Chapter 9: Music: A Map of Ukrainian History

Ian Splaver, Sydney Luna, and Jack Davis

Music: A Map of Ukrainian History


Music, according to Cambridge Dictionary, is a pattern of sounds made by musical instruments, voices, or computers, or a combination of these, intended to give pleasure to people listening to it. However, music is more than just a collection of notes on a page. It has the power to tell stories, convey emotions when words fall short, and connect people. In Ukraine, music has served in a plethora of capacities: it has told histories, honored valiant heroes, fostered ideas of freedom and been intrinsic to the creation of a national identity. By listening to Ukrainian music, we can hear the nation’s history, the rise and fall of empires, the struggles for independence and hard won victories.


Early History

The musical history of Ukraine can be traced back to the Paleolithic Era, around 25 thousand years ago. The Myzin Archeological site, located on the right bank of the Desna River near the village of Myzyn in the Korop district of the Chernihiv region, was discovered in 1908 and is a shining example of Magdalenian culture in Ukraine. Magdelenian is the tem used to refer to the people of Upper Paleolithic Europe. Due to agricultural advances made during the Paleolithic Era, the Magdalenians enjoyed a semi-sedentary lifestyle which allowed them greater amounts of time to dedicate to art and music compared to previous ages. At the Myzin Archeological site, mammoth bone musical instruments were identified and are believed to be some of the oldest known musical artifacts in the world. Using these instruments, the Magdelians in this settlement most likely sang songs that honored their beliefs centered in fetishism, magic, and animism (“Myzin archeological site”, n.d.). It is important to recognize that these themes were not specific to Ukraine, but were visible all across the Eurasian continent.


Fetishism during the Palaeolithic era took form in the focus on and worship of women, specifically their fertility. This practice can be seen in what have been named “Venus figures” from all around Europe, these figures are characterized by the breasts and buttocks being featured as prominent characteristics and other body parts like faces, feet, and arms being almost forgotten. A focus on such anatomical areas that relate to child-bearing and nourishment easily connects to the ideas of female fertility. The figures were believed to be the homes of spirits that could bless and protect, especially during hunting. The large number of the small figures suggests a votive or magical use. Spirits were believed to take on the shape of animals, and thus animism became a part of their belief system. (“Magdalenian culture | Prehistoric Art & Technology”, n.d.) The existence of these belief systems in Ukraine is corroborated by stylized sculptures found on the site of women and animals, with geometric motifs found on the female sculptures. (“Myzin archeological site”, n.d.) While little is known about music from the Paleolitic era to the first documented history, artifacts from sites like the Myzin Archeological site give us possible hints about the cultural and social functions of music in those times.


First Written History of the Ukrainian Lands (1300 BCE – 750 BCE)

The first people in Ukraine mentioned in documented history were the Cimmerians. They inhabited Ukraine from 1300 BCE to 750 BCE. Our knowledge of Cimmerian culture and music is minimal since their history was documented by Greek settlers, who viewed the Cimmerians as barbarians. While not much is known about Cimmerian music, their neighbors, the Lydians, had a lasting, and fortunately documented, influence on Ukrainian music that continues to this day. The Lydian people used flutes in their music, a practice that would be adopted by the Greeks, as well as a magadis or pectis (a harp with up to 20 strings), which was often played at banquets (Grote 2010, 294).  However, the lasting legacy of the Lydian people is most evident in what is known as the Lydian mode. The musical themes of the Lydian Mode were viewed as effeminate in Greek society, however, the Lydian Mode can be seen in much of traditional Ukrainian music. The Lydian mode (also known as the duma mode) is characterized by a natural minor with an augmented sixth degree. The scholar,  I︠A︡kov Lʹvovich Soroker found the Lydian Mode in “Okh i povii, buinyi vitre”, “Oi letila zozulen’ka”, “Zhurbo zh moia, zhurbo”, “Idut’ tataron’ky chornymym shliakhamy” and other traditional Ukrainian songs (Soroker 1995, 8).

Lydian Mode in “Okh i povii, buinyi vitre” (Blow, Mighty Wind; Lysenko)


Due to the age of the pieces there are no definite dates attributed to them. Though nothing is known about the people who lived in Ukraine at the time, it is amazing that the musical themes that existed in the area more than 3300 years ago are still visible today.


The Music of Kyivan Rus’ (862 CE to 1242 CE )

The music of Kyivan Rus’ can be separated into two groups: the secular music of princely courts and liturgical music. Tracing its roots back to the split of the Roman empire into East and West principalities, the music carries heavy Byzantine influences. The range of instruments used to create this music was diverse: there were wind instruments that resembled the modern-day oboe, such as the zurna or surna; horns, pipes, flutes, and a husli or gusli, which was quite similar to a psaltery; the lute, mandora, wooden trumpets; and many percussive instruments filled their halls. However, though quite popular in the liturgical music in Western Europe, the organ was banned by the Orthodox church, and thus the organ, widely known as a church staple, was not used in liturgical music in Kyivan Rus’. It was considered a pagan instrument and banned from use in churches, however, it was used instead in the music of the imperial court. (“Kiev: 1,500 years of culture”, n.d, 17) No songs of the Kyivan courts managed to survive to our modern day, but one kind of song that has been described in the literature of the time is “Songs of Glory ”. Written for the princes of Kyivan Rus’, the songs were likely performed in a recitative style with musical accompaniment detailing the accomplishments of the princes and their ancestors. One such example is “Slovo o Polku Ihorevi” (The Tale [or Song] of Ihor’s Campaign). In this song, we can see evidence of Ukrainian contact with Western Europe. There is a line in the song that reads, “Here the Germans and Venetians, there the Greeks and Moravians sing the praises of Sviatoslav” (Olkhovsky 1917, 580). Music was something that could be heard all across the country. Singers of epics and entertainers called skomorokhy were wandering minstrels who traveled the countryside, performing dances, magic, and music wherever they went. The secular skomorkhy had their liturgical counterparts in the wandering “holy men” who performed improvised holy songs. (Olkhovsky 1971) However, aside from educated guesses based on historical records not much is known about secular music during this time.


The first liturgical music in Ukraine was brought from Byzantium and Bulgaria by Greek clergy and musicians (demestvenyky), and the music was dominated by Byzantine and Bulgarian influences. However, around the 11th century, original Ukrainian church music appeared and spread throughout Kyivan Rus’. It was christened the “Kyivan song” and served as the model for a large amount of future song-writing traditions. There were two main types of notation: the kondak, which was a special church-specific melody and the znamennyi, which was used for all other kinds of melodies within their services. Not much is known about these notations, however, since the music cannot be read accurately at this time. Music was also taught in schools of the period as a staple of a good education according to the Greek style. While music was a part of the education, it functioned as more of an auxiliary subject to the staples of a Greek  education like rhetoric and writing. (Kotlyarevsky, n.d.) Scholar Ιvan Kotlyarevsky even found that in 1054 Yaroslav the Wise founded schools that taught artistic skills such as painting, carving, and singing and that in 1085 Yaroslav’s granddaughter, Yanka, founded a school for girls that also taught singing, among other subjects (“Kiev: 1,500 years of culture”, n.d., 26).


Music in the Cossack Hetmanate (1648 CE – 1780 CE )

No musical samples have survived from the beginning of the Cossack Hetmanate; however, music still flourished and grew. Folk music was existent however, cultural indicators suggest there was an explosion in music during this period due to the strong cultural centers established by the Hetmans. Polyphonic music (music characterized by 2 or more independent melodies) was also further developed and became relatively widespread across Ukraine, and four-part choirs became a staple. Even church music changed in this period, trading the kondak and znamenyi notations of Kyivan Rus’ for books with mensural notation. Mensural notation was a type of musical notation specifically used for polyphonic music that allowed for the precise measurement of rhythms. Due to musical guilds in cities like Kyiv, Lviv, Lutsuk, Chernihiv and Hlukhiv, polyphonic singing flourished and grew to accommodate five to eight voice parts. In 1697, catalogs appeared advertising choirs with three to twelve voice parts. (Kotlyarevsky, n.d.) It is unfortunate that such culturally rich music wasn’t preserved.


During this time, the first book about Ukrainian music was published — Musykiiskaia hrammatyka — which contains writings on music theory as well as the aesthetics of music and instructions on composition. (Olkhovsky 1917, 581) In this period the Cossack historical songs, or “dumy,” were further developed as well. These songs were sung and popularized by traveling performers, or kobziarz-bandurzysty and lirniki; these songs also exerted a palpable influence on Ukrainian literature. Even though we have no written record of an example of dumy, some poems fit the literary model that has been preserved, such as “Hamalija” by Taras Shevchenko. (Rudnitsky 1943, 826) The beginning of the 17th century marked the start of political relations with Moscow and the beginnings of the mass export of Ukrainian music and musicians to Muscovy. As the scholar Z. Lysko has noted, this development had a negative effect on the development of Ukrainian music, as it set a precedent for Ukrainian musicians leaving for foreign countries, “thus impoverishing Ukraine’s own musical culture” (Olkhovsky 1917, 582) .


Ukrainian Music in the 19th Century

By the 19th century, Ukrainian culture in the Eastern lands was highly regulated by Moscow. Even so, there were great conductors such as Semen Hulak Artemovs’ky, pictured in the image below, who authored the operas “Mazepa” (1859), “May Night” (1876), and “Dubno Blocade” (1884). Additionally, he composed many piano works and arranged many Ukrainian songs, making substantial contributions to Ukrainian music. Even with political and cultural restrictions, Ukrainian music was able to move away from foreign models and create its own form of music, which is evident today in a wide array of compositions. (Olkhovsky 1917) Especially visible within choral music, the seamless interplay of folk themes mixed with vocal performance and piano accompaniment had become something identifiably Ukrainian.


The political climate in the late 19th century allowed for a relaxation of censorship from Moscow and an increased level of student participation in politics. Students began to lead discussions concerning political reforms, pushing for causes such as the emancipation of the serfs and land ownership rights. Universities quickly became centers of radical ideas and havens for the rebirth of national movements among non-Russian peoples. Pro-Ukrainian freedom movements were influenced by active nationalist groups all over Europe; one Ukrainian group called Kyiv Hromada, or the Kyiv Intellectual Society, was especially influenced by these developments. Its members focused on cultural work and education as the root of their revolutionary activities. Ukrainian songs were used to incite rebellions and foster the idea of a Ukrainian national identity. (Klid, n.d.)


Ukrainian Modernist Music (1917 to the 1930s)

Ukraine experienced something of a musical golden age around the time of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and continuing through the late 1920s. The historian Orest Subtelny argues that because the newly formed Soviet Union was fixated on “maintaining political hegemony,” it did not have the resources or the time to regulate music. In 1921, the legendary Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych was assassinated by a KGB officer. His death galvanized Ukrainian musicians to form the Leontovych Memorial Citizens’ Committee (later renamed the Leontovych Music Society). The Leontovych Music Society’s stated goal was to promote the “growth and development of musical culture in Ukraine.” It did so by sponsoring various music ensembles, choirs, and musical educational programs. The society regularly corresponded with contributors of music periodicals in Western countries, such as England, The United States, Austria, Canada, Italy, and others. The result of this contact was that Ukrainian composers made music reflecting trends in Western Music, while also incorporating motifs from traditional Ukrainian music(). This amalgamation of musical styles resulted in music that embodied the Ukrainian past while also being forward-thinking and avant-garde. The influence of Western musical elements combined with traditional Ukrainian music can be seen in the Impressionist works of Levko Revutsky and Mykhailo Koliada, the constructionist works of Mykhailo Verykivsky, and the neoclassical compositions of Viktor Kosenko. Some of the most notable works from this time period include Symphony No. 2 by Levko Revutsky and Overture on Four Ukrainian Folk Themes by Borys Liatoshynsky.




Music Under Stalin (1930 to 1956)

Under Stalin’s rule, Ukrainian musicians were persecuted, restricted in their artistic expression, and sometimes outright killed. With Stalin’s rise to power in the late 1920s, the Soviet Union began to suppress cultural expression; as a result, Ukrainian composers no longer enjoyed the freedom to make the type of music they wanted to. In 1932, the Leontovych Music Society was shut down, and composers had to report to the Union of Soviet Composers in Moscow. These composers could no longer explore the modernist trends as they had been doing in the early 1920s. Instead, they were forced to compose music in the style of “socialist realism,” an artistic movement promoted by the Soviet state in art, literature, and music which sought to portray socialist society in a favorable light. Whatever challenges composers faced under Soviet rule, their plight paled in comparison to that of folk musicians, who were systematically killed. In one instance in 1932, hundreds of Ukrainian Kobzars, or traveling Ukrainian folk musicians, were invited to Kharkiv for a purported “musicians convention.” The convention turned out to be a means of getting all of the Kobzars in one area so that they could be executed. The systematic killing of folk musicians was so extreme that the number of bandura players in Ukraine (Badura is a string instrument used by Ukrainian folk musicians) dropped from over 300 in the 1920s to only four in 1936.


The Explosion of Rock Music (1956 to 1985) 

Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s cult of personality and led a de-Stalinization campaign. During this period, Ukrainian composers were given more artistic freedom. However, the demand for music had shifted away from classical compositions. In keeping with Western trends, rock music became extremely popular in Ukraine, particularly among youth. Bands such as The Beatles, The Animals, The Rolling Stones, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Cream were among the most well-liked. Despite the popularity of rock music, it was prohibited by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), which viewed consuming Western cultural products as a threat to the Soviet agenda of cultural russification in Ukraine. Despite the prohibition of rock music, Ukrainians found ways to listen to their favorite bands. A sizable black market emerged for vinyl records, and Ham radio stations broadcasted rock. Ukrainians did not merely listen to Western rock music: They made their own rock music, often with a distinct Ukrainian twist. In the 1960s, many popular music groups in Ukraine emerged known as vocal and instrumental ensembles (VIEs), many of which incorporated elements of rock music. Formed in 1971, Kobza was the most successful VIE. Kobza was mainly influenced by Russian popular music, but integrated various elements of rock music as well. Perhaps the best example of how Kobza took influence from rock music was their use of the electric bandura, which they used to create a sonic effect similar to that of an electric guitar. During the 1960s and 1970s, underground bands emerged that performed covers of Western rock songs with their own Ukrainian lyrics. Some of most frequently covered songs included Girl by the Beatles, Suzie Q by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Venus by Shocking Blue.

The massive popularity of Western-influenced music came to a halt in 1979 when the Ukrainian musician Volodymyr Ivasyuk was found dead in a forest near his residence. At the time, Ivasyuk’s death was ruled a suicide, but in 2019, a forensic examination released by the Kyiv Institute of Forensic Science concluded that his death could not have been a suicide. Even at the time of his death, people suspected the KGB was responsible. One theory maintains that Ivasyuk was killed because his music had become a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism, which the Soviets actively opposed. The death of Ivasyuk sent shockwaves through the music community in Ukraine. VIEs became more hesitant to express Ukrainian national sentiments or to incorporate elements of rock in their music. Even Kobza, a long-established Ukrainian music ensemble by that time, switched from singing in Ukrainian to Russian.


The Chervona Ruta Festival and the Dissolution of the Soviet Union (-1985 to 1991)

Mikhail Gorbachov’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (rebuilding) launched in 1985. Shortly after his ascendency to the position of General Secretary of the Com, saw the USSR rejecting authoritarianism, allowing government branches to operate more independently, and promoting more freedom of information. Simultaneously, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had begun to lose its grip on the Soviet Bloc states, with Estonia declaring sovereignty in 1988 and the Berlin Wall falling the following year. These changes empowered musicians to express more national sentiments in their music.

The Chervona Ruta music festival of 1989 served as a turning point in Ukrainian cultural history. The name of the festival itself was an expression of Ukrainian national sentiment, as it was named after the song Chervona Ruta by Volodymyr Ivasyuk to honor the musician who had been killed by the KGB for his pro-Ukrainian views. The event was organized by the musicologists Taras Melnyk and Anotolii Kalenychenko, who strategically chose to hold the festival in Chernivtsi, a city in western Ukraine where the inhabitants were more open to Ukrainian nationalism and Western culture. The organizers envisioned the festival as a “Ukrainian Woodstock.” The first Chervona Ruta Festival did not disappoint, as Ukrainian nationalist sentiment was on full display. On the festival’s first day, people dressed up as Cossacks to pay homage to Ukraine’s past as an independent state. Pop music was played on the first two days of the festival. On the third day, rock music was played, and on the fourth day, Kobzars performed traditional Ukrainian folk music. The first Chervona Ruta festival was so significant that diaspora Ukrainians from The United States, Canada, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia returned to Ukraine to witness the event. Some people even waved the yellow and blue Ukrainian flag, marking a complete rejection of the Russification of Ukrainian culture. Many Scholars have identified the first Chervona Ruta festival as a crucial moment in the development of Ukrainian cultural autonomy.

On August 12th, 1991, the second Chervona Ruta festival was held, only eight days before the attempted coup to overthrow Gorbachev. At a time when Ukrainians could sense that the USSR was coming to an end, the Chervona Ruta festival of 1991 exemplified the desire of the Ukrainian people to become an independent state. The festival organizers chose to hold the 1991 festival in Zaporizhzhia, a highly Russified part of eastern Ukraine. The historian Catherine Wanner argued that the choice to hold the second festival in this location allowed Russian-speaking Ukrainians, Jews, and other minorities to have a glimpse at what an independent Ukrainian state might look like. Unlike other music festivals, the Chervona Ruta 1991 festival began with a religious procession by leaders of the Ukrainian Greek Church and the Eastern Orthodox church, who emphasized the importance of Ukrainian culture. The festival featured Rock, pop, heavy metal, and traditional Ukrainian folk performances. During the festival, people shouted pro-Ukrainian slogans directly in front of the Soviet police, an action that would have landed them in prison only several years earlier. The festival was full of symbols of Ukrainian pride, including yellow and blue Ukrainian flags, Cossack attire, and even the black and red flag of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.


Ukrainian Music after Independence

By the time Ukraine became an independent state in 1991, Ukrainian popular music had evolved as a combination of traditional Ukrainian instrumentation and melodies, with modern electronic and dance beats influenced by Western genres.

Prior to the Revolution of Dignity in 2013 and 2014 and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and incursions into Eastern Ukraine beginning in 2014, much of popular Ukrainian music was sung in Russian. Though since the war began, more and more artists have switched to singing in Ukrainian. This development is correlated with the increased evolution of a strong national identity during the war and ongoing efforts to separate Ukrainian culture from Russian culture. This movement is significant as there are many similarities between Russian and Ukrainian music due to their shared Soviet heritage. But even since the Soviet era, many artists from both countries toured the other, with Ukrainian artists especially needing to sell their music in Russia to support their artistic production. (Nechepurenko 2022)

Before the war, the music of the two countries may have not seemed significantly different to an outside observer within the broader category of “Eastern European” music. (Ruble 2023) This feature of music from the broader region is an especially large problem with Ukrainian classical music. Russia itself has been pushing back on the importance of Ukrainian influences in Russian classical music in its messages to the Russian public. For this reason, the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation has launched the Ukrainian Live Classics app and website. It is a collection of thousands of landmark Ukrainian classical pieces and scores, with the goal of raising awareness and alleviating the ignorance of many westerners when it comes to the cultural production of countries from the former Soviet bloc (Ruble 2023).

The Revolution of Dignity of 2013-2014 also marked a similar transition in Ukrainian music to that of when the war started. Many of the themes of modern Ukrainian pop music centered around national identity and resilience. In line with this development, there has been an increase in traditional instrumentation and folk songs used in modern pop music, such as traditional rhythms and dances.

DakhaBrakha is a Ukrainian quartet from Kyiv that epitomizes this combination of old and new. They combine rhythm and style from other countries with Ukrainian folk melodies and stories to create a refreshing, modern sound. Much of their lyrical content is taken from Ukrainian folklore. The band dresses in traditional Ukrainian clothing, and they have a distinct style of chanting. One of their stated goals is to help spread these new sounds and Ukrainian culture to the next generations of Ukrainians and beyond to the wider world. (“About Us”, n.d.) They are also one of the few Ukrainian bands that has gained a broad audience in the West, with DakhaBrakha touring in the US and performing a tiny desk concert with NPR. (Tsioulcas 2022)

Picture of DakhaBrakha, taken by Carlos Gonzalez for The New York Times March 3, 2022

Ivan Dorn is an artist who pushes the boundaries of modern pop music in Ukraine, and has had a different approach to handling tensions between his Ukrainian and Russian fans. Born in Russia but then moving to Ukraine at the age of two in 1990, he grew up speaking Russian first, with much of his music being sung in Russian. His music combines dance, funk, jazz, and EDM influences to create a unique dance-pop style.

In 2017 the music video for his song “Collaba” was released. It was filmed in LA; part of an attempt to reach a wider audience of listeners. He was criticized by some Ukrainian fans for wearing a skirt and heels in the video. (Satenstein 2017) Months later  he then performed in Russia, shockingly wearing the same attire. To many people’s surprise, he was not arrested.

Picture of Ivan Dorn, taken by Sasha Maslov for the New York Times July 7, 2022.

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Dorn received criticism in Ukraine for continuing to sing in Russian and tour in Russia. He argued that he was just trying to mend the divide between the two countries, even referring to Ukraine and Russia as “younger and older brothers”. This comment did not bode well with Ukrainian news publications. (Yakutenko 2017) At a concert in Moscow in 2016 he told the crowd, “There is nothing between us, nothing but friendship,” and the audience cheered. (Nechepurenko 2022) Following the Russian invasion into Ukraine in 2022 though, Dorn has committed to support Ukraine, cutting ties with Russian companies and taking his music off Russian streaming services. (Nechepurenko 2022)

Although hip hop originated in the U.S., its themes of resilience, strength, and fighting against oppression resonate strongly across the world. In Ukraine, it has been one of the biggest genres for years, with even the unofficial anthem of the Orange Revolution in 2003 being a rap song. Much of modern Ukrainian rap and hip hop is similar to that found in the U.S. in terms of its style, but carries strong themes of opposition to and protest against Russian aggression. The song “шо ви браття”, or “So What’s up Brothers?” by Jockii Druce is a notable example of modern rap being used as a form of protest during the war, with explicit lyrics calling his fellow Ukrainians to rise and fight. The song has gone viral in Ukraine during the war. (Ruble 2022)

Throughout history music has been used as a kind of protest and expression during war and other times of intense social change. During the war in Ukraine there have been many instances of citizens utilizing music in this way and showing resilience. For example, the National Philharmonic of Ukraine in Kyiv has continued to play concerts even with the city under siege and many of their musicians being drafted. The marketing director at the Philharmonic, Taras Ostapenko, said, “I think people are looking for an exit from this… And they find somewhere to go to forget about war.” (Mulhall 2023) “Many of them feel they need it for medicine, to cure their spirit.” By continuing to play, the orchestra is not just doing their job. They are providing hope to people and showing that even during the war they will play on. It is also a reminder of Ukraine’s culture, evermore meaningful when they are fighting against Russia. (Hernández 2022)




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Being Ukraine by Ian Splaver, Sydney Luna, and Jack Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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