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Kyrylo Stetsenko: “It is high time Europe discovered the Ukrainian soul”
“I think that it will be interesting for Europe to discover the Ukrainian soul that has been closed to Europe for hundreds of years. I believe Ukraine is at a turning point when Ukrainians are beginning to get rid of their inferiority complex and to look at themselves in a radically different way — not through the eyes of Russians or Americans but through their own eyes, and they see that they do have a great creative potential which should be realized and the results presented to the world.”
Kyrylo Stetsenko is a grandson of the Ukrainian composer Kyrylo Stetsenko, classic of Ukrainian music. He picked up the family musical tradition at an early age of five when he began to learn to play the violin. In later years, among his teachers were such remarkable violinists as Bohodar Kotorovych, Leonid Kohan and Valery Klymov.
Kyrylo Stetsenko won Ukrainian and international prizes; he toured the USA, Canada, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Belgium and Portugal with concerts; he wrote classical music, pop music and music for television programmes and feature films. But in Ukraine he is better known as an organizer and producer of popular shows and festivals: Chervona Ruta’89; Shlyakh do voli (Road to freedom); Rock’n’Roll on the Ruins; New Stars of the Old Year, and Stetsenkiv Velykden. He became even better known thanks to his TV programmes, Videomlyn; Stupa; Fest Konkon, Refleks and Budapest Weekend, of which he was both host and creator.
Kyrylo Stetsenko was interviewed by Maksym PROTSKIV, WU senior editor.
Mr Stetsenko, you are a musician, composer, TV presenter, producer, and teacher, all rolled into one. What is it that you are seeking to achieve in all those and many things that you do — ideal, perfection, unique experiences?
Yes, I want to achieve the things that you’ve just mentioned. To achieve perfection is an ideal in anything that you do and while trying to achieve it you gain unique experiences. But there is something else that stands behind all my strivings — it may sound a bit pompous but I do feel that I am part of Ukraine, part of its history and part of its people. I may be living my own private life, but at the same time I do my best to arouse the feeling of national dignity in the Ukrainian people, to encourage striving for perfection, to promote the spiritual revival. It’s very important for me to see people fulfil their aspirations. It was so spiritually uplifting to watch the Orange Revolution develop and achieve its ends. A new nation was born then.
You come from a family of deep-rooted musical traditions — how important is it for you to maintain and continue these traditions?
That’s the most important thing for me. My grandfather, Kyrylo Stetsenko lived on this earth only for forty years, from 1882 to 1922, but in spite of the shortness of his life he achieved a lot. He was a well-known composer, an orchestra conductor and choirmaster, but also he headed the music department of the Ministry of Education of Ukraine during the time of the Ukrainian short-lived independence, from 1917 to 1919. He contributed his efforts to the establishment of publishing houses to publish music scores and musical literature; he created methodology of teaching music at the elementary schools. And quite apart from music, he was a church leader and a priest — in 1921, he was one of the founders of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church. When he was exiled by the Bolshevik authorities to the village of Holovo-Rusava, he organized agricultural cooperatives and helped the local peasant and parishioners of his church to sell their crops. He worked in so many fields — and what was it that gave him inspiration and strength and determination? Ukraine and God. I understand my grandfather so well, and I want to follow in his footsteps.
You are not only a musician — you have achieved success in the show business as well. Combining lofty things with down-to-earth activities does not seem to be a problem for you.
No, it is not. In my childhood, I was greatly impressed and enchanted by the majestic beauty of the starry sky at night — and I began to read books on astronomy. Later, I became interested in the magic of chemical reactions and transformations — and I began to study organic chemistry and conduct experiments. Then, at one point in my life I realized that the magic and mystery of the universal harmony is present in every great piece of music — and I began writing songs and symphonies. And still later, during my trip to the USA, I discovered for myself the world of business, and I realized that being successful, business could be looked upon as creation of my own world in society. Now I know that my calling is to create systems and precedents. And it does not matter whether it is going to be a piece of music or a TV programme, or a business project. It can be anything.
Should artists, writers and musicians be involved in politics?
In Ukraine, that’s what they have been doing — involved in politics, that is — for several generations. Why? Probably because, the Ukrainian intelligentsia felt much more acutely than anybody else their patriotic responsibility before society than the rest. They tried to save the Ukrainian nation from the spiritual or even physical demise. I would, probably, have devoted myself entirely to “pure art” if the Ukrainian nation had been more developed in the political and economic sense. The question, To be or not to be, is still a very pertinent one in this country, at least on the level of the cultural identity for most of the Ukrainians. Take, for example, the Ukrainian language — most of the people can speak it, but prefer to use Russian in the family and with friends. Are they ashamed of being Ukrainians? Do they still think that speaking Russian is more prestigious? Or that Russian culture is superior? We must strive to get rid of our inferiority complexes. Now, after the Orange Revolution, I feel we have a much better chance to be rather than not to be.
To which period of time should we date the appearance of Ukrainian professional music? Eighteenth century? Or later?
Much earlier. Ukrainian professional music dates to the times of Kyivan Rus, to the ninth or tenth century. It is known that church choirs existed from very early times. There were other kinds of music performed but musical notation of those times was very much different from the one used in later times, and it has not been deciphered yet.
With the establishment of Christianity at the end of the tenth century, church music developed — and secular music as well. Skomorokhy — professional secular musicians — played on all kinds of instruments, the wind and stringed instruments included. Music played a significant role at the court of Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise, and in the murals of the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom — better known as Sophia — which was built during his rein, we can see representations of these musicians. After a long period of decline which was caused by foreign invasions and loss of independence, Ukrainian music began to revive in the seventeenth century and it flourished in the eighteenth century. A number of composers of those times — Dyletsky, Berezovksy, Bortnyansky and Vedel among them, made great contributions to the development of Ukrainian classical music. Bortnyansky was a superb musician in addition to being a composer who wrote piano concertos and operas. Maksym Berezovsky created the first ever Ukrainian sonata for the violin and piano. Berezovsky’s contribution to the Ukrainian classical music was particularly great. Incidentally, I had the honour of performing Berezovsky’s sonata with Mykhailo Stepanenko, the composer who had deciphered the manuscript that contained the score.
The founder of the Ukrainian professional school of composers was Mykola Lysenko who was born in 1842 and died in 1912. Lysenko was my grandfather’s teacher and inspired him to create his own music. Since then, Ukrainian music has been developing in several genres though some of them are developed better than others. Lysenko wanted to combine European, mostly German, music composing technique with Ukrainian melodies, rhythms and genres. Similar things for their national music was done in Hungary by Francz Liszt, by Smetana for the Czechs, and by Wagner for the Germans. At the beginning of the twentieth century my grandfather continued to work along these lines. He supported the reformation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and he wanted to create Ukrainian religious music that would be fully based on the Ukrainian melos. And in some of his works, such as Panikhyda (Requiem) in memoriam of Lysenko, Liturgy of St John the Chrysostom and Vsenichna (Vespers) he achieved what he wanted.
Could you name some of the other musicians of the twentieth century who played an important role in the development of Ukrainian music?
Viktor Kosenko, Levko Revutsky, Borys Laytoshynsky, Myroslav Skoryk, Valentyn Silvestrov, Yevhen Stankovych and Volodymyr Ronchak. But it’s a very short list, of course. Some of these composers continue to create music…
To what extent was the fact of your having been born into a musical family a determining factor in the initial choice of your career?
I did not have as much choice of what to do in life as my grandfather did — he wanted to be a priest, an artist and a composer, all at the same time. I was born into a musical family — my father Vadym Stetsenko was head of the violin departments of the Lviv and Kyiv conservatoires and it was but natural that I started playing the violin at an early age. Also, I knew a lot of folk songs which I learnt from my father and his friends. But my interest in music fully manifested itself only in my adolescence. The Beatles were a great inspiration for me and my friends, and we founded a rock band, calling it Eney (Aeneas). We played our own music, which was based on Ukrainian folk music, but which also borrowed a lot from the Beatles. My parents did not like it and it was also frowned upon by the soviet state. Besides, we sang in Ukrainian, and it was considered to be “a dangerous manifestation of Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism.”
Did you actually enjoy playing the violin when you just started it?
My father was my first teacher. He saw I had a talent and in addition to teaching me to play he also taught me patience and commitment. Gradually, I discovered I did enjoy the very process of playing the violin. Then I discovered what meditation while you are playing was. My favourite composers were Handel and Mozart. They taught me a lot too. Of a particular importance in musical career were my studies with Professor Yury Yankelevych who developed a superior technique of teaching playing the violin, probably the best in the world at that time. When I was still a student of the Kyiv Conservatoire, I won several violin contests, performed with leading musicians and made some recordings. Later I had the honour of perfecting my playing with Leonid Kohan, one of the great geniuses of violin playing of the twentieth century. In the Moscow Conservatoire I met such music luminaries as Svyatoslav Rikhter, Valey Klymov, Gideon Kramer, and Oleg Krysa.
Were your siblings also affected by your family musical traditions?
Very much so. My sisters Lesya and Lina took part in family concerts that we regularly organized at home. W also played professionally together in a trio, Stetsenko Trio, popularizing Ukrainian music in general, and Ukrainian baroque music in particular. We played sonatas by Bach, Handel, Telemann, Vivaldi and others. Now my sister Lina — Halyna Stestenko — teaches organ playing at the conservatory in the Island of Madeira, Portugal. The other sister teaches violin playing to children in Toronto, Canada.
What are the trends and directions in which Ukrainian music is developing now?
I think that to a great extent, modern Ukrainian music is developing along the lines that were set by the Chervona Ruta festival which was organized by a group of Ukrainian musicians — I was one of them — and music critics back in 1989. Modern Ukrainian music combines the world trends with Ukrainian folk traditions. Unfortunately, neither the Ukrainian radio nor television play much of this new Ukrainian music. I am convinced it has a great potential, and the success of such pop singers as Ruslana is just another proof of this potential. In addition to being a good musician, you have to believe in your nation, in your culture and traditions, and then you can hope for success. The time has come to get rid of our inferiority complexes, once and for good.