Listening to contemporary Ukrainian music: Leonid Hrabovskyi’s Trio Tetiana Novytska

Leonid Hrabovskyi’s creative path began in the 1950-1960s, which was a favourable period in the history of Ukrainian culture when the suffocating atmosphere of the socialist realist aesthetics was disrupted by the “western wind” of freedom.

Thirst for the new had united many young artists and talented enthusiasts, who became famous as Kyiv Avant-Garde. Composers Leonid Hrabovskyi, Valentyn Sylvestrov, Vitaliy Hodziatskyi, Volodymyr Zahortsev, Volodymyr Huba, Vitaliy Patsera, Petro Solovkin, conductor Ihor Blazhkov, musicologist Halyna Mokrieva – these are the names of those who despite the firm grasp of the Soviet ideology set the solid basis for the European integration of Ukrainian culture.

Ukrainian avant-garde wasn’t born with loud manifests and outrageous slogans or in prestigious cultural and artistic centers. Actually, it came into existence in ‘friendship through music’ in Sylvestrov’s flat where an old tape recorder was making “Europe and America” sound in front of the young artists during their evening gatherings. “The building material must be changed immediately!”, this is Sylvestrov’s phrase, which marked the beginning of a new era in Ukrainian music.

Building the unique skyscrapers of the newly emerged art was true heroism because the party dictated the only possible standard of beauty and perfection, which was grey, “realism” and “peopleness”. Also, young artists advanced on their path by introducing new terms into the musical lexicon (new compositional techniques, which were prohibited in the Soviet Union and labeled as “dead music”) and thus changing the sense of music itself.

Leonid Hrabovskyi had always been a pioneer: his graduate work “Four Ukrainian folk songs” (1959) became the first example of Ukrainian neo-folklore. What is more, “The Characteristic play” for the piano began the process of mastering the dodecaphony among the Kyivan avant-garde artists.

While his colleagues were looking for their individual style in dodecaphony, Leonid Hrabovskyi’s creative activity turned to a completely new sphere, which appeared to be sonority. The stimulus for this was “The genealogy of the new music”, an article by Tadeush Zelinskyi which was read by Leonid Hrabovskyi at the end of 1963. The author claimed that a new sonorous-timbre era was beginning in European musical culture. Such Polish avant-garde artists as Penderecki, Górecki, Schaeffer, Serocki were named the first heralds of this epochal break. Leonid Hraboskyi said, “I was captivated by that idea because it seemed ‘cool’, colourful, sensually bright and distinct to me”.

The next year, 1964, became the busiest for the composer. While mastering the new musical language, Hrabovsky writes a few compositions: Trio for violin, double bass and piano, “Microstructures” for oboe solo, “From Japanese hoku” for tenor, piccolo flute, bassoon and xylophone, “Pastels” on Tychyna’s poems for voice and four string instruments, “Constants” for four pianos, four percussive groups and violin solo.

Trio for violin, double bass and piano sets the beginning of Ukrainian sonority.

The composer himself calls it a polytechnic composition, as it combines sonority, aleatorics and dodecaphony. According to the sonorous concept of music, which is dominant in the composition, a musical sound becomes a self-sufficient and wholesome substance, just like the music of the classic-romantic period, with its motive thematic movement, tonal gravitations, falling into separate atoms which are valuable each separately.

That’s why, instead of usual melodic motives, we can hear scattered sound spots and lines; instead of harmony – timbre-texture layers with an inexhaustible palette of untraditional ways of sound production; instead of clear rhythm – spatial notation without time signatures and bar lines where the note duration is defined by its distance from another note on the paper.

The trio consists of three movements: the Prelude, the Toccata and the Postlude. In the Prelude, the improvisational wandering of the sonorous lines, dots and spots in the levity of the spatial notation of the first part changes into motor/toccato movement of the regulated rhythm of the second part, which turns into the “lyrical” high-pitch singing series in the Postlude.

The sound canvas of the Trio is similar to the glittering of the starry sky in the sea at night – scattered dots, dense spots, and bright glares are in constant movement, endlessly changing. The shrieks of the vibrating high-pitch violin sounds, the quiet flageolet rustling, the piercing gnash from playing near the prop, the muted echo of the piano strings, the sharp hits of the keyboard cover, and the overwhelming rumble of the pedal tremolo are all alternating and getting imposed on each other, just like mosaics.

What a sharp dissonance was the sound of the new art in a place where all the time one could only hear the odes to October and Lenin! According to the musicologist Olena Zinkevych, “the music from which the official ideology demanded the image of a communism builder turned out to be capable of reproducing the world of an atom and space”.

But could this music be heard and properly valued at this time?

For two years the Trio manuscript was lying in the drawer, and only, thanks to the young author’s incredible efforts, it was represented in front of the Kyiv audience. Several days before the premiere, Hrabovsky, who was the organizer of the concert program, was attacked by the leading party, which demanded the removal of the avant-garde compositions from the program – his own Trio and “The Triad” by Sylvestrov. The young composer had to ask for help from Dmitriy Shostakovich who approvingly evaluated his art a few years ago. Thanks to his immediate reaction, the concert did take place on December 27th,  1966. The first performers of the Trio were Bohodar Kotorovych (violin), Viktor Filipochkin (double bass) and Mykhailo Stepanenko (piano).

That evening, the Column Hall of the National Philharmonic in Kyiv gathered all the young artists of the Ukrainian intelligence. The concert was a huge success; the young authors were triumphing on stage. Before the horrible repressions, they managed to “fulfil”, their art did “happen”!

Sylvestrov, Hrabovskyi, Hodziatskyi, Blazhkov. Kyiv, 1966

But later – long years of silence. Till 1976 not a single plenum of the Composers Union dedicated to symphonic or chamber music took place, only singing and cantata plenums which were made to glorify Lenin and his party. Several times, the Trio has been performed abroad, in New York and Moscow. Thanks to Virko Baley’s efforts, a Trio studio recording was made for the “Ukrainian violin music of the 20th century” CD, which was released in 1979. Anyway, not many people in the Soviet Union knew about it, and it was not sold in Ukraine at all.

Exactly 50 years after its premiere, on December 27th, 2016, Trio has been performed again in the same Column Hall of the National Philharmonic. It was initiated by Eugene Gromov, who organized the concert, which completely copied the program of the premiere concert in 1966. The concert in 2016 received the correspondent name – “Reconstruction”. The new performer of the Trio was Sed Contra Ensemble consisting of Andrii Pavlov (violin), Nazar Stets (double bass), and Vitaliy Kyianytsia (piano).

After that, the concert life of the Trio survived a real boom – in 2017 the composition was performed by the “Studio of new music” ensemble in the concert programme of MAMMusic “Sylvestrov. Territories”; in 2019, it was performed by Sed Contra Ensemble at the National Academy of Arts in Ukraine; in 2020 Trio was performed in New York at the Ukrainian museum at the contemporaryUkrainian Music Festival (UCMF-2020). Also in 2020, the score of the composition was published by “Musical Ukraine” in the second volume of the Ukrainian music avant-garde anthology. Thus, after fifty years of oblivion, Trio is coming back on stage.

But so many brilliant Ukrainian avant-garde compositions are still left in drawers! In one interview Leonid Hrabovskyi said, “once at the plenum of the USSR Composers in Moscow when somebody mentioned that dodecaphonists appeared in Kyiv, it was met with homeric laughter because the image of Ukraine was associated with sharovary, hopak and “Cossack on the Danube””.

Right now, when Ukraine is again fighting for its independence from the imperial wild Russian beast, the time has come to tell the whole world, without any exaggerations, about the nuclear potential of Ukrainian music culture.

Read also:

• Statement from the musicological community of Ukraine

• Violinist Anastasia Poludenna: “Until we undergo treatment, we are allergic to Russian culture”

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