Monday, March 07, 2005

Post Number Fourteen: The Great Gate Of Kiev

Of the Legacy of Architectural Marvels

The Russian people is hard for me to understand. They are so much like Italians, that very often I feel completely puzzled by them. Luckily they created an immense legacy of artworks, and among those there are magnificent novels and music. Music is always my gateway to other cultures (although Indian music remains alien to me). There are some great compositions by Russian composers, and among them one of the most famous I can't fail to mention the Pictures from an Exhibition by Modest Moussorgkij. This is a piano composition, although the French Maurice Ravel arranged it for orchestra in a magnificent way (Ravel was a genius at orchestral arrangements). I was asked by a charming and sexy Russian girl who read one of my previous posts here, to provide links to music I mention here. This is not always easily done, because Classical Music requires to be listened at least as an MP3 and those don't come for free. In this case, though, I managed to find an impressively good live recording of the Pictures from an Exhibition in MIDI format, whose quality also strictly depends on the quality of your soundcard. I have a very good soundcard. If you comply to the same requirements (that is, if your MIDIs sound cool on your PC), you can follow this link to the music I am mentioning here. It's about 36 minutes of piano music.
Scroll down until you find "Mussorgskij", and listen to KATSUHIRO OGURI's version (NOT Robert Finley's, which is quite bad).
Anyway, Moussorgkij witnessed an art exhibition in Moscow and was deeply struck by what he view. He rushed home and in a sort of inspirational frenzy wrote down in a hurry a peculiar piano piece through which he intended to describe what he had just seen. Without digging too much in the details, I will mention that "Promenade" is Moussorgkij's musical description of his own wandering among the artworks. "Gnomus" describes a little statue of a deformed being, the composers imagines him to be an angry gnome that falls every few steps and curses the audience. "The Old Castle" portrays the picture of, well, an old castle, which obviously looked very melancholic to Moussorgskij. "Tuileries" was inspired by a painting of Paris' public gardens, "Bydlo" (one of my favorites) is the description of an old, drunk peasant from Poland, passing by on his cart singing some popular song, "Ballet" is actually a dance of nestlings still half in their shells, "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle" was inspired by the paintings of a rich man and a poor man, "Limoges Le Marché" is a description of the market of Limoges (it's easy to see it populated by chatting women), "Sepulcrum Romanum" was inspired by a painting of Paris' catacombs, "Baba Yaga" describes the hut of a witch of Russian folklore, and the last "The Great Gate of Kiev" was inspired by a grand model of a new gate for the city of Kiev. Incidentally it was never built.

I hope I have satisfied those of my readers that wanted to listen to the music I mention. Anyway, the topic of my post is not Moussorgskij's great composition, but rather architecture.

If you are listening to the Great Gate of Kiev, pay a moment of attention to it. Can you imagine how it could be like, considering the music? In my personal vision, inspired by this music, I see it like a huge, immense gate, pretty much in Orthodox style, completely covered by a shiny green mosaic. This music sounds very green and gold doesn't it? Though I am not sure other people see the color of music. It's something I have always perceived but I don't expect it to be a common thing.
A piece of architecture (a model to be precise) inspired such a grand composition. How come?
I have recently seen a documentary on TV about the wonders of Sicilian architecture from the Norman age. For those who might wonder, Sicily was first conquerred by the Greeks, then by the Romans, then by the Arabs, the Norsemen and the Spaniards. Each of these peoples left an indelible mark in the architecture of the island. The best examples are to be found in the Arabian and Norman era. All these buildings are wonderful. There is a cloister with a fountain of incredible beauty: its central part is a column of marble carved like the trunk of a palmtree, and the leaves are formed by the jets of water coming from its top. A must see.
I was staring at those fantastic works of art, the achievements of genius of great proportions, and all of a sudden my mum said "Italy is beautiful everywhere you go".
Technically speaking, this is true. Italy holds 47% of the entire planet's art. But this sentence triggered a train of thoughts in my brain.
Italy is beautiful. Why is it beautiful? Because there are these beautiful monuments of course, and so many of them. Architecture is beautiful. Why are there so many beautiful monuments? Because there were artists conceiving them - but they worked for someone of course, nobody works for free. In fact, the gorgeous monuments were demanded by kings, emperors, or wealthy people who intended to celebrate something. A wonderful, and I MEAN wonderful cathedral in Monreale near Palermo was built by order of a Norman King to celebrate his culture over the beaten Arabians'. The Coliseum in Rome was built by will of Emperor Nero. The Pyramids were built by order of the Pharaoh. Temples in Greece, cathedrals in central Europe, magnificent palaces in China, the Taj Mahal in India, the very city of Saint Petersburg, the sweetly sexy statue of the Baltic Princess in Helsinki... The examples are really many. In all cultures, for some reason or another, importance was given to things through the creation of awesome works of art and architecture that were meant to last, as a legacy of the people and the culture who created them. Italy is beautiful, ultimately, because a lot of people in this country (not necessarily Italians, actually, more often than not, foreigners) wanted to build something meant to last, and to be beautiful. More than spoken words and might of armies, the laypeople recognized their culture, their belonging to something greater than their mere lives, by watching around. Can you imagine how it must feel to be a citizen of Rome, during the golden age of the Empire, and see the mighty Coliseum stand in front of you, something so grand that nobody in the known world had ever seen a similar construction? Or to witness the Acropolis of Athens and realize it was built a thousand years ago and it will still be there in a thousand years? Have you ever felt that sense of immensity, of eternity, that speaks through the marvels of Chinese architecture?
Then I realized something devastatingly appalling... our culture, the culture of entertainment and lightness, is doing pretty much nothing in this sense. We have given up architectural beauty in exchange for functionalism. Our buildings are not meant to celebrate anything at least in the majority of cases, and in almost all cases are not meant to last. We live in a world where beauty has become the legacy of our ancestors. When Nero built the Coliseum, he didn't mean it to last for a decade or until he was Emperor, or until someone else built something over it. It was meant to last. It was meant to be a legacy. And for this reason it was beautiful, and the layman down in the street was still impressed by its grandeur centuries after the Roman Empire had fallen. We all, people of the world, owe a lot to our ancestors. They have given us countless marvels to contemplate. And what are we doing for our descendants? Pretty much nothing. We have betrayed the vision of those that came before us, who left us things meant to last, and nowadays concentrate on cheap, strictly functional buildings that are not meant to last. I think that one of the reasons people have stopped dreaming and they have lost the sense of "importance" that was more common in previous centuries, is that the layman has nothing to contemplate anymore, unless it is something from the past. Where are our Coliseums, our Taj Mahals, our Pyramids, our Hanging Gardens, our Machu Picchus, our Great Walls, our Neuschwansteins? I feel the need for our culture to return to substance, to return to create beauty even if it is expensive, and not functional at all.
Men cannot just be practical and functional, there's more with us than just working and get mad at paying taxes right? I think we need to recover that feeling of marvel that inspired Moussorgskij's "Great Gate of Kiev".

Next time you walk down the street and contemplate the horrors of our modern functional buildings, try to ask yourself: if Moussorgskij lived in our time, would he really compose a "Great Gate of Kiev"?