Fourteen Composers in Today’s Ukraine




Gerald Gabel



A Brief History


                   Ukrainian music has not been widely researched in the West likely because Ukraine has traditionally been in the political and cultural shadow of Russia. Prior to the middle of the twentieth century perhaps their best known composer was Dmitry Bortniansky who thrived at the end of the 19th century, yet studied and lived many years in Russia.  And while most are familiar with the dynamic “Great Gate at Kiev” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition the gate itself is Ukrainian in origin, and the music is of a Russian composer and yields little insight into the music of this country!


                   Sacred chant from Byzantia was evidently introduced into Ukraine in the late tenth century when St. Vladimir converted to Christianity and adopted the sacred music of the Orthodox Church. By the middle of the eleventh century, Ukrainian melodies were being used in the liturgy and the sixteenth century witnessed a great flourish of polyphony inspired by music imported from Poland. Music in the church then became more diverse with the use of Bulgarian, Greek and Ukrainian melodies. But, in 1654, Ukraine and Russia established a political agreement causing many Ukrainian composers and performers to move to Moscow to study Western music. The loss of talent to Russia produced a reduction in Ukrainian musical activity for a great length of time.


                   There were some notable Ukrainian composers in the 19th century. These included Mykola Ovsianiko-Kulikovsky, S. S. Gulak-Artemovsky (1813-73), Petro Nistchynsky (1832-96), Pyotr Sokal'sky (1832-87). Volodymyr Sokal’sky(1863-1920) (a nephew of Pyotr), Mykola Arkas (1852-1909) and Mykola Kolachevsky (1851-97). They wrote in the standard genres of nineteenth century Europe with emphasis upon symphonic works, operas and folksongs. Such progress was facilitated by the establishment of the Kiev Philharmonic Society and the Kiev Russian Music Society. Through the efforts of the Russian Music Society, the Music College in Kiev was established in 1868.


                   Mykola Lysenko (born in 1842) is sometimes called the “father of Ukrainian music”. He was very interested in the folk songs of local peasants and composed many songs to texts of his countryman Taras Shevchenko. His primary teachers were Karl Reinecke at the Leipzig Conservatory and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov in Saint Petersburg. In 1904, he founded a musical institute in Kiev and was active as a composer, performer, ethnomusicologist, and teacher. Composers influenced by Lysenko's music included Kyrylo Stetsenko (1882-1922), Yakiv Stepovy (1883-1921), Mykola Leontovych (1887-1921), and Alexander Koshyts. These composers were establishing a distinctly Ukrainian music. But the Soviet regime did not allow Stetsenko, Stepovy and Leontovych to continue their work and exiled F. S. Akimenko (1876-1945), Koshyts and Nestor Horodovenko. This brought an end to what might have been a flowering of Ukrainian music.


                   After inactivity during the early years under Soviet control, a new generation of Ukrainian composers became known.  Included in this group are Mykola Skorulsky (1887-1950), L. M. Revutsky (a leading figure at the Kiev Conservatory), and Boris Lyatoshyns'ky (1895-1969) who was a pupil of Rheinhold Glière. During this time, Lviv developed into an important center for Ukrainian musical activity. The Mykola Lysenko Music Institute was founded in Lviv in 1903.


                   The most prominent Ukrainian composers of the mid-20th century include Andriy Shtogarenko (born in 1902), Yuly Meytus (born in 1903), Konstantin Dankevych (born in 1905), A. Koss-Anatolsky (born in 1909), A. D. Fylypenko (born in 1912), Herman Yukovsky (born in 1913), Hryhory Mayboroda (born in  1913), Piaton Mayboroda (born in 1918), Vadym Gomoliaka (born in 1914), Viktor Kireyko (born in 1926) and Alexander Znosko-Borovsky (born in 1908).



The State of Composition in Ukraine Today


                        In 2007, I was in Ukraine for a total of 26 days meeting with and interviewing Ukrainian composers. The information contained in this article is a synthesis of information from these interviews. Ludmila Yurina was the first person I approached nearly two years ago with a proposal to meet and interview composers from Ukraine for purposes of presenting them to the western world in this article. She worked tirelessly to insure the success of this project.  To her, I extend gracious thanks and gratitude for her efforts.


                        The greatest obstacle in realizing this project was my poor understanding and abilities with either the Russian or Ukrainian languages despite my crash course in Russian.  The American Embassy in Kiev suggested a person to serve as translator for all meetings with composers and also with administrators at the National Academy of Music.  Alexander Krivyts is fluent in Russian, Ukrainian and English.  He proved to be a wonderful asset in all meetings. His attention to detail, cordial and gracious manner and magnanimous sense of humor were a great asset. To Alex, I also extend gracious thanks and gratitude.


          Ukraine, in essence, is a very young country.  After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was once again free to establish its own governance without control of Soviet leaders. This change has created economic difficulties. The government is taking steps to broaden its economic base to become more industrial and to welcome foreign investment. If such plans are successful, the future of Ukraine is bright. Its people are highly educated, resourceful and hard working.


                   Conditions for composers in Ukraine are not very different from those of composers in the United States and other Western countries. Many composers earn their living teaching in the four state universities and numerous musical institutes throughout the country. Others work for composers’ unions in the larger cities even though there are limited job opportunities with these organizations. The unions are funded by the government through the Ministry of Culture which must support all arts on a limited budget. Igor Shcherbakov, director of the Kiev Composers Union, described conditions for composers in Kiev:


There are 196 composer and musicologist members.  According to rules, a ratio of composers to musicologists must be maintained (this was inherited from the time of Soviet control).  They organize an annual festival with 30 concerts for orchestra, choir and other ensembles.  It also organizes concerts of music of different composers.  There is not a lot of funding for this.  It is accomplished with money from the City of Kiev and the Ministry of Culture.  The Ministry of Culture provides most of the money to rent office space and pay the salaries of five employees per year.  There is little money for other things.  The festival is financed 80% by the Ministry and 20% by the City of Kiev.


When asked whether they actively seek donations from individuals, foundations or corporations, Shcherbakov responded:


Only 2 or 3 times in the past have private foundations donated funds for our activities.  Some embassies have helped.  They support composers from their countries.  A couple of foundations in Poland and Italy have helped by supporting composers from their countries.


Sergey Zazhytko, also an officer of the Composer’s Union, offered his perspective:


There are laws in the West which encourage private and corporate donations for the arts.  These laws don’t exist in Ukraine.  There are two areas of government support.  It supports composer organizations and individuals to partake in festivals.  Sometimes composer groups ask corporations to make donations but this is usually not successful.


          Besides the festival in Kiev, there are major festivals in other cities, most notably Lviv and Odessa, which support new music. When asked if there were many performance opportunities with the festivals and with other performance organizations, Alexander Shymko replied:


There are not many.  My pieces are played more in Poland than in Ukraine.  Progress has been made and more opportunities might be available in the future.  An emphasis upon our culture is needed in Ukraine and composers are receiving more state awards.  It helps that tickets are not required to attend our festivals because the concerts are free to the public.  This doesn’t help greatly because new directions in classical music are not as accepted by the public as developments in pop music.


          Sergey Zazhytko gave an interesting perspective on why some performing musicians are reticent to perform the music of living composers:


During Soviet times, people did not know Western styles and musicians did not play Western music.  It is difficult for performers of traditional music to learn new techniques and styles.  Therefore, I mostly work with young musicians.  They are more flexible and are willing to use new techniques.


          One composer, Olena Leonova, who has traveled to western Europe and spent several months teaching in Jamaica, noted: “I have the same opportunities as composers in other countries.  The same problems exist here as in other countries.”


          I asked, specifically, if there were sufficient opportunities for young and emerging composers.  Sergey Zazhytko laughed and replied:


The Ministry of Culture has plans for cultural activities.  Within their budget and plan, they support new music in Ukraine.  In general, the support is low.  They don’t differentiate on the basis of style.  Support is low for all styles.


                   I asked all composers if their life is different now than it was before the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Only one composer, Volodymyr Zahortsev, emphatically and enthusiastically stated that his life was better. For him, having the freedom to write the music he desires, without censorship, is more important than other considerations. The youngest composers were mostly still engaged in studies at the Conservatories during this time and offered no opinion since they were not active during the time of Soviet rule.  Gennady Lyaschenko, who lived his entire life under the Soviet regime responded:


Composers were better supported under the Soviets and the government took care of them.  There was a publishing company.  It still exists but it is private now and they charge composers to publish a work. In Soviet times, the economy was planned and they knew what they would publish in advance.  I had one work published each year and they paid me!  I worked most of my life for the Soviets.  No one created obstacles for me and I continue to write in the same way.


          For composers whose styles and ideas were acceptable to the government, there were few problems. Others were subjected to censorship and, sometimes, imprisonment.  Igor Shcherbakov provided additional insight:


Maybe it is better in the sense that it is more open and composers can interact with composers and musicians of other countries.  Ukrainian people can’t listen to the world’s great orchestras because the state can’t finance tours for such concerts.  During Soviet times, composers were better supported.  On the other hand, one cannot replace freedom with money!  I started composing during the last years of Soviet control.  All music was ordered via the Ministry of Culture.  A sonata might take six months to compose and the Ministry gave 250 rubles.  But if I write a song about Lenin, I might receive 300 rubles – and a song takes a lot less time to compose than a sonata!  I changed my political views and refused to write the song about Lenin.  But now I would write the song to get the money!


Gabel - “Might you write a song for your current President?”


Shcherbakov – “No!  He is alive!  For Lenin, maybe – he is history!


My family supports the idea that Ukraine should be free and independent.  I even took part in some demonstrations in 1991. On the other hand, countries should maintain friendly relationships.  Freedom is great but composers were better supported by the Soviets.  I would prefer the support.”



Yehven Stankovych


                   Yehven Stankovych (born 1942, in Svalyava) studied composition with Adam Soltys at the Lviv Conservatory from 1962-63, and with Borys Lyatoshynsky (1965-68) and Myroslav Skoryk (1968-70) at the Kiev Conservatory.  From 1970-76, he worked as an editor for Muzychna Ukraina, the lone music publisher in the Soviet Ukraine. Since then, he has been Professor of Composition at the Ukrainian Music Academy (formerly the Kiev Conservatory). Stankovych has composed several large works for the stage including the folk opera When the Fern Blooms for soloists, folk chorus, and small orchestra.  His works for dance include a ballet legend entitled Olha and full ballets entitled Spark, Prometheus, and the Vikings, and he has composed numerous film scores.  His orchestral output is quite large with eight symphonies, seven chamber symphonies, a sinfonietta, concertos for cello, violin, viola and violin with piano, as well as miscellaneous orchestral works. His chamber works include several recent compositions for mixed chamber ensembles as well as three sonatas for cello, two for violin and one for clarinet, two string quartets, a Concertino for flute and violin and two pieces for violin and cello.  Since 1991, he has produced several choral works on religious themes. There are also many secular choral works and works for solo piano and organ.


                   The Chamber Symphony No. 5 is in one movement and is scored for clarinet, six violins, two violas, two violoncelli, and one contrabass. The chamber ensemble is treated in a decidedly symphonic manner at times while, at other moments, it is a chamber work.  In measures 1-13, the major thematic units for the work are presented. The clarinet presents an initial opening line which is repeated in variations with extensions for the duration of the passage emphasizing the primary pitch focus on “f”, “a” and “c”. The strings present three gestures which will be important through the work: a 16th and 32nd note passage in measure two in the violin 1 part, a triplet sixteenth figure in measure 5 in violin 2, and a 32nd note passage in measure 8 in violin 3 (Example 1).




Example 1: Stankovych, Chamber Symphony No. 5 mm. 1-8


                   In measures 34-35, all three of the violin figures comprise the entire accompaniment creating a complex texture before the clarinet entrance. The clarinetist’s focus is, once again, on  f  natural (Example 2).


Example 2: Stankovych, Chamber Symphony No. 5 mm. 34-35



                   Beginning with the Piu Mosso in measure 71, the same string figures are found but now in their original form as well as in augmentation.  The clarinet retains a contour similar to the beginning but now featuring sextuplet sixteenth notes with an emphasis of f natural which moves to f# passing to g in measure 75 (Example 3).


Example 3: Stankovych, Chamber Symphony No. 5 mm. 71-72

The climax of this section appears in measures 130 through 134. At this point, the clarinet solo has adopted some aspects of the original string figures. After displaying the same rhythms in measure 130, the strings progress in ascending eighth notes to the climactic chord at measure 134.  This sonority ranges from D#5 in the cello part up to E6 in the violin 1 part.  Except for the minor third between the first and second violins, the remainder of the ensemble is packed in half and whole steps created a tightly packed sonority of considerable tension. The clarinet figure in measure 134 outlines the same intervallic range as the strings but a perfect fourth higher (Example 4).