While My Violin Gently Weeps

Culture & Science
28 November 2011, 16:00

The ‘I, Culture Orchestra’ performed at the National Opera House on 27 October this year. A Polish-Ukrainian initiative, it gathered together musicians from Poland and Eastern Partnership states. This seemed a perfect chance to show cultural unity in the diversity of this part of Europe. However, the playlist upset Ukrainian fans of classical music as the orchestra only played Polish and Russian classical composers, including Sergei Prokofiev, Karol Szymanowski and Dmitri Shostakovich. The repertoire featured no Ukrainian names, nor will it do so in the foreseeable future. Therefore it looks like Ukrainian classical music will remain underground even for grant-sponsored projects.


A small playlist incident, that hardly looks worthy of any attention, seems to mirror the current role of Ukrainian classical music in the world. This would have hardly surprised anyone in the past when artists from most small European nations that had no sovereignty were doomed to stay in the shadows. Today, however, the Czech Republic cherishes its Leoš Janáček and Antonín Dvořák as global brands, Hungary promotes Béla Bartók and Lithuania glorifies Mikalojus Čiurlionis. Meanwhile, European music lovers have no chance to hear pieces by Ukrainians Lev Revutsky, Borys Liatoshynsky or Viktor Kosenko.

This fall, I, Culture Orchestra will play in the best European concert halls, including Berlin Philharmonics, one of the most prestigious stages in the world. Experts say it has the best acoustics in the world equaled only by the legendary Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is also one of the dream orchestras of every conductor. Unfortunately, director Andreas Wittmann says the music of Ukrainian composers has never been played there.

“I don’t think we have ever played Ukrainian music here,” Mr. Wittmann tells The Ukrainian Week. “I’m not sure how that’s happened. I guess there hasn’t been a good occasion. But we would be happy to know good Ukrainian music better anyway.”

Mr. Wittmann is unlikely to have this chance anytime soon. Volodymyr Runchak, conductor and composer, claims Ukrainian music created before the 19th century is largely known as ‘Russian’ in the West. “The post-Lysenko[1] music is hardly known in the West, too,” Mr. Runchak comments. “One can find it in research sources and in Ukraine. But they are studied more often than they are played. Choir pieces by Oleksandr Koshyts or Mykola Leontovych face a language barrier since they are in Ukrainian, not the universal English. As a result of the language barrier, Ukrainian vocal, opera and choir music is hard to perform effectively.”

Even modern composers who spend a lot of time in the West and have published their music there have failed to change the situation. “Yevhen Stankovych, Valentyn Sylvestrov and Myroslav Skoryk are hugely popular modern Ukrainian composers,” Mr. Runchak says. “But success is only possible when they work with publishing houses that can offer music sheets to orchestras.”  


Maria Dolnytska is a Canadian-born professional pianist with Ukrainian roots. She is perfectly familiar with Canadian music life as an insider and is quite optimistic about Ukrainian classical music. Even though naming a Ukrainian composer can be hard due to the sporadic background of Ukraine’s sovereignty, Ukrainian music is represented relatively well in Canada, unlike Europe.  

“Toronto has been hosting competitions of Ukrainian music for a long time,” Ms. Dolnytska says. “The pieces are even part of the academic programs at the Royal Conservatory of Music. Both Canada and the US commission music from Ukrainian composers. Therefore, musicians issue more and more records and get good reviews.”

Still, Ukrainian music remains exotic for most fans. “I try to play Ukrainian pieces as often as I can,” Maria comments. “The concerts are pretty popular. Very few people in the audience are immigrants; most are non-Ukrainians. After concerts where I play pieces by Lysenko, Revutsky, Ishchenko or Sylvestrov, people often ask me what they are and many discover these composers for the first time. US critics give positive reviews of my Ukrainian records yet what often surprises them is that they never heard of the composers.”  


“Indeed, Ukrainian classical music is not well enough known in the world,” complains Myroslav Skoryk, one of the legendary trio of modern composers. “It’s not about the quality because the audience mostly likes it when it gets to hear it. The key problem is that promoting and protecting the copyright for classical music requires funding.”

According to Mr. Skoryk, there is no system that could help Ukrainian composers offer their music to Western performers and get a reward for it. “This is a task for music managers, a profession that practically doesn’t exist in Ukraine,” the composer claims. “Most often, composers are the ones doing the job themselves while the repertoire of Ukrainian orchestras that tour abroad is determined by the inviting party.”

Our political and historical background also contributes to the current situation. “Ukraine’s post-colonial status and our inertness are in the way of Ukrainian music in the world,” says Volodymyr Runchak. “There are no independent sources of information about it while the government, including the Culture Ministry and that of Foreign Affairs, make no efforts to promote it. Officials are only representatives, and they are often not professional enough.”

Having said this, composers do have ideas about potential ways to improve all this. Mr. Runchak talks about big image-making projects. “One way is for the country’s leaders to support concerts of elaborate music, not pop or low-quality ones,” he says. “Normally, such concerts require a lot of money and advertising.”

Myroslav Skoryk does not mind routine work and legal leverages to promote music. “Some countries demand that their orchestras play pieces by national composers,” he comments. “Scandinavian governments are extremely persistent in this direction. Ukraine has a similar law of its own but the government does not enforce it effectively.” According to Mr. Runchak, Ukrainian musicians do not earn enough to promote their music around the world. Their only way to earn a living is to play pieces by famous composers. “Clearly, Ukrainian orchestras can make a difference with their repertoire but in fact the market frequently affects them, not the other way around. They only play the music someone commissions them to play,” Mr. Runchak states.


So what rules shape the Western market of classical music? Can the market of little-known Ukrainian music adjust and integrate itself into the Western one? “Marketing has nothing to do with the repertoire selection,” Mr. Wittmann says. “An ideal combination would be that of popular and rarely played pieces, of course. But our key task is to create an environment where the audience can meet music. You need more courage and to play more music from various cultures to make people get used to the names they haven’t heard before.”

His Ukrainian colleagues view this as too idyllic. “Western orchestras fill their repertoire largely from two sources,” Mr. Runchak explains. “These are classical music and pieces they commission from modern composers. These are not always popular with the audience but they boost the orchestras’ quality rating and prestige. That means a combination of creative and commercial factors. Classics and celebrity soloists lure the lion’s share of the audience.”

“In this system, publishing houses have a heavy impact on the repertoire policy of orchestras,” Volodymyr Runchak continues. “They are the ones selling sheet music. In pursuit of profit, publishing houses promote them to conductors and orchestra directors. A little-known composer only has chances through personal contacts. Young composers often know well-known conductors or celebrity soloists who determine the repertoire and tell the orchestras they want to play a certain piece. The least efficient way is for composers to turn to orchestras on their own. Most often, they get no response whatsoever because the proposals come in by the hundred every day.”

“Some publishing houses abroad often sign contracts with composers under unfeasible terms, pushing the latter to seek an excuse to stop such cooperation,” says Myroslav Skoryk, sharing his experience after having spent a few years working in Australia. “I can’t say my music is played very often even though I’m member of agencies that monitor where my music is played and demand royalties. They also send me data from abroad and transfer the royalties to my account.”


“Music lovers in the West are very different,” comments Maria Dolnytska on the preferences of the local audience. “The fans of modern classical music don’t care that much whether a composer is from Ukraine, Japan or US. The same thing is true for other styles, only some of them sell worse without mentioning the country of origin. This refers to modern music, for instance.”

Ms. Dolnytska says the popularity of some pieces is a result of promotion more than anything else. Due to technological opportunities and numerous records, musicians get to hear rare exotic music. “My impression is that the Western audience is hungry for new music which opens the doors for Ukrainian composers,” she claims.

The collapsing status of music publishing houses in Ukraine and the shortage of widely-accessible Ukrainian sheet music prevent Ukrainian composers from catching these opportunities. “I often get letters from people all over the world, from the US to Hong Kong,” says Ms. Dolnytska. “They are looking for sheet music to a specific piece by Ukrainian composers. Sadly, I often have to tell them I don’t have one. I have a hard time looking for them myself. There is no database and there is very little interest from publishing houses. Too few foreign musicians come to play in Ukraine.” To change this, Maria recommends that the audience intensely share sheet music and look for new music while musicians should include Ukrainian pieces to their repertoires as often as possible.  


Meanwhile, enthusiastic fans do more for Ukrainian music than all the Ukrainian embassies have ever done. Over a period of slightly less than two years, virtually 1,500 music lovers have joined the Ukrainian Composers community on Facebook. Professional musicians and fans upload recorded pieces by Ukrainian composers on to YouTube and lately they have undergone a sort of breakthrough on the portal.

On 12 December, Munich is going to host a joint Ukrainian-Polish concert for Euro 2012, a project less pompous than the ‘I, Culture Orchestra’ event. This one is the initiative of musicians, not embassies or cultural institutions. Its budget just exceeds EUR 1,000 and this is mostly from organizers, says Taras Yashchenko, a Ukrainian pianist and composer in Germany.

Paradoxically, the lower the status of the project, the more space they have for Ukrainian music. A Polish soprano and Ukrainian tenor are going to sing pieces by Lysenko, Hulak-Artemovsky and Skoryk, in addition to Szymanowski and Moniuszko. The Polish Cultural Center at the German Consulate funded less than half the budget. The Ukrainian Consulate never responded to requests. “The Polish Institute is now helping to set King Roger, an opera by Szymanowski, at the National Opera here in Ukraine. Last year, it arranged hundreds of Chopin anniversary concerts all over the world. When will Ukraine have an institute of its own?” Mr. Yashchenko wonders.   

As long as Ukraine does not care about its classical music, the quote from poet Pavlo Tychyna will hang over our heads like the sword of Damocles. “For God’s sake, put on the cuffs and tell them something. ‘Is there any culture that you have?’ they ask.”


Solomia KrushelnytskaThe legendary singer toured the world with hundreds of concerts from 1894 to 1929. She sang Ukrainian folk songs at each concert as a matter of principle.

Modest Mentsynsky A well-known heroic tenor used his popularity in Europe to include songs by Mykola Lysenko and Denys Sichynsky in every one of his performances.

Stefan Turchak did all he could over his short, yet brilliant career as a conductor to promote Ukrainian classical music. European audiences had their first chance to hear Taras Bulba, an opera by Mykola Lysenko, when the Kyiv opera team toured Wiesbaden, Dresden and Zagreb in 1980s. It always won a standing ovation.


[1] Mykola Lysenko (1842 – 1912), Ukrainian composer, pianist and conductor.  

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