Introduction Ukrainian Piano Composers
The war of Russia in Ukraine, and all the sanctions and boycotts that result from it made me think about what consequence that has on how we look at the history of Russian music.
First of all, let me clarify before continuing how I see this. This WAR against Ukraine is Putin’s war and not of the average Russian people and indeed not of any artist that lives or has lived in Russia. As in any suppression of freedom, we see art becomes a powerful means of expressing opposing points of view.
Since art is full of ambiguity, it is difficult for a regime to pinpoint to 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.
And before continuing reading, I 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 maybe have missed. Let me know in the comments below!
Let's inspire your friends!
Before this research I made when starting 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 came to know about some fantastic Ukrainian piano composers that I was not aware 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 as well 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 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 took an essential role in music in those days, as it still does today 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 from 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 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, happened 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 piano teacher of Levko Revutsky. However, Levko Revutsky studied with Reinhold Glière, and wrote in a style reminding to 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.
And a nocturne op. 19 reminiscent of Chopin’s nocturnes, yet a strong Ukrainian idiom. Lysenko wrote many works in a Chopinesque style. He wrote an impromptu named Impromptu in the style of Chopin.
Lysenko also wrote about a hundred songs using Ukrainian folk melodies. Here we have a Ukrainian song for piano solo from Trois chants populaires de l'Ukraine no. 1.
Two Song Without Words opus 10. The title isn’t strange for a composer who spent two years of his life in Leipzig for his music studies. Reminiscent of Mendelssohn, but again Ukrainian folk music is a crucial element.
The influence of Mykola Lysenko on Ukrainian composers to come was very significant. For the piano, we should mention Yakiv Stepovy and Mykola Leontovych, who were greatly influenced by Lysenko.
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.
Bortkiewicz studied firs with Anatoly Lyadov in Sint Petersburg and in 1900 he travelled to Leipzig to study with Alfred Reisenauer and Salomon Jadassohn both Liszt pupils.
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.
This very nice Ballade opus 42 reminds me of Brahms and a reminder of Rachmaninov.
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. Although 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.
Yakov Stepovy - Cinq Miniatures for piano opus 10.
Yakiv Stepovy - Petit Poème for piano.
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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 this, since it is such famous and enchanting music.
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 Rachmaninov in his music. Listen, for example, the piano sonata no. 1 is very much reminiscent of the style of Rachmaninov. And then, if we follow up to 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 Rachmaninov.
Victor Kosenko First Piano Sonata reminiscent of Rachmaninov.
Viktor Kosenko Second Piano Sonata reminiscent of early Scriabin.
I can’t find an own style in Kosenko’s 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.
Listen to these very beautiful Trois Morceaux opus 9.
In his 11 Etudes opus 8, he not only used the same opus number as Scriabin’s first set etudes, but he literally “borrowed” many ideas from Scriabin throughout these etudes.
Or a Poème Desir, just like Scriabin wrote a poème with that name. And it is not just in the name where the similarities end.
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.
From now onward, with the exception of Vasyl Barvinsky, Mykola Vilinsky, and Pylyp Kozytsky, the new generation of composers were writing in a more modern style.
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, from 1913 until 1920, at the Kyiv Conservatory, 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 right away. 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.
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.
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.
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 do work for a music theatre in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and returned to Moscow in 1933.
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. Although 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.
A lengthy article should be dedicated just to Nikolai Roslavets and his music. Yet this article on Ukraine composers is not necessarily the place to write about Roslavets too much. Because he falls in the same category as Prokofiev and Glière.
Vasyl Barvinsky (1888–1963)
Vasyl Barvinsky was born in 1888 in Ternopil in western Ukraine to an old aristocratic family. 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 Soviets authorities, and he was 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 of Chopin here. For example variation III from the third movement reminds a lot to Chopin's first etude opus 10.
As the name suggests, his Ukrainian Suite is based on Ukrainian folk melodies.
And Barvinsky's Children’s music with Ukrainian melodies. Very rewarding music for advanced beginners.
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.
He also wrote the ballade genre of Ukrainian piano music. Here is the only recording I could find of Ballade in the form of variations, Op. 4.
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 he 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. From 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. Very sophisticated music and so beautiful. Hear the influence of Scriabin in these Two Preludes op. 7.
Here are five original transcriptions of Ukrainian Folk Songs. This music is much more simplistic than his original compositions.
And this piano sonata reminds me of Alexander Glazunov and the pianism of Chopin.
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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 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.
For piano solo Kozytsky only wrote Souvenirs d’ Enfance - Petite Suite pour Piano. 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 soon shall add here 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)
Boris Lyatoshynsky was born in 1895 in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, at that time part of the Russian Empire. Zhytomyr is also the city of the two great pianists, Ignaz Jan Paderewski and Sviatoslav Richter.
Lyatoshinsky was a “late starter” in music like myself. He started to play the piano and violin at age 14. And 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!
Here are five preludes opus 44 for solo piano. Excellent music, and I really love this.
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. In the United States, Ornstein lived the rest of his remaining ninety-six years.
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 rich with exciting harmonies and the use of tone clusters. Listen to them a few times and let me know in the comments what you think.
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 can’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 music, chamber music, 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 1903 in Elisavetgrad, central Ukraine, in a Jewish family. 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. And 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.
Leonid Hrabovsky (1935–)
Leonid Hrabovsky was born in 1935 in Kyiv. From 1954 he studies composition under Boris Lyatoshynsky and Levko Revutsky at the Kyiv Conservatory. In 1959 he won the first prize in an all-union competition, and his work received praise from Dmitri Shostakovich.
Here is his work “Four Ukrainian songs” for orchestra and choir, his graduation work for the Kyiv Conservatory. Shostakovich wrote after hearing this, 'the Ukrainian Songs by Hrabovsky pleased me immensely—his arrangements attracted me by the freedom of treatment and good choral writing.'
Here we have a composition named "Homoeomorphy". It is a modernistic composition using only one voice of swift passages running around like a little creature in the darkness. The passages are broken at moments by silence. A sense of a different voice is created by the use of dynamics.
I like this idea, and there is a hint of genius here. Still, 18 minutes is quite long. It reminds me of Sorabji’s composing style.
Since 1990 Leonid Hrabovsky lives in the United States.
Nikolai Kapustin (1937-2020)
Nikolai Kapustin was born in Horlivka, Ukraine. He studied piano and composed his first piano sonata when he was 14 years old. When 17, Kapustin got interested in Jazz. Still, he went to the Moscow Conservatory to study classical piano with Alexander Goldenweiser.
Kapustin started to work as a Jazz pianist and got quite a reputation. His compositions are all in the Jazz idiom yet largely written in classical forms like the sonata and the Suite modeled after Bach’s partitas.
His music is very much Jazz-like and highly virtuosic. However, it is claimed by some that he wrote down his improvisations. I don’t believe so because his works are too well structured for that. No one improvises like that.
I had my doubts about whether to include Kapustin in this article or not since I talk about classical music. Kapustin is not classical, but certainly also not genuine Jazz. It is a mix between classical form and pianism with a Jazz idiom.
Listen here to Suite in the Old Style Op. 28 based on the suite form that Bach used.
Valentin Silvestrov (1937–)
Valentin Silvestrov was born in 1937 in Kyiv. He started private music lessons when he was 15 years old. From 1958 to 1964, Silvestrov studied composition at the Kyiv Conservatory under Boris Lyatoshinsky, harmony, and counterpoint under Levko Revutsky.
Although Valentin Silvestrov is perhaps the most famous of contemporary Ukrainian composers, his music seems to me a bit dilettante. Pleasant atmospheric music for intermediate players and good for the contemporary average listener.
His piano music fits a little bit in the world of Ludovico Einaudi. Very simplistic and trying to please the ear. On the other hand, his string quartet, for example, is more complex and challenging to listen to. But what we hear is that his main goal in his music seems to be creating atmosphere.
Both his simplistic style and modern style don’t strike me as anything special and significant.
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Wrapping it all up
Now you have learned together with me more about Ukrainian piano music and what piano composers Ukraine has produced.
I covered significant composers born in Ukraine but perhaps moved to Russia or other parts of the world. For example Sergei Bortkiewicz, Stefania Turkewich (she was a promoter of Ukrainian music), Sergei Prokofiev, and Leo Ornstein.
I talked about Ukrainian composers who lived and worked much of their lives in Ukraine, yet their style wasn't influenced by Ukrainian traditional music. For example Viktor Kosenko, Reinhold Glière, Boris Lyatoshynsky, Mykola Roslavets, and Roman Simovyc.
And those composers who promoted Ukraine through their music. These were Mykola Lysenko, Yakiv Stepovy, Mykola Leontovych, Vasyl Barvinsky, Mykola Vilinsky, Levko Revutsky, Pylyp Kozytsky, and Yuliy Meitus.
Furthermore three contemporary Ukrainian composers, Nikolai Kapustin, and Leonid Hrabovsky and Valentin Silvestrov still alive today.
Of course the list can never be complete, but it is pretty complete when we consider the importance of the composers. Also I haven't covered the youngest generation of composers. This is because I can't find any that impresses me. Their significance has still to be seen.
Thank you for the article. I find it very useful! There’s a new recording of Vilinsky’s Ballade in the form of variations.
Thank you for sharing. It is a beautiful recording!
I hope you enjoyed reading! Tell me what are your favorite composers?