Indomitable Ukraine: Music of Resilience
Compiled and Annotated by Liuba Morozova and Maria Sonevytsky
The story of Ukrainian music is one of resilience across centuries. Despite multiple waves of repression at the hands of imperial powers and the mass execution of Ukrainian musicians and composers during the Soviet period, Ukrainian music of many genres has nonetheless survived and flourished. But this music remains little known outside of Ukraine and its diaspora enclaves, due in part to the imperial dynamics that persistently positioned Ukrainian culture as the diminutive other to “great” Russian culture.
This playlist offers listeners a small sample of the rich soundscape of Ukrainian music, with an emphasis on composed music and popular songs that symbolize resilience. From a winter carol known throughout the world, to spiritual and secular anthems of Ukrainian identity, to current viral hits, we hope listeners will feel inspired to use this as a springboard for further exploration. As the dehumanizing Russian war of aggression continues, listening to Ukrainians in their full humanity–through their words, songs, and performances–has never been more urgent.
Composed in the early 1900s by Mykola Leontovych, this choral work came to be known in the English-speaking world as “Carol of the Bells.” Leontovych, a dedicated folklorist in addition to being an innovative composer, is recognized especially for his choral works. His “Shchedryk” is modeled on a traditional Ukrainian shchedrivka, a folk genre of New Year’s Eve song that frequently merges Christian with pre-Christian elements. The Ukrainian lyrics of Leontovych’s “Shchedryk” tells of a swallow who soars into a household with a message of good news for the year ahead.
2022 marks the centennial of the song’s introduction to the English-speaking world. In 1922, the Ukrainian Republic Capella, directed by Oleksandr Koshyts, performed the song at Carnegie Hall. On December 4 of this year, there will be a concert held at Carnegie Hall to commemorate this momentous occasion.
The version of “Shchedryk” included on this playlist features the Crimean Chamber Choir, established in Simferopol, Crimea in 1994 and under Russian occupation since 2014.
Dmitry Bortniansky was one of three of the most distinguished representatives of Ukrainian classicism, along with Maksym Berezovsky and Artem Vedel. He was born “Dmytro” Bortniansky in Hlukhiv, which was at the time the seat of the Kozak Hetmanate (now in the Sumy region of northeastern Ukraine). As a child, Bortniansky studied at the Hlukhiv choral school, which was the main source of singers recruited into the court chapel choir in St. Petersburg, then the capital of Imperial Russia. He later apprenticed with the renowned Italian composer Baldassare Galuppi, writing several sacred chamber works and three operas that received acclaim in Venice and Modena. His greatest legacy, both in sheer number of works and his innovation, is in the realm of a cappella sacred music. Bortniansky treated the unaccompanied choral chorus as a symphony, exploring groupings of voices with a flexibility that inspired and influenced the composers who followed him. The power of prayer and the power of song merge in Bortniansky’s most cherished works. This ethos is exemplified in the following selection, setting of text from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom expresses: "when we sing this prayer, we become like angels and can set aside every earthly tribulation."
This recording features Ensemble Cherubim, under the direction of Marika Kuzma, a Ukrainian-American scholar of Bortniansky and renowned choral director.
Mykola Lysenko is considered the founder of Ukrainian national music. An inventive composer, folklorist, pianist, conductor, teacher and social activist – he was an extraordinarily powerful force in all of these capacities. His commitment to the promotion of Ukrainian music and language in an era of strict prohibitions against Ukrainian culture by the Tsarist regime was unbreakable. The opera Taras Bulba has become a prime operatic symbol of indomitability: the contested figure of Taras Bulba himself–a fictional Ukrainian kozak warrior invented by Nikolai Gogol, revised later to be explicitly Russian nationalist, but (in all cases) refusing to capitulate to outside powers–operates as a contested symbol of Ukrainian identity today. And despite invitations from Tchaikovsky and others to show it on the imperial stage, Lysenko’s refusal to allow the libretto to be translated from Ukrainian into Russian as tsarist rule at the time demanded, also signifies resistance. As a result, the opera was never staged in Lysenko’s lifetime. The overture was completed and orchestrated in the middle of the 20th century by Boris Lyatoshynsky and Lysenko’s former student Levko Revutsky. The overture to this epic opera is distinguished by its solemnity and fighting spirit.
Vasyl Barvinsky was one of many Ukrainian composers repressed by the Soviet regime. Born in Ternopil, in the west of Ukraine, he studied music and philosophy in L’viv and Prague, and in 1915 he began his teaching career: first as the director of the Lysenko Advanced Musical Institute, and later as rector of the L’viv Conservatory, which he helped to found. Barvinsky was a trailblazer in many areas: he was the first Ukrainian composer to create a cycle of piano preludes, the first to compose a symphonic rhapsody, wrote the first Ukrainian sextet, and was the first to work on a piano concerto. The tragic turn in Barvinsky’s life came in 1948, when he and his wife Natalia Pului–the daughter of the pioneering scientist of radiology Ivan Pului–were arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police force that preceded the KGB. While he was tortured and questioned, his colleagues burned manuscripts of his musical works in the yard of the Conservatory. Later, Barvinsky was forced to retroactively sign his consent to this act of political vandalism.
After ten years in the Gulag in the Russian Republic of Mordovia, the Barvinsky couple returned to L’viv. In his final years, Barvinsky tried to restore his lost works from memory, but he died before completing this work. After his death in 1963, Barvinsky’s works were banned for 25 years. During that period, attempts to research and perform his works were carried out only in secret. The revival of Barvinsky’s musical legacy began shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union and continues to this day.
Levko Revutsky was the son of a priest in a family descended from the Zaporizhian Kozak Petro Revukha. In the Soviet period such a pedigree was–to put it mildly–unwelcome, which the composer half-jokingly noted, writing once, “I was unlucky with my ancestry.” Revutsky lived a long life, but was not especially prolific as a composer because the Soviet system and climate of fear inhibited his ability to flourish. Revutsky wrote his most enduring works before 1937, but withdrew during the Great Terror that lasted until 1938, a period during which his piano concerto was sharply criticized. Revutsky’s early pieces, including the 3 Preludes (composed in 1914) included here, are characterized by a special harmonic astringency, a sunny warmth of timbre, and generous melodic ideas.
Boris Lyatoshynsky was an outstanding Ukrainian composer of the 20th century—the founder and highest authority of Ukrainian modernism, influencing the development of Ukrainian classical music for generations. A respected figure and generous teacher, Lyatoshinsky shaped the generation known as the “Kyiv avant-garde,” which includes luminaries such as Valentin Sylvestrov, Leonid Grabovskyi, Vitaly Godziatskyi, and others. Lyatoshynsky left an impressive creative legacy in his own right: five symphonies and symphonic poems, two operas, a piano concerto, many choral works, arrangements of folk songs, romances, and chamber pieces.
His Symphony No. 3 premiered in Kyiv in 1951. Despite the standing ovation the symphony received at its premiere, the work was condemned for being “against the people” and called “formalist junk that should be burned.” Composed shortly after the Second World War, the symphony carried the programmatic subtitle, “Peace Will Defeat War.” But its finale in the original version was tragic. Lyatoshynsky was accused of interpreting the theme of war “not as a Soviet supporter of peace, but as a bourgeois pacifist.” In order for the symphony to sound again, the composer altered the finale to sound more optimistic and victorious. This modified version then became canonic in the USSR.
In the April 2022 performance included here, the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra, touring in Western Europe in the aftermath of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, performs the original version of the score after a break of 70 years.
This song is known by six names: “Where Are You Now,” “The City Is Sleeping,” “White Nights,” “The City Slept” (in Russian), “The Ukrainian Waltz,” and, finally, “The Kyiv Waltz.” Today it is considered one of the unofficial anthems of the monumental city of Kyiv, though its path to anthem-status was a bit winding.
Originally composed in 1954 for the Dovzhenko film studio’s “Commander of the Ship,” the writers Ihor Shamo and Boris Paliychuk devised a waltz for voice and piano, with a Russian-language text that began “The city slept, the lights went out…” The film, which told a conventional story of the triumph of friendship and honor set on the open sea, went on to be a box-office smash. But the Russian-language version of the song never fully caught on.
In 1954, the year after Stalin’s death, the waltz form entered Ukrainian popular music as a symbol of hope that the change in regime may bring new freedoms. And so the Ukrainian-language version of the song from the popular film–translated by Dmytro Lutsenko and performed first by Eleonora Yarotsak with symphonic accompaniment–became a hit. But now this version is hardly remembered, since Kvitka Cisyk’s 1989 recording of the song became dominant. It is performed here by Kvitka Cisyk, the legendary Ukrainian-American singer whose two albums of Ukrainian music recorded in the 1980s endure in popularity and influence within Ukraine and abroad.
Yuly Meitus, a Jewish Ukrainian composer, completed his studies at the Kharkiv Music and Drama Institute in 1931 and became a core member of the cohort of Kharkiv artists devoted to modernism. He wrote music for thirteen productions of the legendary avant-garde theater Berezil founded by Les Kurbas. (Kurbas, a shining light of early Soviet Ukrainian theater, was murdered by the state in 1937, part of the “Executed Renaissance” that eliminated many leading figures of Ukrainian culture in order to clear the path for swifter Russification of Ukraine). Among the works produced for Kurbas, Meitus composed the music for the first Ukrainian jazz musical, a 1929 production called Hello, this is Radio 477!, which displays the composer’s skill at bridging popular and experimental styles. Over the trajectory of his long career, Meitus eventually shifted away from his earlier experiments in modernism (which became unpopular during high Stalinism) and towards a neo-romantic style.
Meitus is also known as an important contributor to the development of Soviet Ukrainian opera as well as Soviet Turkmen opera. His first opera, Perekop, premiered in Kyiv in 1939, and his last opera, Antony and Cleopatra, was completed in 1997. In total, he composed a whopping 18 operas in addition to many orchestral works, smaller works such as the Allegro for piano and violin included here, and settings of poetry by eminent Ukrainian and Russian writers.
The musical abilities of Myroslav Skoryk were spotted at a young age by his great aunt, who also happened to be one of the most famous Ukrainian operatic divas of all time, Solomia Krushelnytska. In 1947, when Myroslav was in third grade, his family was deported from their home in the Western Ukrainian city of L’viv to Siberia for “anti-Soviet” activity. But thanks to a lucky run of circumstances following the death of Stalin, Skoryk was given a “clean” passport for his 16th birthday, one that no longer confined him to his “special settlement” in Siberia. In 1955, he returned to L’viv. In 1961, when Skoryk was a young teacher at the L’viv Conservatory, he founded the vocal-instrumental band Veseli Skrypky (meaning, roughly, “joyful violins”). In 1963, this pop group introduced Ukrainians to the twist, written by Skoryk and titled “Don’t trample the lilies of the valley.”
After his successes on the small stage of Soviet estrada, the young Skoryk took on a new challenge and agreed to write the score for Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, the 1964 film by Serhii Parajanov–a cult classic for cinophiles–that tells the story of star-crossed lovers from the Western Ukrainian Carpathian Mountain region known as Hutsulshchyna, based on a 1912 novel by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky. For a year and a half, Skoryk and Parajanov traveled together on expeditions to the Carpathian to collect Hutsul folk music. The score that resulted from this process was so impressive that Dmitri Shostakovich, seeing the film on screen, wrote to his Ukrainian colleague to say “I congratulate you on this exceptionally beautiful music.”
The “Hutsul Triptych” suite included here was originally composed for Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. It is performed by the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra in Kyiv in July of 2019.
Alemdar Karamanov was an influential and widely lauded Crimean Ukrainian composer. He was a prolific symphonist, writing 24 symphonies in his lifetime–an unprecedented number for a 20th century composer. He lived the entirety of his life in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, rarely leaving its borders except for his years of study in Moscow. His homeland of Crimea was the main subject of his compositions, and in 1992 he wrote the National Anthem of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which had become part of the independent post-Soviet Ukrainian state. Two years later, he wrote the ambitious mystery play “Khersones,” dedicated to the 2500 anniversary of the ancient Greek colony of Chersonesus which is located on the southwestern shores of the Crimean Peninsula.
Many of Karmanov’s works have explicit religious themes that would have been at odds with the official policy of atheism in the USSR. One of his most beloved works is the Third Piano Concerto, “Ave Maria,” written in 1968. He has a minor planet, 4274 Karamanov, named in his honor.
Written in 1968 by Volodymyr Ivasiuk, the popular song Chervona Ruta bears an innocent name—its title is merely a reference to the “red rue flower”—but it occupies a central place in the story of Ukrainian defiance and resilience. The song is based on local beliefs that the typically yellow rue flower turns red for a brief period of time on the pre-Christian holiday known as Ivana Kupala. A young woman who finds the magical red rue flower would secure a lifetime of happiness and love.
The song was awarded “Song of the Year” in the USSR in 1971 as performed by Ensemble Smerichka. A film based on the song, also titled “Chervona Ruta,” featured a performance by Sofia Rotaru, a Moldovan-Ukrainian pop star of the Soviet stage. Rotaru’s version catapulted the song even further into popularity.
Only eight years after all of these successes, Ivasiuk disappeared and was found days later hanging in a L’viv forest. His premature death remains shrouded in mystery. Though declared a suicide by Soviet authorities, many Ukrainians believed he was executed for his steadfast commitment to the Ukrainian language and culture, and more recent investigations have added to suspicions that he was in fact murdered by the KGB. His death roused Ukrainians, who attended his funeral in the thousands, and the song became a defiant anthem against Russocentric Soviet oppression despite its benign message.
Our second selection from Myroslav Skoryk is perhaps his most symbolic work for many Ukrainians. “Melody in A minor” gives voice–without using words–to the bitter historical struggles of Ukrainian people resisting domination. Composed in 1981 for the film “The High Pass,” the film dramatizes the conflict in a Western Ukrainian Carpathian peasant family that is divided by their politics. The mother and protagonist of the film is a dedicated Communist, while her son and daughter are depicted as fascistic “Banderites,” those who supported the Ukrainian insurgents fighting against Soviet power. Unsurprisingly, given the Soviet regime under which the film was made, the anti-Soviet children are depicted in an extremely negative light, and all of the complexities of this history are effaced—the passive acceptance of Soviet rule is framed as the only reasonable choice, and the Ukrainians who reject this path are depicted as especially susceptible to fascist ideology (an argument that the Kremlin doubles down on today). But everything that cannot be said on screen was expressed in Skoryk’s poignant “Melody in A minor.” It was this composition that became not only Skoryk’s calling card, but also sounds today as a kind of unofficial anthem of Ukraine, performed in concert halls and public squares around the world.
Vopli Vidopliassova, known by fans simply as Ve-Ve, were trailblazers in the late Soviet Kyiv punk underground. Prized for their deeply sarcastic early songs, many of which were sung in Ukrainian, and which skewered the absurd realities of late Soviet life, in the post-Soviet period the band shifted towards more conventional rock and roll.
“Vesna” (meaning Spring) is one of their most beloved songs from the 1990s. The song opens with a sinuous melody played on bayan, the button accordion that was the lead singer, Oleg Skrypka’s, first instrument. The lyrics are unflappably hopeful, ready for the promise of springtime. In traditional Ukrainian society, spring marked the beginning of the year, the annual renewal of the cycle. Here, Skrypka sings that “Spring will come” and “Spring will soothe.” Today, many Ukrainians hope dearly that metaphorical spring will come before too long.
Valentyn Silvestrov, perhaps the most well-known living Ukrainian composer, is also the most prominent representative of the “Kyiv Avant-Garde” circle, which met in Sylvestrov’s kitchen in the 1960s. The mid-1970s showed Silvestrov turn towards “quiet,” a meditative and reflective style that the composer calls “meta-music” (or “metaphorical music”).
Between 1997-1999, following the death of his wife, musicologist Larisa Bondarenko, Silvestrov wrote the seven-part Requiem for Larissa based largely on liturgical texts. But the fourth part sets a fragment of Taras Shevchenko’s 19th century poem “Dream,” including the lines: “Farewell world, farewell earth, you unforgiving boundary. I will hide my struggles and my rage in the clouds. And you, my Ukraine, my unlucky widow–I will soar from the clouds to you for quiet, sad conversation, to hear you.” This is Silvestrov’s self-quotation from another landmark work, the cycle “Silent Songs” (1977). In the Requiem, Shevchenko’s text is likened to a prayer.
ONUKA (meaning granddaughter) is Ukraine’s answer to Björk. The electro-folk group founded in 2013 integrates traditional folk instruments of Ukraine–such as the wooden flute known as the sopilka and the lute-like bandura–into its lush electronic compositions. ONUKA has had many hits of note, including the brassy futuristic song “Vidlik” (meaning countdown) which was released on their 2016 EP as part of a suite of songs responding to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and its effect on the societies most directly impacted by the fallout. Lead singer Nata Zhyzhenko explained in an interview that, for her family, Chernobyl was personal, as her father was one of the “liquidators” sent to the reactor site.
In “GOLOS” (which would more accurately be transliterated from Ukrainian as “HOLOS,” meaning ‘voice’), ONUKA creates an anthem of Ukrainian agency. Against the militaristic beat, the clever lyrics of the chorus–which playfully recombine the Ukrainian words “my” (we), “ne” (not) and “nimi” (speechless)--defiantly proclaim: “We are not speechless, speechless we are not / We have a voice – it resounds.”
This song, by one of Ukraine’s most celebrated rock bands, was written back in 2012-13 and became popular in those years, but has found a new life today as it embodies the feelings of many Ukrainians enduring a war they did not choose. The song’s first lines—“When day comes, the war will end”—open into themes of parting, reunion, unity, longing, despair, and the anticipation of victory. The musician and activist Slava Vakarchuk, the lyricist and front man of the band, conjures images of hope amidst utter grief in this rock ballad that has become highly in demand by fans of Ukrainian popular music during the ongoing war.
Alla Zagaykevych has been on the forefront of Ukrainian experimental and electro-acoustic composition for decades. Following a residency at the renowned French Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique-Musique (IRCAM) in the mid-1990s, she founded the Electronic Music Studio at the Kyiv Academy of Music, the first of its kind in independent Ukraine.
Zagaykevych also sang for many years with the important Kyiv-based folk revival group Drevo, which was founded in 1979 to rehabilitate Ukrainian folk music repertoires and practices suppressed during the Soviet period. Her immersive study in the vernacular vocal styles of the Ukrainian village is reflected in the third movement of her 2012 composition Nord/Ouest. This movement balances various familiar pastoral and instrumental sounds (voices, birds, flutes, violins) against abstract electronic elements.
Odyn v Kanoe (Alone in a Canoe) is an indie trio from L’viv, Ukraine. For millions of displaced Ukrainians, this song has become a pensive song of comfort, a recognition of what it means to live in an unsettled state. In it, Iryna Shvaidak’s mellifluous vocals describe a person struggling with the feelings of being “never and nothing for no one.” Troubled by the way of the world, the narrator in the song describes how she would include everyone in her home, if she only had one.
Unexpectedly, a patriotic song from the distant past has found new life as the most viral anthem of the ongoing Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. Before this year, the song had already lived multiple lives. “Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow” is said to have roots during the period of the pre-modern Ukrainian Kozak hetmanate, but it was first published in the late 19th century. In the 1910s, it was modified and became associated with various Ukrainian movements for independence between the World Wars. In early March 2022, it took the internet by storm after Andriy Khlyvnyuk, the lead singer of the popular Ukrainian band Boombox, sung the song a cappella in front of St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv. Khlyvnyuk was dressed in full battle gear. The symbolism was clear–the song encodes the indomitable spirit of Ukraine across centuries.
Khlyvnyuk’s solo performance has subsequently been remixed by artists from around the world, beginning with the South African musician who goes by The Kiffness. Pink Floyd made use of Khlyvnyuk’s recording for the song they named “Hey, Hey, Rise Up!”, and traditional musicians from around the world have interpreted the song on their instruments. The remixes and re-imaginings of the song continue to proliferate, articulated in multiple languages and musical styles. Meanwhile, in occupied Crimea, six individuals were recently arrested or fined for “propaganda of Nazi attributes and symbols” after playing the song at a wedding.
And here is the most striking element of this anthem’s recontextualization during this ongoing war: in earlier struggles for Ukrainian freedom, the song was often associated with ethno-national projects that, while anti-imperial, were also intolerant. Some of these earlier struggles for Ukrainian sovereignty violently excluded populations such as the historic Jewish and Roma communities who coexisted on the territory of Ukraine for centuries alongside ethnic Ukrainians. Today, however, the song has come to symbolize a renewed faith in democracy and a rejection of the illiberal politics of Putinism. Many Ukrainians today hope that, once the war ends, Ukraine will more fully embrace its varied historical inheritances, its polyglot, multi-ethnic, multi-faith culture. This hopeful possibility animates the indomitable spirit of Ukraine today.
Liuba Morozova is a music critic, presenter on the UA:CULTURE TV channel and other media outlets, teacher, and Artistic Director of the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra, currently taking refuge in Germany. She founded the Lyatoshynsky Club, a Cultural Center dedicated to championing Ukrainian music at home and abroad. She has authored over a thousand articles on classical and contemporary music for Ukrainian and foreign periodicals.
Maria Sonevytsky is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Music at Bard College, NY. She is author of Wild Music: Sound and Sovereignty in Ukraine (2019) and Vopli Vidopliassova’s Tantsi (forthcoming spring 2023), and conceived of, produced, and sang in the choir for The Chornobyl Songs Project (Smithsonian Folkways, 2015). www.mariasonevytsky.com