by Erkki Salmenhaara :: 1994
The Russian-born composer Ernest Pingoud
(b. St. Petersburg, October 14, 1887 — d. Helsinki, June 1, 1942) spent most of his working life in Finland. Many sources mistakenly claim that he was born in 1888. Pingoud studied privately with Alexander Ziloti, and at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov. The name of Anton Rubinstein is also mentioned as one of his teachers, but this is rather unlikely as Rubinstein died in 1894 already. Ziloti first got to know the young Ernest when the Pingoud family became his summer neighbours at Tikkala Manor near Viipuri. Pingoud took piano lessons from Ziloti in secret, because his clergyman father did not approve of musical studies. His mother was, however, related to the Finnish Sesemann family, which had connections with the composer Erik Melartin.
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, Pingoud 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 1908–1911 and for which he wrote concert and opera reviews in St. Petersburg 1911–1914. 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 Pingoud 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.
Pingoud did his national service in 1915 in Ostrobothnia and Pori, where he met his future wife. He emigrated to Finland to escape the Revolution in 1918, married, and settled down as a music teacher in Viipuri 1918–1922. The majority of the works he composed in St. Petersburg were subsequently lost. After spending two years as a music teacher in Turku, he moved to Helsinki in 1924, was head of the Fazer Concert Agency 1924–1931 and 1935–1937 ran a concert agency of his own 1931–1933 and was Manager of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra until his death in 1942.
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!). Of all the critics, Toivo, Haapanen adopted an extremely benign attitude, and his very first reviews already crystallised the opinions of Pingoud’s music that were later to prove characteristic. The composer was unanimously praised for his magnificent command of the expressive devices of the orchestra but was almost equally unanimously condemned for his extremism. The concert sparked off an argument between Pingoud and the composer and critic Erik Furuhielm, but the young musicians of the time were most enthusiastic. Sven Sandberg, who played the piano in the orchestra, described in ecstatic terms both the compositions and Pingoud the conductor in his letters to Elmer Diktonius, the poet and critic who was a few years later to create a stir with his modernistic songs.
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 Pingoud also 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 sanse 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 à la 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. The movements are: The Forgotten Street, Factories, Statues and Fountains, Neon Signs, Procession of the Unemployed, The Watching Houses, and Conversation Between the Street Lamps and the Dawn. The work, subtitled Poème coréographique, was performed together with certain other of his works as a ballet at the Finnish Domestic Opera in 1941 (with George Gé as the choreographer). La flamme éternelle was premiered in honour of Pingoud’s 50th birthday (!) in December 1938. Nikolai van der Pals, who conducted a number of Pingoud’s 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. Gé designed a ballet for this work, too, which was performed at the Royal Opera, Stockholm in 1941.
Pingoud entertained a number of plans for large-scale works, among them a Scriabin-like Birth and Death ofPromethcus 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 wrote 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 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."
When, in addition to all this, Pingoud had the effrontery to make cautious criticism of Sibelius his idealistic views were not always welcome. He was a cosmopolitan in Finnish music as a result of which he was to some extent held at a distance. As Manager of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra he was in a delicate position as regards the Finnish works selected for performance, and it was problems such as these which, presumably, ultimately put an end to the plan of Pingoud, Väino Raitio and Aarre Merikanto to hold a joint concert of their works in 1924. After Pingoud’s death, his works for a time fell into more or less complete oblivion, a quite unreasonable state of affairs. For as a composer he deserves to take his lace as an e ual member of the Finnish modernist trio of the 1920s, and through his writings he enriched Finnish culture with his burning European and universal visions.
Originally published in Erkki Salmenhaara: Ernest Pingoud, 1997. ISBN 951-96274-7-2.