Introduction Ukrainian Piano Composers
The war of Russia in Ukraine has had an impact on how to look at the music history of Ukraine in relation to Russian music history. It made me more aware than before of the nationalistic elements in both Ukrainian and Russian music.
First of all, let me clarify before continuing how I see this: This WAR against Ukraine is, first of all, as I see it, Putin’s war and not of the common Russian people. And certainly NOT the war any artists, i.e., musicians that live or have lived in Russia. As in any suppression of freedom, we see art has always been a powerful means of expressing opposing points of view.
Since art is full of ambiguity, it is difficult for a regime to pinpoint meaning. In the Soviet time, we see that art was highly censored, and many artists were arrested and even killed. Just take a look at the life of the great composer Dmitri Shostakovich. So, I’ll always admire Russian art now and for the days to come.
Before continuing reading, I would like to invite you really take a look into these Ukrainian composers. I’d be thrilled to hear what are your favorite composers. Or perhaps you know of a composer that I may have missed. Let me know in the comments below!
Before I started to write this article, I was guilty when thinking of music from composers born in today’s Ukraine, thinking about them as Russian composers rather than Ukrainian composers. Perhaps my ignorance, but not entirely though.
In my research, when writing this article, I learned about some fantastic Ukrainian piano composers that I was unaware of. Some of these were great masters. On the other hand, a few composers, like Prokofiev, Ornstein, and Glière, I wasn’t aware of their Ukrainian origin until now.
Musicians born in the Ukraine, immediately some names come to my mind:
Rosina Lhevinne (pianist), born in Kyiv; Vladimir Horowitz (pianist), born in Kyiv; Emil Gilels (pianist), born in Odesa; Shura Cherkassky (pianist); born in Odesa; Nathan Milstein (violinist), born in Odesa; Mischa Elman (violinist), born in Tal’ne, Oblast; Sergei Prokofiev (composer), born in Sontsovka, Oblast; Reinhold Glière (composer), born in Kyiv; Leo Ornstein (composer), born in Kremenchuk, Oblast.
One can debate about it. Is Prokofiev Ukrainian or Russian? At that time, these cities were part of the Russian empire. Many of the musicians studied and worked in the capital Moscow. Others fled to the West like so many Russian artists did after the revolution of 1917. In this article, I try to answer this.
And take the composer Karol Szymanowski, born in Ukraine, Tymoszówka, in 1882, from a Polish family. Related to Russia’s most famous piano teacher of the 20th century, Heinrich Neuhaus. In 1901, Szymanowski went to study music in Warsaw, and he is considered one of the most important Polish composers and not Ukrainian.
Chopin, who lived almost all his adult life in Paris, is still considered a Polish composer despite the French influences. Apart from using Polish elements and forms, mazurkas, and polonaises, Chopin was a composer writing in the European romantic style that befitted Schumann and Liszt.
Artists can not always be defined by where they were born or lived. It is how an artist chooses to create.
What I would like to cover in this article are piano composers who can be in some way identified as Ukrainian piano composers. Or how they chose to compose or who lived and worked mainly in Ukraine in the past 200 hundred years.
And because we talk primarily about piano playing here at Piano Fantasy, I selected Ukrainian composers who wrote for the piano with only one exception: Mykola Leontovych. Actually, most did write for the piano. This is because the piano played an essential role in music in those days, as it still does throughout the world.
A brief history of music in Ukraine
The history of Ukraine isn’t an easy one. A lot of changes in regimes and geographical borders happened over the centuries.
When we look at the 17th century and what is now modern Ukraine, this land was under the reign of Poland, while another part around the Black Sea was the Russian Empire. A small part was what is now Moldavia, and another small part was what is Romania.
Let’s not dwell too much on all the invasions. However, what is meaningful to mention is the influence of Byzantium when bringing Christianity.
What is consequential is that many ethnicities have influenced the culture and, thus, the music of Ukraine. We find East Slavic, Jewish, European, Polish, and Soviet influences.
Classical music history in Russia and Ukraine is very young compared to the rest of Europe. Music started only to bear any significance in the 19th century. Before that, classical music was only something available to the aristocrats.
Nevertheless, the first professional music academy of the Russian Empire was established in Ukraine in 1738 in Hlukhiv. Here, students were taught singing, playing the violin, and bandura. The bandura was a Ukrainian folk instrument that was a combination of zither and lute.
In 1917, after the Russian Revolution, Ukraine was fighting for independence from Russia in Crimea and the Don Cossack Lands (today’s Donbas region). This didn’t quite succeed, as the Soviet Union subsumed the free territory of Ukraine soon after.
During the Soviet period, there was massive suppression of Ukrainian culture and music. Ukrainian folk music was banned, and its performers were killed. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became an independent state in 1991.
Ukrainian piano composers
In the 19th century, composers in Ukraine started to nationalize classical music more by using folk music elements. A key figure among composers in Ukraine in the 19th century was composer-pianist Mykola Lysenko.
Lysenko greatly influenced Yakiv Stepovy, Mykola Leontovych, Mykola Vilinsky, and the piano teacher of Levko Revutsky. However, Levko Revutsky studied with Reinhold Glière and wrote in a style reminding of Scriabin.
Mykola Lysenko (1842–1912)
Mykola Lysenko was born in 1842 in what is today Kremenchuk, Poltava Oblast, Ukraine. He had early piano lessons from his mother and studied music from age nine at boarding schools in Kyiv.
Lysenko studied natural science at first, and after graduation, he did two years of civil service. In 1867, he went to Leipzig, Germany, to continue his music studies, and in 1869 he returned to Kyiv. Here, he continued music and studied and arranged Ukrainian folk melodies.
When I look into his piano oeuvre, which is a considerable part of his music, I see Chopin and Liszt’s influence. But, at the same time, he uses Ukrainian folk melodies and other elements, rhythm, and ornamentation. This makes his oeuvre true Ukrainian piano music.
Listen to Lysenko’s Second Ukrainian Rhapsody. These remind of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, yet using Ukrainian melodies.
Sergei Bortkiewicz (1877-1952)
Sergei Bortkiewicz was born in Kharkiv, Russian Empire, present-day Ukraine, in 1877 in a Polish noble family. He spent most of his childhood in Artemivka, near Kharkiv.
At the outbreak of World War I, Bortkiewicz was deported from Germany back to Russia, and he went back to Kharkiv. Then, at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, he fled Russia to Turkey, and a few years later, he ended up in Vienna. Then to Paris and then Berlin again, only to flee to Vienna when World War II started, where he lived and taught at the conservatory for the rest of his life.
His composing was in a style of high German romanticism with here and there some hints to Tchaikovsky. I hear primarily influences from Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, and Rachmaninov. Still, his music is very talented and filled with personality.
Listen to these etudes opus 33. Perhaps one could hear Liszt in the first one, but most of them are very much like Robert Schumann.
Yakiv Stepovy (1883–1921)
Yakiv Stepovy was born in Kharkiv in 1883, at that time part of the Russian Empire. He studied in Sint Petersburg with Alexander Glazunov and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Despite his Russian music educational background, Stepovy was a representative of the Ukrainian musical intelligentsia and composed in the tradition of Mykola Lysenko.
After his military service in the First World War, he returned to Kyiv and worked as a teacher at the Kyiv Conservatory.
Stepovy wrote excellent works for piano and choir and several collections of piano music for children. I really appreciate his melodic writing.
Listen to this beautiful Elegy for piano.
Mykola Leontovych (1877–1921)
Mykola Leontovych didn’t write any piano music that I know of. Still, I want to talk about him because he wrote perhaps the most famous melody of any Ukrainian composer. Leontovych became one of the symbols of Ukrainian music.
Mykola Leontovych was born in 1877 in the Monastyrok community, near the village of Selevyntsi, in the Podolia province of Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. He came from a musical family and received his first music lessons from his father. His younger brother and two of his three sisters all became professional musicians.
Leontovych studied from 1892 and graduated from the Kamianets-Podilskiy Theological Seminary in 1899 and broke the family tradition by becoming a music teacher instead of a priest. He studied singing and various instruments, including the violin. As a composer, he was greatly influenced by the music and style of Mykola Lysenko.
Leontovytch wrote over 150 choral works, and he was working on an opera based on Ukrainian myths. Yet, he was murdered before he could finish the work in 1921 by a Soviet agent. Many Ukrainian musicians were killed by the Soviets for giving expression to Ukrainian culture.
His most famous melody, even used in Hollywood Christmas movies, is his “Shcherdryk” Carol of the Bells. Although it isn’t piano music, I want to mention it since it is so famous and enchanting.
Viktor Kosenko (1896–1938)
Viktor Kosenko was born in 1896 in Sint Petersburg and was of Ukrainian descent. His family moved to Warsaw in 1898. His mother played the piano, sang, and composed. Viktor grew up listening to music by Chopin, Brahms, and Ukrainian and Russian folk songs.
When he was aged six, he started to pick up melodies on the piano. He had perfect pitch. He played Beethoven’s Pathetique by heart, listening to his sister practicing it at age nine. I find such stories amusing, yet we never know to what extent these stories are factual.
He studied music at the Warsaw Conservatory and moved to Zhytomyr, Ukraine, where he started teaching piano and music theory. Later, he became the director of the Zhytomyr Conservatory. Kosenko’s music has many Romantic and post-romantic characteristics, combining the European tradition with Ukrainian national elements.
I hear quite an influence of both Scriabin and Rachmaninoff in his music. Listen, for example, the piano sonata No. 1 is very much reminiscent of the style of Rachmaninoff. And then, if we follow up on his piano sonata no. 2, the influence shifted to an early Scriabin style. He also wrote a piano concerto very much in the style of Rachmaninoff.
Victor Kosenko’s First Piano Sonata reminiscent of Rachmaninov.
Viktor Kosenko’s Second Piano Sonata is reminiscent of early Scriabin.
I can’t find Kosenko’s own style in his work; still, there is personality in what he wrote. It is highly romantic music that seems to be a mixture of Scriabin and Rachmaninov and even reaches back to Tchaikovsky. Yet, I can’t find the Ukrainian elements in his piano music claimed on Wikipedia, except for perhaps some of the children’s pieces and some of his songs.
Still, he succeeded in writing very alluring music with a hint of genius if only we hadn’t known of Scriabin and Rachmaninov. But this is an “evil” that can be bestowed on many composers after Scriabin. Alexander Scriabin influenced a whole generation of modernist composers to come.
As you noticed, perhaps I have a real appreciation for his music. Maybe because I’m a Scriabin fan, and there is much correlation in his musical language. But the main reason is that I appreciate the personality that the music conveys.
Reinhold Glière (1875–1956)
Reinhold Glière was born in 1875 in Kyiv of Ukrainian, Polish, and German descent. In 1891 he entered the Kyiv Conservatory, and in 1894 he went to study at the Moscow Conservatory. In Moscow, he studied with a.o. Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev graduated with a gold medal in composition in 1900.
In 1902, Glière took two private students, Sergei Prokofiev and Nikolai Myaskovsky. In 1905, he went to Berlin to study conducting, and in 1908, he came back to Moscow and started to teach at the Gnesin School of Music.
In 1913, Glière began teaching at the Kyiv Conservatory, of which he later became the director. Then again, in 1920, he went back to Moscow for a post as a teacher at the Moscow Conservatory until 1941.
Except for being born and a descendant of Ukraine and his appointment at the Kyiv Conservatory from 1913 until 1920, nothing in his music hints at something typical Ukrainian. Still, I think Glière was a remarkable and gifted composer who should be mentioned here.
Reinhold Glière certainly isn’t as known to the public as he should be. I played some of the Preludes Opus 30 when I was a student and enjoyed these a lot. These preludes are suitable for being used as etudes for developing various piano techniques. His piano music is very well written for the piano and has an individual style.
Reinhold Glière is a real Ukrainian master composer. Yet, his music is much underappreciated and unknown to the general audience. If you like to add some amazing repertoire that not everyone plays, Glière makes a great choice.
For intermediate beginners, Reinhold Glière is also an excellent choice for his many easier piano pieces for children he wrote. These pieces are very gorgeous and well-written for educational purposes.
Mykola Roslavets (1881–1944)
Mykola Roslavets was born in 1881 in Surazh, Oblast, modern-day Ukraine, and studied composition at the Moscow Conservatory.
Roslavets was a modernist Ukrainian piano composer very much influenced by the late style of Alexander Scriabin. He used Scriabin’s system and elaborated on this to create his own system. He was the first musicologist to write about Arnold Schönberg in the Soviet Union.
His music became more and more suppressed in the Soviet Union and became forbidden completely in 1930 inside Russia. In 1932, he went to work for a music theatre in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and returned to Moscow in 1933.
A lengthy article should be dedicated just to Nikolai Roslavets and his music. Yet this article on Ukrainian composers is not necessarily the place to write about Roslavets too much because he falls in the same category as Prokofiev and Glière.
Listen to these three etudes of Roslavets and how much Scriabinism we can hear in these.
I appreciate Mykola Roslavets’ music. He is a very interesting and outstanding composer. Despite the influence of Scriabin, Roslavets has an individual style that stands out.
I truly love his style of composing. Let’s finish with this dark Prelude 1915, very much indicative of his style.
Vasyl Barvinsky (1888–1963)
Vasyl Barvinsky was born to an old aristocratic family in 1888 in Ternopil in western Ukraine. He received his musical education, at first from his mother and then at the Lviv Conservatory.
His work isn’t extensive, and he wrote about 30 works, including a piano concerto. Ukrainian folk melodies were a substantial element in his compositions. Thus, in 1948, Barvinsky was denounced by the Soviet authorities and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. The works of this Ukrainian composer works were banned.
I find his piano sonata quite interesting, and the third movement is a variation form. There is a lot of influence from Chopin here. For example, variation III from the third movement reminds a lot of Chopin’s first etude, Opus 10.
As the name suggests, his Ukrainian Suite is based on Ukrainian folk melodies. Listen to this in the next video:
Mykola Vilinsky (1888–1956)
Mykola Vilinsky was born in Holta, Ananiv pivot in 1888. He was descended from a Ukrainian family of hereditary nobles. Vilinsky first studied law before studying music at the Odessa Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1919.
In 1926, he got a teaching position at the Odesa Conservatory. From 1944, he continued his teaching career at the Kyiv Conservatory. Among his students were Musicians such as Emil Gilels, David Oistrakh, and Yakov Zak, who studied his classes on special harmony and polyphony.
Ukrainian melodies took a prominent place in Vilinsky’s piano music, and he created the Ballade genre of Ukrainian piano music. However, his music appears to me as very traditional and old-fashioned, as if in the footsteps of Mykola Lysenko.
Here are the Ukrainian sounds in his Elegiac Suite.
Levko Revutsky (1889–1977)
Levko Revutsky was born in 1889 in Irzhavets; today, it is Chernihiv Oblast, Ukraine. He came from a well-educated family, and Levko’s mother started to teach him the piano at age 5. When he was ten years old, he was already very skilled in improvisation at the piano and seemed to have a perfect pitch. They nicknamed him “Tuning Fork.”
In 1903, he started to study the piano with Mykola Lysenko. In 1907, he began his studies at the University for mathematics and physics. A year later, he also entered law school. In 1911, he entered the music school and, after that, the newly opened Kyiv Conservatory, where he studied composition with Glière.
In 1916, he graduated from both the University and the Conservatory. That is a different story than many of today’s students who get stressed out just following one curriculum. We can do as much as the limits we put for ourselves.
It is not always obvious to see where someone’s influences come from. In Levko Revutsky’s piano music, I can hear influences from Scriabin, particularly Scriabin’s middle period. But Revutsky also made a huge contribution as a transcriber of Ukrainian folk songs. He transcribed about 120 of them.
Revutsky is one of my favorite Ukrainian piano composers. A mix of a traditional music language and modernism. It is very sophisticated music and so beautiful. Hear the influence of Scriabin in this ‘ Two Preludes op. 7′.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Sergei Prokofiev was born in 1891 in Sontsovka, Donetsk Oblast, which is now Ukraine. He came from a family of former serfs who had been owned by the Sheremetev family. Prokofiev is one of the great genius Russian composers born in today’s Ukraine. And that is where his connection with Ukrainian music ends.
He followed his music education in Moscow, where he received his first composition lessons from Reinhold Glière. Later, his mother took him to the Sint Petersburg Conservatory, where Glazunov recognized his exceptional talent and invited the very young Prokofiev to study at the conservatory. Here, he studied, among others, with Anatoly Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov.
His music doesn’t include any characteristics of anything Ukrainian. Exploring Prokofiev’s genius can fill up entire books. And I mention him in this article only because he was born in Ukraine since many of you don’t know that.
Listen here to one of my favorite piano concertos of all piano concertos—Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, played by Martha Argerich.
Pylyp Kozytsky (1893–1960)
Pylyp Kozytsky was born in 1893 in the Ukrainian village of Letychivka. He studied music at the Kyiv Conservatory. As a musician and composer, he was most connected with musical drama.
He wrote some operas, symphonic music, choir music, music for plays, and movie scores. From 1938 to 1941, he worked as artistic director for the Ukrainian State Philharmonic.
Kozytsky only wrote Souvenirs d’ Enfance – Petite Suite pour Piano for piano solo. These easy little pieces are very nice to play for intermediate beginners. However, since there are no recordings to be found of his piano music, I shall soon add my own recording of these little pieces.
In this Ukrainian documentary about Ukrainian composer Pylyp Kozytsky, you can hear some of his music.
Tip: Enable the auto-translate subtitles.
Boris Lyatoshinsky (1895–1968)
Lyatoshinsky was a “late starter” in music, like myself. He started to play the piano and violin at age 14. In 1914, he began his studies in composition at the Kyiv Conservatory with Reinhold Glière and graduated in 1919. In 1925, he became a professor at the Kyiv Conservatory.
In his early years as a composer, he drew much inspiration from Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, and Scriabin. Together with Shostakovich and Prokofiev, he was accused of formalism and degenerative art creation. After Stalin’s death, he became more free in writing and sought the borders of atonal writing.
I find his music brilliant, and it reminds me of the expressionism we hear in Shostakovich.
Listen to this fantastic Piano Concerto. Great music!
Leo Ornstein (1895–2002)
Leo Ornstein was born in 1895 in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, at the time part of Imperial Russia, into a Jewish family. When he was six years old, the great Josef Hofmann recognized his exceptional talent on the piano. And he wrote a recommendation letter for Ornstein for the Sint Petersburg Conservatory.
That year, Ornstein entered the Imperial School of Music in Kyiv. In 1903, Ossip Gabrilovich heard him play and wrote a recommendation to the Moscow Conservatory a year later. However, Leo Ornstein went to study in Sint Petersburg and received composition lessons with Alexander Glazunov. In 1906, however, the family Ornstein with Leo moved to New York. Ornstein lived the rest of his remaining ninety-six years in the United States.
Ornstein was very famous in his young years. He was a prodigy in renewing modern music. He was a cosmopolitan composer who didn’t conform to any nationalism.
Personally, I really admire many of his compositions. Some of these are bewitched with a glare of genius. Therefore, I must include Ornstein in this article. Although his tie to Ukraine stopped when he was 11 years old, his music is monumental.
I love these haunting 9 Arabesques op. 42. The music is melodic and rich with exciting harmonies and the use of tone clusters. Listen to them a few times, and tell me what you think in the comments.
And my absolute favorite is Leo Ornstein’s piano sonata No. 4, written in 1919. In the fourth piano sonata, we may trace a little bit of his Ukrainian childhood in the way he uses augmented seconds in the many attractive melodies, particularly in the 2nd movement.
Leo Ornstein composed until he was 94 when he finished his sonata no. 8. He died in 2002 when 106 years old. Listen to Ornstein’s piano sonata no. 8.
Stefania Turkewich (1898–1977)
Stefania Turkewich was born in 1898 in Lviv, today’s western Ukraine. At that time, under the rule of Austria-Hungary. She was Ukraine’s first recognized female composer and was later banned by the Soviets.
Stefania Turkewich studied music first with Vasyl Barvinsky and after that in Vienna. When WW I finished, she continued her studies at the Lviv Conservatory. Married in 1925, she moved to Berlin, where she lived from 1927 until 1930. In Berlin, she studied with Arnold Schönberg and Franz Schreker. In 1946, she moved to England until her death in 1977.
She wrote symphonic music, operas, ballets, Ukrainian songs, chamber music, and a dozen or so piano pieces. For instance, the Variations on a Ukrainian Theme and a Fantasia – Suite for Piano on Ukrainian Themes (1940). Also, a cycle of Pieces for Children (1936–1946).
I scoured for scores all over the internet and couldn’t find any scores of Turkewich’s piano music. And there are no recordings of her piano music to be found. Did you find some scores of her piano works? Please leave me a message. I’ll be grateful and record it if it is good music!
Nonetheless, her music style is very professional and attractive. Listen to this string quartet.
Roman Simovych (1901–1983)
Roman Simovych was born in 1901 in Sniatyn, today’s Ukraine. He did his music study at the Prague Conservatory and graduated as a pianist in 1934. He was first appointed as a music teacher at the Lysenko Music Institute and later as a full professor at the Lviv Conservatory.
As a composer, he created symphonic, chamber, and piano music. In his piano concerto, we can enjoy the music of a gifted composer writing in a neo-romantic style, which I think is influenced by Rachmaninov. This style of writing was acceptable in the Soviet Union. Modernists, on the other hand, had a difficult life.
Yuliy Meitus (1903–1997)
Yuliy Meitus was born in a Jewish family in 1903 in Elisavetgrad, central Ukraine. He was a distinguished Ukrainian composer and considered the founder of the Ukrainian Soviet opera. His early style was modernistic. Later, he used more traditional neo-Romantic idioms.
Meitus studied piano with Heinrich Neuhaus at the Moscow Conservatory and graduated in 1919. In 1931, he graduated in composition from the Kharkiv Institute of Music and Drama.
Yuliy Meitus wrote 18 operas, 300 songs on Ukrainian and Russian poems, and chamber music with piano. Although he was a professional pianist, he has written no music for piano solo as far as I could find out.
Listen to three pieces for violin and piano. It is very intensive music, reminding me of Béla Bartók. The piano part is excellently written for the piano.