Ukrainian flag
A Ukraine peace rally at the California State Capitol in Sacramento | Credit: Andrew Nixon/CapRadio

On a warm Sunday afternoon, a melody of carillon bells, carrying the faintest hint of a Slavic folk tune, wafted upwards into the cloudy June sky and over a serpentine line of Berkeley concertgoers waiting to enter a theater. Inside the hall, a recital of Ukrainian choral music from the 12th to 19th centuries, including 18th-century works by Dmytro Bortniansky and Maksym Berezovsky, was about to begin.

The performance likely introduced the audience to music that has existed for centuries despite efforts, experts said, by various empires to suppress or ban it. Its very existence, according to musicologists, defies Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial after the February invasion that Ukraine has a culture of its own.

At the concert’s end Ukrainian diplomat Dmytro Kushneruk took the stage garbed in Silicon Valley mufti of open-neck white shirt, dark jacket, and black and white spats-like sneakers. “This music has been resonating for thousands of miles, for thousands of years to get here today,” said Kushneruk, consul general of Ukraine for the western United States. “They can destroy the buildings, but they can’t destroy the culture. … It will live forever.”

Maria Sonevytsky
Maria Sonevytsky

Eternity notwithstanding, there has been little known in the West about Ukrainian composers until recently, especially in Canada and the U.S., according to experts. “North Americans know nothing about Ukrainian classical music,” said Bard musicologist Maria Sonevytsky, who is Ukrainian American, in a Zoom interview from her upstate New York home.

“They don’t even know ‘Carol of the Bells,’ which we sing at Christmas time, is by a Ukrainian composer,” she added, referring to the 1916 composition by Mykola Leontovych, “Shchedryk,” that’s based on a traditional Ukrainian folk song celebrating spring. In the U.S., the tune was adapted in the 1930s to become a holiday standard and has been covered since by artists from the Swingle Singers to Kenny Rogers.

It’s both the exceptionalism of empires as well as the general ignorance of Western audiences that explain why North Americans know so little about Ukraine and its music, according to Sonevytsky, who studies the legacy of Soviet cultural policies on music after socialism.

The history of nationalism, Sonevytsky said, further explains the Western lack of awareness, noting Mozart isn’t generally thought of as an Austrian composer (the Salzburg-born musician lived under the Holy Roman Empire) and Chopin is thought of as a French composer rather than a Polish one.

It’s also important to remember, said Sonevytsky, that Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union in pieces. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, from the Western perspective, it collapsed into Russia “much to the exclusion of the other republics. … The effect was that this completely erased these other republics,” she said, referring to the West’s general unfamiliarity with former Soviet states such as Moldova or Kyrgyzstan.

“Until the 20th century Ukrainians never had a voice to narrate their own history,” said Sonevytsky. “And if they tried, they were censored or banned.”

The Nearly Lost History

The history of Ukrainian classical music is as complex as that of the country itself. Since the Russian invasion, more has come to be known about such music, past and present. Radio stations have put together playlists of “top 10” Ukrainian composers. The New York Times in early June interviewed Ukraine’s most famous living composer, Valentin Silvestrov, who is now a refugee in Berlin. The New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross chewed on the national identity question of Sergei Prokofiev.

Valentin Silvestrov
Valentin Silvestrov | Credit: Oleg Pavlyuchenkov

All the same, more is known in the West about Ukraine’s thriving pop music culture than about Ukrainian 19th-century Romantic-style composers such as Bortniansky (who has been compared to Palestrina) or Mykhailo Verbytsky. (This year, Ukrainian rock group Kalush Orchestra, which fuses traditional Ukrainian folk vocals with rap, won the Eurovision Song Contest. Ukraine also won in 2004 and 2016.)

What we don’t know about Ukrainian classical music is still evolving as its scholars continue to track down scores and discover recordings. The current Russian destruction of Ukrainian cultural centers, libraries, and conservatories has wreaked havoc on much of the country’s cultural archives, according to scholars. But organizations such as the smart phone app Ukrainian Live Classic, which partners with the state-owned Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, has archived numerous scores and recordings online and created profiles of nearly 75 Ukrainian composers past and present.

What is known is that early Ukrainian classical music survived through songs, particularly liturgical choral works. As well, musicologists have done much of the heavy lifting to uncover lost scores in dusty archives, attics, and caves, among other places, according to conductor and music scholar Marika Kuzma, who is of Ukrainian ancestry.

Many Ukrainian composers of the early 20th century — Kyrylo Stetsenko, Mykola Leontovych, for example — were children of priests, sang in church choirs, apprenticed under church choir directors, or themselves worked as church choir directors, noted Kuzma, in an email from her Connecticut home. “A sense of religious devotion and reverence for indigenous song and spoken word seemed equally important to these composers,” she said.

Marika Kuzma with high school choir students
From 2016, Marika Kuzma with high school choir students in Lviv, Ukraine

Music scholars don’t appear to agree on whether Ukrainian classical music has a distinct sound when compared to that of Russian classical music. “It leans more toward Western European tendencies, and it is distanced from Russian traditions with sounds that are more organic, open, and often derive from the melodies of Ukrainian folklore,” said Ukrainian-born violinist Solomiya Ivakhiv in an email from her Connecticut home. She cited Ukrainian composers Viktor Kosenko, Yevhen Stankovych, Myroslav Skoryk, Mykola Lysenko, and Bohdan Kryvopust as personal favorites.

According to Sonevytsky, Ukrainian and Russian classical music are similar yet distinct. When we talk about 19th-century Ukrainian classical composers, “we’re talking about elite members of society, and they were mining folk traditions for inspiration, as a lot of Russian composers were,” she said. She noted Igor Stravinsky, who, she said, spent his summers in Ukraine and used a particular polyphonic singing style — his score for Les noces is an example — that drew upon Ukrainian folk music.

Ambiguity surrounding extant national territories was also a factor. At that time, Russian identities weren’t solidified, according to Sonevytsky. “If you wanted to be a composer, you had to go to the centers of imperial culture at that time, St. Petersburg and Moscow,” she said.

The music that 19th-century Ukrainian composers, such as Mykhailo Verbytsky and Lysenko, created would have reflected the musical trends of those centers, according to Sonevytsky. (Lysenko, considered the father of Ukrainian classical music, founded the country’s first music conservatory in Kyiv.)

Mykola Lysenko
Mykola Lysenko, considered the father of Ukrainian classical music

Fast forward to the first half of the 20th century, except during the period of 1917–1920, when Ukraine was independent. Most Ukrainian composers followed the Soviet socialist-realism formula for music, according to experts.

By the 1960s, however, a new wave of young Ukrainian composers, mostly trained in local conservatories and music schools, emerged. They included Valentin Silvestrov, Lesia Dychko, and Yury Ishchenko. Their cohort cast aside the socialist-realism orthodoxy where they could, and the avant-garde music coming out of Darmstadt, Germany, and elsewhere inspired their new sound world, according to the Ukrainian Live Classic website.

In the following decades another generation of composers came of age, with more females in their ranks. Collectively, their postmodern sound world drew from myriad sources, ranging from folk, country, and pop music to electronica, according to the Ukrainian Live Classic website. Composers from the 1970s and 1980s include, in no particular order, Mykhailo Stepanenko, Iryna Kyrylina, Viktor Stepurko, Hanna Havrylets, Viktor Kaminsky, Karmella Tsepkolenko, Yuliya Homelska, Alyona Tomlyonova, Oleksandr Shchetynsky, and Oleksandr Alzhnev.

Those artists, however, were still working in a Ukraine that was part of the Soviet Union. As such, they faced the hurdle of working professionally with state support. “How to evacuate politics from music is always a political question,” said Sonevytsky, “because music was so explicitly politicized to serve the goals of the state.”

A more recent generation of composers has come of age in the current independent Ukraine, including Alla Zahaikevych, Evgeni Orkin, Maxim Kolomiiets, and Sergey Vilka. These younger artists have faced different challenges, said experts: The early years of the country’s independence were ones of economic crisis and privation, coinciding with Russia’s Special Period (1991–2000) after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and later to be followed by the 2014 and current Russian invasions.

“It amazes me that, despite the fact Ukrainians always had to fight for their existence, people were creating art,” said Ivakhiv, who left Ukraine at age 17 to study in the U.S. “How does one aspire to be a classical composer or a violinist while waiting in line for six hours to buy a loaf of bread? How do you try to create art when you are denied the basics and you fear for your life?”

Made in Russia?

Ukrainian man playing the traditional bandura
Ukrainian man playing the traditional bandura

But defining who is a Ukrainian composer — excluding self-identification — over previous centuries of rule under various empires has proved a Gordian knot. Some experts hold that only composers born in Ukraine after 1918, when the Ukrainian National Republic declared independence, and through the Soviet years to present-day independent Ukraine as of 1991 can be defined as Ukrainian. Others believe the national identity of some Eastern European composers previously labeled as Russian may be reclaimed as composers with Ukrainian roots or inspired by Ukrainian folk music idioms.

Ukraine lays claim (by birth or roots) to three iconic composers in Russian classical music: Were Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky Russian or Ukrainian composers? Politics and the history of nationalism, said experts, explain why there’s no black or white answer.

Prokofiev, born and raised in Sontsivka in Eastern Ukraine during Imperial Russia, has long been hailed as a Russian composer. Tchaikovsky was born in St. Petersburg, but his grandfather was Ukrainian, as was his mother. The Kyiv Conservatory of Music is also named the Petro Tchaikovsky National Music Academy in the composer’s honor. Stravinsky spent his summers in Ukraine, according to Sonevytsky. His father, an opera singer, born outside of Minsk during the Russian Empire, met his mother, a Kyiv native, while singing with the Kyiv Opera.

“Often Ukrainian artists [Kazimir] Malevich and [Ilya] Repin, composers Berezovsky and [Nikolai] Roslavets, writer Hohol [Nikolai Gogol was born in Ukraine as Mykola Hohol] were presented as Russian,” said Ivakhiv, who also directs the concert program at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York City.

The reason the West knows of “Great Russian” composers but not Ukrainian or even Belarusian ones isn’t complicated, according to experts. “Greatness as opposed to not great?” said Sonevytsky. “If we really start to compare the idea of greatness, why was it Mozart instead of Salieri?”

Ukrainian stamp
Solomiya Krushelnytska commemorated on a 1997 Ukrainian stamp

“No question they were very good composers, talented people but why great?” said Ivakhiv, who is named after the noted Ukrainian dramatic soprano Solomiya Krushelnytska.

“The ability of any artist to become ‘great’ is a process that takes centuries,” said Ukrainian American composer Virko Baley in an email from his home in Las Vegas, where he teaches composition at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “And it occurs over many stages and is always determined by a collective determination of the centers of all empires.”

As well, Russia controlled Ukraine’s cultural and literary-historical life from the early 19th century until independence in 1991, according to Baley. When he began to invite Ukrainian composers to the U.S. in the 1980s, it had to be done and approved by Moscow.

“Kyiv had no voice in that matter,” said Baley. “Your reputation was determined by Moscow. And what was pushed on the rest of the world was determined by Moscow. Thus, all talent, starting with the 18th century, that was considered worthy was transplanted to Russia and deemed as Russian from then on.”

At play is the factor of propaganda, according to Kuzma. “Soviet leaders carefully curated what music they filtered across the Iron Curtain: Music by Russian composers or Russian-identifying composers was promoted,” she said in an email. As a result, Ukrainian publishers and musicologists have played catch-up over the last 30 years, she said. “Imagine if Austria was allowed to freely research and publish the music of its composers only in the last 30 years? We wouldn’t know Mozart, Beethoven, or [Alban] Berg nearly as well.”

For Sonevytsky, however, the answer to why only “Great Russian” composers were known in the West is simple. “Ukraine never got to be the center of its story,” she said matter-of-factly. “The myth of Russian greatness is a very toxic myth. For me, the truth breaks my brain, over and over again.”

The Wake-Up Call

The devastation of the Russian invasion catapulted Ukraine onto the international stage under an unsought spotlight. But a side effect has been a cultural “wokeness” by Western arts institutions and media to discover Ukrainian culture. To some observers, blue and yellow, the colors of Ukraine’s national flag, have quickly become the new black.

“What struck me as most unusual is that suddenly, in no time at all, Ukraine became an overnight sensation that is still a sensation,” said Baley in an email. “I found it extremely ironic that suddenly all kinds of performing organizations, such as symphonies, opera houses, and chamber ensembles, felt the need to give a concert dedicated to Ukraine but without a single piece of music by a Ukrainian composer except for the Ukrainian national anthem.”

He noted that the choral work “Prayer for Ukraine” by Mykola Lysenko, who wrote and published the piece in 1885 after Imperial Russia banned printed Ukrainian, was sung on Saturday Night Live soon after the invasion. Yet, no major U.S. presenter has proposed a major work by a Ukrainian composer for a forthcoming season, said Baley, who has promoted and curated concerts of Ukrainian music in the U.S. and Europe since the 1960s.

When Baley, 84, was asked to name the biggest challenge for contemporary Ukrainian classical music composers such as himself and Valentin Silvestrov, also 84, in distinguishing themselves internationally as Ukrainian, not Russian composers, he replied: “This one is easy: When the cultural world’s tastemakers decide that Ukraine actually existed and exists.” Irish-born writers George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and others, he noted as historical examples, were considered by many as English writers.

“When Ireland was recognized as a legitimate country, that slowly changed,” said Baley. “This, too, will happen when the winds of politics change.”