Lyubava Sydorenko: The White Angel of Ukrainian Music Translated by Lesya Lantsuta Brannman

Lyubava Sydorenko’s music is original, varied, emotional, and beautiful. Her musical language is undoubtedly modern but, at the same time, it is largely based on the classical principles of dramaturgy and imagery in the broadest sense. In one of her interviews, Lyubava Sydorenko, as a representative of the Lviv school of music composers, was asked whether there is a feature that distinguishes Lviv composers from other Ukrainian musicians. She answered with “the consistent modernization of the romantic type of imagery,” which she herself embodies in her music.

Lyubava Sydorenko is equally alien to the outrageousness of the avant-garde, stochastic methods, and instrumental theater. Instead, she is attracted to “pure music” with a deep meaning that appeals to emotions. Among her idols Lyubava Sydorenko has repeatedly named two modernists who, in the twentieth century during times of great musical developments, remained unchanged seekers of beauty and truth in art – Witold Lutosławski and Olivier Messiaen.

Lyubava Sydorenko
Lyubava Sydorenko

Her passion for the Polish composer Lutosławski is not accidental. In 2005, after graduating from the Mykola Lysenko Lviv Music Academy, Lyubava Sydorenko became a Gaude Polonia scholarship holder and continued her studies at the Krakow Academy of Music, in the composition class of Zbigniew Bujarski.

Here she adopted the principles of timbre and texture music writing that had already become firmly established since the start of the New Polish School. As noted by Lyubava Sydorenko, the works of Lutosławski (especially his series of Chains), became her reference materials. From Lutosławski she adopted both general aesthetic basics and purely technical ones.

Like Lutosławski’s music, Sydorenko’s works have clearly calibrated dramaturgy, attention to development and eventful presentation of musical material, and the use of controlled aleatorics, patented by Lutosławski in the 1960s. The Polish composer once stated: “By limiting music to whispers, colors, rhythms, dynamics, etc., we impoverish it, and take away a fundamentally important element.”

In Lyubava Sydorenko’s works, we feel a consonant view as her music is always saturated with clear embossed music themes that go through the process of transformation and formation throughout the work. She embodies this compositional principle in a completely original way. As the Polish music critic Slawomir Wojciechowski noted in his review of Lubava Sydorenko’s Metabola, performed at one of the Warsaw Autumn concerts, “the author did not have to be ashamed of her admiration for Lutosławski – there were no traces of epigone.” 

The Ukrainian composer was attracted to Messiaen’s works through his stylistics. To a certain extent, their music is alike in using a “stained glass principle of thinking”, a term in musicology to characterize the Avignon musician’s works, a mosaic juxtaposition of contrasting thematic blocks, like the variety of colored glasses in the window of a Gothic cathedral.

In Lyubava Sydorenko’s music, the rapid changeability of contrasting timbre and texture blocks often becomes the main compositional principle. However, in the end, analogies between the music of the Ukrainian artist and her favorite European masters should be drawn very carefully. Their somewhat similar aesthetic views are embodied in their works in a unique way, and in the context of their individual music styles.

In Lyubava Sydorenko’s music, one can always feel a play of symbols, signs, and associations. Each time it requires emotional involvement and philosophical comprehension. For example, her Breath for solo cello (2011) speaks to the listener in the aphoristic language of short phrases, like elusive images or hints. The steady, balanced movement of the broken melodic line is rapidly replaced by either an unrestrained flight or an unexpected freeze. There is one step from a whisper to a shout, that really takes your breath away, like an inhale and exhale. 

Her Octagon for eight cellos (2008) is music, where, like a tide before a storm, waves of chaotic sound masses roll rapidly, one stronger than the other, only to dissolve after a powerful sound storm in a muted enlightened sound. The sound profile of such music is like a naked nerve and its image is revealed through extreme emotional tension.

However, according to the composer, the leading images in her works always appeal to optimistic emotions. One way or another, after all the dramatic conflicts, each piece eventually achieves a true catharsis.

One of the most famous works by Lyubava Sydorenko, and at the same time, according to the composer, one of her favorites, is White Angel for tape, reader, and soprano to a poem by Ihor Kalynets (2006). The poem underlying the work is the voice of the subconscious, or a half-dream, where blessing and madness balance on a fine line, inspired by the surrealist paintings of Salvador Dali.

The poem was written on a postcard with a reproduction of the Spanish genius’s Dream. It is known that Dali called his paintings “hand-painted photographs of a dream”. In the foreground of The Dream, there is a sculpture with human outlines, but with its lips sewn shut and its eyes closed. In Dali’s traditional manner, it portrays the fragile world of a dream-hallucination, where everything is full of symbols, paradoxes, and metaphors.

Ihor Kalynets’s poem is just as disembodied and metaphorical. What makes this poem even more symbolic is that the author, a Ukrainian dissident, wrote it in Perm political camps, and sent postcards with his works from outland prisons to his wife and daughter. 

Lyubava Sydorenko’s music is complex and figurative, interweaving many deep contexts and equal in metaphorical value to the original sources. Volumetric electronic sound masses that oscillate and fill the entire space, and broken melodic lines seem to overcome gravity, deprived of any support, allowing listeners to look on the other side of reality. The composer contrasts the “living” voice of the Angel (soprano) in the crystal sound of a high pitch with the “dead” voice of the Demon (reader), transformed through a computer program, distorting the human timbre in an extremely low pitch.

Interestingly, Kalynets’s poem does not distinguish between good and demonic forces as such. It seems that with her musical opus, the composer continues the “angelic” theme in Dali’s paintings. It is worth recalling his paintings Angel, Surreal Angel, Fallen Angel, Angel of the Sun and many others, where the one who is usually imagined as a sun-faced Cherub is depicted through the prism of inexplicable delusions and distortions of the subconscious.

Linear time throughout the music stops and spreads out, just as in Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory, as soft flat clocks hang powerlessly from the surface. Emphasizing Lyubava Sydorenko’s sensitivity in perceiving and reproducing such ideological content, Iryna Kohanyk noted that the work “combines the intentions of the artistic texts of the disgraced Ukrainian lyricist, the amazing genius of twentieth-century painting, and the talented and sophisticated sound creativity of our contemporary”.  White Angel can be considered the essence of the composer’s metaphorical musical language.

From the “sublime”, i.e., figurative content, let us turn to the “earthly”, i.e., her technique. Most often Sydorenko writes for chamber ensembles. The expressive resources of sound are revealed very convexly in her multi-timbered polylogues, where each instrumental voice speaks through sonorous methods of sound production.

Therefore, chamber music, as the composer admits, is her favorite genre of creativity. After all, the choice of performers in Lyubava Sydorenko’s practice is often dictated by a commission. The composer has long been successfully collaborating with both Ukrainian and European chamber music ensembles and soloists and has received commissions from Polish and German radios.

Some of her most famous chamber works are Cryptogram (2009) and Marionettes (2011). According to the composer, these opuses were created as the first and last parts of a triptych. The work that was supposed to be the middle part of the cycle, Octagon, was composed earlier. However, this idea did not come to life. The only performance of all three works as a cycle took place at the author’s anniversary concert (2019), while, for the most part, these opuses “live an independent life” and are performed separately.

At the same time, the dramaturgy of the works, that are supposed to be the first and last parts of the cycle, are extremely similar and seem to illustrate the characteristic features of the composer’s style. Both works were originally written for a quintet with a solo clarinet.  Cryptogram was composed for clarinet, flute, piano, violin, cello, and a large group of percussionists as Marionettes was written for clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and piano (in the second version, for solo cello and chamber orchestra).  

The music texture of these works is a kaleidoscope of timbre-texture layers, where each voice has its own individual texture form, either extended of pulsating pointillistic dots or lines, or “constellations” of short motifs with scattered sounds of different pitches. Against the backdrop of these seemingly chaotic sounds, an individualized theme emerges, assigned to the soloist, with sharp melodic contours, capricious rhythm, and passionate expression of declamatory style.  

Often the music is composed off-meter. The time space is filled with layers of uncoordinated lines. The technique of ensemble ad libitum is used especially vividly in the climax. There, with the extreme density of the texture, loud dynamics, and wide pitch coverage, the sound is like a pulsating magma. This timbre-texture mosaic resembles a wave, where it moves from the sparse “torn” texture at the beginning through the massive tutti of the climax and again to the thin canvas of sonority in the postlude. 

The postlude in Marionettes sounds especially impressive. It is as if one goes beyond the boundaries of earthly existence. The sound mass that was so expressive in the previous sections is dispersed there in the high pitch. It sounds like a timeless sound, dispersed in asymmetrical trills, and delicate sound dots. In the second edition of Marionettes the composer adds cello flageolets with a truly unearthly, as if cosmic sound. This is an indispensable catharsis in the composer’s works, and enlightenment, after which all the vicissitudes of previous musical events dissolve into oblivion.

The poetic world of Lyubava Sydorenko’s music encourages us to speak about ourselves in subtle metaphors. Therefore, as an enlightened postlude to this essay, I will leave a fragment of a poem by Ihor Kalynets that came to life in the music of White Angel

The White Angel is not satisfied with my hearing 

that gives the rose in the dew


The White Angel is not satisfied with my secret 

to agree with the light wind

that sleeps in the petals

The White Angel is not satisfied with my brain

that spins a web out of nothing

to cover the flower…

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