Mykola Lysenko – Promoter of Authentic Ukrainian Music

Ukrainian composer, conductor, pianist and ethnomusicologist Mykola Vitaliiovych Lysenko was born in March 1842 in the city of Kremenchuk, in the Poltava Oblast of Ukraine. Primarily due to the fact that he insisted on his works being performed in Ukrainian, his vocal music is not well-known beyond the borders of his home country, but has immense value as part of Ukraine’s cultural heritage. Among the works of Mykola Lysenko are the much loved opera Natalka Poltavka, based on the play by Ivan Kotlyarevsky, and Taras Bulba, based on the novel by Nikolai Gogol.

From a very young age, Mykola Lysenko was particularly interested in the poetry of Taras Shevchenko, as well as Ukrainian peasant folk songs. While studying at Kiev University he made a collection of seven volumes of folksongs which were later published. One of his main sources for the collection was the legendary kobzar (minstrel) Ostap Veresai (1803-1890), the musician who was most influential in popularizing kobzar, both in Ukraine and further afield. So great was Lysenko’s admiration for Veresai that he later named his son Ostap.

Having earned a scholarship from the Russian Music Society, Lysenko studied music at the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany, and it was there that he came to the realization that it was important to document and develop Ukrainian music, rather than following the trend of imitating Western classical composers. His insistence on creating Ukrainian music was not well accepted by the Russian Music Society that had granted his scholarship. Undeterred, Lysenko severed his ties with the society and maintained his resolve to promote his works exclusively in his mother tongue, despite the fact that this was somewhat detrimental to his career. Pyotr Tchaikovsky reportedly showed an interest in staging Taras Bulba in Moscow, but upon Lysenko’s refusal to allow the opera to be translated into Russian, the performance did not take place.

Mykola Lysenko contributed to Ukraine’s culture through his musical studies, including the study of Ukrainian folk instruments such as the kobzar and turban, as well as his operas, piano compositions and other vocal works. A statue honoring this noteworthy Ukrainian stands in Kiev, and the Lysenko Music School continues to promote authentic Ukrainian music.