About this Recording
8.555578 - LYATOSHYNSKY, B.: Symphonies, Vol. 1 - No. 1 / Grazhyna (Ukrainian State Symphony, Kuchar)

Boris Lyatoshynsky (1895–1968)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 2 • Grazhyna – Symphonic Ballad, Op. 58


During the first third of the twentieth century, Ukrainian society underwent several seismic shifts as a result of political instability and oppression. Following the long and bitterly fought Ukrainian War of Independence from 1917–21, the Soviet government introduced a new policy of tolerance and ‘Korenizatsiya’—literally ‘putting down roots’—allowing smaller Soviet nations and republics far greater control and freedom. This resulted in a vibrant, if short-lived, cultural renaissance, and the emergence of a new generation of artists, writers and musicians, who drew on both eastern and western models as well as looking to their own national heritage.

Boris Lyatoshynsky was a leading member of this new generation of Ukrainian composers, and is today honoured as the father of contemporary Ukrainian music. Arriving in Kiev from his native city of Zhitomir in 1913, Lyatoshynsky enrolled first in the law school of Kiev University, and subsequently also at the recently-founded Kiev Conservatory, where he studied composition with Reinhold Glière. Having completed his law studies in 1918, he graduated in 1919 from the Conservatory, and took up a teaching post there in the very same year. He continued to teach in Kiev for the rest of his life, and became a professor of the Conservatory in 1935. Additionally, from 1935–38 and 1941–44 he taught at the Moscow Conservatory, and in later life acted as an adjudicator for the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow on several occasions. Lyatoshynsky composed in a broad variety of genres. His output includes five symphonies, several symphonic poems and other short orchestral works, choral and vocal music, two operas, and a number of chamber and solo piano pieces. He also provided incidental music for both stage and film productions. His earliest compositions were heavily influenced by the tastes of his teacher, Glière, and are Romantic and lyrical in style, with frequent references to the music of both Schumann and Borodin. By the time he completed his Symphony No. 1, part of which formed his graduation work from the Conservatory, he had become interested in the impressionist music of Scriabin. But five years later, with his Piano Sonata No. 1 (1924), he moved away from Russian models in favour of the new musical developments of Central and Western Europe—specifically, atonality. This exploration of musical expressionism, and in particular the music of Alban Berg, lasted until 1929, when Lyatoshynsky increasingly turned his attention to his Ukrainian musical heritage. For the rest of his career, and drawing on the research of the late nineteenth-century ethnomusicologist Mykola Lysenko, Lyatoshynsky drew together Ukrainian folk-songs and melodies with contemporary harmonic and formal approaches.

The golden age of cultural freedom in the Ukraine was to come to an abrupt end in the late 1920s, as Stalin took control and Socialist Realism became the new order of the day. Ukrainian national music was brutally repressed, Western European developments were condemned, and systematic purges and censorship were employed to enforce the new regime. It was not until the mid-1950s that the next generation of Ukrainian composers, all pupils of Lyatoshynsky, were able to establish a free avant-garde with the help of their mentor.

Theodore Kuchar

Lyatoshynsky’s Symphony No. 1, Op. 2, although completed by 1919, did not receive its première as a complete work until 1923. The piece had evolved gradually over several years: the first movement to be heard in public—conducted by the composer—was the Molto lento, introduced as an independent work under the title Lyric Poem, in 1917. The Allegro non troppo was written the following year, whilst Lyatoshynsky was completing his studies as the Kiev Conservatory, and was submitted as his graduation work. He subsequently revised the Molto lento and added the finale in 1919. The full première of 1923 was conducted by Lyatoshynsky’s composition teacher, Reinhold Glière, who was also the director of the Conservatory.

Despite the lengthy gestation of this Symphony, written at a time when Lyatoshynsky was still exploring and experimenting with a broad range of styles, the clearest musical influence in the piece is the harmonic language of Scriabin, which had obviously made a strong impression on the young composer. The lush, grand textures of the orchestral writing also points to Romantic models of the previous generation—in particular Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. In this sense, the piece both provides a strong indication of Lyatoshynsky’s earliest musical inspirations, and contains the seeds of his own emerging compositional voice. Already in the first movement, brief, angular melodic and rhythmic fragments point to a raw approach, which was to become a common feature of his later works; and these are combined with two longer, principal themes that more directly reflect his Russian musical heroes. Dense orchestral textures, often dominated by the brass, again bring to mind Scriabin and Tchaikovsky in terms of both power and emotional complexity. Yet this is combined with sophisticated polyphonic writing, in which short themes and motifs are cleverly passed between players. The result is a potent combination of expansive, impassioned drama and small, carefully refined gestures and textures—a musical world of contrasts that Lyatoshynsky further developed in later life through the inclusion of folk melodies. In the words of the Ukrainian musicologist Mykola Hordiychuk, “the device of ‘surrounding’ broad, melodic themes with shorter, expressive folk tunes throughout his creative output appears to be one of the most distinctive features of the composer’s individuality”.

The second movement of the Symphony is ambiguous, melancholic and curiously dreamy, in which floating string and wind gestures slip and slide over constantly destabilised harmonies. Rather than the bass dictating the direction of the music, it is the harp and violins that drift from one chord to another, pulling the rest of the orchestra with them. Gradually the brief interjections of the woodwind are knitted together into an extended climax, which dissolves once more into fragments. The finale draws together a range of thematic material from previous movements, juxtaposing bold, jaunty brass fanfares with frenetic, angular writing for the full orchestra. As the movement unfolds, further fanfares are contrasted with expansive lyrical passages that are reminiscent of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, and sudden dark, brooding interjections from the lower strings and brass. Despite the triumphant major-key conclusion, there is a sense of tragedy and intense struggle at the heart of all three movements of this work.

The symphonic ballad Grazhyna, Op. 58, one of Lyatoshynsky’s most accomplished works, dates from much later in his career. Composed in 1955, the work was written to commemorate the centenary of the death of the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855). A programmatic work, based on Mickiewicz’s poem of the same name, it relates the story of a mythical Lithuanian chieftainess, who battled with the Order of the Teutonic Knights and was eventually killed by her enemies. The first page of Lyatoshynsky’s score contains a detailed programme of the various episodes of his composition, which faithfully follows Mickiewicz’s poem. Despite the forward-moving, episodic nature of the story, the piece is written in sonata form—Lyatoshynsky uses the necessary structural repetitions of material, and in particular the coda, as an opportunity to recast earlier themes (and introduce some new material) in the light of past events, often dramatically altering the orchestral colour and texture. This ‘reclothing’ of the music seems particularly appropriate given the tragedy of Grazhyna’s death—she disguises herself as her husband to lead the Lithuanian troops against the Knights, and dies in battle. It is easy to see how such a dramatic tale of fighting for freedom would have resonated with Lyatoshynsky’s countrymen, even following Stalin’s demise. Both the première, and the many subsequent performances of this emotionally-charged tone poem, were greeted by both critics and followers of Lyatoshynsky with extreme interest and enthusiasm.

Volodymyr I. Rozhok
Edited Katy Hamilton 2014

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