Wednesday 20 February 2019

Gate expectations that turned out to be just a musical myth

Classic talk ...

Drawing inspiration: Modest Mussorgsky
Drawing inspiration: Modest Mussorgsky

George Hamilton

Football comes as part of the territory here, for it's what takes me places. Like Kiev, last weekend, for Europe's great annual show-piece.

How the Champions League Final ended up being played in Ukraine, in a city that boasts a magnificent stadium but precious little else in the way of infrastructure to handle an event on this scale, is not for me to answer. But that's life in the 21st century. I guess money talks.

It always has, I suppose. One of the sights I was determined to visit was the Great Gate of Kiev.

It's the name of part of a piano suite by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, which has the title Pictures at an Exhibition. It's the music that made him famous.

You won't find too many guidebooks to point you in the direction of the top 10 attractions of Ukraine's capital, but the one slim volume I was able to source did include a reference to Kiev's Golden Gate, which I assumed might be the inspiration for Mussorgsky's signature tune.

No such luck. The Golden Gate is there all right. A bemusing structure - part stone, part wood - it's the 21st-century manifestation of the ancient entrance to the city, but it's nothing to do with the music. The fact is, there is no Great Gate at all.

It was a design that got no further than an architect's drawing board.

That architect was Viktor Hartmann, who was also a painter of note. He was at the forefront of what was known as the Russian Revival, a 19th-century movement that promoted the local, as opposed to western, fashion favoured at the time.

Hartmann and Mussorgsky were friends, and when Hartmann died, from an aneurysm at the age of 39, Mussorgsky was distraught.

An exhibition of Hartmann's art was organised as a tribute, and Mussorgsky was inspired to turn his viewing into a musical tour-de-force.

There were around 400 paintings in all. One of them was of the Great Gate of Kiev, a construction Hartmann has designed as a tribute to Tsar Alexander II.

It had actually got beyond the drawing board, but was never built for lack of funds. Money was talking a century and a half ago, too.

Mussorgsky wrote the entire suite in just three weeks in 1873, the year Hartmann died.

It tells the tale of his visit to the art gallery in sound, the various movements depicting the canvases, punctuated by what he calls Promenades, walking from room to room.

These interludes are delightful in themselves, and the various portraits are vividly brought to life. The Great Gate of Kiev steals the show.

Hard to believe now that it was originally written for the piano because it's known mostly through its orchestral elaboration.

There have been many interpretations. Among others, Henry Wood, the man behind the Proms that thrill music fans in London every summer, had a go.

But the one that has stood the test of time is the vivid depiction by the French composer Maurice Ravel.

Hartmann had based his design for the gate on traditional headgear -there's a triumphal arch topped with something inspired by what Russian women would wear, and alongside, there's a bell tower that looks like it's wearing a warrior's helmet.

The music is stately, imposing, triumphantly melodic, bringing to life a celebratory procession through the Great Gate, the climax of Mussorgsky's creation.

The Golden Gate, just up from the Opera House, sadly doesn't cut the mustard. It's just a shame Hartmann's Great Gate - immortalised in Mussorgsky's music - simply isn't there.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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