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Being different against the wind: a crash course in the history of Ukrainian classical music

“For God’s sake, put on your сuffs, they are asking whether we have a culture!”, Ukrainian modernist poet Pavlo Tycyna famously exclaimed in 1920 when the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic was clearly losing its struggle for existence. As always in the Ukrainian case, the political recognition of the country went hand in hand with the question of its cultural recognition. Ukraine was often relegated to the status of a “peasant culture” in teh shadow of more powerful Russian and Polish legacies. However, this is not completely true.

Even today people who are familiar with things Ukrainian – let alone members of wider public – feel they are in an uncharted territory when topic shifts to Ukrainian culture. Hardly any writers or painters can be named (unless the person is a narrow expert). We intend to publish concise overviews of Ukrainian culture in our blog, and we do start with Ukrainian classical music.

Professional Ukrainian music originated in the 18th century on the ground of the local tradition which merged folk, church and court music under significant influence of the Western European musical culture (first Italian, later, in the 19th century, also German). It shared a lot of features common for the professional music of other Slavic nations (such as political implications and involvement in struggle for independence, extensive use of folk music material, non-standard harmonic consequences, changing meter, asymmetrical music phrases and periods, unusual modes such as “Roma” minor or Dorian mode etc). And yet at the same time it is highly specific and original even against the showy Slavic background.


Folk roots, Asiatic impact and Western schooling

It is important to say a couple of words on the exceedingly rich Ukrainian folk music which has always been a cornerstone for professional Ukrainian composers (as we can see in the globally famous “Carol of the Bells/Shchedryk” by Mykola Leontovych or Myroslav Skoryk’s more experimental music). The most ancient known examples of the folk music are ritual songs that later were adopted as Christmas carols; spring songs also bear traces of prehistoric music. They are typically built on trichord consequences with simple fourth (C-F) or fifth (C-G) moves. Most of them are built upon pentatonic scale typical for all musical cultures of the earliest periods. This type of music does not know harmony yet (as any musical system before temperament), but, similarly to many Slavic musical traditions, it develops a specific kind of polyphony (counterpoints, canons and imitations). It was probably affected by the ancient Greek musical system (possibly through the early contacts with the Byzantine Empire as well as through the church music).

However, mature Ukrainian folk music has a major difference from other traditions such as Russian, Polish or Czech; historically, Asiatic peoples (Tatars, Turks and others often nomadic nations) influenced Ukrainian music significantly giving it its specifically Oriental expression, tendencies to alterations and exotic chromaticism. At the same time, Western European professional music began to flow to the courts of Ukrainian, Polish and Lithuanian nobility in 15th–17th centuries. These intersecting impacts from the East and the West shaped Ukrainian traditional music as we know it know. According to Mykola Lysenko, among the most frequent traces of Ukrainian folk songs are the use of harmonic, Roma, melodic minor and natural major modes; extensive use of leading-tones; movement on thirds; sharpened passing third between chords; consequent (especially downward) movement on the tones of a scale; octave, sixth and seventh leaps; mixture of major and minor modes; possible endings on the dominant chord instead of the tonic.

In particular, we need to explain essential differences between Ukrainian and Russian music which could be not clear enough for those who know Russian music well and heard little Ukrainian music. However close to each other, they have many distinctions. Naturally, their roots are common (as this is the case with most of the Slavic musical traditions), and many Russian composers (such as Tchaikovsky) used Ukrainian folk music in their works extensively. Similar traces also include inclination to counterpoint; wide, up to one octave melodic leaps; mixing major and minor etc.

At the same time, the essential bases of the two great traditions drastically differ. Whereas Russian music preserves its ancient diatonic character and avoids chromaticism, Ukrainian music shows its chromatic character as a result of Middle Eastern and Balkan influences. Harmonic and Roma minor modes are typical for both Western European and Ukrainian music; Russian music avoids them, preferring natural minor and major along with the so-called “ancient” (or “church”) modes. Medians rather than leading-tones are more central in the structure of a typically Russian harmonization; it is precisely vice versa within Ukrainian tradition.

The origins: From Ancient Kyiv to “The Big Three”

The origins of Ukrainian professional music should be traced back to the introduction of the church music under Greek influence after the adoption of Christianity in Kyiv Rus’ in 988. In the late Middle Ages a certain type of professionalism was developed by musicians at noble courts and in big cities (the type of culture we see represented in lute tabulaturas of Wojciech Dlugoraj) and by the guilds of kobzars (wandering blind musicians). However, the truly first Ukrainian composers known by the names who influenced the development of Ukrainian music were Maksym Berezovs’kyi (1745–1777), Dmytro Bortnians’kyi (1751–1825) and Artemiy Vedel’ (1767–1808). Sometimes called “The Big Three”, they received excellent musical education (the former two were educated in Italy, and Berezovs’kyi was even a Mozart’s classmate) and created a significant amount of spiritual religious music (such as liturgies) along with brilliant secular music (concerts, sonatas and operas to French and Italian librettos, one of them – Berezovs’kyi’s “Demofont” – was written by then famous Italian librettist Metastasio). However talented, they lived in extremely difficult circumstances of Ukraine under the Russian colonial rule. Berezovs’kyi commited suicide at the age of 32, being unable to get a job and means of subsistence; Vedel’ was sentenced to imprisonment in a mental house in a mysterious case probably related to his criticism or illegal activity against the authorities (having spent there nine years before he died, the composer thus opens a long gallery of the dissidents incarcerated in mental facilities by the Russian government). Bortnians’kyi was luckier and more successful, having laid somewhat of a cornerstone of the later Russian imperial style.

Going national: Power to the people!

Next generation of the composers was trying to develop more national, popular features of Ukrainian music, based on the folk tradition. Semen Hulak Artemovs’kyi (1813–1874) was a famed singer in Italy and Russia who also left first opera based on Ukrainian libretto, “Cossacks in Exile” (1863), literally “A Zaporozhian Cossack beyond Danube”. It was a comic opera with spoken dialogue written in a tradition of Italian opera buffa, under visible impact of bel canto tradition. Petro Nishchyns’kyi (1832–1896) was more amateurish, although left several interesting arrangements of folk songs and incidental music to Taras Shevchenko’s play “Nazar Stodolia”. Mykola Arkas (1853–1909) was another dilettante composer who however created a very interesting romantic opera “Kateryna” (1890), again after the story by Taras Shevchenko. Wladyslaw Zaremba (1833–1902) was an extremely popular author of piano pieces and romantic songs (Lieder).

However, the founding father, the most influential trend-setter of the contemporary Ukrainian music was surely Mykola Lysenko (1842–1912). Born in a noble Ukrainian family, he was educated in Kyiv, Leipzig and St. Petersburg (under Rimsky-Korsakov). He started composing at the age of 9. He also founded a music school in Kyiv and became a major member of Ukrainian nationalist movement, which led to his persecution, imprisonment and early death. Lysenko left quite a lot of works for piano, choir and orchestra, also 9 operas of which only grand opera “Taras Bulba” and comic/lyric opera “Natalka Poltavka” are part of the standard operatic repertory now. He also became quite successful as a pianist and musicologist who thoroughly studied Ukrainian folk music and recorded many ancient folk songs. In his spiritual choral works Lysenko continued older Ukrainian traditions of the 18th century; his secular music was influenced by traditional Ukrainian folklore as well as German romanticism (Schuman, Schubert and, last but not least, Wagner) and Chopin. Sometimes his technique appears to be shallow and his orchestral style might seem dim at times, but most of his scores are emotionally touching and musically profound.

Early 1900ies: Seeking a new form

Many composers were active in Lysenko’s late years and could be considered as a next generation to him, although few of them outlived him much. These include Kyrylo Stetsenko (1882–1922) and Mykola Leontovych (1877–1921). Stetsenko is primarily a composer of church music, but he is also famous for his secular choir music, songs and incidental music. He was more of a successor to Bortnians’kyi/Berezovs’kyi tradition, and his musical language is rich with church modes and harmonies. Leontovych also worked with religious material, but his main legacy comprises hundreds of choral arrangements of Ukrainian folk songs. He is in fact mainly choral composer. Internationally famous “Carol of the Bells” is actually his vocal arrangement of a ritual New Year folk song from pagan times. His opus magna could have been a fantasy mystic opera “Na Rusalchyn Velykden’” (“Water Nymphs’ Feast”) but it remained unfinished as Leontovysh in his prime was killed in cold blood by a Bolshevist undercover agent who asked for a shelter in the house of the composer’s father. In 1970ies Myroslav Skoryk reworked the first act of the opera to be performed as a theatrical work in its own right. Rich with dissonant harmonies and unusual folk turns of musical speech, this piece is a gem of Ukrainian classical music.

The 1920s saw an entirely new generation of Ukrainian composers. They shared deep interest in experimenting and modernizing Ukrainian music, high professional skills and much effort to adopt devices of traditional folk music in European form. The principal leaders of this generation were Levko Revuts’kyi (1889–1977) and Borys Liatoshyns’kyi (1895–1968). Revuts’kyi was born in a noble family from the Central Ukraine which suffered during the 1917 revolution, having lost most of their properties. The composer debuted in his 30ies with cantata “Khustyna” (“Kerchief”), grand piano concert and two symphonies which became some of the best examples of their genres in Ukrainian music. As the author of several hundred folk songs arrangements, Revuts’kyi applied folk themes and harmonies along with the sophisticated technique through his own work. However, this was too experimental in times when Stalinist government needed no more than combat songs and marches, so harsh criticism and a threat of imprisonment in GULAG and/or death (his brother, a theater researcher, was massacred) silenced the composer forever. From the 1930ies on, he stuck to simply editing scores (including his teacher Lysenko’s “Taras Bulba” revision that he did together with Liatoshyns’kyi) and arranging folk songs.

Liatoshyns’kyi was even more experimental in his works, trying to go as far as possible in his invention of a new harmonic language. Unlike Revuts’kyi, he was active throughout all his life and left 5 symphonies, 2 operas, several big choral pieces and countless minor compositions. His music sometimes sounds harsh and is always complicated, even oversaturated. His orchestrations are lush and characteristic.

Opening up to the world today

These two great 20th century composers, though oppressed themselves by the Soviet government, tried to bring up and support yet another new generation of young avant-garde which became active in 1960ies and also found itself in a very unfavourable and suppressed position. One of the leaders of the young dissidents was Valentyn Syl’vestrov (b. 1937), and by now he has remained one of the most prominent contemporary Ukrainian composers. His early works are determined by dodecaphonist, sonorist and aleatoric influences; however later he becomes more neoclassical and postmodernist (as in his famous “Kitsch-music” cycle). Syl’vestrov authored 7 symphonies and many orchestral, choral, chamber and piano works.

Another two greatest contemporary composers of Ukraine are Yevhen Stankovych (b. 1942) from Transcarpathia and Myroslav Skoryk (b. 1938) from Lviv. Stankovych is extremely skillful with orchestration, his music is very dissonant and sounds really modernist, although in fact it is often rich with musical quotations and allusions which make it rather postmodernist. Folk music influence on Stankovych was also quite significant. He composed 12 symphonies, 5 ballets, 1 opera and many isolated works including incidental music.

Myroslav Skoryk comes from a musical family (he is a nephew of the great Ukrainian soprano Salomea Krushel’nyts’ka (also known as La Cruscenisca), a close friend of Giacomo Puccini and first successful Butterfly). In 1940s–1950s the Skoryks were sent to Siberia as political convicts and were able to come back only 6 years later. In 1960s he became one of the most recognizable young composers in the entire USSR being appraised by Shostakovich himself. Skoryk continues traditions of the Western Ukrainian school of composers and is interested in jazz and Carpathian folk music. His best works are his piano pieces, several cantatas and concerts, as well as incidental music and soundtracks to movies, let alone the recent opera “Moses”.

Western and Eastern schools: A divide within Ukrainian music

It is important to say a couple of words about the Western Ukrainian school which Stankovych and Skoryk represent now. The first Western Ukrainian composer was Denys Sichyns’kyi (1865–1909) who wrote many vocal pieces, choral works and opera “Roksolana”. Ostap Nyzhankivs’kyi (1862–1919, tragically executed in the turmoil of the Polish-Ukrainian war) also composed mostly vocal music. The music by Stanislav Liudkevych (1879–1979) seems to be much more interesting and up-to-date. He is renowned for his tonal poems and choral cantatas. Another leading composer who debuted in the 1920s was Antin Rudnyts’kyi (1902–1975). At the dawn of his career he was perhaps the most radical in his experiments amid the fellow Ukrainian composers; Rudnyts’kyi made an extensive use of dodecaphony and serial technique. Later as he emigrated to the US his works became more in style of the late 19th century (somewhat Richard Strauss-like). His principal legacy includes chamber music, operas “Dovbush” and “Anna Yaroslavna”, oratory “Haydamaky” and three symphonies.

Mykola Kolessa (1903–2006) was another notable Western Ukrainian composer and conductor. As already said, Yevhen Stankovych and Myroslav Skoryk are the leading composers of the Western Ukrainian school now.

The differences between Western and Eastern Ukrainian composers are quite clear. Whereas most of the “Easterners” were educated in Kyiv or St Petersberg, the “Westerners” studied music and composition in Prague and Vienna. Their musical culture is typically Central European, while composers from the Eastern Ukraine might sometimes sound a bit Russian (Ukrainian, in fact, for certain features typically associated with the Russian music, particularly that of the Mighty Heap, were actually borrowed from Ukrainian folklore). The conducting schools are especially different; if Western Ukrainian conductors strive to wide gestures, control over orchestra and are attentive to the slightest details, the “Easterners” are sometimes more economical in their moves yet more loose (and sometimes less comprehensible) with the orchestra.

Western Ukrainian (especially Carpathian) folklore is also very different from that of Eastern Ukraine. Its sharp syncopes, quick tempos and major scale prevailing over the minor are sharply different from slow and wide cantilena of Eastern Ukrainian folk songs (mostly in minor). Hence are further differences in composing styles and techniques. However, both Western and Eastern Ukrainian composers share the same general approach (use of folk material, interest in choral music etc) and the same tradition.

Tribute from foreigners

It is also vital to understand that many foreign composers have been using Ukrainian folklore extensively (as it was, for instance, in case of Liszt and Brahms with Western Ukrainian folklore and in case of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Stravinsky with Eastern Ukrainian). We should bear in mind that though these composers do not belong to Ukrainian culture (even given that some of them were partially Ukrainian by their ethnic origin), they practically utilized Ukrainian musical tradition and also enriched it in a way, as well as brought Ukrainian music to the world culture in times when Ukrainians themselves were not able to become composers or at least to gain a worldwide fame.

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