Five Pivotal Ukrainian Classical Music Figures

Monday, March 10, 2014

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.


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Comments [19]

ceb from MN

Both Leonard Bernstein's parents were from Ukraine.

Mar. 16 2014 10:00 AM
Andrew from Fair Lawn NJ

Mykola Leontovych - the composer of the Christmas song "Shchedryk" or "Shchedrik", known to the world as "Carol of the Bells".

Mar. 15 2014 11:43 PM
Andrew from Fair Lawn NJ

Mykola Leontovych - the composer of the Christmas song "Shchedryk" or "Shchedrik", known to the world as "Carol of the Bells".

Mar. 15 2014 11:43 PM
Eriks Dukats from Chicago

and closing our borders to the south , we should close them on the north too , those immigrants from the north do not work as hard as the one's from the south , yet get paid more .

Mar. 15 2014 09:33 AM
Eriks Dukats from chicago

to say the least he was a bit misled by the land of opportunity when all you could get was oscar meyer wieners and this confusion was passed to his children . when he would play soccer in the family yard the workers would throw him meat ... have you ever tasted liver wrest before it is smoked or in that case weiners before smoking and being put in their casings .

Mar. 15 2014 07:34 AM
Eriks Dukats from chicago

my father's father was a sausage meeker from Latvia ... so it's all here say that i would be an artist from Chicago whose grandfather made the second best sausages in Latvia , yet his were cheaper than the best ones . if it were the beginning of the month when you just got paid you'd probably buy the best sausages , but near the end of the month when all the kiddies were fattened up with marzipan covered in dark chocolate my grandfathers sausages would rein king , thats how it was in the old world , a world of checks and balances .

Mar. 15 2014 07:20 AM
Paul Epstein from New York

I prefer to think of most music as transcending nationality, even if it has cultural roots. Artists such as Horowitz connected people around the world. And the more we can listen to different music and transcend, the better.

I think we're all better off transcending nationality in most, if not all, spheres. I'm a born and bred New Yorker, but my family's national background can be very complicated (including a bit Ukrainian, a bit Russian, or not). The Ukrainian-Russian identity question can be complicated for many people, as in this PRI clip by someone I used to work with who was born in Eastern Ukraine:

Mar. 14 2014 01:49 PM
Barbara from Elizabeth

More Ukrainian composers on the CD Ukrainian Cello (Dorian)

Ilya Lisogub with very nice cello sonata. Also Victor Kossenko, Andrey Shtogarenko and Yuri Ishchenko.

Performers Julia Pantelyat and Dmitrij Manelis

Mar. 13 2014 06:16 PM


How much of today's fears in Odessa are "manufactured" and "imported" in order to justify Putin's desires?

Mar. 13 2014 12:44 PM
Carol from NYC

Wait a minute.....Poland was a part of Russia, are Poles to be considered Russian - Chopin? Czechoslovakia was a part of Russia, are the Czechs considered Russian - Dvorak? Ukraine was a part of Russia - is Prokofiev considered Russian????

Mar. 13 2014 11:35 AM
Dim from Russia

When Prokofiev was born, it was Russia. When he became an adult, he lived in Moscow. His ethnicity - Russian. And why Ukrainian?

Mar. 12 2014 04:09 AM

there are artists like me with disabilities who can not change their socio economic situation in life and are not allowed fifth amendment rights to freedom of speech and president Obamas main objective for his second term was to give gays the same rights as married couples when he forgot about the homeless , the poor , the people with disabilities , and the mentally ill who have no voice or lobby in american politics .

Mar. 11 2014 07:15 AM

but , my actual point and why it angers me is that i listened to Saul Williams and he Mivos Quartet . i commend wqxr for bringing avant guarde art to our attention .and in many ways i agree with the opinion of Saul Williams and admire free speech , but there are artist , like me who go through virtual hell , like hated by the community , receiving medical attention , and spied on in a working class suburb of Chicago . Free speech is much more admired in Europe , even provincial parts , like the word blasphemy does not exist in many languages .

Mar. 11 2014 06:51 AM

to alexander , the Baltics , Ukraine, Czechoslovakia , Yugoslavia , Hungary , Poland , and split Germany in two parts is how the big three ended the war . that is totally a Russian mentality when you deem an artist born in a Soviet Block Country as somehow Fascist as your implying it .

Mar. 11 2014 06:32 AM

To Ericdukats, I did not know that Stalingrad battle was fought and won by US! But my point is different. Yes, Russia was and is trying to be now an empire, but music is not politics, it is deeper. To say that Prokofiev was Ukrainian is ridicules. Or Horovitz. Like all those great musicians I am from Odessa, and to-day Odessa with all its rich cultural heritage is scared of Ukrainian, supposedly pro western, nationalists. And this is reality, not US paper thin propaganda.

Mar. 10 2014 11:58 PM

if America had not acted so provincially in ending the Second World War , maybe more first rate art would come from smaller countries that get stepped on throughout history .

Mar. 10 2014 05:48 PM

sounding provincial to an American is scary look at what's happening to Edward Snowden and after all we are a country the Europeans look at as a bunch of bastards with no sense of history or culture , especially of others .

Mar. 10 2014 05:09 PM
alexander from new york

This is funny and plenty of typical (sorry) American ignorance. All great violin players who came from Odessa (Oistrach, Elman, Milstein etc. All great piano players like Richter, Gilels, etc. were not Ukrainian. They were Russians, like Prokofiev, Germans like Richter, Jews like rest of them - THEY WERE PEOPLE OF RUSSIAN CULTURE born on ukrainian territory. Only Mykola Lysenko was real Ukrainian. This is Ukrainian tragedy: it's culture was local and provincial - second rated at best.

Mar. 10 2014 04:08 PM

David Oistrakh

Mar. 10 2014 02:38 PM

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