Borys Liatoshynskyi – Unrecognized Genius of the Ukrainian Classic Music

Max Chukhlib

Borys Liatoshynskyi is one of the most important composers for Ukrainian music because he lay the basis for Ukrainian classics. He had to compose his music at the time of the USSR cultural terrorism and experienced heavy criticism from the “Party” composers. Nevertheless, he could start the modernism trend in Ukrainian music and develop the whole generation of the music sixtiers, now called Kyiv Avant-garde.

Read about the founder of the Ukrainian musical modernism of the 20th century and find out the significant role in Ukrainian music played by Borys Liatoshynskyi.

A breath of fresh air for Ukrainian classics

When mentioning academic music, it is often supposed that Ukrainian classics has appeared in the 19th century. They say that if the operas Zaporozhets za Dunaiem  by Semen Hulak-Artemovskyi and Natalka Poltavka by Mykola Lysenko have already existed, then the count of the Ukrainian composers’ schools should be done from those times.

This is partially true because there should be a unity of traditions that would be passed from generation to generation by the artists. Ukrainian composers-romanticists of the 19th century couldn’t form a single standard of Ukrainian academic music and pass it to their offsprings. It was not possible under the conditions in which colonial Ukraine existed.

Composer Leonid Hrabovskyi expressed the above opinions about Ukrainian classics. He also demonstrated that at the beginning of the 20th century a person who could launch the academic music evolution process in Ukraine appeared. This person turned out to be his teacher Borys Liatoshynskyi, a composer who gathered the romanticist influences of his predecessors in his art and compensated for the long-lasting absence of symphonism in Ukrainian music.

Liatoshynskyi was the student of Reinhold Gliere, a Kyiv composer of German-Polish origin. Most of all, the teacher impacted the musical outlook of ambitious Liatoshynskyi who wrote a debut symphony during the first national liberation struggles when he was about 23. For long the young composer couldn’t perform it until Gliere organized its performance in 1926 when he was a conductor. This composition was inspired by Russian composer Olexandr Skriabin and was the first professional symphonic work in Ukraine after “amateur” predecessors’ attempts.

After writing the first symphony, Liatoshynskyi was gradually getting deep into the western cultural context. The 20th century Ukrainisation was the reason for the cultural boom due to the access to European literature and music. So the composer tuned his own radio to Western waves, caught Munich and Warsaw, and tried to listen to the concerts of modernist music at that time doing his best to make his own style concurrently.

Borys Liatoshynskyi is one of the most meaningful composers for Ukrainian music. After catching up with romanticism and writing the first five professional monumental symphonies in Ukrainian classics, at the same time he could push the modernism trend in our music. In Soviet times, he modernized it with innovations unknown before. He was the first to start expanding the horizons of harmony and using atonality in the compositions on our land.

Before Liatoshynskyi we had no composers-symphonists of the same scale as Richard Wagner and Dmytro Shostakovich on the one hand and modernists like Bela Bartok, Ihor Stravinsky, and Karol Szymanowski on another hand. Having combined two current musical directions in his work, Borys Liatoshynskyi became a breath of fresh air in the totalitarian Soviet suffocation times of the 20th century. Besides, he found the opportunity to pass on his knowledge to the next generation. Since he had the students from the Kyiv Avant-garde group who later launched the process of the Ukrainian academic music decolonization.

The most significant of all this is that Mr. Borys has contributed greatly to creating Ukrainian academic music as we know today.

Creative process during the cultural terrorism

Liatoshynskyi’s life consists of vicissitudes of the coherent work over the Ukrainian music development as opposed to the Soviet socialist realism and heavy criticism of Party composers and critics.

Boris Lyatoshinsky’s relations with the Soviet government resemble the ones of the director Olexandr Dovzhenko and poet Maksym Rylskyi. Similarly to these artists, the composer was the laureate of various communist awards, wrote compositions on the government order, and from 1939-1941 he was even the head of the Union of Composers of Ukraine. However, like the above figures (who were his friends and colleagues), the composer tried to find the basis for the functioning of Ukrainian culture. For sure, he didn’t belong to the cohort of the obedient Party composers who never dared to disobey orders of the Central Committee.

“In 1939 Liatoshynskyi wrote a Solemn Cantata dedicated to Stalin. In one of the compositions listed together with composer Victor Samokhvalov opposite to this one it is noted that ‘the manuscript is lost.’ We can only guess now what Borys had to go through while writing the cantata and whether he ‘helped’ the manuscript get such status.

Since neither in public nor in private, he praised the government with odes. The only thing he was to do in public is to agree with the critique of his works and condone the fact that they were being withdrawn from the repertoire. As the government considered them to be too formalistic”,

Tetiana Homon, a curator of the cabinet museum of Borys Liatoshynskyi in Kyiv, said.

For about all his career, Liatoshynskyi had been criticized by party leaders, he had to work in times of political and cultural terrorism. The composer’s works were “awarded” by the title “formalist,” far from people’s taste, accentuated on intellectuality, not accessibility. That was the cultural politics of the Soviet Union – to destroy all the manifestations of creativity and freethinking in any kind of creative activity. Meanwhile, in the Third Reich, the very same art was called “Bolshevist.”

“The struggle with formalism” related to almost all the USSR cultural figures who tried to modernize their works with the western impact. For instance, in 1948 the Communist Party issued a decree about the Opera The Great Friendship by Vano Muradeli. It also listed Dmytro Shostakovysh, Serhii Prokofiev, Aram Hachaturian and Borys Liatoshynskyi. In the decree, the communists blamed modernist composers. Later on, they were criticized by their colleagues-composers who supported the party along with the music critics.

I am dead as a composer and I don’t know if I will ever resurrect.

“The antipeople formalist direction in Ukrainian music art was noted primarily in the works of composer Liatoshynskyi. His Second Symphony is peculiarly out of place with the artistic tastes of Soviet people.

The work is disharmonious, cluttered with thunderous orchestra sounds depressing a listener. As for the melody, it is deprived of any color,”

— such a sarcastic review of a communist critic about Liatoshynskyi’s works was found in the Soviet Art edition.

The climax of the composer’s confrontation against Soviet cultural politics was The Third Symphony, which was first performed in 1951. Liatoshynskyi wrote it under the impression of World War II. However, he did it according to his mood and feelings not solemnly victorious as the Communist party wanted but more of anti-war-like. In the epigraph to it, the composer wrote, “The peace always wins the war.” All at once, the symphony was called “the formalist rubbish” and Liatoshynskyi himself started getting accused of being a “bourgeois pacifist.”

For the modernist composer, The Third Symphony was nearly the most significant in his work as it depicted the evolution of his style which combined melodic elements with atonal and experimental ones. This masterpiece of the Ukrainian music modernism of the 20th century could exist and be performed in the future due to the fact that Liatoshynskyi rewrote the last part of the symphony. The tragic part was transformed into an artificially elevated and got social realism mood.

Sometimes the hysteria around “formalism” became absurd. According to the words of Iia Tsarevych, Liatoshynskyi’s niece, in 1948 at one of the decree meetings Mr Borys came up to the instrument and played an accord, asking the colleagues if they considered it formalist and out of the place. The majority replied, “Yes, sure, what a weird harmony!” Then Liatoshynskyi said, “This is Beethoven, though!”, and silently took his seat.

As time went by, the conditions for the composer’s creative work improved. Khrushchev Thaw gave him the opportunity to display himself in The Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. They were no longer so severely criticized and Liatoshynskyi himself gained greater public recognition.

Nevertheless, after the hypocritical and unjust judgment of the Third Symphony, one of his most genius works, he wrote to his teacher, Reinhold Gliere, “I am dead as a composer and I don’t know if I will ever resurrect.”

“One cannot affirm that Liatoshynskyi was an unknown composer in the Soviet Union. Despite the mark of a ‘formalist’ and heavy criticism of his Second and Third Symphonies, Borys started getting recognized as an outstanding composer of that time already after Stalin’s death. They let him out abroad to international contests as a jury member of the USSR, to perform his music in socialist countries. We are very lucky that Liatoshynskyi hasn’t moved to Moscow or St. Petersburg then and continued developing and gaining more recognition. Today we can consider him a 100% Ukrainian composer”,

— Tetiana Homon says.

Kyiv Avant-garde. New hope
In the 1950s, being already an elderly man, Liatoshynkyi became a teacher at the Kyiv Conservatory. He was teaching composition, harmony, and orchestration. By that time he seemed to realize that it was impossible to freely create and perform modernist music in the Soviet Union. But the start of the Thaw caused the conditions under which Borys could educate a new generation of Ukrainian composers who could continue what he began.
Valentyn Sylvestrov, Leonid Hrabovskyi, Vitalii Hodziatskyi, Volodymyr Zahortsev, and other Liatoshynskyi’s students had more opportunities than their teacher to learn and perform up-to-date academic music. They admired the dodecaphonic and aleatoric techniques which could be heard in the world-famous composers’ records and notes brought by the conductor Ihor Blazhkov. Later on, the above-mentioned Conservatory students became famous as the Kyiv Avant-garde that you can get to know about here.

Being a modernism pioneer in Ukraine, Liatoshynskyi started teaching young enthusiastic avant-gardists. Maybe, he hoped that they would do for Ukrainian music what he wasn’t allowed to. But according to the memories of Leonid Hrabovskyi’s student, the composer always emphasized that atonal harmonies should be combined with tonal melodic ones. It’s like “you won’t cook a dish of pepper only.
The other composers of Kyiv Avant-garde also remembered their teacher. Valentyn Sylvestrov called Liatoshynskyi one of the most outstanding world composers of the 20th century and mentioned that he was already “like an alien from another planet” while writing his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. Vitalii Hodziatskyi described Liatoshynshskyi as a phlegmatic, emotionally distant person who, nevertheless, had an ironic sense of humor.
«Once at the meeting of the Union of Composers, they were inciting everyone against Western music. A party composer was making a speech that young Soviet composers must be distracted from ‘the destructive manifestations’ of the works of Schoenberg (an avant-garde composer) who brought music to absurdity. All applauded but Liatoshynskyi uttered a legendary phrase, ‘This man knows about Schoenberg as much as Schoenberg knows about him!»
— composer Vitalii Hodziatskyi told The Claquers.

When Kyiv avant-gardists, the same as their teacher, has to suffer harsh critique in the press or at the meetings of the Union of Composers, Liatoshynskyi protected his students’ rights to experiment in music. Therefore, the government’s reaction to the creative work of Kyiv Avant-garde was even crueler than their teacher came through. They were dismissed from the Union of Composers; they were restricted in their creative activity. Actually, Kyiv avant-gardists were deprived of earning their own living in the professional sphere.
“…they gathered the composers in the Conservatory and organized an audition (of my work). Hlib Taranov said, ‘This composition will be on the shelf!’ and Liatoshynskyi replied, ‘We are all shelvers here.’ He continued protecting me considerably, especially from the party activists and careerists who started accusing my work of being absolutely antipeople, atonal, and the like. Like an eagle, Liatoshynskyi was protecting his chicks. That’s how I remembered his brightest demonstration in public,”
— composer Leonid Hrabovskyi in his interview for  «UA:Ukrainian radio».

No matter what the fates of Liatoshynskyi’s students were like, their teacher played his role right. He provided the heredity of generations of Ukrainian music and educated the students of the Kyiv Conservatory who became world-class musicians. If it wasn’t for Liatoshynskyi, the world wouldn’t have recognized the talent of Valentyn Sylvestrov, one of the most popular composers of contemporary times. Borys Liatoshynskyi passed away on April 15, 1968, at the age of 73.

Recognition of Liatoshynskyi after independence. The comeback of the genius

Returning Borys Liatoshynskyi’s name into the broad musical field of Ukraine nowadays is extremely important. He founded the basis for the modern Ukrainian classics at the times of cultural terrorism and educated the generation of the composers, sixtiers, under ill-timed circumstances, when the Kyiv Conservatory management was loyal to socialist ideals.

Now Liatoshynskyi deserves to be added to the pantheon of the most noteworthy composers of all times and take the place of honor next to Mykola Lysenko, Mykhailo Verbytskyi, Myroslav Skoryk, Valentyn Sylvestrov, and Yevhen Stankovych.

Fortunately,  in 2022 the major part of Liatoshynskyi’s creative work became accessible to an ordinary listener. In 1994 the National Symphonic Orchestra of Ukraine managed by an American conductor of the Ukrainian origin Theodore Kuchar performed and recorded all five symphonies of the composer. Afterward, they were released on CDs with Marco Polo (the American brand specializing on classic music). So now Liatoshynskyi’s symphonies are present on streaming platforms.

In 1995, Borys Liatoshynskyi Prize was founded in Ukraine. These steps were necessary in order to rehabilitate the composer’s achievements, though, since then his music has stayed in the shadow.

Since 2010 the process of recognizing Liatoshynskyi has gradually been taking place, partly due to the State Prize named after him. In 2011 the National Symphonic Orchestra performed all his five symphonies conducted by Volodymyr Sirenko. Besides, in Ukraine, Borys Liatoshynskyi’s cabinet and the museum have been open for visitors. It is taken care of by the composer’s descendants, the Homon family. This is the place where the composer lived and worked, and it’s preserved the same as it was during his lifetime.

Voices. The Ukrainian music of the 20th and 21st centuries was played by conductor Luigi Gaggero. (Photo by Alina HARMASH.) “

Cultural initiatives associated with Lyatoshinsky’s name were extremely useful. For example, in 2018, a series of concerts took place in Vorzel (the town where the composer used to rest) under the auspices of Kyiv Music Fest with the slogan “Lyatoshinsky unites.” Shortly before the full-scale war, they also founded the Lyatoshinsky Club, whose purpose is to find, publish and perform the legacy of Ukrainian modernist composers.

All-Ukrainian Competition of Young Composers named after Borys Lyatoshinskyi was also created. In addition, there are more and more requests to perform his music in Europe, because music during the war became a powerful tool of cultural diplomacy.

The return of the genius to the Ukrainian cultural space continues. Ignoring the true significance of Lyatoshinskyi began in Soviet times, but it still happens in part to this day. It is worth confidently putting a logical end to the history of not recognizing the genius of Borys Lyatoshynskyi and honoring the work of all those who discovered the composer for Ukrainians. And now, when the discussions about renaming the National Music Academy of Ukraine named after P. I. Tchaikovsky are being held, his name should be given to this institution – where Borys Lyatoshynskyi worked and educated a new wave of Ukrainian music classics.

Translator: Inna Khrystych (+380993094694)

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