12 best Ukrainian composers of all time
Daniel Jaffé explores the life and works of Ukraine's greatest composers
For much of its history, Ukraine been subsumed within the Russian empire, both under the tsars and subsequently as part of the Soviet Union. So it is sometimes difficult and contentious to claim certain composers as being from that nation rather than Russia itself.
Yet there are several composers who certainly hail from that region, and even while shackled to Russia, Ukraine has unquestionably played a key role in the development of Russian music. More than that, it has often led the way, as is the case with the first three composers discussed here from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The best Ukrainian composers of all time
Mikola Diletsky (c1630-80 - his first name became Russified as Nikolai), who lay the foundations for his three great successors Maxim Berezovsky (c1740-77), Dmitro Bortnyansky (1751-1825), and Artem Vedel (c1770-1806), deserves some historical background to explain his tremendous importance to the history of not only Ukrainian but also Russian music.
While Russian Orthodox church long maintained a tradition of simply singing ancient (znamenniy) chants, a much richer choral style – inspired by the Venetian spiritual concerto established by Andrea Gabrieli and his contemporaries in the late 16th century – had burgeoned early in 17th-century Ukraine and neighbouring Poland.
This new form of choral singing, known as the Choral Concerto, involved choirs singing several vocal lines simultaneously in dazzling displays of counterpoint. Ukrainian (and Polish) church music, as a result, sounded much more glorious than the rough and rather dour Russian Orthodox style of that time – a point that did not escape the Russian Imperial Court and its close ally, the Russian Orthodox Church.
In 1652, a group of Ukrainian singers were invited to Moscow to demonstrate the magnificence of the Choral Concerto style. One of its practitioners and earliest theorists was the Kyiv-born Mikola Diletsky, who had received significant training from the great Polish composer Mielczewski.
More like this
The new choral style was effectively promoted by Diletsky’s compositional manual, first published in Polish in 1675, then undergoing at least three more editions before the end of that century. Diletsky’s choral music – equally suited in style to glorifying the Russian court as well as adding splendour to the church – marked a new chapter in Russia’s official choral style, exemplified in such works as ‘Praise the Name of the Lord’.
The Powers of Heaven: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Paul Hillier
Harmonia Mundi HMU 907318
Though the year and place of his birth is unknown, Maxim Berezovsky (c1740-77) almost certainly spent his childhood in Glukhov (now Hlukhiv), eastern Ukraine. This town had become, by his time, a major centre of training for choristers destined for the Imperial Chapel at St Petersburg (Ukrainians now being highly valued for their innate singing talent).
Berezovsky probably became a royal chorister, and certainly from 1758 was a staff singer in the entourage of Tsarevich Peter Fyodorovich, taking part in several productions of Italian opera staged for the Crown Prince. Berezovsky was sent to Italy in the 1760s to study composition; an opera of his was successfully staged during the 1773 winter carnival in Livorno.
According to a much-romanticised 19th century account of his life, Berezovsky’s career went into sharp decline on his return to Russia, and – suffering from depression – he killed himself when still in his thirties. Historical evidence, however, suggests that while he did suffer from ‘hypochondria’ and stabbed himself to death, he in fact enjoyed the highest success.
He was immediately made a staff member of the Imperial Theatres upon his return to Russia. Then, within a year, he was appointed choirmaster of the Imperial Chapel. While in that post, he wrote a great deal of remarkably beautiful music.
Vidrodzhennya Chamber Choir/Mstyslav Yurchenko
Claudio CB 4730-2
Dmitro Bortnyansky (1751-1825), the son of a serf at Glukhov (now Hlukhiv), became a chorister there. Like Berezovsky, he then joined the Imperial Chapel in St Petersburg, where he studied under its then music director Baldassare Galuppi; the Italian was so impressed with Bortnyansky’s talent that he implored Catherine II (the ‘Great’) that he should continue his studies in Italy.
There, Bortnyansky became known as ‘the Russian Palestrina’, and on his return to the Russian court wrote not only a great deal of church music but also oratorios and operas. Bortnyansky’s highly expressive music for the Orthodox Church is strikingly effective and was honoured through the centuries – Tchaikovsky edited an edition of his sacred works (published 1881).
The Powers of Heaven: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Paul Hillier
Harmonia Mundi HMU 907318
Artem Vedel (c1770-1808) is another figure shrouded in some mystery. A graduate of the Kyiv Ecclesiastic Academy, he became noted for his expressive religious music. In 1787, he arrived in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk where he studied under the Italian composer Giuseppe Sarti (at that time in temporary exile from St Petersburg).
Sarti’s influence is evident in the Italianate expressiveness of Vedel’s music, though he also took inspiration from Ukrainian folk music. After a stint as a music director in Moscow, Vedel returned to Ukraine to become music director at the Kharkiv Collegium (1796-98).
Quite what happened after that is unclear, but in 1800 he was arrested and imprisoned for ‘political crimes’. He was released shortly before his death, suffering from depression and said to be insane.
Choral Concertos (selection): Dumka Choir/Yevhen Savtchuk
Sanctus Recordings SCS021
Revered as the father of Ukrainian nationalism in music, Mykola Lysenko (1842-1912) was the first great composer to clash with Russian officials for his promotion of his nation’s culture and language.
Lysenko’s extensive use of Ukrainian folk music in his own work was not particularly exceptional - indeed, Tchaikovsky won plaudits from the Russian nationalist ‘Mighty Handful’ by doing so.
- 'Mighty Handful' composers:
- Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolay
- Borodin, Alexander
- Balakirev, Mily
- Musorgsky, Modest
However, his involvement with growing Ukrainian nationalism – officially banned by Tsar Alexander II’s Ems decree of 1876, which forbade the use or publication of the Ukrainian language – brought Lysenko into conflict with the Russian Musical Society, whose Kiev branch he had formerly worked with.
His greatest nationalist masterpiece, the opera Taras Bulba (1880-91), could not be produced in his lifetime because of his insistence that it should only be staged using the Ukrainian libretto he set. It finally gained its first performance in 1924, some 12 years after his death.
At present there’s only one recording of highlights – made in the Soviet era by Melodiya, performed by the National Opera of Ukraine conducted by Konstantin Simeonov. Otherwise, its fiery overture as arranged for piano duet has been recorded by the Ukrainian Shelest Piano Duo.
Taras Bulba (highlights) - Choir and orchestra of the Taras Shevchenko National Academic Theatre/Konstantin Simeonov
Reinhold Glière (1875-1956) was of German-Polish heritage (not Belgian, as claimed by a now discredited source), but was born in Kyiv and appears to have embraced a great deal of Ukrainian culture in his life and work.
Having studied violin and composition at the Kyiv Musical School, he continued his studies at the Moscow Conservatory, graduating in 1900. He then spent two summers in Ukraine to teach the young (and fully Russian) Sergey Prokofiev, and in 1913 joined the Kyiv Conservatory as professor of composition. He soon becoming its director, only being forced to relinquish that post and return to Moscow in 1920 by the upheavals of the Russian Civil War.
Glière's Third Symphony is an overt musical tribute-cum-portrait of a medieval hero who, though Russians had long claimed him as their own, was indubitably from Ukraine – the bogatyr (heroic knight) Ilya Muromets.
Symphony No. 3: BBC Philharmonic/Edward Downes
Chandos CHAN 9041
Mikola (in Russian Nikolai) Roslavets (1881-1944) was possibly the most talented avant-garde composer working within Russia after the death of Scriabin, whose music greatly influenced his own.
Although certainly born in Ukraine as he claimed, it appears that Roslavets was the son of a railway clerk – rather than born of illiterate peasants as he claimed in the 1920s – and received his earliest musical education from an uncle who taught him violin.
After the Russian Revolution, he became director of Kharkiv Conservatory, holding that post until he moved to Moscow in 1924, where he joined the editorial staff of the Moscow State Publishing House. There his political manoeuvring, by which he secured the publication of his own modernist music, and his championship of such composers as Schoenberg (who also influenced his music), drew unwelcome attention from both proletarian factions and the more conservative elements of the music profession.
In 1929 his name was removed from all music reference books in the Soviet Union, and he was exiled to Uzbekistan.He was allowed to return to Moscow in 1933, where he scraped a living by teaching. It appears it was only because he suffered a stroke in 1939 that he avoided arrest during the Great Terror.
Nonetheless, even after his death Roslavets was denounced as ‘alien to the people’, his grave destroyed, and his music effectively banned from performance until Perestroika under Gorbachev. When finally allowed to be performed, his music has won the admiration of a new generation of listeners. As a violinist, he appears to have been most deeply engaged when composing for stringed instruments, such as his enormously attractive Viola Sonatas (1925/26) and the 24 Preludes for violin and piano (1941-42).
Viola Sonatas: Andrei Gridtchuk (violin), Alexander Blok (piano)
Brilliant Classics 9174
Boris Lyatoshynsky (1895-1968) is today honoured as the father of contemporary Ukrainian music. Born in Zhytomyr in northern Ukraine, he studied at the Kyiv Conservatory under Reinhold Glière, graduating in 1919 and himself became a professor there, while also teaching orchestration at the Moscow Conservatory.
Like Shostakovich and Prokofiev, he fell foul of the cultural purge that took place in 1948, losing both his teaching posts. His Third Symphony, widely regarded as his masterpiece, was composed after that disaster, in 1951. In its original form, it fell foul of the cultural apparatchiks who were particularly offended by its upbeat finale which sported the epigraph ‘Peace will defeat war’.
Under official pressure, Lyatoshynsky twice revised the work, and it was finally performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic under its legendary conductor Evgeny Mravinsky, and subsequently toured around the Soviet Union. Yet Lyatoshynsky never destroyed its original finale, which has now been recorded by the Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits.
Symphony No. 3: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
Mikola (‘Nikolai’) Kapustin
‘I was never a jazz musician,’ Mikola Kapustin (1937-2020) insisted; ‘I’m not interested in improvisation – and what is a jazz musician without improvisation?’ Yet Kapustin cited Oscar Peterson as his greatest influence, and, as Arnold Schoenberg once said, composition is simply slowed-down improvisation – which in Kapustin’s case creates music yet the more dazzling and inspired than one might expect of jazz created ‘on the wing’.
Born in Horlivka in eastern Ukraine, Kapustin moved with his family to Moscow where he studied at the Conservatory under the great pianist Alexander Goldenweiser. Kapustin showed his chops as a pianist by playing Prokofiev’s phenomenally challenging Second Piano Concerto in his graduation recital, but even as a student he demonstrated his predilection for jazz by forming his own quintet.
He then made his career as a jazz pianist, playing with the Oleg Lundstrem Orchestra, one of the very few officially endorsed jazz ensembles in the Soviet Union. Kapustin composed 20 piano sonatas, many concertos including six for piano, two for cello and one for saxophone, and a wide range of works all jazz inspired.
Hyperion CDA 67433
A former pupil of the great Lyatoshynsky, Valentin Silvestrov (b1937) is easily the most famous of living Ukrainian composers, and endearingly one of the most modest: ‘I do not write new music,’ he has said; ‘My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists.’
Like so many composers of the past century, he began by composing in an avant-garde style. Then, in 1973, he wrote several works in ‘olden style’, revisiting the conventional diatonicism of the 19th century but of a static kind which barely attempts to modulate away from the opening key.
Those works included Music for Children, and a Cantata for soprano and chamber orchestra. Silvestrov took this a step further in Quiet Songs (1974-77), deriving their style from the songs of Glinka and Schubert, and in Kitsch Music for piano from the music of Chopin, Schumann and Brahms.
Some of his works, such as the dream-like Dedication (1990-91), blend the more anguished style of modern music with reflections on a past Eden represented by 19th-century-style music.
Bagatelles and Serenades: Silvestrov et al
ECM 476 6178
One of the most beloved ‘classical’ hits in Ukraine is ‘Melody’, originally composed in 1981 by Myroslav Skoryk (1938-2020) for the two-part television film The High Pass. Indeed, it gets a performance at the 2023 BBC Proms (Prom 25, Thursday 3 August).
This shapely and beguiling theme – recently recorded by the violinist Daniel Hope as the opener for his album Music for Ukraine – is actually atypical of Skoryk’s style, which was largely inspired by the work of Stravinsky, Milhaud and above all Prokofiev. Typically, Skoryk’s music is highly colourful in its scoring, thematically quirky, often wryly humorous but equally with surprising moments of candour and feeling.
One close friend described Skoryk as ‘extremely introverted, with a sarcastic sense of humour’. His childhood seems to explain his character.
Born in Lwów (now Lviv) – at that time part of the Second Polish Republic – the city of his birth was invaded by the Soviet army in 1939. As a result, distinguished great aunt, the internationally celebrated (though by then retired) opera singer Solomiya Krushelnytska, had virtually all her property confiscated on the understanding that this would secure the wellbeing of her family.
In 1947, when he was nine, Skoryk’s family was deported to Siberia – Skoryk was only able to return to Ukraine in 1955 after the death of Stalin, though his parents were forbidden to leave Siberia so he had to travel to Lviv alone where he became a student at the Conservatory.
Rejected as a composition student by his first two professors, he eventually graduated with his third, Adam Soltys, and finished his studies at the Moscow Conservatory under Kabalevsky. His music will delight fans of Britten and Prokofiev; there’s an excellent album of his work which includes a good range, from his popular ‘Melody’ to the by turns poignant and exciting Diptych (1993).
Carpathian Concerto and other works: Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra/Hobart Earle
Born into a family of musicians, Victoria Poleva (b. 1962) studied at the Kyiv Conservatory under Ivan Karabits (father of the conductor Kirill), then under Lev Kolodub.
Though she initially composed in an avant-garde style, she adopted in the 1990s a post-minimalist style in the manner of Pärt and Górecki. Like these composers, she has often been drawn to religious texts, though her range of composition includes works for symphony orchestra, a cappella choir and chamber music.
While relatively little of her work has as yet been commercially recorded – examples include the eerie yet beautiful Simurgh-Quintet (2000) – many recordings and videos of her works may be found on YouTube, such as her most recent work for symphony orchestra, Null (2006), a powerful yet relatively straightforward synthesis of the apocalyptic with episodes of chorale-like benediction.
Ukrainian Quintets: Simurgh-Quintet