The use of lute-like stringed instruments by Ukrainians dates back to 591. In that year, Byzantine Greek chronicles mention Bulgar warriors who travelled with lute-like instruments they called kitharas. There are iconographic depictions of lute-like instruments in the 11th-century frescoes of St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, the capital of the vast medieval kingdom of Ruthenia. It is not known by what specific term these instruments were referred to in those early times, although it has been surmised that the lute-like instrument was referred to by the generic medieval Slavic term for a string instrument—"husli".
Up until the mid 18th century, the instrument known as the bandura had frets and was played in a manner similar to the lute or guitar. The instrument was similar to the German bandore with usually 5 single courses strung along the neck. In the mid 18th century additional strings known as "prystrunky" began to appear. Gradually the zither–like bandura replaced the lute–like bandura by the middle of the 19th century.
The invention of an instrument combining organological elements of lute and psaltery is sometimes credited to Francesco Landini, an Italian lutenist-composer during the trecento. Filippo Villani writes in his Liber de civitatis Florentiae, "...[Landini] invented a new sort of instrument, a cross between lute and psaltery, which he called the serena serenarum, an instrument that produces an exquisite sound when its strings are struck." Rare iconographic evidence (by artists such as Alessandro Magnasco) reveals that such instruments were still in use in Italy ca. 1700.
In the Hetman state in left-bank Ukraine, the bandura underwent significant transformations with the development of a professional class of itinerant blind musicians called kobzars. The first mentions of an institution for the study of bandura playing date back to 1738, to a music academy in Hlukhiv where the bandura and violin were taught to be played from sheet music. This was the first music school in Eastern Europe and prepared musicians and singers for the Tsarist Court in St Petersburg.
The construction and playing technique were adapted to accommodate its primary role as accompaniment to the solo singing voice. By the mid 18th century, the instrument had developed into a form with approximately four to six stoppable strings strung along the neck (with or without frets) (tuned in 4ths) and up to sixteen treble strings, known as prystrunky, strung in a diatonic scale across the soundboard. The bandura existed in this form relatively unchanged until the early 20th century.
Up until the 20th century, the bandura repertoire was an oral tradition based primarily on vocal works sung to the accompaniment of the bandura. These included folk songs, chants, psalms, and epics known as dumy. Some folk dance tunes were also part of the repertoire.
The instrument became popular in the courts of the nobility in Eastern Europe. There are numerous citations mentioning the existence of Ukrainian bandurists in both Russia and Poland. Empress Elisabeth of Russia (the daughter of Peter the Great) had a morganatic marriage to her Ukrainian court bandurist, Olexii Rozumovsky.
In 1908, the Mykola Lysenko Institute of Music and Drama in Kiev began offering classes in bandura playing, instructed by kobzar Ivan Kuchuhura Kucherenko. Kucherenko taught briefly until 1911, and attempts were made to reopen the classes in 1912 with Hnat Khotkevych; however, the death of Mykola Lysenko and Khotkevych's subsequent exile in 1912 prevented this from happening. Khotkevych published the first primer for the bandura in Lviv in 1909. It was followed by a number of other primers specifically written for the instrument, most notably those by Mykhailo Domontovych, Vasyl Shevchenko and Vasyl Ovchynnikov, published in 1913–14.
In 1910, the first composition for the bandura was published in Kiev by Hnat Khotkevych. It was a dance piece entitled "Odarochka" for the folk bandura played in the Kharkiv style. Khotkevych prepared a book of pieces in 1912 but, because of the arrest of the publisher, it was never printed. Despite numerous compositions being written for the instrument in the late 1920s and early 30s, and the preparation of these works for publication, little music for the instrument was published in Ukraine. A number of bandura primers appeared in print in 1913–14, written by Mykhailo Domontovych, Vasyl Shevchenko and Vasyl Ovchinnikov and containing arrangements of Ukrainian folk songs with bandura accompaniment.
Years of suppression
The persecution of Kobzars started in 1876 under Imperial Russia with the publication of the Ems Ukaz: stage performances by kobzars and bandurists were officially banned. Paragraph 4 of the decree was specifically aimed at preventing all music, including ethnographic performances in the Ukrainian language. As a result, blind professional musicians such as the kobzars turned to the street for their sustenance. In the major Russian speaking cities, they were often treated like common street beggars by the non-Ukrainian population, being arrested and having their instruments destroyed. The restrictions and brutal persecution were only halted in 1902 after a special delegation was sent to the Ministry of Internal Affairs from the Imperial Archaeological Society.
Sanctions introduced by the Russian government in 1876 (Ems ukaz) that severely restricted the use of Ukrainian language and in point 4, also restricted the use of the bandura on the concert stage since all of the repertoire was sung in Ukrainian. Many bandurists and kobzars were systematically persecuted by the authorities controlling Ukraine at various times. This was because of the association of the bandura with specific aspects of Ukrainian history, and also the prevalence of religious elements in the kobzar repertoire that eventually was adopted by the latter-day bandurists. Much of the unique repertoire of the kobzars idealized the legacy of the Ukrainian Cossacks. A significant section of the repertoire consisted of para-liturgical chants (kanty) and psalms sung by the kobzari outside of churches as the latter were often suspicious of, and sometimes hostile to, the kobzars' moral authority.
Because of these restrictions and the rapid disappearance of kobzars and bandurists, the topic of the minstrel art of the itinerant blind bandura players was again brought up for discussion at the XIIth Archeological Conference held in Kharkiv in 1902. It was believed that the last blind kobzar, (Ostap Veresai) had died in 1890; however, upon investigation, six blind traditional kobzars were found to be alive and performed on stage at the conference. Thereafter, the rise in Ukrainian self-awareness popularized the bandura, particularly among young students and intellectuals. Gut strings were replaced by metal strings, which became the standard after 1902. The number of strings and size of the instrument also began to grow, in order to accommodate both the sound production required for stage performances, and the performance of a new repertoire of urban, folkloric song which required more sophisticated accompaniment.
Use of the instrument fell into decline amongst the nobility with the introduction of Western musical instruments and Western music fashions, but it remained a popular instrument of the Ukrainian Cossacks in the Hetmanate. After the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich, the instrument continued to be played by wandering, blind musicians known as kobzari in Right-bank Ukraine. With the growing appreciation of bandurist capellas as an art form came the accelerated development of technology related to the performance on the bandura. At the beginning of the 20th century the instrument was thought to have gone into total disuse. At that time it had some 20 strings with wooden pegs (4 basses and 16 prystrunky). The volume obtained from the instrument was not loud enough for the concert stage.
Period of tolereance
In 1918-20 a number of bandurists were shot by Bolsheviks after the October Revolution, during the Russian Civil War. Most of these bandurists were members of the various Ukrainian Armed forces or played for Ukrainian soldiers. Current accounts list some 20 known bandurists who perished in this time period. Few kobzari are included in this list. Few records accurately document the deaths of bandurists from this period.
From 1923, there was a period of tolerance to Ukrainian language and culture existed whilst Soviet power was entrenched in the country. During this time the popularity of the bandura grew considerably and unheeded.
The bandura underwent significant changes in the 20th century, in construction, technique and repertoire. Initial developments were made in making the range of the instrument greater and improving the sonority of the instrument. By 1911 instruments with 32 diatonically tuned strings had become common, almost replacing the traditional instruments played by the traditional kobzars. Metal tuning pegs made an appearance around 1914. This allowed the performer to accurately tune his instrument. This was crucial particularly when playing in an ensemble. By the mid-1920s, chromatic strings were also added to the instrument which allowed the performer to play accidentals and allowed the performer to modulate into close related keys. The construction of the instrument was modified to allow for the additional tension of these strings. The number of strings rose to about 56.
Subsequent developments included metal strings (introduced post-1891) and metal tuning pegs (introduced in 1912), additional chromatic strings (introduced from 1925) and a mechanical lever system for rapid re-tuning of the instrument (first introduced in 1931). In 1931 the first mechanisms were developed, which allowed the bandurist to quickly retune his instrument in a variety of more distinct keys.
In 1926, a collection of bandura compositions compiled by Mykhailo Teliha was published in Prague. Hnat Khotkevych also prepared a number of collections of pieces for the bandura in 1928; however, because of dramatic political changes within the Soviet Union, none of these collections were published.
Although workshops for the serial manufacture of banduras had been established earlier outside of Ukraine (in Moscow (1908), and Prague (1924)), continuous serial manufacture of banduras was only started in Ukraine, sometime in 1930.
Formal conservatory courses in bandura playing were re-established only after the Soviet revolution, when Khotkevych returned to Kharkiv and was invited to teach a class of bandura playing at the Muz-Dram Institute in 1926 and in Kiev in 1938. Vasyl Yemetz established in 1923, a bandura school in Prague, with over 60 students. By 1932–33, however, the Soviets tried to control the rise of Ukrainian self-awareness with severe restrictions on Ukrainian urban folk culture. Bandura classes in Ukraine were disbanded, and many bandurists were repressed by the Soviet government.
Years of persecution
In 1926, the Communist party began to fight against presumed nationalist tendencies within the Communist party. In 1927, the Central Committee decreed that Russian was a special language within the Soviet Union. By 1928, restrictions came into force directly affected the lifestyle of the traditional kobzars, and stopped them from traveling without a passport and performing without a license. Restrictions were also placed of accommodations that were not registered and also on manufacturing or making banduras without a license.
In July, 1929, many Ukrainian intellectuals were arrested for being members of the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine. A number of prominent bandurists disappeared at about this time. Most of these bandurists had taken part in the Revolution of 1918 on the side of the Ukrainian National Republic. With the prosecution of the members of the organization for the Liberation of Ukraine, a number of bandurists and also people who had helped organize bandura ensembles were included. Some were arrested and sent to camps in Siberia. Others were sent to dig the White Sea Canal. Some bandurists were able to escape from these camps. In the 1930s, there was also a wave of arrests of bandurists in the Kuban. Many of these arrested bandurists received relatively light sentences of 5–10 years camp detentions or exile, usually in Siberia.
In the 1930s, the authentic kobzar tradition of wandering musicians in Ukraine came to an end. In this period, documents attest to the fact that a large number of non-blind bandurists were also arrested at this time, however they received relatively light sentences of 2–5 years in penal colonies or exile.
In January 1934, the Ukrainian government decreed that the capital of the republic would move to Kiev. As all government departments were moved, many government organizations did not work correctly or efficiently for significant periods of time. In the move, many documents were lost and misplaced. From January, the artists of the state funded Bandurist Capellas stopped being paid for their work. By October, without receiving any pay, the state funded Bandurist Capellas stopped functioning. In December, a wave of repressions against Ukrainian intellectuals also resulted in 65 Ukrainian writers being arrested.
In the 1930s, Soviet authorities took measures to control and curtail aspects of Ukrainian culture (see Russification) they deemed unsuitable. This also included any interest in the bandura.Various sanctions were introduced to control cultural activities that were deemed anti-Soviet. When these sanctions proved to have little effect on the growth in interest in such cultural artifacts, the carriers of these artefacts, such as bandurists, often came under harsh persecution from the Soviet authorities. Many were arrested and some executed or sent to labor camps. At the height of the Great Purge in the late 1930s, the official State Bandurist Capella in Kiev was changing artistic directors every 2 weeks because of these political arrests.
Throughout the 1930s, bandurists were constantly being arrested and taken off for questioning which may have lasted some months. Many were constantly harassed by the authorities. Whereas in the early 1930s those incriminated received relatively light sentences of 2–5 years, in the period starting with 1937-38, the sentences were often fatal and immediate - death by shooting. In 1937-38, large numbers of bandurists were executed. Documents have survived of the many individual executions of bandurists and kobzars of this period. So far, the documentation of 41 bandurists sentenced to be shot have been found with documents attesting to approximately 100 receiving sentences of between 10–17 years. Often, those who were arrested were tortured to obtain a confession. Sentences were pronounced by a Troika and were dealt out swiftly within hours or days of the hearing. The families of those who were executed were often told that the bandurist had been sent to a camp without the right to correspond.
In recent years evidence of this has emerged, pointing to an event (often masked as an ethnographic conference) that was held in Kharkiv, the capital of the Ukrainian SSR, in December 1933 - January 1934. Many itinerant street musicians from all over the country, specifically blind kobzars and lirnyks, were invited to attend, amounting to an estimated 300 participants. All were subsequently executed as unwanted elements in the new Soviet Society.
In 1978, evidence came to light (Solomon Volkov's Testimony: The Memoirs of Shostakovych and Leonid Plyushch's History's Carnival) (1978) about the mass murder of the Ukrainian blind musicians by the Soviet authorities. Previous mentions of such a tragedy date back to 1981 in the writings of dissident Ukrainian poet Mykola Horbach.
According to a widespread version, the musicians were gathered under the guise of an ethnographic conference and then mass-executed. Various versions give different times for the conference and location. The confusion is exacerbated by the fact that little differentiation is made between the kobzari, bandurists and lirnyky. Archival documents attesting to the organisation of such a conference have been found which were affirmed by bandurist Mykhailo Polotay who had been one of the instigators and organisers of the conference. Although no documents directly attesting to the mass-execution of the kobzari has been found to date, we do have a significant list of kobzari and bandurists who died or disappeared at this time.
By one of the versions, the conference was organized near Kharkiv in December 1933, where 300 (c.50) blind kobzars and (c.250) lirnyks were gathered near the then Ukrainian capital of Kharkiv and left to die of exposure in a gully outside of the city limits. The location of this atrocity has recently been discovered on the territory of recreation building owned by the KGB (or the NKVD) in the area of Piatykhatky, Kharkiv Oblast. A monument has also been erected in the centre of Kharkiv to mark this tragic event.
Years of stagnation
After World War II, and particularly after the death of Joseph Stalin, these restrictions were somewhat relaxed and bandura courses were again re-established in music schools and conservatories in Ukraine, initially at the Kiev conservatory under the direction of Khotkevych's student Volodymyr Kabachok, who had returned to Kiev after being released from a gulag labour camp in Kolyma.
After the death of Joseph Stalin, the draconian policies of the Soviet administration were halted. Many bandurists who, during that period, had been persecuted were "rehabilitated". Some of those exiled returned to Ukraine. Conservatory courses were re-established and, in time, the serial manufacture of banduras was rekindled by musical instrument factories in Chernihiv and Lviv.
Most accounts of Nazi persecution of kobzars and bandurists were Soviet fabrications, however a number of prominent bandurists did die at the hands of the Nazis. One notable bandurist was Mykhailo Teliha who was executed in the tragic Babi Yar massacre in Kiev in February 1942. Soviet sources tried attribute the deaths of numerous kobzars such as I. Kucherenko to the German-Nazi occupation. Recent documents have disproved most of these versions of their deaths.
In the 1950s, a number of bandurists also either died or disappeared under strange and unexplained circumstances. Some had accidents (Singalevych, Kukhta, Konyk). A significant number, approximately 30-50 bandurists, were also deported to Siberia from Western Ukraine. By the 1960s, total Communist Party control of the bandura art was achieved. A period of feminisation of the bandura took place where males were not accepted into conservatory courses to study the bandura. The repertoire of those that played the bandura underwent a major change from history songs and epics to romantic love and lyric works and transcriptions of classical piano works.
After World War II, two factories dominated the manufacturing of banduras: the Chernihiv Musical Instrument Factory (which produced 120 instruments a month, over 30,000 instruments from 1954 to 1991) and the Trembita Musical Instrument Factory in Lviv (which has produced over 3,000 instruments since 1964). Other serially manufactured instruments were also made in workshops in Kiev and Melnytso-Podilsk.
In Germany in 1948, the Honcharenko brothers in the workshops of the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus continued to refine the mechanism to make it more reliable for the concert stage and also even out the tone of the instrument. Similar developments were also undertaken by Ivan Skliar in Ukraine who in 1956 developed the concert Kiev bandura - an instrument which has become the workhorse of most professional bandurists in Ukraine. A slightly more refined instrument was also developed later by Professor Vasyl Herasymenko in Lviv.
Although direct and open confrontation ceased, the Communist party continued to control and manipulate the art of the bandurist through a variety of indirect means. Bandura players now had to censor their repertoire and stop any cultural aspects that were deemed to be anti-Soviet. This included songs with religious texts or melodies, Christmas carols, historic songs about the cossack past, and songs with any hint of a nationalistic sub-text. Some bandurists rose in the ranks of the Communist Party to become high-level administrators. (e.g. Professor Serhiy Bashtan was the first secretary of the Communist Party at the Kiev conservatory for over 30 years and, in that position, restricted the development of many aspects of Ukrainian culture in the premier music establishment in Ukraine).
A policy of feminization of the bandura also severely restricted the number of male bandurists able to study the bandura at a professional level (kobzarstvo had originally been an exclusively male domain). This was perplexing as there was only one professional ensemble and it was made up exclusively of male players. The feminization of the instrument influenced a significant change in the repertoire of the bandurist from a heroic epic tradition to one singing romances. Restrictions existed in obtaining instruments and control was exercised in the publication of musical literature for the bandura. Only "trusted" performers were allowed to perform on stage with severely censored and restrictive repertoire. These restrictions continued to leave a significant impact on the contemporary development of the art form.
Main article: Bandurist
In the late 1970s these concert instruments began to be manufactured serially by the Chernihiv factory, and later the Lviv factory. In the mid-1970s artificial fingernails were also developed which allowed the bandurist to perform more professionally. In the 1960s the foundation of the modern professional bandura technique and repertoire were laid by professor Serhiy Bashtan based on work he had done with students from the Kiev Conservatory. Professional Ukrainian composers only started composing seriously for the instrument after World War II and specifically in the 1950-70's, including such composers as Mykola Dremliuha, Anatoly Kolomiyetz, Yuriy Oliynyk and Kost Miaskov, who have created complex works such as sonatas, suites, and concerti for the instrument.
In recent times, more Ukrainian composers have started to incorporate the bandura in their orchestral works, with traditional Ukrainian folk operas such as Natalka Poltavka being re-scored for the bandura. Contemporary works such as Kupalo by Y. Stankovych and The Sacred Dnipro by Valery Kikta also incorporated the bandura as part of the orchestra. Western composers of Ukrainian background, such as Yuriy Oliynyk and Peter Senchuk, have also composed serious works for the bandura.
Today, all the conservatories of music in Ukraine offer courses majoring in bandura performance. Bandura instruction is also offered in all music colleges and most music schools, and it is now possible to get advanced degrees specialising in bandura performance and pedagogy. The most renowned of these establishments are the Kiev and Lviv conservatories and the Kiev University of Culture, primarily because of their well-established staff. Other centers of rising prominence are the Odessa Conservatory and Kharkiv University of Culture.