Zachary Senick: Uncovering Ukrainian chamber music

Zachary Senick: Uncovering Ukrainian chamber music

My Background & Inspiration

I am a bassoonist originally from the prairies (Western Canada) and began playing bassoon in high school when I was 16. I immediately fell in love with the instrument. One element that really fostered this passion for playing the bassoon was chamber music. It allowed me the chance to make music on an intimate level and really get to know and develop deep relationships with my colleagues. This has led to many of my fondest memories from my musical studies being the experiences I had playing in quintets. To this day, I always look forward to any chamber playing and concerts I have upcoming in my calendar.

Zachary Senick. Photo by Catherine Tan

Photo by Catherine Tan

During my masters, COVID-19 hit and the music world shut down completely, leaving no gigs or audiences, and difficulty finding students to teach. Due to this closure, I decided to look into starting a doctorate until things returned to normal again. Once I started applying to these doctoral programs, I realized I needed a topic to research and write a dissertation on. I began pondering different ideas and made a realization that corresponded with my identity. Coming from a Ukrainian background with my family originally from Stari-Kuty, Ivano-Frankivsk oblast and Sydoriv, Ternopil oblast in Western Ukraine, I realized I had never heard of or played any classical music by a Ukrainian composer before. I began doing some research and found there were hundreds of Ukrainian composers with prolific catalogues of music, which even included bassoon and wind chamber music, particularly wind quintets and quartets. This led to the main problem and hurdle in my research: obtaining the scores. This led me on my journey of building a catalogue of solo bassoon and wind chamber music. This began my journey of tracking down as many of the scores possible that I could find by Ukrainian composers.

OTTAWA, ONTARIO: Zachary Senick. Photo by John-Finnigan Lin

OTTAWA, ONTARIO: Photo by John-Finnigan Lin

The Journey of Finding the Music

The first hurdle I encountered in tracking down music by Ukrainian composers was accessing information. Basically all of the information regarding Ukrainian composers is written in Ukrainian using the Cyrillic alphabet, and there are very few resources published on Ukrainian wind music. At first, this research was a daunting task as I did not know the language. However, taking a couple Ukrainian classes, I can now read well and write at a basic level, which helped me find information. First I started with Google searches in Ukrainian. Then, I started reading about Ukrainian composers in different encyclopedias and handbooks, such as the National Union of Ukrainian Composers membership books. From there, I began compiling a list of works for my catalogue.

The second hurdle I encountered is that the majority of this music is unpublished and only exists in a manuscript, meaning every piece is physically located in a different location. Therefore, tracking down the music has involved sending lots of emails to find a lead on each piece’s location, such as finding contact information if the composer is living or if a library or organization they were associated with might have the music. I started contacting composers whose contact information I could find online. This was when my research began to snowball, as most people I spoke with were able to provide me with contact information for another composer, librarian, or family member of a deceased composer who could help me track down these scores. I slowly found one piece at a time through this process, which was often the handwritten manuscript.

First page of the manuscript of Oleksandr Albul’s Little Suite for Wind Quintet

First page of the manuscript of Oleksandr Albul’s Little Suite for Wind Quintet

Over the last three years, I have been in contact with over 50 composers, many family members, librarians, and organizations. Finally, I contacted Ukrainian bassoonists and musicians who premiered many of these works and have helped provide scores and information on the pieces. I have also had the opportunity to meet a few composers in person who have visited or moved to Canada, such as Dmytro Kyryliv, Alexander Jacobchuk, and Nadya Poklad. During my research I have developed relationships with these composers by performing and promoting their works. This has led to two main projects. First, performing three recitals that included over an hour of bassoon and piano music by Ukrainian composers, and secondly, recording woodwind quartets by Ukrainian composers.

SASKATOON, SASKATCHEWAN: Quartet Recording Project August 2023 - Rowan Froh (flute), Glenda Lindgren (oboe), Zachary Senick (bassoon), and Allie Harrington (clarinet). Photo by Walter Hofmeister

SASKATOON, SASKATCHEWAN: Quartet Recording Project August 2023 - Rowan Froh (flute), Glenda Lindgren (oboe), Zachary Senick (bassoon), and Allie Harrington (clarinet). Photo by Walter Hofmeister

These projects have resulted in the commissioning of eight different pieces (5 pieces for bassoon and piano and 3 pieces for woodwind quartet) written for me by living Ukrainian composers: Dmytro Kyryliv, Sergei Pilyutikov, Andriy Lehki, Dmytro Demchenko, Renata Sokachyk, Tatiana Stankovych and Volodymyr Chernenko.

TORONTO, ONTARIO: Zachary Senick with composer Dmytro Kyryliv

TORONTO, ONTARIO: With composer Dmytro Kyryliv

Characteristics of Ukrainian Classical Music

Ukrainian classical music has a long history dating back to what is now termed as the “Cossack Baroque” that was inspired by folk elements with the popular genre of Duma emerging. Dumy consist of a singer unfolding a story in a recitative style with a melody based on folk songs but modified by the influence of syllabic poetry. These Dumy were often accompanied by a folk string instrument, commonly the bandura. This strong element of folk incorporation into classical music has been a common basis for Ukrainian composers. The romantic era saw the beginning of a Ukrainian style led by Mykola Lysenko now referred to as “the father of Ukrainian national music.” Essential elements of the movement were to create a distinctive Ukrainian style based on folk elements such as rhythmic and melodic motifs, and a revival of the Ukrainian language in art song and opera setting texts by nationalistic writers such as Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko in order to separate the achievements of Ukraine from those of Russia.

A man playing the bandura (Adobe Stock Photo)

A man playing the bandura (Adobe Stock Photo)

Inspiration from this movement sparked a revival and new folkloric wave in the 1960s led by composers such as Lesia Dychko, Leonid Hrabovsky, Ivan Karabyts, Myroslav Skoryk, and Yevhen Stankovych. In this movement composers turned to folklore sources such as narodni pisni (folk songs) as inspiration, giving them a modern interpretation because of the strong importance they hold to Ukrainian identity. Skoryk said this movement was focused on representing the contemporary absorption and rethinking of the folk song. Therefore, the belief that folk music was a tool to express their unique voice in the face of oppression from the government. Modern Ukrainian composers today are still looking back to this movement and incorporating folklore and folk musical elements into their compositions to express their identity.

However, Ukrainian classical music saw a stylistic change in the 1960’s founded by the Kyiv Avant-Garde (Vitaly Hodziatsky, Leonid Hrabovsky, Valentyn Silvestrov, and Volodymyr Zahortsev), which went against the government guidelines and aesthetics of social realism being imposed. This movement involved Ukrainian composers becoming actively engaged with the post-war musical avant-garde spreading in the West such as dodecaphony, electronics, and musique concrète, which utilizes recorded sounds as raw material, often modified through audio signal processing and tape music techniques resulting in compositions combining varied auditory experiences into one artistic concept. This style flourished in the 1990s when Ukraine gained independence because they now had open access and communication with composers and organizations in the West for cultural exchanges and information. This resulted in composers utilizing various electronic configurations such as mixed music for tape, live electronics, video installations, and multimedia for their compositions.

Why are these Works Unpublished and Unknown Outside of Ukraine?

The reasons why Ukrainian music is not well-known outside of Ukraine is due to the complex political situation in Eastern Europe over the last couple hundred years, which is still ongoing with the current war. One factor for Ukrainian composers has been the issue of getting published. Ukrainian composers have battled against publication bans and censorship from various political groups invading their independence. For example, the Russian tsar Alexander II banned Lysenko’s Collection of Ukrainian Songs from publication. This continued further during the Bolshevik uprisings leading to the arrest of composers such as Kyrylo Stetsenko who was attempting to establish an independent Ukrainian music publishing house, separate from those controlled by Russia. Finally, during the Soviet Union, the government placed guidelines that imposed what was allowed to be published through their state-controlled publisher. Unfortunately, these political situations throughout history have often left Ukrainian composers without an opportunity to have their work published and distributed outside of their local circles and organizations.

Future of Ukrainian Music

I believe the future for Ukrainian music is very bright. As Ukrainian composers become more well-known outside of their homeland, it allows for a breath of fresh air to be brought into the Western canon of works often performed. Also, the new music modern Ukrainian composers are writing belong to such a wide genre of styles and aesthetics. I have been working closely with modern composers in Ukraine over the last couple years giving the world premiere of seven different chamber works and currently, working on the premiere of another three works. These composers find an interesting balance of incorporating elements of past movements and styles in Ukrainian classical music such as avant-garde, folklorism, formalism, and neoclassicism. They take these traditions and combine their own unique voice often with trends happening in Western classical music to create a new perspective within classical music. The diversity in Ukrainian classical music brings so much for a musician to discover and perform!

Myroslav Volynskyi's Quintet for Winds "Christmas."

Myroslav Volynskyi's Quintet for Winds "Christmas."

This has led to my work as an editor with Éditions Plamondon to help them create their new Slava Ukraini series to promote and celebrate Ukrainian classical music by publishing a diverse style of works, giving Ukrainian composers an opportunity to have their works become known by making them easily accessible for performers outside of Ukraine.

Read more about Zachary’s work as a bassoonist and scholar of Ukrainian music on his website: Recordings are available for several of the works he has commissioned.

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