Listening to Ukrainian music: “Pastels” of Leonid Hrabovsky Translated by Lesya Lantsuta Brannman

For more than six decades, Leonid Hrabovsky’s evolution of music style has been like a winding broken line with clearly defined nodal points and sharp turns. New horizons opened after each of those turns, both for the composer himself and for Ukrainian music culture. Leonid Hrabovsky’s final exam piece was in the “new folkloristic wave” style, and he continued his composer’s career with dodecaphonic piano pieces and a few sonoristic works. In his mature period, Leonid Hrabovsky created a unique algorithmic compositional method which he first implemented “manually” and later using a computer.  These are the key unique points of his outstanding stylistic evolution. 

Leonid Hrabovsky’s most fruitful year throughout his entire musical career was in 1964. It was related to Ukraine’s political situation (Ukraine was a part of the USSR) at that time. The first half of the 1960s was affected by the wave of liberalization policies, which, albeit for a short time, replaced brutal repressions. Opening cracks to the free world appeared in the Iron Curtain, in particular in the cultural curtain, as access to scores, phonographic records of music by modern European leading composers and European musicological studies increased. The 29-year-old Leonid Hrabosky discovered the achievements of the New Polish School and the newest compositional principles, given the name sonorism in Polish musicology.

The composer rushed to master this new method of composition with great enthusiasm. During 1964 he created five vocal chamber and instrumental chamber opuses with a sonorous concept and began working on the melodrama “La Mer”.

Leonid Hrabovsky
Leonid Hrabovsky

One understands that a young composer with modernist aspirations and thirsty for radical changes had such a powerful creative passion. The new sonoristic compositional technique foretold a complete break with the dogmas imposed by communist party dictates, offering a new understanding of the essence of music.  The sound itself became the main musical unit with all the richness of its expressive potential. The traditional musical gravity of functional tonality disappeared, with focus on sound and timbre replacing it. The mosaic changeability of various types of musical texture from pointillist dots to cluster stripes became the main driver of organizing musical structures. Timbre was explored through a broad palette of unconventional methods of producing instrumental sounds. The strict framework of rhythmical organization was destroyed by spatial notation and the regularity of the musical text became selective thanks to numerical aleatoric techniques.

It is not surprising that the Polish researcher Tadeusz Zielinski, whose article inspired Leonid Hrabosky, called sonorism nothing else but a “new era” in the history of music. However, it is worth emphasizing that for European music this “new era” was a logical evolutional step (following Varèse’s idea of “liberation of sound”, the achievements of Futurist composers and the discoveries of Karlheinz Stockhausen). At the same time for Ukraine, where the Soviet ideological machine declared that Russian classical music was the only possible aesthetic style for composers to adhere to, this change truly happened by leaps and bounds.

Today, Leonid Hrabovsky is known as an apologist for algorithmic composition and a supporter of a rational approach to music writing. At the same time, among the works of the sonoristic period of his career we find music of extreme expression and poetics.

“Pastels” for soprano and four strings based on poems by Pavlo Tychyna is perhaps Leonid Hrabovsky’s most picturesque opus. This song cycle was written in the summer of the same “sonoristic” year of 1964. Words and music perfectly resonate with each other in this work. Tychyna wrote his “Pastels” when he was 27 years old and Hrabovsky composed his “Pastels” when he was 29 years old. For both, it was one of their debut opuses. Tychyna’s “Pastels” was published in his first printed collection of poetry Soniachni klarnety (Clarintes of the Sun, 1918). The poet and the composer, both strove for radical novelty and were literally creating a new language and new aesthetics. Additionally, in the context of the time, both seemed to “run into the last passenger car” as they managed to create their works at a time when it was still possible, before the onset of a great terror, in particular a cultural one, or during a period of its short-term softening.

Pavlo Tychyna
Pavlo Tychyna

It will be later that Tychyna will “kiss the slipper” of the communist leader (Joseph Stalin) (“Maybe it’s time for me to kiss the Pope’s slipper as well?”, “Antistrophe” from Tychyna’s collection Instead of Sonnets or Octaves, 1920, translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps) and become an “ideologically correct” poet, to which Yevhen Malaniuk stated bitterly that “a painted pipe is all that is left of your clarinet”. Nevertheless, in his first collection he is a singer of Beauty, a poet of “tender-toned” thoughts, “apple-blossomy” views and of “Taurus-like” dreams (translated by Michael M. Naydan). In his poetry, the word often becomes not so much the embodiment of meaning but a way to reveal sound as such and a way to listen to its beauty. As Vasyl Stus noted, in Tychyna’s early poems, “words mostly mean movement, mood, color and above all musical tone, timbre”.

Like looking into a mirror, the elusive images of this disembodied poetry are reflected in the equally disembodied sonoristic music of Leonid Hrabovsky. Just as in Tychyna’s poems, the holistic world breaks up into separate moments, fleeting moods, and impressions, captured by an attentive look, so the microcosm of each sound is revealed in music.

Tychyna’s poetry and Hrabovsky’s music are alike not only by their “sonorous” nature, but also to a certain extent, by their formal principles. Vasyl Stus, analyzing the poems of Tychyna’s first collection, noted that “there is a parallel running of several musical motifs, and a thought divided into different lines, with a duration of approximately one-sixteenth note <… >. Here the expression clearly doesn’t keep up with the feelings.” These words were applied to the poem “Zakucheryavylysya chmary” (“The Clouds Swirled into Curls”, translated by Michael M. Naydan), but they make sense as well for “Pastels”, especially for the second movement of the cycle.



The iron day

drank fine wine

Meadows, bloom! —

I, day, come

Herds, graze!

…to my loved one — day —

cradling cradles!

… during the day.

The iron day

drank fine wine.

(Translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps)


Images like streams, which are layered on top of each other and through which Tychyna’s “musical river” flows, are embodied in music via a rapid variability of types of musical texture and methods of sound articulation. After whispers come exclamations and after ecstatic vocal passages comes melodeclamation.  Each time there are newer shades of timbre color. For example, in the fourth movement the soprano part has the following composer’s instruction: “when producing each sound, beat a short, quick rataplan on your chest using both hands (it should sound fairy, quasi-tragic but with light humor)”.

The palette of sonorous methods of articulation in instrumental parts is also extremely diverse. Unintentionally, I recalled here the phrase that my eight- year-old pupil spoke impressed after hearing Leonid Hrabosky’s first sonoristic work, Trio for violin, double bass, and piano (1964), that “it turns out that a violin can play everything!”. That’s why this music is really like Tychyna’s “glowing-quivering river” (translated by Michael M. Naydan). It is vibrating, clinking, grinding, rustling, howling, knocking, and rushing in impulsive spontaneous aleatoric flows.

Four poems of Pavlo Tychyna’s cycle are accordingly dedicated to four parts of the day, Morning, Afternoon, Evening and Night. The music of the first movement is developed from delicate punctual music to ecstatic vocal passages in swirls of flageolets’ glissandos (the sun is rising!). The second movement, Day (“The iron day”, translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps) is based on active melodeclamation accompanied by discrete twelve-tone clusters in agile rhythmized movement. A transparent music texture of the evening pastorale of the third movement, embodied by tremolos, wavy string glissandos and a light rustling of flageolets’ is like an air movement (“Flutes swayed/where the sun set.”, translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps). The soprano part of the fourth movement embodies a trembling sound of night and sounds against a background of dense music texture created by the strings which are using microtones in their parts. The sounds slowly fade away into nothingness at the end of the work. 

Such music sounds as if it comes from subconscious and is like a voice from a dream. Unintentionally, one remembers other lines of Tychyna’s:

I was – not I. Just a thought, a dream.

All around are ringing sounds.

(Translated by Michael M. Naydan from the poem “Not Zeus or Pan…”)


It is interesting that in the same year of 1964 Tychyna’s “Pastels” attracted not only Leonid Hrabovsky but also two of his younger colleagues, Lesia Dychko and Ivan Karabyts. They also wrote song cycles based on the same poems by Pavlo Tychyna. It is significant that according to Leonid Hrabovsky, none of them knew each other’s intentions. We are not going to compare those three works. They are all different and each work reflects their author’s style at the time. However, it seems that the aesthetics of Leonid Hrabovsky, then a young innovator who mastered a music language of refined expression, became completely consonant with the vitality of the poetry of young Tychyna.

Unfortunately, the performance history of Hrabosky’s “Pastels” wasn’t as successful as one could wish, for this aesthetically perfected work. According to the composer, its premier in Ukraine took place only thirteen years after it was written, in November 1977, performed by Lidia Stovbun and the musicians of Kyiv Chamber orchestra. Later, the opus was performed at Leonid Hrabovsky’s recital at the Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow in February 1982. As the composer states, the soprano part was sung by “a unique performer of the modern music at the time, Lidia Davydova”. “Pastels” was also performed at the composer’s 75th anniversary concert at the National Union of Composers of Ukraine. The last performance, to the composer’s knowledge, took place on December 5th, 2013, at the Central State Archive-Museum of Literature and Arts of Ukraine in Saint Sophia Cathedral’s backyard.

Until recently, the “Pastels”’ score, like all other composer’s opuses, created at the peak of his sonorous period, existed in manuscript only. Only in 2020-2021 Muzychna Ukraina Publishing House presented a two volume Anthology of Ukrainian Music Avant-Garde, which included “Pastels” along with six other works by Leonid Hrabovsky.

In his time Vasyl Stus dedicated a lengthy article to Tychyna, where he called the tragic fate of his hero “a phenomenon of the era”. According to Stus, Tychyna’s change from a genius poet of the period of Soniachni klarnety (Clarinets of the Sun) to the “clerk of the literary office” of socialist pieces of propaganda, reliably demonstrates the spirit of the bloodthirsty era and the time of repression and persecution, which “made a genius to be a buffoon”.

Independent of Tychyna’s life drama, one unintentionally tries to fit Stus’s formula to the life and work of Leonid Hrabovsky. Being a scholar, an intellectual and an artist with modern views, Hrabovsky could have developed and become professionally accomplished as the Iron Curtain was cracking. Thus in 1964, a year of political thaw, he produced so much music. Then, in comparison to how an ideological machine tightened again its suffocating “embraces”, the intensity of the composer’s work gradually faded away, since his music was not fitting into the communist party’s permitted aesthetics. As a result, there were years of no new works and, ultimately, an emigration. Fortunately, in the last few years, Leonid Hrabovsky is again actively writing music, using completely new composition methods.

Nevertheless, following Stus, I will state, that Hrabovsky’s life and work, when Ukraine was a part of the USSR, were also bitter phenomena of that era.  During that era all a composer could do was to carefully hide scores of new, unique, and aesthetically perfected works of true art into his desk until “better times”, or have random performances of those works, or share his manuscripts with small circles of enthusiasts. It is because of that era that a group of talented artists, who under the right conditions could’ve become master composers of their times, remained little-known both in Ukraine and in the world.

There is a new era now. Among others, it is the 339th day of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Let the revival of Ukrainian music, the true, high, and valuable for Ukraine and the world become the phenomenon of our era.

Translations of extracts of Tychyna’s poems by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps ( and Michael M. Naydan (Pavlo Tychyna: The Complete Early Poetry Collections. Trans. Michael M. Naydan. London, 2017)

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