The musical richness of Ukrainian culture runs incredibly deep. For many music organisations across Europe, it has been the events following the Russian invasion – which began on 24th February, nine months ago this week – that caused a rejuvenation of attention to Ukrainian music and musicians. Such attention is long overdue.

This playlist focuses primarily on music of Ukrainian composers of the 20th century – and as such provides only a meagre hint of the sheer abundance of expressivity and creativity in Ukrainian music. 

1Dmitry Bortnyansky: Choral Concerto no. 16 “I will extol thee”

Born in 1751, Dmitry Bortnyansky is something like a spiritual father of Ukrainian music. Primarily responsible for developing the a cappella choral concerto, this genre became central to Russian and Ukrainian music since the 19th century. Bortnyansky was the first native Slavonic composer to hold the role of music director to the Imperial court chapel, greatly improving its musicianship and opening its rehearsals to the St Petersburg public.

His 35 choral concertos, mostly published after his death in 1825, garnered popularity across Europe and were praised for their formal flexibility and inventiveness. Berlioz commended Bortnyansky’s “incredible freedom” of choral writing, and his music remains a treasure trove of musical transcendence.

Mykola Leontovych
© Public Domain | Wikimedia Commons

2Mykola Leontovych: Oy ziyshla zorya (The Dawn Has Risen)

Mykola Leontovych, born in 1877, himself sang at the Imperial court chapel choir as a young student. He later joined the faculty of the Lysenko Music and Drama School, an institution specialising in teaching of Ukrainian folk music (Kobzarstvo).

Like Bortnyansky, Leontovych was a specialist in a cappella choral music – eventually pioneering his own distinct genre of choral writing. Inspired directly by folk melodies, Leontovych’s music is of miniature proportions, but great emotional resonance. Shchedryk (1916, commonly known as the Carol of the Bells) is based on perhaps the most recognisable Ukrainian folk melody, and Leontovych’s adaptation of it for chorus is irresistible. (All external links are to Youtube.)

Leontovych died in 1921 in mysterious circumstances. Official accounts record that he was shot by a burglar entering his parents’ home – but unofficially, it is thought that he was killed on the orders of the Cheka. Despite his early death, Leontovych left a deep and lasting influence on many Ukrainian composers.

It is another composition of his, Oy ziyshla zorya (The Dawn Has Risen) that for me has great emotional and spiritual resonance at this time, given the enormous resilience being demanded of the Ukrainian people.

Kyiv-based artist Aleksandra Ekster’s The Music Lesson, c.1925
© Public Domain | National Gallery of Australia

3Igor Markevitch: Cantique d’Amour

In the second half of the 20th century Igor Markevitch (born 1912) became probably the most famous Ukrainian conductor. But before the war he was primarily a composer. Lifelong friend Nadia Boulanger remarked in 1980 that composition had been his greatest gift, unjustly neglected due to his later conducting career.

Markevitch’s music combines a Scriabin-like artifice with non-Western influences – including a gamelan-like texture in the 1932 work L’envol d’Icare, for pianos and percussion. It was later re-made in an extraordinary arrangement for orchestra, including quarter-tone pitches.

Cantique d’Amour, a 1936 orchestral work, has plenty of Scriabin’s perfume and synthetic harmony, but Markevitch’s textures here are gentler, more refined and obscure, and full of myriad detail. The piece is unique in his musical output, which is often, like his conducting, much more hard edged – and sometimes outright cold.

4Boris Lyatoshynsky: Symphony no. 5 in C Major, Op.67

Born in Kyiv in 1895, Boris Lyatoshynsky is arguably the most important Ukrainian composer of the first half of the 20th century. Beginning in earnest in the 1920s, Lyatoshynsky’s early compositions were infused with modernist expressionism. In 1929 he presented the first opera in the Ukrainian language, The Golden Ring (sometimes called The Golden Crown).

Like other Ukrainian composers, Lyatoshynsky made a concerted effort to integrate folk music into concert genres, as in the Overture on Four Ukrainian Folk Themes (1926). But his style was also decidedly modernist, with detectable influences from Berg and Hindemith.

Lyatoshynsky was also a gifted composer of symphonies, writing five. His most famous today is probably the Third Symphony (1951), subtitled “Peace will conquer war”. It was criticised after its premiere as an example of bourgeois pacifism, rather than appropriately victorious optimism, and Lyatoshynsky was forced to revise it. (A performance of the original 1951 version by the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra can be seen here.)

My favourite of his symphonies is the Fifth (1965-66), subtitled “Slavonic”. Combining Ukrainian folk melodies throughout, Lyatoshynsky’s music passes through violent mood swings, imaginative and bold textures, notably in the final third movement. The symphony ends with a stunning conclusion for solo tubular bells. Fans of Shostakovich will find Lyatoshynsky a clear equal, sometimes writing with even greater inventiveness than his Leningrad contemporary.

5Myroslav Skoryk: Hutsul Triptych

Myroslav Skoryk’s sunbathed Hutsul Triptych from 1965 is an emblematic work showing how Ukrainian composers in that decade continued to integrate folk influences in concert music. The piece travels through a mixture of brightly coloured dance-like sections and more spacious and mysterious passages.

Born in 1938, Skoryk entered the Lviv music school in 1945 – but his life was severely disrupted in 1947 when he and the rest of his family were deported to Siberia. They were only permitted to return to Ukraine in 1955.

Skoryk later attended the Moscow Conservatory and studied under Kabalevsky, and became a composer of concert music and film scores. The Hutsul Triptych derived from his score for Sergey Paradzhanov’s film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Another of his compositions originally part of a film score, Melody (1982), has been frequently performed this year.

6Yevhen Stankovych: When the Fern Blooms

A student of both Lyatoshynsky and Skoryk, Yevhen Stankovych (born 1942) is a leading figure of Ukrainian postwar modernism. His music is intensely dramatic and often tragic in emotional tenor.

Several of his compositions respond directly to tragedies of Ukrainian history. The Black Elegy (1991) for chorus and orchestra is a direct response to the Chernobyl disaster, and the Kaddish-Requiem ‘Babyn Yar’, of the same year and for similar forces, a memorial to the Jews of Kyiv murdered by the Nazis in 1941.

His most extraordinary piece is perhaps his 1978 stage work When the Fern Blooms (Koly zvite paporot’), recently revived in a remarkable production by Lviv National Opera. Banned by Soviet authorities shortly after it was written, it was only performed in its entirety in 2011. Here we see the opera’s finale (“Earth give your blessing”), with folk costume, dance and song on triumphant display.

7Valentyn Silvestrov: Kitsch Music

One of the most enigmatic postwar Ukrainian composers, Valentyn Silvestrov’s mature style emerged in the 1970s, with a unique attitude to time and temporality. Silvestrov’s music is a series of echoes, postludes, memories. 1977’s Kitsch Music for piano solo takes elements of 19th century domestic pianism and wraps them in hazy minimalist clothing. Wistfulness combines with loss and decay.

Silvestrov’s Symphony no. 5 (1982) might be the ultimate “coda” to the symphony as a genre. Similarly, his Post Scriptum (1992) for violin and piano is a kind of total retrospective encapsulation of Mozart and the entire classical tradition. “The text has already been written,” Silvestrov says. “We simply add our annotations, thoughts, questions, consternation, astonishment and regret.” Silvestrov’s retrospective posture lends his music an almost unbearable poignancy given recent events.

8Svitlana Nianio: Kytytsi

Experimentalism is also thriving in Ukraine. Composer and singer Svitlana Niano is a good example: with her noise-rock band Cukor Bila Smert (Sugar, the White Death) in the late 80s and 90s she had links with Kyiv Underground and the Novaya Scena in Kharkiv.

Her solo output differs – the solo record Kytytsi (“Tassels”) from 1999, like other music in this list, makes use of Ukrainian folk melodies, interleaved in delicately polyphonic textures, of synthesisers, harmonium, bandura and other acoustic instruments.

After a long absence from releasing music, Nianio released new music in 2015, and returned to performing internationally. But this 1999 record, a great example of Ukrainian avant-garde folk, also gained renewed attention this year.

Aleksandra Ekster, backdrop for a production by Alexandre Tairov, Moscow, 1924
© Public Domain | Galerie Le Minotaure

9Hanna Havrylets: Chorale

Hanna Havrylets (born 1958) is another Ukrainian composer worth getting to know. Studying first at Lviv and then Kyiv, under Myroslav Skoryk, as with other composers in this list, folk melodic material is used frequently in her work. In something of a New Simplicity style, her Chamber Symphony no. 2 “In Memoriam” makes use of lamentation (or plach), in a similar emotional register to Silvestrov, and chamber music makes use of other folk genres (such as kolomiyka).

Her beautiful Chorale (2005) for strings also has a mood of lamentation. Building to a climax in the middle of its short duration, it returns to its opening diatonic simplicity.

Her life would be tragically cut short due to the invasion itself. Three days after it began, she suffered an aneurysm, and was unable to get to medical assistance in time. She was 63.