Ukrainian Composers – Surprising Revelations No One Talks About

Ukrainian composers have composed some of the most popular classical music ever! However, audiences at classical music concerts often don’t realize that when they listen to this classical music, they are listening to music written by a composer with Ukrainian roots or influenced by the Ukrainian music tradition.

And so, classical composers such Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Stravinsky are labeled as representatives of Russian classical music. Instead, these classical music composers could just as easily be labeled as music composers of Ukraine.

Music licensing companies will promote their music in order to bypass the royalty free music that is readily available among classical music cds. But, did you know that Mozart music has a Ukrainian connection?

Ukrainian Composers?
Ukrainian Composers?


Read to Discover Ukrainian Composers

These are some of the surprising revelations no one mentions when discussing Ukrainian composers:

  1. A List of Ukrainian Composers
  2. Ukrainian Art Song Composers
  3. Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart – A Ukrainian Composer!?
  4. Igor Stravinsky – A Ukrainian Composer!?
  5. Sergei Prokofiev – A Ukrainian Composer!?
  6. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – A Ukrainian Composer!?
  7. The Ukrainian National Anthem Composer is Not Ukrainian?
  8. Ukrainian Composers – A Definition

What is the Definition of a Ukrainian Composer?

How do you define Ukrainian composers? And, who are Ukrainian composers?

In the traditional definition, a Ukrainian composer would be someone who:

  • was born in Ukraine
  • speaks Ukrainian as a native language
  • composed music in Ukraine.

Conceding that born in Ukraine means an individual born on the geographical territory which, at the present time, is recognized as the independent state of Ukraine – there are a surprising number of composers that fall into this category. If we begin to include in the born in Ukraine category, composers whose parents, grandparents and ancestors were born on the territory of Ukraine, then the number of Ukrainian composers increases even more.

Ukrainian Composer Definition
Ukrainian Composer Definition

Interestingly, there are those who insist that born in Ukraine can only be applied to those born after 1918, when the Ukrainian National Republic declared independence, the subsequent Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (1919 – 1991) was created and present-day Ukraine (1991 –) was recognized.

But, combining the geographical location and political administration is more complicated than it may first appear.

After all, do you realize that:

  • Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) was born in the French Empire (1804 – 1814), even though, today, his birthplace is in the Italian Republic (1946 –).
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) was born in the Holy Roman Empire (800 – 1806), even though, today, his birthplace is in the Republic of Austria (1945 –).
  • Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) was born in the Confederation of the Rhine (1806 – 1813), which was a protectorate of the French Empire (1804 – 1814), even though, today, his birthplace is in the Federal Republic of Germany (1990 –).

A succession of empires have ruled Ukrainian territory. Most of these empires have had elites and administrations that had no desire to encourage and support the local populations they subjugated.

A born in Ukraine definition that focuses strictly on the political administration of the geographical region at the time of birth, reflects the political views of the individual making the claim.

A narrow definition of Ukrainian composers and the opera and classical music that they wrote, serves an anti-Ukrainian agenda.


What Is the Story Behind the Ukrainian National Anthem?

The Ukrainian composer who wrote the music to the Ukrainian national anthem, Mykhailo Verbytsky (1815 – 1870), was born in the village of Jawornik Ruski, which at the time of his birth was part of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria (1772 – 1918), a crown land within the Austrian Empire (1804 – 1867). At the present time, the village is in the Republic of Poland (1989 –).

Verbytsky passed away in Mlyny, a village in which he served as a priest. At the time of his death, the village was within the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria (1772 – 1918), but by now within the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867 – 1918). Today, Verbytsky’s grave is on the territory of the Republic of Poland (1989 –).

Certainly, it is quite consequential for an understanding of Ukrainian composers, and particularly composers of classical music, to realize that the writer of the Ukrainian national anthem was born and died under Hapsburg rule within the Austrian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Verbytsky lies buried in Poland.

Mykhailo Verbytsky
Mykhailo Verbytsky


A famous “Russian” opera and ballet composer with Ukrainian roots?

Common wisdom holds that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) was a Russian composer. Indeed, even suggesting otherwise is considered by some to be engaging in revisionism and destroying what is the true historical record. Nevetheless, the situation is not black and white, or – Russian vs. Ukrainian.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s great-great-grandfather, Opanas Tchaika (? – 1709), was an officer in the Kozak Army and died from wounds sustained at the Battle of Poltava (1709).

The Battle of Poltava was fought between the Swedish Empire (1611 – 1815) forces of Carolus Rex (ruled: 1697 – 1718) and the Tsardom of Muscovy (1547 – 1721) forces of Petro I (ruled: 1682 – 1725). According to historian Theodore Mackiw (19181 – 2011), the Battle of Poltava was pivotal in the historical development of Ukraine. After the Battle of Poltava, the Tsardom of Muscovy occupied the territories of Ukraine and enforced increasingly greater restrictions on the locally administered Kozak Hetmanate (1649 – 1764). These restrictive policies eventually led to the complete subjugation of the Ukrainian people.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s great-grandfather, Fedir Tchaika (1695 – 1767), had a military career within the Kozak Hetmanate.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s grandfather, Petro Tchaika (1745 – 1818), was born in the Poltava region of Ukraine. In his lifetime, after the Kozak Hetmanate was completely subjugated. And so in 1785, in keeping with the traditions within the Russian Empire for receiving a noble rank, Petro Tchaika changed the family name to Tchaikovsky.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s father, Ilyia Tchaikovsky (1795 – 1880), was an engineer within the Russian Empire. His mother, Alexandra d’Assier (1813 – 1854), was of French descent and records show that she spoke exclusively in French to her children.


A Famous Soviet Composer Born in Ukraine?

Most music lovers associate Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) with the Soviet Union (1922 – 1991). But, it should be noted that, at the time of Prokofiev’s birth such a political entity didn’t exist. Recently, information has appeared that places Sergei Prokofiev as a representative of Jewish music (a new window will open). But, rarely does one hear or read the fact that Sergei Prokofiev’s place of birth, and indeed his roots, are Ukrainian.

Sergei Prokofiev was born in the village of Sontsivka which, at the time of his birth, was within the Katerynoslavsk Governorate (1802 – 1925) of the Russian Empire (1721 – 1917). Today, Prokofiev’s birthplace is in Ukraine.

Sergei Prokofiev’s father, Sergei Prokofiev Sr. (1846 – 1910) studied at the Petersburg Agricultural Academy during 1867 – 1871. At the time of his son’s birth, Prokofiev Sr. was responsible for the running of the Sontsivka estate.

Prokofiev’s mother, Maria Zhytkova (1855 – 1924) was born into a serf family in Sontsivka, which at the time of her birth was owned by the Sheremetev Family. Apparently, Dmitri Sheremetev (1803 – 1871), whose mother had been an actress and a freed serf herself, took particular interest in talented serf children. As such, Maria Zhytkova was exposed to music and the literary arts as a young child – a love she eventually passed down to her son.

Sergei Prokofiev
Sergei Prokofiev

Prokofiev’s mother, Maria Zhytkova (1855 – 1924) was born into a serf family in Sontsivka, which at the time of her birth was owned by the Sheremetev Family. Apparently, Dmitri Sheremetev (1803 – 1871), whose mother had been an actress and a freed serf herself, took particular interest in talented serf children. As such, Maria Zhytkova was exposed to music and the literary arts as a young child – a love she eventually passed down to her son.

Sergei Prokofiev was christened in Sontsivka’s local church of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 23, 1891. The church records duly state that both of Prokofiev’s parents were Orthodox Christians. His godfather was his father’s brother, Pyotr Prokofiev, a merchant from Kharkiv (which is a city in Ukraine). His godmother was his mother’s sister, Tatyana Zhytkova.

According to the records of the Central Statistical Committee of the Russian Empire, in 1886 (5 years before Prokofiev’s birth) the village of Sontsivka had 938 inhabitants. By 1897 (6 years after Prokofiev’s birth), there were 1228 people residing in Sontsivka.

In the 1920s, when the area became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (1919 – 1991), the village name of Sontsivka was changed to Krase. In Russian, krasne means red – the official colour of communism. On June 2, 2016, the village once again became Sontsivka, Ukraine.

Russian language biographies of Sergei Prokofiev often refer to the village of his birth as Solntsovka or Sontsovka. Additionally, many sources on the composer’s biography continue to use the Soviet name of Krasne for the village of his birth. Interestingly, Prokofiev himself, in his diaries and letters, preferred to use the Ukrainian language version of Sontsivka.


A Famous 20th Century Composer of Ukrainian Heritage?

Many classical music lovers are surprised to learn that one of the most influential composers of the 20th century had Ukrainian roots. Indeed, for some, claiming that Igor Stravinsky (1892 – 1971) is a Ukrainian composer is completely unacceptable. And yet, not only did Stravinsky have Ukrainian roots, his father was a Ukrainian patriot.

Igor Stravinsky’s grandfather, Ihnatij Stravinsky is said to have been a descendant of the Soulima-Stravinsky family who drew their roots from the 17th and 18th centuries and the central regions of Ukraine of the Kozak Hetmanate (1649 – 1764). Indeed, Igor Stravinsky chose to name his son Sviatoslav-Soulima (1910 – 1994) as a tribute to his family ancestry.

Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky’s father, Fedir Stravinsky (1843 – 1902) was born in the village of Holovyntsi, outside the city of Minsk, which at the time of his birth was within the Minsk Governorate (1793 – 1921) of the Russian Empire (1721 – 1917).

Fedir (Fyodor) Stravinsky:

  • was a bass singer who began his opera career at the Kyiv Opera
  • kept a diary and notes in both Ukrainian and Russia
  • had a large library which included many Ukrainian authors of his time
  • was said to be able to recite Taras Shevchenko’s (1814 – 1861) Kobzar from memory.

Fedir Stravinsky counted among his friends and frequently preformed the works of Ukrainian composers Mykola Lysenko (1842 – 1912) and Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893).

Igor Stravinsky’s mother, Hanna Kholodovska (1854 – 1939) was a native of Kyiv whom Fedir Stravinsky married in 1874 during his soujourn at the Kyiv Opera (1873 – 1876).


A Famous Mozart Who Spent A Major Part of His Life on Ukrainian Territory?

Until recently, no one would associate the famous classical music name of Mozart with Ukraine. But, this is changing.

Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart (1791 – 1844) was born in Vienna within the realm of the Habsburg-Lorraine Monarchy (1780 – 1918). Since his father passed away when he was only 4 months old, F.X.Wolfgang Mozart Jr. never really knew his father, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791).

Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart
Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart

In 1808 at the age of 17, Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart moved to Lviv (known at the time as Lemberg), the capital of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria (1772 – 1918), a crown land within the Austrian Empire (1804 – 1867). Mozart lived, taught, composed and performed in Lviv for the next 30 years – more than half of his life. And so, yes, Mozart music is very much a part of the Ukrainian music scene.


Where Can I Listen to Music by Ukrainian Composers?

Ukrainian composers have been labeled:

  • Russian (most frequently)
  • Soviet
  • Italian
  • French
  • Polish, and
  • other nationalities.

Today, some of this is changing due to the consistent work of a dedicated group of individuals under the auspices of The Ukrainian Art Song Project (a new window will open).

Ukrainian Art Song Project
Ukrainian Art Song Project

The Ukrainian Art Song Project was begun in 2004 in Toronto, Canada by baritone-bass Pavlo Hunka. Its mandate is to discover, record, preserve and promote 1,000 art songs by 26 Ukrainian composers.

The focus of the project is the art song:

“a poem of high literary quality set to music specified by the composer… Unlike the folk song, the art song is intended to be performed at a recital or in another formal concert setting…”

The quality recording of these works and availability of copyright free materials for others to use is bringing Ukrainian composers to light.


A List of Ukrainian Composers

A list of Ukrainian composers that people actively search and want to discover sometimes not realizing that they are Ukrainian composers:

  • Marusia Churai (1625 – 1653)
  • Maksym Berezovsky (1745 – 1777)
  • Dmytro Bortnyansky (1751 – 1825)
  • Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart (1791 – 1844)
  • Semen Hulak-Artemovsky (1813 – 1873)
  • Mykhailo Verbytsky (1815 – 1870)
  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)
  • Mykola Lysenko (1842 – 1912)
  • Mykola Leontovych (1877 – 1921)
  • Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)
  • Igor Stravinsky (1892 – 1971)
  • Borys Lyatoshynsky (1895 – 1968)
  • Myroslav Skoryk (1938 -)
  • Lubomyr Melnyk (1948 -)
  • Volodymyr Ivasiuk (1949 – 1979)

A List of Ukrainian Composers
A List of Ukrainian Composers

Text by Oksana A. Wynnyckyj-Yusypovych