The bandura is the instrument that best embodies the voice and soul 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 wide range of dynamics and tonal control.
The bandura’s development closely reflects the history of the Ukrainian nation, dating back hundreds of centuries, and is considered by many to be the national instrument of Ukraine. Historically, the bandura was played by blind minstrels who traveled from village to village singing epic ballads and historical songs. Over centuries, the instrument has evolved in various forms. The Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus has adopted the Kharkiv bandura as its instrument of choice to showcase its technical versatility and preserve its great history and tradition.
The Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus has adopted the Kharkiv bandura as its instrument of choice to showcase its technical versatility and preserve its great history and tradition. The Kharkiv bandura has 34 to 65 stings and often includes a key-changing mechanism. This style of bandura has virtually vanished from Ukraine and is at risk of becoming extinct. This makes the instruments you see on stage priceless.
The modern bandura has between 20 and 65 strings and is tuned like a piano rather than a guitar. The concert variety (the kind played by the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus) has levers that allow the Bandurist to quickly change keys during a performance.
Although the bandura can be used to perform complex works like sonatas and concerti, the Ukrainian bandura was historically used as an instrument for vocal accompaniment. The Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus continues this tradition by combining the two great loves of the Ukrainian people; the artistry of a bandura orchestra with choral singing.
There are 3 styles of the modern bandura:
The classical bandura has 20 strings and wooden tuning pegs.
The Kyiv bandura is the most common bandura found today. It was mass produced during the Soviet Era in two areas of Ukraine and has 55 to 64 strings.
The Kharkiv bandura has 34 to 65 stings and often includes a key-changing mechanism. This style of bandura has virtually vanished from Ukraine and is at risk of becoming extinct.
The classical bandura was developed from its predecessor, the kobza, in the 14th-15th centuries. The first mention of a Ukrainian bandurist date back to Polish chronicles of 1441. The bandura differed from the kobza in that it had no frets along the neck, and the majority of the playing was done on the treble strings (know as prystrunky), which were placed to one side of the strings across the neck.
The size and shape of the classical bandura has remained remarkably stable for the past 300 years. Instruments which date back to the 1600s are very similar to those used at the turn of the century by the wandering minstrels known as kobzars.
The classical bandura had 20 to 24 metal strings tuned diatonically. The back was hewn from a single piece of timber, with a soundboard of spruce or pine. The tuning pegs were made of wood and there was hardly any metal on the instrument. This instrument often had a belt to aid in holding it when being played or carried. Few exponents of the traditional classical bandura exists today, although interest in the instrument is growing.
Left: A classical bandura produced by William Vetzal in Ontario, Canada. Photo courtesy of Julian Hayda.
Also known as the Poltavka bandura. The Kharkiv style of bandura playing was developed by Hnat Khotkevych. He published the first textbook for bandura in 1909 in Lviv, Ukraine. This text introduced the method of playing the classical bandura with 20 strings. In the 1920s, the bandura was introduced as an instrument taught at the Kharkiv Conservatory, and gradually a new instrument evolved having 30 to 31 strings, tuned diatonically through four octaves. The instrument was held in such a way that the player was able to use both hands over all the strings. It was later made in three orchestral sizes: piccolo, prima, and bass.
The Kharkiv bandura was developed into a fully chromatic instrument by the Honcharenko brothers and further development is taking place in North America. The Kharkiv bandura is now almost extinct in Ukraine and is only used among émigré musicians—this is mainly because the Kharkiv instrument is currently being produced in Ukraine.
Click here for a chart of Poltavka string gauges. Left: Bazhul plays a Kharkiv bandura.
Also known as the Chernihivka, the Kyiv bandura was developed in the 20th century based on the classical instrument. The instrument differed from the classical bandura in that it had many more strings, additional chromatic strings being introduced onto the instrument by the Kyiv Bandurist Chorus in 1918. Since that time the instrument has been stable in its shape and method of playing.
The contemporary Kyiv bandura is made in a number of sizes and types. The most common is the standard 'prima' instrument, formerly made by the Chernihiv Instrument Factory, with 12 bass and 43 treble strings tuned chromatically through almost five octaves. The professional concert bandura is the same size and shape as the 'prima,' but it has 62 to 65 strings and a mechanism (like that of a harp) to change the tuning of the strings. The Kyiv bandura has developed into a very capable virtuoso instrument, with original music being composed for it by professional composers. Courses in bandura are now being taught in a number of conservatories in Ukraine.
Click here for a chart of Chernihivka string gauges.
Left: A Chernihiv bandura produced in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo courtesy of Julian Hayda.