Music The Voice of Ukraine
Russia’s war against Ukraine is also a war against Ukrainian culture, which Putin considers non-existent. The Kyiv Symphony Orchestra has taken up the defence: Its musicians departed on a concert tour through Europe to raise awareness for Ukrainian culture. Can music communicate national identity?
It is March 2022. Russian forces are closing in on Kyiv and many people have already abandoned the city as the sirens sound day and night announcing air raids. Yet here they stand, out in the cold in the middle of the day, right in central Maidan Square, with their instruments: the musicians of the Kyiv Classic Orchestra, among them some musicians of the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra. With great determination they play the Ukrainian national anthem and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the hymn of the European Union. A video of their performance will later go viral, and the message could not be clearer: Despite the hail of bombs, we stand here to support a free Ukraine and accession to the European Union.
Music has always played a special role in times of war. It awakens emotions in citizens and soldiers – it is no accident that many armies have their own bands – and anti-war protesters gather to songs extolling peace or resistance. “Culture: that is identity,” journalist Roland Spiegel once wrote. “That is spiritual freedom. That is what dictators especially like to outlaw because free-thinking people stand in their way.” In the case of Ukraine, it is also about defending the right to exist: to show that Ukraine is an independent country with its own culture, own sense of self. That it is not, as Russia claims, part of Russia.
One month after the concert on the Maidan Square, the musicians of Kyiv Symphony Orchestra will get back together again and head out on the road – on a tour in the midst of a war. The 80 musicians and their administration teamdeparted for Poland in April 2022, then headed to Germany and later expanded their programme to other European countries. We talked with Liubov Morozova, the then artistic director of the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra (KSO). On a screen in front of the Dresdner Hofkirche, passers-by watch the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra’s performance in the Kulturpalast in April 2022. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/dpa / Robert Michael Mrs Morozova, shortly after the outbreak of the war, the KSO musicians decided they wanted to go on a concert tour of Germany. As Ukrainian men were forbidden to leave the country, the orchestra asked for a special permission to travel abroad. How did this idea come about?
The idea was very simple. For a long time, Ukraine’s culture has been in the shadows. Russia’s long-lasting colonial policy has meant that Ukraine has been perceived through the narratives of Russian propaganda both in Russia and, let’s be honest, in Western countries as well. With the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops in an attempt to destroy Ukrainian sovereignty and identity, showcasing our culture has become especially important. Our idea to go on the “Voice of Ukraine” tour was supported by the ministry and our men were allowed to leave until the end of the tour. Those who are not involved in our new programmes in other European countries have already returned to Ukraine.
How can music give a nation a voice?
Music can enter the listeners’ hearts by the shortest route. This is not pathos, it’s a fact, and its impact is almost medicinal. The symphony pieces that we selected for the tour are sound documents from the most important periods of Ukrainian history: music from the Cossack Hetmanate – the Cossack state in the 17th and 18th century – by composer Maksym Berezovsky, from resistance to the Stalin’s regime by Borys Lyatoshynsky and the symbolic song of Independent Ukraine, composed 10 years before the collapse of the USSR by Myroslaw Skoryk.
Your decision to exclusively play music by Ukrainian composers is also a reaction to Putin denying Ukraine cultural and political autonomy. Can music communicate national identity?
Yes, of course. The music of Romanticism – the era of self-awareness of nations – has pronounced national characteristics, for example.
Many classical pieces of Romantic music were influenced by the respective folk music or inspired by the typical folklore of a country.
Exactly. We are defending the ideals of the French Revolution again today. Our performances are filled with strong energy, which the audience feels, of course.
Has your personal perception of music and its cultural roots changed since the Russian attack on your homeland?
Yes, music gives me the opportunity to relive those feelings that I hide in real life. This is lifesaving therapy – not just for me. After the concerts, Ukrainians from the audience used to come up to us and say: “Thank you for the music, today I was able to cry for the first time since the full-scale invasion. All this time my feelings were frozen, and it’s only now – thanks to my native music – that I feel alive again.” Pianist Antuanetta Mishchenko, known by many as the “muse of the Maidan”, plays the piano on a barricade in front of the riot police line during the Maidan protests in Kyiv in February 2014. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/dpa/Sergey Dolzhenko Several Ukrainian musicians’ performances have lately become known far beyond the country’s borders. There were the Eurovision Song Contest winners, videos of people singing and playing in the bomb shelters and the before mentioned orchestra performance in Maidan Square. What is the symbolic role of music in this time of war?
If you remember, music played a very important role during Euromaidan in 2013/2014. Protesters were in the streets for months demanding President Viktor Yanukovich’s resignation and that the government sign the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement. In February 2014, they succeeded. Pianos made by the instrument manufacturer “Ukraina”, painted in the national colours of yellow and blue, became one of the Euromaidan symbols. Protesters played on them in public, in the streets and right on the barricades (you can read more about Ukraina pianos during the protests in my text “Sounds of Maidan”). Now there is live music again at the front and in the bomb shelters. It gives people a sense of peace and confidence.
Are there songs that have become iconic for Ukrainians in this difficult time?
Yes, quite a few of them. For instance, the march of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army Oi u luzi chervona kalyna (“Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow”) or the gentle traditional song Nich yaka misiachna (“What a Moonlit Night”).