Skoryk, Sylvestrov, Stankovych: three legends of the contemporary classical music

Max Chukhlib

Academic music has long ago become an important factor to assess the level of the country’s cultural development. It has always been crucial for European countries to have composers or schools of music at the forefront of their cultural diplomacy. 

Ukrainian academic music, though, has rarely witnessed favorable conditions for thriving. Ask someone about Ukrainian modern academic composers, and you will most often hear the names of Lysenko, Leontovych, or Hulak-Artemovskyi. However, the times of the founders of Ukrainian academic music are gone – and many musical trends have passed since then.

For so many years, the names of great composers and their remarkable works have remained uncovered. In this article, we’ll tell you about the legacy of the three most prominent modern composers of Ukraine: Myroslav Skoryk, Valentyn Sylvestrov, and Yevhen Stankovych.

The notion of modern classical or contemporary classical music is used for academic music that has been written since 1945. Over the decades, it has been changing drastically – from Avant-garde, Neo-romanticism, Historicism, and Minimalism to Postmodernism with genres and styles being mixed and academic music incorporating jazz, pop, and rock elements.

Ukrainian music of the 20th century has always followed global trends and has been in the same cultural space as European music, in spite of the regular pressure of the Soviet totalitarian authorities to “secure” it from “bourgeois” influence. Soviet critics have accused Western European music of excessive attention to technologies and progress, judging its experimental nature and distance from the “proletarian tastes.”

Even though Ukrainian composers managed to run away from social realism into art, after the Independence of Ukraine has been proclaimed, the mass audience had a vague understanding of the great national composers. The vision began to form due to the new generation of the Ukrainian musical community (composers, performers, art managers, and producers) as well as the emerging local classical music festivals and new Ukrainian cultural institutions. In 2016 there emerged a three-S formula: Skoryk-Sylvestrov-Stankovych, with a series of concerts having taken place to perform the works of these composers.

Myroslav Skoryk

The most well-known composer and yet the most underrated one by the audience, Myroslav Skoryk, died in 2020. He has become an absolute “audience favorite” thanks to his world-famous Melodiia (Melody). In fact, his legacy includes far more captivating works.

Different periods of Skoryk’s musical works demonstrate the influences of Neo-romanticism, Neo-classicism, jazz, and even academic Avant-garde (serialism and dodecaphony). However, the composer has never followed Avant-garde and hasn’t been into atonality that was admired at that time. His favorite composers were Dmitriy Shostakovich, Sergey Prokofiev, Karol Szymanowski, Claude Debussy, and Béla Bartók. Skoryk reinterpreted and modernized the works of these “tonal” composers.

“Skoryk mastered different eclectic genres, not limiting himself to one. It’s best to call him a polystylist or a postmodern composer since due to the combination of different genres and styles, his works sound like the end of the whole development of academic music. You can hear it most vividly in his Partita no. 5 which can be considered one of the best examples of polystylism,”

— Anatolii Bondarenko, composer, musicologist.

Like many composers of the 20th century, Skoryk often used folklore elements, especially Hutsul rhythms and melodics. He aimed at recreating the spirit of folk music without copying it directly. In the 1950s, Skoryk started a vocal-instrumental ensemble Veseli Skrypky (Merry Violins), and wrote songs for them, which also contributes to his image as a polystylist composer.

In the era of the mass transition of music from physical storage to digital devices, the art of Myroslav Skoryk is very up-to-date. He is one of the most popular modern composers whose works are often performed live but are barely available on streaming services (except for several albums from Naxos and Toccata Classics labels). If you want to listen to something other than Melodiia (Melody) or Karpatska Rapsodiia (Carpathian Rhapsody), you need to go the YouTube or look it up on physical devices.

Valentyn Sylvestrov

Sylvestrov is one of the Ukrainian composers who were well-recognized in the West – his music has been released by major labels like ECM Records and Deutsche Grammophon, and his works are performed by distinguished musicians around the world.

Sylvestrov’s path as a composer is worth a scrupulous study. He is a disciple of Borys Liatoshynskyi and Levko Revutskyi, his early works were influenced by Avant-garde and dodecaphonic music in the spirit of Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Arnold Schoenberg. Sylvestrov was one of the key representatives of Kyiv Avant-garde, the group of non-conformist composers that was active in the 1960s and followed the cutting-edge Western European trends of academic music.

The group was bullied by the music critics of that time. They were accused of “having their note heads faced towards the West.” In the end, many composers of the Kyiv Avant-garde group were excluded from the Union of the Composers of Ukrainian SSR, including Valentyn Sylvestrov, since his apartment was a place of gathering for avant-garde composers.

Being subjected to continuous stress, he didn’t give up on his individual style. However, eventually, he turned to different music – quiet, romantic, and highly introverted.

“Sylvestrov gradually became a very calm and minimalist composer. He is still relevant due to his unique talent since he always hears the music in his mind, and it seems like he feels the universe.

Sylvestrov’s works belong to meta music – they represent something transcendental and transparent,”

— Olha Lozynska, musicologist, cultural manager.

These days Sylvestrov’s music is performed globally, recommended by YouTube, and available on official Spotify playlists. You can find the full list of the composer’s works in his online archive on Bandcamp.

Valentyn Sylvestrov is a winner of a prestigious Shevchenko National Prize. He also composed music for Kira Muratova’s and François Ozon’s movies. Moreover, Sylvestrov is a favorite performer of Arvo Pärt, another outstanding composer of our time.

Yevhen Stankovych

Although revered in academic circles, Stankovych remains unknown to a wide Ukrainian audience. There’s not enough insight into a composer’s art online – one needs to gather the crumbs of information all over the Internet.

Music lovers also can barely “fight their way” through brief biographical info to listen to his works – there’s no chance to find them on streaming services. The most significant ones were released by Toccata Classics and Naxos labels, however, the rest of the compositions can only be heard in the concert videos on YouTube or on physical devices.

Stankovych was a polystylist, too. He was Borys Liatoshynskyi’s disciple and was into Avant-garde as a young man. However, he eventually transitioned to symphonic and chamber music. It’s his dramatic symphonic pieces influenced by Dmitriy Shostakovich, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and even Ludwig van Beethoven combined with Ukrainian melodics that are most valued as examples of Stankovych’s original style. Like Béla Bartók and Myroslav Skoryk, he absorbed Carpathian folklore and tried to recreate it in his works without including folk songs in his music pieces directly.

“Stankovych’s works carry broad symphonic breathing – a feature that is so rare these days, since the time of Shostakovich and Liatoshynskyi. The West has almost lost such full-scale music with its immense climaxes,”

Valentyn Sylvestrov said.

The quintessence of his style and talent is the postmodern opera Koly tsvite paporot (When the fern blooms). It was written in the 1970s at the request of French artists and was banned by the Communist Party during the dress rehearsal – the opera seemed too authentic and advanced. Stankovych incorporated in it everything he admired – folklore melodics and themes, monumental symphonism, and Avant-garde elements. The opera was performed on the big stage only in 2011.

Yevhen Stankovych’s Third Chamber Symphony was named “one of the world’s best artworks” by UNESCO. He also composed music for many “nostalgic” Ukrainian movies of the 80s and 90s, organized classical music festivals, and now he brings up a new generation of Ukrainian academic musicians in the Kyiv conservatoire.

Ukrainian modern classical music covers many more names and stories. Nevertheless, the wide audience hardly knows the performers of modern Kyiv and Lviv schools of composers. Kyiv Avant-garde that is as important for music as the Ukrainian Sixtiers for literature is yet to be discovered.

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