26 April 2014

Spanish rain in Russborough and
a reminder of Russia’s past in Kiev

Bluebells in the rain in the woodlands behind Russboeough House, Co Wicklow, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

In My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering are successful in teaching Eliza Doolittle that “the Rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” The song is a key turning point in the musical as they try to break her Cockney accent and speech patterns.

The truth is, however, very different – Spanish rain falls mainly in the northern mountains. Nevertheless, I was all washed out in Torremolinos for most of Sunday and all of Monday this week, and whenever I ventured out for a walk on the nearby beach or for a coffee on either day I found how heavy the rain in Spain can be, even on the Costa del Sol.

The rain cleared away completely for my visits to Granada and the Alhambra on Tuesday, to Gibraltar on Wednesday, and my closing early morning walks on the beach on Thursday.

But that heavy rain seems to have followed me back to Ireland, and today was as rainy a day as any in winter.

Undeterred, two of us were determined to see the countryside this afternoon, and drove up into the mountains, through Brittas and Blessington, and along the shores of the lakes.

Russborough House was designed in 1741 for the Leeson family, Earls of Milltown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

At the last moment, we decided to visit Russborough House, the Palladian mansion built in the 18th century as the Co Wicklow country seat of the Leeson family, Earls of Milltown.

The house was designed in 1741 by Richard Cassels, and took 10 years to build. It was bought in 1952 by Sir Alfred and Lady Beit to house their art collection. The collection includes works by Goya, Vermeer, including his Lady writing a Letter with her Maid, Peter Paul Rubens and Thomas Gainsborough.

After this week’s visit to Spain, it would have been interesting to see Goya’s Portrait of Dona Antonia Zarate. Unfortunately, the last tour of Russborough had started by the time we arrived in the late afternoon, and instead we settled for double espressos and a walk around the grounds, including the bluebell covered woodlands and the grave of one of Edward Nugent Leeson (1835-1890), 6th Earl of Milltown.

On the way back, I was listening to ‘The Great Gate of Kiev,’ the tenth and final movement in Pictures at an Exhibition, composed for piano by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky in 1874. It is a moving piece of music, but also a reminder of the centuries-old dimensions to the present conflicts between Moscow-backed Russian nationalists in Crimea and East Ukraine and the Ukrainian government in Kiev.

Mussorgsky’s great works include the opera Boris Godunov, which is considered his masterpiece, and the orchestral tone poem Night on Bald Mountain. But the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition is his most famous piano composition, and has become a showpiece for virtuoso pianists.

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) is one of the group of Russian composers known as “The Five.” Many of his works are inspired by Russian history, folklore and nationalism themes.

Mussorgsky probably first met the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann in 1870. Both were devoted to the cause of Russian art and quickly became friends.

Hartmann’s sudden death at the age of 39 in 1873 shocked Mussorgsky and many others in the art world in Russia. Their mutual friend, the art critic Vladimir Stasov immediately organised an exhibition of over 400 works by Hartmann in the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg in February and March 1874.

After viewing the exhibition, Mussorgsky was inspired to compose ‘Pictures at an Exhibition,’ which was written over the space of six weeks and depicts an imaginary tour of an art collection. The title of each movement alludes to a painting by Hartmann.

Mussorgsky links the suite’s movements in a way that depicts the viewer’s own progress through the exhibition. Two ‘Promenade’ movements serve as portals to the suite’s main sections. Their regular pace and irregular meter depicts the act of walking. Three untitled interludes present shorter statements of this theme, varying the mood, colour and key in each to suggest reflection on a work just seen or anticipation of a new work glimpsed.

Viktor Hartmann, ‘Plan for a city gate in Kiev, main façade,’ watercolour, Russian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House), Saint Petersburg

The drawings and watercolours were produced by Hartmann during his travels abroad, and include works he had completed in Poland, France and Italy. The tenth and final movement depicts an architectural design for Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine.

Most of Hartmann’s pictures from the exhibition have since been lost, making it impossible to be sure which works Mussorgsky had in mind, although the musicologist Alfred Frankenstein claimed in The Musical Quarterly in 1939 to have identified seven of the pictures.

The theme reaches its apotheosis in the suite’s finale, ‘10, Богатырские ворота (В стольном городе во Киеве)’ Bogatyrskiye vorota (V stolnom gorode Kiyeve), The Bogatyr Gates (in the Capital in Kiev).

The title of this movement is commonly translated as “The Great Gate of Kiev” and sometimes as “The Heroes’ Gate at Kiev.” Bogatyrs are heroes that appear in Russian epics called bylinas.

Stasov noted at the time that “Hartmann’s sketch was his design for city gates at Kiev in the ancient Russian massive style with a cupola shaped like a Slavonic helmet.”

Mussorgsky’s final movement is inspired by a spirit of Russian nationalist fervour. Hartman had submitted a design for the proposed new, grand entrance to Kiev, which was to commemorate Alexander II's narrow escape from an assassination attempt there in 1866.

No winner was ever selected from the competition, and the gate was never built. But Hartmann’s impressive fired the pride of many Russians in their nation and heritage. His sketch included a chapel, and as Kiev had a long history of religious importance Mussorgsky adopted a sense of reverence in his tribute to the proposed gate and the city of Kiev.

The movement includes a theme is based on the baptismal hymn in the Russian Orthodox Church, .with the suggestion of bells, and the extended leave-taking acts as a coda for the suite as a whole.

The piece is known today primarily through the orchestral version created by Maurice Ravel in 1922. Douglas Gamley scored a spectacular version of ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ for full symphony orchestra, male voice choir and organ, and the finale has inspired musicians, composers and performers from Rimsky-Korsakov and Vladimir Ashkenazy to Michael Jackson.

So, in the end, there is no Great Gate of Kiev. But this movement is a reminder of how Kiev has been closely associated for generations with stories, images and depictions of Russian nationalism and identity.

Rain on the beachfront in La Carihuela last Monday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

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