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THE BANDURA

Because its development closely reflects the history of the Ukrainian nation, the bandura is more than a national musical instrument: It is the voice of Ukraine. From a musical perspective, the bandura unifies acoustic principles of both the lute and the harp. This produces a sound that is emphatic and gentle, resembling that of a harpsichord, but with a wider range of dynamics and tonal control.

The instrument was first noted in a 6th century Greek chronicle in a reference to warriors from Ukrainian territories who played lute-like instruments. This lute-like instrument, called a kobza, was much smaller, more circular, and had fewer strings than the modern bandura. In time, more strings were added, some of which were strung along the side of the instrument. This made frets along its neck obsolete.

BANDURA AND ITS HISTORY

The instrument was first noted in a 6th century Greek chronicle in a reference to warriors from Ukrainian territories who played lute-like instruments. This lute-like instrument, called a kobza, was much smaller, more circular, and had fewer strings than the modern bandura. In time, more strings were added, some of which were strung along the side of the instrument. This made frets along its neck obsolete.

In the middle ages the bandura became prominent in the courts of Eastern Europe, much like the lute in Western Europe. It was used primarily for dance pieces and song accompaniment. It also enjoyed great popularity among the Ukrainian kozaks who developed a unique repertoire for the instrument. From their ranks arose a new school of Ukrainian professional musicians, similar to the troubadours of France. They were called kobzari (singular form is kobzar).

The kobzari developed a unique Homeric epic song form known as the duma (pronounced dooma), literally meaning thought or reflection (plural form is dumy). Sung to the accompaniment of the bandura, the dumy depicted the heroic exploits of the Ukrainian kozaks and their quest for peace and freedom. In 1873, at the 3rd Archeological Conference held in Kyiv, western scholars and composers first heard dumy performed by a blind kobzar named Ostap Veresai. His moving performance inspired the publication of numerous articles and books on the subject and had a significant influence on the development of the musical form known as dumky (e.g., Dvorak's "Dumky Trios" and Tchaikovsky's "Dumky").

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a renewed interest in the bandura and it became popular among the urban Ukrainian populations. As bandura ensembles formed and its popularity grew, demands for new instruments also grew. During this time there was considerable innovation and experimentation with technique and structure. New banduras began to be mass produced with a large number of strings, tuned chromatically rather than diatonically (like a piano rather than a guitar), and levers were added to expedite rapid transposition (playing in a different key, etc.). Conservatory courses were organized and professional composers were commissioned to create new compositions specifically written for this instrument.

Hnat Khotkevych is considered to be the father of the modern bandura. A trained pianist and violinist, he learned to play the instrument by observing and learning from old Kobzari. While always honoring the traditions and methods of the Kobzari, Hant contributed to the evolution of the traditional Kobzar bandura into what today is known as the modern Kharkiv bandura. He was instrumental in expanding its voice and repertoire to include ensemble playing.

This period of history of the bandura coincided with the rise of Ukrainian patriotism and nationalism and subsequent flourishing of arts. Unfortunately, it did not last long. In a direct political turnabout, the Soviet government resolved to wipe out all vestiges of Ukrainian nationalism by destroying their culture. In 1935, blind kobzari from all corners of Ukraine were assembled in Kharkiv under the pretense of an ethnographic conference, where supposedly their songs and stories would be collected and recorded, only to be executed.

Persecution, arrest, and exile became a way of life for countless Ukrainian artists and bandurists. They sought refuge and solace in harbors such as the United States and Canada where they were able to perpetuate their art unhindered.

Left

Ivan Kuchuhura-Kuchurenko, one of the most important kobzars of the 1910s  – 1930s. His work merged traditional melodies and themes with contemporary the cultural context, being recognized by both the Ukrainian National Republic under Symon Petlura, as well as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which declared him a People's Artist in 1926.

Right

Document ordering the execution by shooting of the blind kobzar Ivan Kuchuhura-Kucherenko in 1937.

 

Source: NKVD - Arhive of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Kharkiv Oblast, case file № 013938, С. 118, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the Cold War Era, the Soviet government resolved to wipe out all vestiges of Ukrainian nationalism by attacking and destroying Ukrainian culture. In 1935, blind Kobzari from all corners of Ukraine were assembled in Kharkiv (under the pretense of preserving their songs through recording) and executed. Among them was Hnat Khotkevich.

However, the Soviet Authorities quickly realized that it would be impossible to fully eliminate the bandura from what proved to be a resilient Ukrainian identity. Instead, they attempted to separate the bandura from its past and traditions by developing the modern Kyiv bandura. Training to play the bandura was taken in a more academic direction. And its traditional repertoire was abandoned for the alien works of Bach, Beethoven and other classical composers.

Continued persecution, arrest, and exile became a way of life for countless Ukrainian Bandurists clinging to their traditions. So many, like the members of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus, headed West seeking refuge in the United States and Canada where they were able to continue practicing their art unhindered.

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Although the bandura has the ability for such complex works such as sonatas and concerti the bandura is closely aligned to vocal music, having originated as an instrument for vocal accompaniment. Thus, bandura capellas, which combine the artistry of a bandura orchestra with that of choral singing, are a natural synthesis of two great loves of the Ukrainian people.

Today there are 3 major type of banduras in concert use: The classical bandura, tuned diatonically with some 20 strings and wooden pegs; the Kharkiv bandura, tuned diatonically or chromatically with a single string mechanism and 34 to 65 strings; and the Kyiv bandura, with 55 to 64 strings tuned chromatically.

The Kyiv bandura is mass produced in two areas of Ukraine, but the Kharkiv bandura's use has virtually vanished from Ukraine. The Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus has preserved the Kharkiv bandura because of its great technical versatility and has adopted it as their instrument of choice.

Click to download Dr. Shtokalko's book, "Kobzar Handbook," edited and published by Prof. Andrij Hornjatkewich in 1992 through the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press.

ABOUT US

The UBC is a North American choral and instrumental ensemble dedicated to preserving the Ukrainian musical tradition and the art of the bandura.

To contact us, please write to president (at) bandura.org

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© 2020 by the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus of North America