He analyses (most critics do that), he draws attention to the negative (he loves skating over the positive), he adores his little jokes (and why shouldn’t he?), he is so cocksure (could he be anything else?), he fires his broadsides with the full artillery of his experience (experience gathered from the streets and alleys), he allows his talents for persuasion to flow in torrents (ink and paper) — like disciplined assault troops his words and columns trample and savage the artist’s quavering flower-garden, and he wins his victory, the general and his army march in triumph. With a casual shrug he tosses the artist’s scalp onto the mortuary shelf.”
Politely Pingoud observes that this type of negative critic is fortunately not to be found widely in Finland but in Central Europe, where the profession is overrun with alcoholics, students gone off the rails, young fogeys, jilted danies with a glorious future behind them, cashiered military officers, and unemployed theologians. With a nod in the direction of Wölfflin, Pingoud asks if a work ofart really needs to be explained, is the critic really necessary at all?
But let us return to Pingoud as a composer. His feverish productivity towards the end of the 1910s and in the early 1920s can be seen in the rapid succession of first performances. The second concert given over to his work followed the first almost before the seats had had a chance to cool off, in February 1919. This featured as new works two orchestral fantasias Un Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche and Mysterium. The Don Quixote-inspired first of these is the Pingoud composition which has most clearly received its impetus from Richard Strauss — Strauss’s “drollery” was not, then, a completely closed book to Pingoud. As a contrast to the worldly chivalric ballad, Mysterium deals with things religious and spiritual.
Pingoud continued holding these concerts at regular intervals during the early years of the 1920s. The third followed in March 1920, a fourth in February1922, a fifth in April 1924, and a sixth a year later. Besides these in Helsinki, he held a similar concert in Berlin in 1923, and in Vyborg rather later, in 1936. Ziloti was present at the 1920 event, which saw the first performances of the composer’s Symphony No. 1, Op. 18 and the symphonic poem Flambeaux eteints, also known as Les aveugles. This fragile, thinly scored work was composed “to the memory of a friend”.
The 1922 concert again had two new works, the symphonic poem Le Prophéte and his 2nd Piano Concerto. The Prophet is more interesting than the Concerto, which again betrays signs of Liszt and Rakhmaninov. The work’s Strauss-like main theme rises from the midst of mysterious string tremolos. The trumpets’ fanfare motifs, chorale-like sections, fresh diatonic wind motifs, roiling chromatic developments, and ethereal viola and violin solos all fuse together to produce a slightly kaleidoscopic whole.
Pingoud’s 3rd Piano Concerto, opening in D minor and moving to F sharp, was the soloist number in his Berlin concert in March 1923. The soloist was the fairly well-known pianist Leonid Kreutzer, and the orchestra was the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by the composer himself. The rest of the programme was made up of Un Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche, the 1st Symphony, Le prophète, and Danse macabre.
The reception from both audience and critics in this metropolis was by contrast pretty favourable. The concerts of Pingoud’s works do not necessarily give a very good chronological picture of his output. For instance he brought to his last Helsinki concert in 1925 two earlier works, the Hymnen an die Nacht from his time in St. Petersburg in 1917 and 5 Sonette für Kammerorchester from 1918.
Despite their relatively similar dates, these two works could hardly be more different from each other. The Hymns to the Night represent the poetic, dreamy yearning for the eternal of the early works and are based on the collection of the same name by Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg, the “Prophet of Romanticism”), while in his Five Sonnets Pingoud is closer to the aphoristic early style of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern than in any of his other works. This already comes out in the modest chamber orchestra line-up — from a composer who otherwise works with the massive resources of a large orchestra. The movements are each only a few pages long. The extremely compressed fifth sonnet almost outdoes Webern for brevity, having only 10 bars.
The 3rd Symphony, first performed in 1927, has been seen as marking the beginning of a more tranquil, simplified late period in Pingoud’s work. It may be that such features can be found in certain details, but as a whole the work, with its Wagner/Strauss inﬂuences, is just as colourful and turbulent as those that came before. One work that does, however, suggest a more simpliﬁed approach is the tone-poem Cor ardens (The Burning Heart), which appeared in the same year.
At the beginning of the 1930s two new orchestral poems emerged, Narkissos (1930) and Le chant de l’espace from 1931. They form the second and third parts of a trilogy begun with Cor ardens. Narkissos is subtitled “ein tragisches Fragment”, and has as its motto Alfred de Musset’s verse “Je porte l’âme déchirée jusq’à mourir” — “I carry a wounded soul with me to my grave”. The Song of Space features grand, blaring brass march—and fanfare motifs a la Mahler, and includes a theme which borrows from Loge’s leitmotiv from Das Rheingold.
Pingoud’s last two works La face d’une grande ville and La ﬂamme éternelle were heard in Helsinki at the end of the 19305. La face d’une grande ville is the first Finnish example of urban industrial romanticism. The seven movements are The Forgotten Street, Factories, Monuments and Fountains, Neon Lights, The Procession of the Unemployed, Unsleeping Houses, and Thee Dialogue of the Street Lights and the Morning Glow. The Forgotten Street paints an impressive picture of the silent, empty streets of the sleeping city. In Factories the machines pound away as a bruitist ostinato. Even more intensive are the repeated throbbing rhythmic ﬁgures in Neon Lights, where the performers are given the directions “sempre automaticamente”. The grim passage of the unemployed is written as a Mahler-like funeral march. Unsleeping Houses features two dances, an oriental tango and a slow waltz. The movement ends with a piano solo, summoning up visions of a tired jazz improvisation in a smoky restaurant around closing-time.
La ﬂamme éternelle was given its first hearing on the occasion of Pingoud’s (assumed) 50th birthday in December 1938. The composer’s friend, conductor Nikolai van der Pals wrote in his review that “the composer’s great talent is currently at a stage of development that could lead him on to quite his highest aims”. Other critics were also unanimously positive about the work. But the highest aims went unrealised. Pingoud had several large compositions planned, including a Skryabin-like Birth and Death of Prometheus, but they got no further than sketches. On June 1st, 1942, tired of life and already deeply into alcohol and narcotics to ease his pain, Pingoud threw himself under a train. Fittingly perhaps, since as a young student he had argued that being run over by a locomotive was the ideal way to die.
As a Finnish composer, Pingoud’s sin was that he did not have sufficient admiration for Kalevala or Jean Sibelius to enable him to submit to the self-satisfied artistic consensus that prevailed in the Finland of the 1930s, but was bold enough to question the value and meaning of nationalist art. It seems as if this odd man out in Finnish music is still not really thought of as a Finn at all. Aside from La face d’une grande ville (Ondine Records ODE 705) and some songs, his works have not been published or recorded. And yet we are dealing with a character of quite the stature of the 1920s Finnish modernists Väinö Raitio or Aarre Merikanto, who enriched the country’s musical culture with his burning European and universal visions, both as a composer and in his writing.