Traditional Music and Instruments from the Ukraine

Archaeologists found a bone flute from the paleolithic age in mustier dwellings in Moldove in the Chernovitsy region, and a complex of instruments made of mammoth ivory in Mizynska village in the Chernigiv region. Pictures of musical instruments exist on frescos in the St. Sophia Cathedral and on cheap print “mamay” in the Ukraine.

Traditional Ukrainian music is predominantly heterephonic: the same melody is distributed among different voice parts, with one leading voice, mostly in a middle register. The lead singer (zaspivoovach) determines the course of the melody, and the other voices come in later. This heterophonic group singing is often embellished by an independent voice in a very high register (vyvodtshyk).

The principle of heterophony allows the principal voice much space for improvisation, continuous variation, and embellishment. It has also an effect on the lyrics, in so far as single words or phrases are lengthened by means of vocalisms or enlarged with additional syllables. This type of choral singing can be frequently found in Central Ukraine, in the steppes and in the Eastern Ukraine, where also lyrical ballads are very popular.

There is a rich repertory of many famous Cossack songs and traditional dances. This music has its roots in a centuries old oral tradition of bylina (epics, heroic narrative poetry) and dumas, that is long lyrical ballads glorifying the exploits of the Cossacks.

Traditional folk music is the Ukrainians’ life and soul. The songs tell about the history of this people, describe the landscape, the folk’s character and the people’s qualities. They also speak about the ethics and rules of social life. These songs are a real treasure that has been preserved up to date. They can be classified in various genres as well as in ritual and non ritual songs.

Ritual songs:
1. Incantation
Healing songs, songs to influence the weather

2. Laments
Dirges songs, Laments

3. Ritual songs of the folk calender
– the winter cycle (Christmas): There are congratulatory and laudatory songs to celebrate Christmas (kolyadky) and the New Year (shchedryvky). Singing these songs, young people go an a ceremonial tour visiting the local households and wishing the houseowners prosperity.
– the spring cycle: The songs of this cycle are called vesnyanky and hayivky and are sung by girls in a circle-dance. There is an element of magic in the ritual songs calling for rain. In the early spring (vesna), the vesnyanky (songs invoking the season) are sung, as a rule, in an open place at the outskirts of a village. In Western Ukraine, also singing games and circle-dances that are called haivky (spring games) belong to this cycle.
– the festival of earing the grain: The songs for this festival are called rusalky and mavky.
– pre-harvest: Into this period fall the celebrations of Ivan Kupalo (kupal’sky = baptizing) or St John the Baptist and St Peter (petrivky). The heyday of the summer festivities is the celebration of Ivan Kupalo, John the Baptist’s Day. This brings to a close the lyrical spring theme of couplets*. The Kupalo ritual closely resembles in meaning and character the “petrivky” songs, performed during a period of two or three weeks before “St Peter’s Day” (29th of June).
– *Couplet singing: historical songs, psalms, playing in bands and playing the kobza (plucked lute) or lyric songs with a strophic structure, kolyadky (hymns or songs of praise), marches and other ritual folk-tunes in the form of the singing-dancing.
– harvest: ritual work songs at the beginning of harvest (zazhynky) and the celebration at its completion (obzhynky). Another part of the summer cycle is celebrated in work songs sung during mowing and harvesting. These songs bring the summer period to an end.
Their original magic meaning was later replaced by social motifs, i.g. the reapers’ hard labour, the relations with their employer or the demands for better wages.
– general holidays.

4. Wedding songs

– These songs explain what is happening at any given moment during the wedding ceremony; the function of these songs is similiar to incantations – the main theme is about the festive, joyful side of the ritual, and the songs contain also parts of congratulations, or they may even be comic. There is a second kind of wedding songs that are sung at the parting of the bride from the paternal home. They are more lyrical and dramatic and have a looser structure. The wedding party is usually accompanied by a village instrumental trio – troista musyka – a typical and widespread folk music ensemble. The main instruments of this ensemble are the fiddle, the tsimbaly (hammered dulcimer) and the tambourin, and there is often also a pipe.
– The non-ritual wedding songs are sung for entertainment at appropriate times during the celebrations that usually last one week.

5. Work songs
– vechomyzi
Winter evening songs belong to this category. In Ukrainian they are called vechornyzi (vechyr = evening). This word is not only used for the songs, but it also stands for the young people’s evening meetings as well as for the room, where these meetings take place. Vechornyzi are only sung in the winter period beginning on the 13th of December, the Holy Andrijs Day, and lasting until 7 weeks before Easter with the start of Lent. During this period, young people in the country meet almost every evening after their daily work. They rent a room for their vechornyzi meetings, preferably in the house of a widow or a childless married couple. The girls arrive first and start embroidering shirts (rushnyc). Later, the young men (lads) join them and they dance and sing together. They don’t have to pay with money for the rented room, but they bring bread, cereals or linen. Only the drinks at the bar have to be paid in cash.
– toloka
They are sung during or after joint work. In winter, when women meet for spinning, they accompany their work singing toloka. This kind of song is also sung in other seasons after all kinds of team work (e.g. field work, digging for a well, building a house, repairing streets, etc.). When a farmer has a lot of work to do in the fields, he asks his neighbours for help. After having finished this common work, the farmer invites his neighbours for dinner and then they sing such songs with lyrics that often contain some worldly wisdom.

Non-ritual songs:

– folk epics (duma) or ballads; historical and political songs, work and lyric songs.
The dumy are lengthy lyrical compositions of epic character based on principles of musical recitation. The rhythms of the ballad’s lyrics are not restricted to stable metrorhythmic schemas and determine the improvised style of the musical recitation on the basis of variations of typical phrases and verses. The dumy were performed by a soloist called kobzar, because he usually accompanied himself on the kobza (plucked lute), sometimes also on the bandura or the lira. He sung about historical events and events of daily life. The kobzary [plural for kobza], as a rule, were blind.

– Lyric songs can be love songs, songs that tell about family life, or lullabies.

Instrumental music

– There are various forms of instrumental folk music in the Ukraine: solo performing on the pipe (flute), violin, bandura, etc. and ensemble playing, for example the traditional musical trio “troyista muzyka”, playing on the occasion of dance events and in march processions.

– The Hutsuls created a very poetic legend about “troyista muzyka” (= music of a trio).
Three musicians, a violinist, a cymbal-player and a sopilka-player, fell in love with one maiden. In order choose her bridegroom, the maiden suggested a contest between the three musicians, and she would marry the one, who was judged the best by the people. So each musician played in turn his favourite melody, but as the three musicians played equally well none of them could win the contest. Then the maiden made each of them play the same melody, but again, none scored a victory. There was only one thing left to do – to play a tune together. In this way, this music came to be called “troista muzyka”.

– There exists also instrumental non-dance music, e.g. the shepherds’ improvisational music played on a violin, a sopilka, a trembita (Ukrainian version of the alphorn, a wooden trumpet, about 3 m long, primarily used in signaling events) or a drymba (jew’s harp). They used to play such music during weddings or funeral ceremonies, or they played instrumental interpretations of songs like kolyadky (songs of praise) and Christian carols.

The simplest and earliest forms of instrumental folk musik include signals used in various occupations (to imitate a voice or nature itself) and in ceremonies. The inhabitants of the Carpathian mountains used the trembita in its various forms to inform others about the birth or death of a villager, to signal the return of shepherds back from mountain pastures, and for other important events

The traditional signals are territorial and form an intricate method of communication. Many of these signals are used by shepherds to note the time to get up, to go to bed, to do the midday milking or to announce the proximity of thieves. Cermonial signals are typically functional in origin. Viola melodies are played at various parts of a wedding ceremony such as the handing over of the bride, the weaving of the wedding shawls around the arms of the newly weds, and the beginning of the wedding banquet.

At funeral services special motifs were played to bid farewell to the departed soul. Song forms are usually based on the melody and harmonic basis of the songs accompanied. Some forms require special accompaniment forms such as is the dumy (epic songs) accompanied by the bandura, kobza, or lira.

Traditional styles of instrumental dance music are mostly bound to geographic areas or they are ethnically defined. So, the kolomiyka belongs to the Ukrainian Carpathians and their neighbouring regions, the hopak and and the cossachok to the entire Ukrainian ethnic territory, and the polka and waltz belong to the Slavic as well as non-Slavic traditions of the European area. The interaction with Polish, Czech, Slovak and Hungarian folklore in the Western parts (the Carpathians) is revealed in the stabilization of the metrics in comparison with the asymmetrical measures of the eastern lyrics and pronounced functionally harmonic basis of lyric songs. In the south-western part of the Carpathians (Bukovina region), there are resemblances to Moldavian and Romanian instrumental music.

Dance music is an integral part of the instrumental music repertoire. In contrast to folksongs, rich in melodies and varied in rhythmical structures, folk dances are mostly in duple time and based on symmetrical musical periods. The principal dances are slowly musically related, and only different accents establish their choreographical characteristics. Dances were usually incoporated into rituals such as weddings and holidays. The Ukrainian have many dances that imitate daily life and works such as:

The Kolomiyka has preserved a triplicity of independent forms: song, instrumental piece, and dance. The Kolomiyka is danced with choral and instrumental support. Originally it was a Western Ukrainian dance form with its origins in the Carpathians. The lyrics vary greatly, depending on the locality, and are usually in the form of short couplets reflecting everyday activity, faithful musical sketches of typical daily occurances. Kolomiykas have a wide melodic range, intricate syncopated rhythms, and a variety of melisms. Variants of the Kolomiyka include the Hutsulka, Verkhovyna, Bukovnyka, and Arkan.

The Hopak is one of the most popular dances, originally only for men, in which they could show off their prowess, heroism, and manliness. Often during the Hopak a series of spectacular solos by several dancers generates an exciting air of competition. This dance incorporates many acrobatic movements, usually in a major key and a fast tempo. Variants of the Hopak include the Zaporozetz, Tropak. Hopak melodies may vary in mood but are generally in the major mode. Some Hopak melodies are performed entirely without singing and may be heard without any dancing at all.

The title of this dance is derived from the word Kozak (Cossacks), and its origins can be traced back to the popular Christmas plays of the late 16th and early 17th century. A joyful celebration centred around the Kozaks from the Saporozhye region, who sang, played their bandura, and danced.
The Cossachok differed from the Hopak in several aspects. It begins with a slow lyrical introduction, developing in the dance proper an extremely fast tempo. In the past the Cossachok was performed by a single male dancer or a couple. Now very often it is a group dance with girls taking the principal role.

These dance above are the most prominent folk dances. There exists many other dances such as: Kozak, Poltavka, Hajduk, Chaban, and some forgotten dances such as: Metelytsia (snowstorm dance) or Shunka. Only their melodies are still played, however, dancing to these melodies has come to an end as the dance forms are unknown today.


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