Dovbush: Behind the Scenes of the Soundtrack (Spoiler Alert!) Text by Nelli Samikova. Translated by Lesya Lantsuta Brannman

“Hollywood scale”, “A real Ukrainian blockbuster”, “The biggest Ukrainian movie that ends an era”, – such reviews can be found online for Oles Sanin’s Dovbush. This is well-founded. The film about the famous Carpathian opryshok is the most expensive in the history of Ukrainian cinema. A total of $3 million were spent on production, of which $2 million came from the state. Moreover, it was not only the scale of the funding that was impressive, but also the number of specialists involved in the making of Dovbush.

Oles Sanin came up with the idea to make this movie during the Revolution of Dignity (took place in Ukraine in February 2014), followed in 2018 by story development, work in the archives to enhance the story, and the full-fledged process of filmmaking. Many costume designers, actors and stuntmen were involved. About 50 locations were used for filming, with one of the mass scenes involving almost 600 people on the set at the same time. 

The work on the movie’s soundtrack was equally impressive. It involved two composers, three consultants in classical and ethnic music, and many musicians. About 5-10 hours of music were recorded, a small part of which we hear in the movie.

I had the opportunity to talk with Dovbush’s soundtrack composers, Alla Zagaykevych and Alexander Chorny, as well as Anna Gadetska, a consultant, and program director of the Open Opera Ukraine project. Below are details of the music and sound effects in Dovbush.

The beginning

Alla Zagaykevych began working on the film’s music in 2018, in parallel with the launch of the film. From the very beginning, the script included musical material. Wedding music, funeral music, Ukrainian and Romanian folk music, march music, and ceremonial fanfare military music were to be featured in the footage. 

This initial material became the starting point for the creation of the music for Dovbush. It required from a composer a clear understanding of the music’s historical and genre context and the intended use for each track. It was equally important for the director and the composer to convey the uniqueness of the different instrument sounds and voices. 

Considerable time was devoted to the search and selection of possible pieces for the film. The composer, Alla Zagaykevych, spent many hours with her consultant, Iryna Fedun, in the archives of the Lviv Academy, studying and listening to recordings of folk music specific to different regions, villages, and performers. They compiled lists of songs and melodies from these efforts.  

Ostap Kostiuk, a musician and director of the film The Living Fire (Zhyva Vatra), also joined the sound research. He helped find musicians who played in the right tradition and could play in the film. In the end, a band from Zamahora village was deemed to have “a very powerful instrumental lineup and a bright vocal group” and became involved in performing folk music for the film along with other musicians.

After gathering the necessary material in the archives, folklore expeditions began, during which variants of sounds were recorded, including several authentic recordings that were later included in the film. For example, the Arkan, which viewers hear in the scenes of a carriage robbery and opryshky’s dance, was recorded during the expedition, as well as the floyara melodies in the film’s opening subtitles. All other melodies were recorded in the studio.

Historical music was selected in parallel with the folklore expeditions, in this case, Western European baroque music. This historical segment was researched by musicologist Anna Gadetska, whom Alla Zagaykevych consulted personally. It was necessary to select fanfare music for the scene with Count Potocki, as well as gentle music for the erotic scene with Princess Jabłonowska. Both could be recorded by musicians specializing in historically informed performance. 

When choosing pieces that could be performed in the scenes with the Count and the Princess, Oles Sanin and Alla Zagaykevych considered not only the mood of the scenes, but also musicians in the shot, the historical era, and, no less important, the availability of music scores in the public domain. For the director and the composer, it was important to convey the spirit of the era in these two scenes. They therefore chose works by Jean-Philippe Rameau, the little-known Jean-Féry Rebel, and François Couperin.

The choice of French music in the scenes with the Poles was informed by historical research. Count Potocki, one of the film’s protagonists and a historical figure, was a supporter of the Polish King Stanisław Leszczyński who, after the defeat at Poltava, lived in France at the Court of Louis XV. In addition, Leshchyński’s daughter was married to the French king at the time. Count Potocki’s next patron, Augustus III, also spent some time at the court of Louis XV and traveled around France. 

According to Anna Gadetska, “France determined a lot of tastes. If we talk about Austria of the same chronological period, we will also feel this influence there, along with Italian ones. Therefore, the choice fell on French music, which is quite representative of this period”

The list of Baroque music pieces included those that historically corresponded to the period of Oleksa Dovbush’s life. Moreover, by coincidence, the composer Jean-Féry Rebel died in 1747, the same year as the famous opryshok.  

Recordings, musicians involved, and creation of soundtrack’s composition

In addition to preparing for recordings of folk songs and works by French composers, Alla Zagaykevych created her own music. One of the first melodies she composed was a march for two baroque flutes. The composer wrote it based on a German marching song and various marching rhythms, including those provided by experts in Polish marching music. 

Music samples were also created, such as the “breathing” that can be heard in some scenes involving the opryshky or the theme of Oleksa Dovbush, which had its timbres changed during the work on the film (first “classically”, performed on the floyara, but later, in the film, an arranged version on the lyre (lira)). 

There are several leitmotifs that can be distinguished separately in the film: the theme of Oleksa Dovbush, of Ivan and his band, of the opryshky, and of Marichka. Developing Marichka’s musical image, Alla Zagaykevych used acoustic and sampled violins and flageolet sounds to create a nostalgic and dreamy character.

However, it is difficult to clearly distinguish different leitmotifs, as this was not the goal of Dovbush. That is why all the music in the film is holistic, built on smooth transitions of melodies and the interaction of different timbres.

To create the necessary tone quality, which was extremely important for the film, a significant number of historical instruments of the relevant period were used. For example, copies of flutes, made by Heorhii Volodin, a master of ancient wind instruments who collaborates with the Chorea Kozatska, were used to record the march.

A variety of instruments, like lyres, floyaras, dudas, tsymbals, banduras, violins, brass and many percussion instruments helped to create a unique soundtrack of Dovbush.

The recording process began after the research, expeditions, and a list of pieces that were later included or remained in the working archives of the film were completed. Recording took place mainly in Kyiv and Lviv, although the Ukrainian theorist Oleh Chukhleb recorded the piece by François Couperin in Germany and Hordii Starukh, a lyre-maker and performer, worked on the recording of Oleksa Dovbush theme while in Poland.

Top Ukrainian musicians were involved in recording melodies and samples. Musicians who later formed the first professional Ukrainian baroque orchestra, the Kryla Orchestra, as part of the Open Opera Ukraine project (which unfortunately ceased to exist after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine), were invited to play French baroque music. The “voices” on the soundtrack are an ethno musician Maksym Berezhniuk (whose “breathing” we hear in the scenes with the opryshky), Susanna Karpenko, Serhiy Ochrimchuk, and others.

Alla Zagaykevych indicated:

“I found our recordings of opryshky music the most interesting. There were several versions, for example, a combination of out of tune tsymbals by an authentic folk performer, an authentic violin by Serhij Ochrimchuk, jazz drums by Alex Fantayev, authentic brass instruments by Maksym Berezhniuk, a “cheeky” cello by Viktor Rekalo, and an even more cheeky bass by Nazar Stets. In another version, Zoltan Almashi, Denys Karachevtsev, and musicians from Verkhovyna played by ear without music in Lviv”.

The musicians were also involved in the filming of the movie, because all the diegetic music (the music that sounds directly in the frame and is heard by the characters) was performed live in the frame. Of course, the final version used tracks recorded in the studio.


At the last stage of work on the movie, a composer Alexander Chorny joined the process of creating the soundtrack. Having already worked in the film industry, he noted that working on Dovbush‘s music was a new and interesting type of work, but undoubtedly challenging. The difficulty was not only in the need to introduce a fresh look into the material that had been developed over four years, but also in correctly grasping and fulfilling the director’s instructions. 

The director, Oles Sanin, didn’t evaluate the music for his film in simple “like or dislike ” categories. He gave the composers a specific task for each scene, the music of which should’ve followed from the previous scene, forming a coherent arch. In addition, certain abstract images or fleeting glances of the hero often had to serve to drive further development of the musical theme. Therefore, the work in the studio with Alla Zagaykevych and Oles Sanin was the most interesting.

Starting with the archive of recorded music, samples, fragments, and musicians, Alexander Chorny continued to work with the musical material developed by Alla Zagaykevych, processing it, combining it into a single track, arranging it and adding new fragments. He worked in three modes:

  • With existing sampler libraries, which he used by playing a midi keyboard, combining different timbres and different instruments.
  • Combining sampler libraries with live performances, with samples recorded by Alla Zagaykevych and the composer himself.
  • Recording live sound and processing it later. This mode allowed Alexander Chorny to go beyond the grid that is available in any music writing program and create something non-tempered and mobile, and unstable in time and temperament. 

By combining these three approaches, arranging existing recordings, using techniques of granulation and deconstruction, and experimenting with extracting sounds from instruments in an unusual way, the composers managed to achieve a modern, epic, yet unique music sound in the film that came directly from the instrumentation.

According to Alexander Chorny, “Percussion was probably one of the most interesting categories, because there were instruments that were rarely used in our cinema, for example, a koza or a batih, that spins and makes the sound of wind. It has a non-tempered pitch. This also applies to membrane and many interesting string instruments”

Interesting facts

The work on Dovbush’s soundtrack was as extensive as any other aspect of the film. The huge number of instruments, combined with modern technologies, historical context, and folklore expeditions made it almost impossible to cover all the moments and features of this soundtrack in one article. However, as Alla Zagaykevych noted, not much of the recorded authentic material was used in the movie. Nevertheless, thanks to the teamwork of both composers, consultants, and the director, we can clearly hear the Ukrainian identity in the sound. 

And while we can now listen to the Dovbush music album, which contains bonus tracks not included in the film, and the film itself is conquering theaters around the world, I am sharing some interesting details that the respondents shared with me.

Both Dovbush brothers’ leitmotifs feature the lyre, even though the two themes are fundamentally different from each other. Oleksa Dovbush’s theme was recorded on a lyre of his own making by Hordii Starukh. His lyres have a melodic and clear sound, which is like the European hurdy-gurdy instrument.

The theme of Ivan Dovbush and the opryshky was performed by Alexander Chorny on a lyre made by Oles Sanin.

The composer’s task was to extract sounds from the instrument in unnatural way, in this case by playing it with a violin bow, plucking the strings with a pick, and making flageolets. This made it possible to unite the Dovbush brothers with one instrument, but at the same time to demonstrate their difference with a completely different sound.

In the scene with the robbery of the carriage carrying gold, the arrangement of the Arkan motif gradually moves from the mainstream “Hollywood” sound to an authentic folklore sound. Its return to its original state plays with the viewers’ perception.

In general, there is a conventional musical division in the film, signaling to the viewers the film’s “culture” in each moment. The scenes with the Poles contain exclusively Western European baroque music with corresponding instruments. The scenes with Ukrainians are with folk music and folk instruments.

The final battle between Oleksa Dovbush and Colonel Przełucki departs from the Hollywood canons of musical design. At the beginning, before the first wound, there is no soundtrack. This is primarily due to the desire to give viewers a “break” before the film’s climax. It is also an opportunity to enjoy the work of sound designer Valeriy Khilobok and sound mixer Roman Humeniuk. The beginning of the battle can be characterized as a solo of noises.

During the attack on the opryshky in the forest, a folk song accompanies the soldiers. Oles Sanin intended it to sound as threatening as possible. The viewers can appreciate its clarity and purity of sound. This technique was used so that later, when the opryshky returned to Przełucki Castle under the guise of soldiers, the sound of this song would immediately indicate that the musicians were “not the same”, i.e. the music hints to viewers that a Trojan Horse is hidden somewhere.

During the erotic scene between Princess Jabłonowska and Colonel Przełucki, a piece by Couperin in the version of Robert de Vissé is played. The scene shows a blind theorbist sitting by the bed and playing music. From a historical point of view, this is not accurate since a Polish princess would likely not employ a chamber musician from the local peasant population. In addition, this composition could most likely have been performed only by a performer invited from Europe. Therefore, this footage is a purely artistic decision of the director. 

In Oles Sanin’s film, one can see allusions to Vasyl Stefanyk’s work The Stone Cross, a tribute to Serhiy Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. There is also a scene that, visually, dynamically, and musically, is directly taken from Guy Ritchie’s film King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and, accordingly, Daniel Pemberton’s Run Londinium. However, while the British soundtrack has a rather dry percussion, Alexander Chorny, by adding a lyre, made the musical allusion more intense and added Ukrainian flavor.

The musicians of the Kryla Orchestra of Open Opera Ukraine were involved in the filming of the scene with Count Potocki’s military band. However, since only men could play in the orchestra due to the actual historical circumstances (military escort), the flute players Bozhena Korchynska, Olga Milosta, as well as Liubov Plavska (who played various percussion instruments) were made up as men.

List of works 

    • Wedding song “Oh, do mene leginechki” (“Come to Me Leginechki”)
    • Wedding ladkanka on drymba
    • Hutsul songs on lyre, floyera, drymba, and duda
    • Hutsulka
    • Zhovnir song “Tuman tuman po dolyni” (“Fog Fog in the Valley”)
    • Zhovnir song “Chorna hora” (“Black Mountain”)
    • Traditional carol 
    • Dovbush’s song on floyera
    • Funeral music on trembita
    • Mykolayeva for solo violin
    • Arkan
    • A shameless kolomyika “A ya bidnyi syrotyna” (“And I am a Poor Orphan”)
  • Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Rondo and Tambourine from Les Indes galantes
  • François Couperin’s Les Sylvains for solo lute
  • Soundtrack’s composition by Alla Zagaykevych

About the Author

The Claquers is a Ukrainian online magazine devoted to classical music that unites a group of music critics with the mission to foster a critical conversation about art music in Ukraine and beyond. The Claquers organization was founded in June 2020 by musicologist Stas Nevmerzhytskyi and three colleagues: musicologist Dzvenyslava Safian, music theorist Liza Sirenko, and cultural critic Oleksandr Ostrovskyi.

The publication’s provocative name suggests the context in which The Claquers was conceived. After two previous generations of proactive critics who had careers in education and cultural promotion, classical music criticism was limited to either positive reviews or no reviews at all. A fresh and uncensored eye on events in classical music life in Ukraine was needed to shake up the musical community and complete the country’s classical music ecosystem.

Unlike in western Europe and North America, art music audiences in Ukraine are much younger. The collective of writers with The Claquers is also young, and has taken on the task of explaining to these new listeners why a long tradition of classical music in Ukraine exists, and how it became a part of today’s cultural life. As a group The Claquers considers its main goals: to educate about contemporary classical Ukrainian music, to build bridges with popular culture by publishing about diverse musical genres and other arts (such as music in literature or in film), to expand the critical tools of music criticism with audio podcasts, and to cultivate audiences abroad via an English version of the website.

The Claquers was made possible by generous funding that enabled its establishment and is sustained by the generosity of donors on Patreon. This singular and engaged Ukrainian online hub devoted to classical music continues to engage people in this music and invite new authors.

Stas Nevmerzhytskyi (ФОП Станіслав Невмержицький), individual proprietor

The registration number of the taxpayer's registration card, or the series and number of the passport:

Location of a individual proprietor:
Ukraine, 04212, Kyiv city, TYMOSHENKA STREET, building 2K, room 302

Date and number of entry in the Unified State Register of Legal Entities, individual proprietor and public organizations:
10/16/2020, 2000690010002052048


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