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Five Pivotal Ukrainian Classical Music Figures

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With the conflict in the Ukraine dominating the headlines in recent weeks, the world’s eyes have turned to the turmoil along the Black Sea. The political unrest has obscured the cultural riches that this country has bestowed. Along with wishes for a peaceful resolution, here are the top five most pivotal classical musicians from the Ukraine.

1. Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka, a small town in the Eastern Ukraine (now called Krasne). His mother, Maria an accomplished amateur pianist who made annual trips to Moscow or St. Petersburg for lessons, was his first teacher. After Prokofiev advanced beyond his mother’s instructions, he received lessons from his well-known countryman Reinhold Glière before entering the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Prokofiev’s legacy is proudly recalled near his hometown, where international airport in Donetsk bears his name.


2. Vladimir Horowitz

The birthplace of the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz is uncertain; he was born either in Kiev or Berdichev in the Ukraine. Like Prokofiev, the musical prodigy received his earliest piano instruction from his mother, but stayed in the Ukraine to attend the Kiev Conservatory. Though he intended to devote himself to composition, Horowitz turned to the piano after the Bolshevik Revolution as a means of supporting his family. Each year Kiev hosts the International Competition for Young Pianists in Memory of Vladimir Horowitz, which will next be held in April and May 2014.


3. Mykola Lysenko

The musical identity of the Ukraine owes much to Mykola Lysenko. Born in the 1840s, Lysenko studied at the Leipzig Conservatory, but spent most of his life forging a Ukrainian sound through his work. Like Bartok, Lysenko collected Ukrainian folk tales and songs and incorporated them into his music. His lyrics were written in the Ukrainian language—which had been banned by the Ukraine’s Russian rulers. His work is being celebrated this year as part of the Ukrainian Art Song Project. (Right: Statue of Lysenko in Kiev (Wikipedia Commons).


4. Valentin Silvestrov

Valentin Silvestrov is best known as one of the favorite composers of his Estonian contemporary, Arvo Pärt. Despite a late start to his musical education (he began formal training at 15, in the early 1950s), Silvestrov achieved early success in the 1960s, particularly in the West, even though Silvestrov was not able to travel beyond the Iron Curtain to see it. In the mid 1970s, rather than conform to accepted compositional styles, Silvestrov retreated from public view and wrote his Silent Songs. Since the fall of the USSR, the composer has been celebrated at home, most notably with a 60th birthday festival in Kiev in 1998.


5. Boris Lyatoshynsky

The father of contemporary Ukrainian music, Boris Lyatoshynsky spent most of his life composing under Soviet rule. Another student of Glière, he was influenced strongly by Scriabin, and later the Second Viennese School. However, in the 1930s, Lyatoshynsky was forced to conform to the tastes of the Soviet State. His Third Symphony, still his most famous, debuted in 1951 to much criticism. Only after an extensive rewrite of the final movement was it allowed to be played again, next in 1954.

Honorable Mentions: Virko Baley, Reinhold Glière, Lysenko String Quartet, Isaac Stern.

Please suggest your own favorites in the comments box below.