Commentary: What is Ukrainian music, and what does it say about the war?

Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Tchaikovsky did not give his Second Symphony, which uses Ukrainian folk tunes for its themes, its nickname. It was dubbed “Little Russian” by an, ugh, influential Moscow music critic. But the composer did have Ukrainian blood and did adore the Ukraine countryside, where he spent many summers and wrote much music. The solution to the naming problem is simple. There is no law, even in the court of musicology, against canceling the critic and calling it Tchaikovsky’s “Ukrainian” Symphony.

But what exactly is Ukrainian music? That is a far easier question for Ukrainians to answer than for the rest of us. The only major Ukrainian composer with an international reputation who didn’t leave the country for good is Valentin Silvestrov. Right now, even he is no longer in the country, but only because the 84-year-old composer was forced to evacuate to Berlin when the Russians began shelling Kyiv.

Silvestrov is, in many ways, a singular case. In his youth he was a member of an avant-garde movement that rejected both the neo-Romantic style of his teacher, Borys Lyatoshynsky — an accomplished composer of symphonies and operas, still played in Ukraine but rarely elsewhere — and the official Soviet realist decrees. But by the mid-1970s, Silvestrov found himself rejecting the avant-garde as well and began a quixotic post-Classical and post-Romantic mission of reclaiming an un-reclaimable past.

Although often sorrowful and sometimes sentimental, his music is always poetic and exceedingly beautiful. His 1996 piano solo “The Messenger,” played with exquisite lack of resolve by Steven Vanhauwaert at the Wende benefit, had the airy unreality of trying to restore Mozart through remnants of 18th century sound waves that may still be found in the atmosphere. The purity of such post-history suggests a kind of spiritual wonderland that harkens back to the roots of Ukrainian chants.

Ukraine never lacked worthy composers, such as Lyatoshynsky, who stayed and ensured the country a continued cultural currency. Kyiv, Lviv and Odesa have their own individual styles. But to the outsider, much of it sounds Russian. To further confuse nationalities, native Russian composers often celebrated Ukraine in their works.

Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” famously ends with “The Great Gate of Kiev.” He and his friend, Rimsky-Korsakov, set their operas “The Fair at Sorochyntsi” and “May Night,” respectively, in Ukraine. Tchaikovsky used Ukraine as the subject for no less than three operas: “Mazeppa,” “Cherevichki” and “Vakula the Smith.”


Further afield, Czech composer Janáček wrote a stunning tone poem after the Ukrainian Cossack protagonist of Ukrainian-born Nikolai Gogol’s Russian novel “Taras Bulba.” In 1989, German composer York Höller wrote a modernist opera based on “The Master and Margarita” for Paris Opera, and several years later Andrew Lloyd Webber spoke of turning the novel into a musical.

At her Wende recital earlier this month, Faliks premiered Veronika Krausas’ “Master & Margarita” Suite, written for the occasion. In the Russian novel, the devil visits and wreaks marvelous havoc on Soviet Moscow. In her suite of seven sly dances, Krausas, who is a Canadian-American Los Angeles composer of Lithuanian heritage, lightly waltzes around and toys with fanciful passages from the Bulgakov’s novel. As with Silvestrov, what isn’t there is as intriguing as what is. Each dance is a kind of fantasy, full of musical hints. Crossing borders is, and has always been, the way of music.

One notable physical crossing of borders occurred during the height of the Cold War in 1959. Leonard Bernstein took the New York Philharmonic on a diplomatic tour of Russia, where he hoped to take some of the chill off the Cold War.

“Perhaps music can tell us some surprising things that we can’t find out from books and newspapers,” he told a Moscow audience before a performance. “The first thing of all to be said is that Americans and Russians simply love each other’s music.”


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