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6 Ukrainian works you should know

Dan Jaffé explores six pieces of Ukrainian music, which are very much at the heart of its people

Best Ukraine music
Published: June 9, 2022 at 3:43 pm
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Musical tributes have been played and sung at concerts around the world in solidarity with Ukraine as it battles for its very existence against the on-going Russian invasion. Most appropriately, several of those works are close to the heart of the Ukrainian people. Here is a list of the top half dozen such works which you may expect to hear being performed, some perhaps rather more familiar than you might have expected…

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6 of the best pieces of Ukrainian music

Ukrainian National Anthem, ‘Shche ne vmerla Ukrayiny, ni lava, ni volya’ (1863)

Composer: Mykhailo Verbytsky (1815-70)

The Ukrainian national anthem as sung these days is based on a hymn composed by the otherwise little-known composer Mykhailo Verbytsky, the original text, taken from a patriotic poem written by Pavlo Chubynsky (1839-84), replaced by a modern adaptation of the opening stanza.

Chubynsky was apparently inspired by Serbian students singing a rousing anthem at a political gathering at an apartment in Kyiv – probably ‘Hey Slavs!’, a nationalist hymn inspired by the Polish National Anthem ‘Poland is not yet lost’; this would explain the similarities between the text of that earlier song and Chubynsky’s nationalist anthem, which he wrote in 1862. Not long afterwards, Chubynsky was arrested and sent by the Russian authorities into exile to the Arkhangelsk province, having been deemed ‘a dangerous influence on the minds of commoners’. In Chubynsky’s absence, the poem was published the following year, mistakenly (or perhaps deliberately) attributed to the celebrated Ukrainian poet and folklorist who had recently died, Taras Shevchenko (1814-61). This misattribution only added to the poem’s rapid popularity among Ukrainian nationalists.

Chubynsky’s poem caught the attention of the Ukrainian priest and composer Mykhailo Verbytsky, who first set it for solo voice, then made a choral version first performed in 1864 at the Ukraine Theatre in Lviv. In 1917, Verbytsky’s setting was adopted as a state anthem, Ukraine having suddenly gained independence following Russia’s February Revolution (though after the October Revolution then followed the brutal Civil War, largely fought within Ukraine). The Ukrainian Republic existed until 1922, when the new nation became part of the USSR and the anthem banned from performance.

When Ukraine regained its independence in 1991, the anthem was revived by the following year, though initially only Verbytsky’s music was performed; Chubynsky’s lyrics – thought to be outdated – were not sung until 2003, when Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, officially adopted by vote a modified version, based on the opening stanza and refrain of Chubynsky’s poem, but suitably updated to reflect Ukraine’s now established independence.

What to try next

Verbytsky’s other works have since been overshadowed by the achievements of even greater Ukrainian composers, but his liturgical music is still honoured in Ukraine, and some recordings may be heard through on-line streaming services.

Prayer for Ukraine (1885)

Composer: Mykola Lysenko (1842-1912)

Just as the United Kingdom enjoys such unofficial anthems as Parry’s Jerusalem, or Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory, both waiting in the wings to outshine the official national anthem, so Ukraine has Prayer for Ukraine by its much revered 19th-century nationalist composer Mykola Lysenko. Indeed, this ‘spiritual anthem’ has a nobility not a million miles away from the romantic theme in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings.

The words set are by the Ukrainian writer, scholar and nationalist Oleksandr Konysky (1836-1900). Apparently inspired by his research and writing the first full-length biography of Taras Shevchenko, and also spurred by Russia’s repressive measures against Ukrainian culture – including banning the use of Ukrainian in any publication or public event – Konysky wrote his poem Prayer for Ukraine in 1885. This was almost immediately set to music by Lysenko, and by the following year the anthem had been banned by the official Russian censors in St Petersburg.

Lysenko had originally set Konysky’s poem to be sung by treble voices, but his composition gained even greater traction in versions arranged for mixed chorus, perhaps most particularly that made by the choir director Oleksandr Koshyts: his arrangement got considerable exposure later when Ukraine gained its independence, and he was commissioned by the government to tour (as Alexander Koschetz) with his choir around Europe and North America (Koshyts and his choir also played a crucial role in the fame of our next piece).

Prayer for Ukraine grew in symbolic significance during the Ukrainian War of Independence in 1917-20: its reputation was sealed by a performance involving massed choirs held during the Great Unification celebrations in Kyiv on 22 January 1919.

When Ukraine became independent once again in 1991, the anthem regained its exalted position. Typically, it is sung at the close of church services, major political meetings and on special national occasions and holidays.

What to try next

Lysenko composed in virtually every genre, but excelled particularly when writing for voice, composing many songs, operas and choruses. Alas, very few of these works have been recorded, and none of his operas have been recorded complete; but an enticing selection from his opera Taras Bulba, fierily performed under the baton of Konstantin Simeonov, can be heard online: YouTube:

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Carol of the Bells (1916)

Composer: Mykola Leontovych (1877-1921) arr. Peter J Wihousky

Here, it really is a case of the music’s fame outstripping the words it originally set – albeit not through any shortcoming of the words themselves. ‘Shchedryk’ – more widely known in the English-speaking world as ‘Carol of the Bells’ - was catapulted to fame when performed in Carnegie Hall in 1921, just months after the assassination of its Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych at his parents’ home by a Soviet agent.

‘Shchedryk’, as it was originally titled, is an arrangement of a traditional Ukrainian New Year’s song, also known as ‘The Little Swallow’ – a bird whose first appearance each year traditionally marks the start of the New Year: it tells of a swallow flying into a household to sing to the family of the wealth they will gain that spring. Leontovych, a composer specialising in a cappella choral music including charming arrangements of Ukrainian folksong, had been commissioned to write ‘Shchedryk’ for Oleksandr Koshyts’s choir. In 1919, under the auspices of the government of the newly independent Ukrainian People’s Republic, Koschetz and his choir, now named Chorus of the Ukrainian Republic, embarked on a tour around Europe as cultural ambassadors to the new nation, during which they performed Leontovych’s arrangement to great popular and critical success.

On 5 October 1921, they performed the piece as part of their programme at Carnegie Hall. The American composer and choral conductor Peter J Wihousky – coincidentally of Ukrainian heritage – was present, and knew a good choral arrangement when he heard it. He then effectively hi-jacked it, totally replacing the original Ukrainian text with an English language text about Christmas and the sound of silver bells, which he placed under his own copyright. In that form, the choral piece became a runaway success across North America, and has been recorded countless times since. So poor Leontovych, when he is at all remembered, tends to be remembered solely for this piece, and not even with the words he originally set.

Recommended recording

The choice for ‘Carol of the Bells’ is quite overwhelming – but we do recommend that by the Handel & Haydn Society conducted by Harry Christophers

What to try next

Sadly, very few recordings indeed of Leontovych’s other work appear to be readily available. The Kiev Chamber Choir has recorded four of his liturgical pieces Litany of Peace', 'In Thy Kingdom', 'Litany of Fervent Supplication' and 'Creed' on the album ‘Ukrainian Liturgy’; the CD is currently unavailable, but it can be heard on Spotify.

For more Ukrainian folksong arrangements (including Leontovych’s ‘Shchedryk’), the Canadian-based Viter Ukrainian Folk Choir’s album Kolyada offers ‘Christmas’-themed fare

‘Oh, What a wonder!’ (1916)

Composer: Vasyl Barvinsky (1888-1963)

This hauntingly beautiful carol has only recently been beguiling both listeners and critics outside the Ukraine, having been recorded both by the King’s Singers and by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Again, it is an arrangement of a Ukrainian folksong (‘Shscho to za predivo’), though this time genuinely on a Christmas theme, describing as it does the nativity scene and Herod’s wrath.

Vasyl Barvinsky composed this in 1916 as one of two arrangements of folksongs concerning Christ’s nativity. Barvinsky came from a long-distinguished Ukrainian family, his great grandfather, Martyn, having been rector of Lviv University in the 1830s, and his uncle Volodymyr having founded one of Ukraine’s leading newspapers Dilo. Vasyl showed musical talent from an early age, and although he attempted to study law after graduating from the Lviv Conservatory, in 1907 he relinquished this to further his music education in Prague, studying composition under Vítězslav Novák, a former pupil of Dvořák’s. Novák encouraged Barvinsky to study Ukrainian folk melody to enrich his own composition. In 1915, Barvinsky returned to Lviv, where he became director of the Lviv Conservatory, and conducted the choir of the Boyan Society. It was probably for that choir that he composed his carol.

After a long and distinguished career, Barvinsky suffered an appalling set-back to his reputation when in 1947 he and his family were denounced by the first secretary of the Lviv regional committee of the Communist Party. As a result, he and his wife were arrested and placed on show trial: Barvinsky was forced to give permission for all his music to be destroyed: the entire library of his works was burned in the courtyard of the Lviv Conservatory where he had until lately been director. He himself, just shy of his sixtieth birthday, was sentenced to ten years in a gulag in Mordovia. Barvinsky survived, but was never to see his reputation revive in his lifetime. It is only because so much of his music has survived outside the USSR – albeit scarcely performed until recently – that we are again able to appreciate this great composer.

Recommended recording

A New Joy – Estonian Philharmonic Choir/Paul Hillier (Harmonia Mundi)

What to try next

Fingers crossed, it should not be long before Barvinsky gets due attention in the recording studio. Meanwhile, a good amount of his superb music for piano has been recorded over the last few years. There’s an excellent all-Barvinsky album performed by the Ukrainian pianist Violina Petrychenko. Though available to stream, or download, the CD , which is accompanied by informative booklet notes, can also be purchased at reasonable cost direct from the pianist: violina-petrychenko.de

Lyatoshynsky Symphony No. 3 (1951)

Composer: Boris Lyatoshynsky (1895-1968)

Ask a Ukrainian musician which is their nation’s greatest symphony, and they will almost invariably cite Lyatoshynsky’s Third. A pupil of Glière at the Kyiv Conservatory, and himself the teacher at the same institution of Ukraine’s most famous living composer Silvestrov, Lyatoshynsky like his compatriot Roslavets was hugely influenced by the eerie chromaticism of Skyrabin’s late works, which could be heard even in the works he composed under Stalin.

Though written only a few years after Lyatoshynsky’s official drubbing in 1948 and the loss of his posts at the Kyiv and Moscow Conservatories, his Third Symphony is a bold and defiant work. The cultural apparatchiks 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 in 1955 (by which time the USSR was undergoing the ‘Thaw’ under Khrushchev) by the Leningrad Philharmonic under its legendary conductor Evgeny Mravinsky, then subsequently toured around the Soviet Union. Yet Lyatoshynsky never destroyed its original finale, which has now been recorded by the Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits.

Recommended recording
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
(Chandos CHSA5233)

What to try next

Lyatoshynsky’s sequel, the Fourth Symphony, was composed in 1963. Though in the very dark key of B flat minor, there are hints of light as in the bell-festooned chorale of its slow central movement, and the solo violin and harp apotheosis near the end of the finale Is strikingly effective, like sunlight streaming through a break in the storm clouds.

Recommended recording

Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra/Theodore

Kuchar Naxos 8.555580

‘Melody’ (1981)

Composer: Myroslav Skoryk (1938-2020)

Just as North America and Europe have favourite theme tunes from film and TV– such as the theme from Lawrence of Arabia, ‘Lara’ from Doctor Zhivago, and that once perennial summer season TV series The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe – so do Eastern European countries including Ukraine. One of Ukraine’s most beloved is the theme tune to the two-part television film The High Pass. A drama set in Ukraine immediately after World War II, it concerns a family torn by conflicting loyalties. Originally scripted as a straightforward tragedy, the film was forced to meet official Soviet ideology, and the final product was officially praised for ‘depicting the struggle of the Ukrainian people against bourgeois nationalism’. However the film director, Vladimir Denisenko, asked Skoryk to write music that would communicate what could not be shown on the screen – the essential tragedy of people caught up in events beyond their control.

Here is a clip from Visokyi pereval (High Pass) in which Skoryk’s ‘Melody’ features

Skoryk’s limpid yet poignant theme subtly conveys this, and arguably has won its way well beyond the political constraints of the film for which it was written.

Recommended recording

Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra/Hobart Earle

Naxos 8.573333

What to try next

The recording recommended above for ‘Melody’ also contains an excellent and wide-ranging selection of Skoryk’s work, including several concertos and the colourful Diptych. For more of his film music, the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hobart Earle has also recorded the complete Hutsul Triptych.

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Authors

daniel jaffe
Daniel JafféJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Daniel Jaffé has been associated with BBC Music Magazine since 2004 when he was the reviews editor, working in that post until he went freelance in 2011. Previously he was on the editorial teams of Classic CD and Gramophone. He is a specialist in both Russian and 20th-century British music.

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