Ukrainian Bandurist Hnat Khotkevych

Born in Kharkiv in 1877, Hnat Martynovych Khotkevych trained as a professional engineer, but made his mark in Ukrainian history as an ethnographer, playwright, writer, composer and musicologist. He was also a talented player of the bandura – a Ukrainian plucked string folk instrument – a skill he learned by observing the folk kobzars. He bought his first bandura in 1894 and by 1896 gave his first performance on stage as a soloist, later playing the instrument in Mykola Lysenko’s touring choir. At a young age Hnat Khotkevych earned the reputation of being a virtuoso of the bandura and in 1902 he formed the first bandura ensemble in history which performed at the XII Archeological Conference in Kharkiv. His dedication to promoting the bandura and his musical compositions led to it becoming a popular instrument throughout Ukraine.

The bandura combines elements of the lute, zither and kobza, featuring between 12 and 68 strings. Bandura players are referred to as bandurists, and there are different styles of playing the instrument. Historically the term bandura appeared in Polish chronicles dating back to 1441 where it is mentioned that the Polish King Sigismund III had a bandurist of Ukrainian (then Ruthenian) ethnicity. The playing of lute-like instruments by the inhabitants of the area now known as Ukraine dates back to the first century and the instrument has evolved over the years.

Hnat Khotkevych did much to promote bandura music in more recent history. In 1910 his composition Odarochka written for the bandura was published in Kiev, becoming the first published work for this musical instrument. In 1928 he became the director of a project to train the Poltava Bandurist Capella to perform in the unique Kharkiv style, allowing both hands equal access to all the instrument’s strings. Khotkevych composed many works for the ensemble, which was invited in 1931 to tour North America. However, Soviet authorities banned his works and cancelled the trip as part of a wider persecution of bandurists and kobzars who were seen as being critical of authorities. During the Stalanist purges, Khotkevych was reportedly arrested, tortured and executed in 1938 with his body being buried in a mass grave on the outskirts of Kharkiv.

Thanks to the Khotkevych foundation in Kharkiv, a number of Hnat Khotkevyc’s works have been republished, and in 1991 a documentary was made about his life – and his music lives on.