Among Baroque Music Composers – One Special Female, Marusia Churai

Baroque music composers lived and created during the 17th and early 18th centuries.

Baroque period composers lived during a time when famous composers, as well as other artists, were dependant on the whims and tastes of the kings, emperors, tsars, princes… that they served. Italian composers dominated the group we today call Baroque composers. However, there were other royal courts and wealthy households, that encouraged music.

According to various oral and written sources (see below), the famous female composer, Marusia Churai, was a talented poet and composer, who impacted on other Baroque and Classical period composers. Churai’s influence on Ukrainian composers is only recently becoming understood and appreciated.


Discover One of the Great Female Baroque Music Composers


What Do We Know About the Baroque Music Composer Marusia Churai?

Marusia Churai was born in 1625 (some sources claim 1628 or 1629) in the City of Poltava in the eastern part of Ukraine. The City of Poltava lies on, approximately, the same geographical parallel as Paris, but 2,500km east of it.

Churai’s father, Hordiy Churai, was a Kozak territorial leader (equivalent to today’s designation of “warrant-officer”) within the Res Publica (1569 – 1795). In October 1638, Hordiy Churai was burnt at the stake in Warsaw as a traitor and insurgent. Marusia Churai, being between the ages of 10 and 13 (depending on the date of her birth), remained to live in Poltava with her mother, Horpyna Churai.

With time, Marusia Churai fell in love with a young soldier – Hryts. In 1648, as the Khmelnytsky Uprisings (1648 – 1654) began, Hryts joined the military forces promising to return so he and Marusia could marry. However, after 4 years in service, Hryts found a different love.

Churai was heartbroken and devastated. She obtained poisonous herbs and planned a suicide. Instead, during a final meeting with Hryts, he inadvertently drank the poisonous brew and, – died.

In the summer of 1652, the Court of Poltava tried Marusia Churai charging her with murder. Marusia was found guilty of causing the death of Hryts and sentenced to execution. However, at the last minute, a stay of execution was delivered from the leader of the Kozak Hetmanate (1649 – 1762/1782) – Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595 – 1657).

Most musicologists place Marusia Churai’s death later that year in 1652 or early 1653, from illness. Some speculate that Churai entered a monastery to live out her life atoning for her sins.

A talented female whose father was burned at the stake as a traitor, receives a reprieve from the commanding officer who later unites the Ukrainian lands into a conferederate state, becomes a heroic figure in her own right. What a story!

Marusia Churai (1986) by Feodosii Humaniuk
Marusia Churai (1986) by Feodosii Humaniuk


What Sources Are Available to Reconstruct the Biography of Marusia Churai?

There are those who claim that among Baroque music composers, Marusia Churai is a fictitious person (see below). Certainly, much of what we know about the life of Marusia Churai comes not from historical archives and documents but from literary works written after her death (much like the life of another famous composer – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

In 1839, the book One Hundred Russian Writers (Сто русских литераторов) was published and included the story «Marusia, the Ruthenian Sappho» («Маруся, малороссийськая Сафо»). The story relates the biography of Marusia Churai as outlined above. The book's author, Alexandr Shakhovskoy (1777 – 1846), had previously been the Head of the Imperial Theatre (1802 – 1826) in St. Petersburg.

Although a literary work, there is reason to believe that Shakhovskoy used the oral traditions of the Khmelnytsky family (the same Khmelnytsky's whose ancestor issued the stay of execution in 1652) to create his work.

According to Mykhailo Stepanenko, professor at the Tchaikovsky National Music Academy in Kyiv, Shakhovskoy collaborated with Mykola Khmelnytsky (1789 – 1845) on a number of theatrical productions. Mykola Khmelnytsky was the great-great-great grandson of Tymofiy Khmelnytsky (1632 – 1653) – Bohdan Khmelnytsky's eldest son.

I conclude that Mykola Khmelnytsky could have enlightened A. Shakhovskoy about the fate of Marusia Churai and her songs, as well as Ukrainian Kozak history. Mykhailo Stepanenko, 2017 (a new window will open).

Today, the greatest influence on promoting the story of Marusia Churai has been the historical verse novel (a novel written in poetry rather than prose), Marusia Churai (1979) by Lina Kostenko (b.1930). It has been staged a number of times in various theatres in Ukraine and, according to the Ukrainian World Congress Annual Report, 2014:221, even in Moscow in 2010 under the title The Girl of Legends.

If so, why female? And, if so, this says more about the rights of females during the 17thC on the territories of present-day Ukraine than about whether or not someone decided to create her.

Alexandr Shakhovskoy (1777-1846) and the Story of Marusia Churai
Alexandr Shakhovskoy (1777-1846) and the Story of Marusia Churai


What Impact Did This Baroque Music Composer Have on Other Composers?

The song Zasvystaly Kozachenky (Засвистали козаченьки) has long been considered a folk tune. Certainly, thre are even two titles for the song – Zasvytstaly Kozachenky (The Kozaks Burst Into Song) and Zasvit Vstaly Kozachenky (The Kozaks Got Up at the Break of Dawn) – which is a play on words in the Ukrainian language. Today, the words and music are correctly attributed to Marusia Churai (1625 – 1652/1653). The song was included by Mykola Lysenko (1842 – 1912) in his opera Taras Bulba. The overture to the opera Taras Bulba, arranged by Lev Revutsky (1889 – 1977) and Borys Lyatoshynsky (1894/1895 – 1968) in 1955, includes various musical themes from the opera, including the Marusia Churai tune.

The above opera video clip is from a performance of the Taras Bulba overture, including a choral rendition of the opera song attributed to the Baroque music composer Marusia Churai. Performed at Das Kurhaus Wiesbaden in Germany. Conductor and musical director – Myron Yusypovych.

The musical tunes and songs accredited to the Baroque music composer Marusia Churai are frequently labelled as 'folk tunes' (although such a concept didn't emerge until the mid 19thC). It is true that songs and tunes exist whose authors and composers are unknown. However, it is naпve to believe that folk tunes and folk music never had a composer. Of course someone initially composed these tunes. That we no longer know who this «someone» is – is a different matter.

Copyrights, giving cedit to individuals and acknowledging the contributions of others are all 20th-21st century concepts. During the Baroque Era (and later) credit was given to the monarch and those whom he designated as being worthy of such credit. Everyone else didn't really matter!


What is the Historical Background for Marusia Churai?

The Res Publica is commonly referred to as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569 – 1795). During it’s time, it was the largest and most populous “state” on European soil encompassing the lands of present-day Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia and parts of Estonia and the Russian Federation.

From 1569 to 1697, Old Church Ruthenian, which eventually became Modern Ukrainian was the official language of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Significantly, this is the period during which Marusia Churai lived, wrote poems and composed music.

Yakiv Ostrianyn (a.k.a. Jakub Ostrzanin, Яків Острянини), a leader of the non-registered Kozak's, instigated a popular uprising in March 1638, which was crushed in the summer of 1638 at the Battle of Zhovnyn (1638). The Ostrianyn Uprising (March – July, 1638) was provoked by legislation in parliament in Warsaw which forced not only the peasant population of Ukraine into serfdom, but also those Kozak’s who were not officially registered with the landowners, whose land rights were controlled by the crown.

The captured leaders, including Marusia Churai's father, were transported to Warsaw and executed as insurgents. This execution later inspired Nikolai Gogol (a.k.a. Mykola Hohol, 1809 – 1852) to write his novel Taras Bulba (1835), which eventually inspired Mykola Lysenko (1842 – 1919) to compose the opera Taras Bulba (1880-1891).

A Novel, An Opera and A Drama Inspired by a Baroque Music Composer
A Novel, An Opera and A Drama Inspired by a Baroque Music Composer

In 1648, ten years after Hordiy Churai, Marusia Churai's father, was executed as a participant in the Ostrianyn Uprising, the City of Poltava and the surrounding area became the center for the Khmelnytsky Uprisings (1648 – 1654).

Recently, archival documents have been released that suggest that indeed there was a trial in Poltava on June 18, 1652 (a new window will open) and presided by the judges names in ???. Another interesting document indicates the particular interest that Bohdan Khnelnytsky had for the song and music writers of his time. In September 27, 1652 (three months after the trial in Poltava), Khmelnytsky singned an edic 'to all musicians in the Trans-Dnipro area'

The documents testify to the use by Bohdan Khmelnytsky of the Kobzar musicians as disseminators of the ideas of the Kozak Revolution… There is additional evidence of this fact in the many epic poems and songs that have survived to our times. Mykhailo Stepanenko, 2017 (a new window will open).


Among Baroque Music Composers, Is Churai Real or Fiction?

There are those who claim that Marusia Churai is a conglomerate of many individuals – fused into one character. But then, there are also those who claim (and substantiate their claim) that William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) is a conglomerate (a fusion) of various individuals and that he actually didn’t exist.

Dympna Callaghan, professor at Syracuse University, addresses this point in her book Who Was William Shakespeare?, published in 2013.

That the established 'facts' of Shakespeare's life for which there is irrefutable documentary evidence are relatively few is a circumstance neither unusual nor one that tarnishes the veracity of the facts themselves. It is a 'fact' that, according to historians of the period, the survival rate for early modern documents is low and that Shakespeare lived in a world prior to the systematic, all-inclusive collection of data that provides the foundation of modern bureaucracy… (Callaghan, 2013)

When reviewing these theories and proposals we need to look not from the perspectives of the 21st century, but from the times in which the individual lived. During the 17th century (and, later) most people were illiterate and so, the oral tradition of drama and song was used extensively to educate and entertain. Additionally, history and tradition were passed down from the perspective of the anointed, hereditary leaders who were victorious in wars and conquests.

Most importantly, although today we view European history from the perspective of nations and nation states, the Baroque period is characterized by the domination of empires, specifically for the case of the Baroque music composer Marusia Churai – the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Marusia Churai (125-1653/1653) – Real or Fiction?
Marusia Churai (125-1653/1653) – Real or Fiction?

A list of other famous Baroque music composers you might want to explore:

  • Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)
  • Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741)
  • George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759)
  • Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is often labelled a baroque composer. Indeed, if you look at archived pages of this website you will find this mistake. (We've tried to clean it up. But there might still be some incorrect references. Sorry!)

Text: Oksana A. Wynnyckyj-Yusypovych


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