Author Topic: Larysa Kuzmenko and the Representation of Ukrainian and Ukrainian-Canadian Identity through Music  (Read 815 times)

Olga Drozd

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(Professor and Composer) Larysa Kuzmenko and the Representation of Ukrainian and Ukrainian-Canadian Identity through Music

University Essay written by Daria (Veronica) Axenova

Composer and pianist Larysa Kuzmenko was born on January 23, 1956, in Toronto.  Kuzmenko obtained her Master’s Degree in Composition at the University of Toronto, where she now teaches harmony, composition, and piano.  Her works have been performed, recorded, commissioned, and broadcasted by an array of world-renowned musicians and ensembles such as Roxolana Roslak, Shauna Rolston, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Her solo piano works, such as “Mysterious Summer’s Night,” have found their way into the repertoire of numerous pianists and her choral music, such as “Stars,” have sold over a thousand copies annually.  From venues in Europe and New York, to local ones in Toronto, Kuzmenko has performed all around the world as a pianist and was broadcasted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and Canada’s Jazz Radio Station (CJRT).  Christina Petrowska Quilico, a well-known Ukrainian-Canadian pianist, recorded Kuzmenko’s “Piano Concerto” on CD.  The piece was nominated for a Juno award in 2011.  During the same year, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra commissioned Kuzmenko to write “Behold the Night” for their 90th anniversary.  It was premiered by the TSO, conducted by Peter Oundjian, and sung by the Toronto Children’s Choir.  Broadcasted on CBC, “Behold the Night” took the audience by storm.  Oscar-winning actor Christopher Plummer had approached the composer after the show and stated: “Shakespeare would have been very proud,” referring to her musical text setting of “A Midsummer's Night Dream.”

In addition to her Canadian identity, Larysa Kuzmenko’s roots lie deep within Ukraine and its culture.  Her mother was born in Vinnytsia and her father in Chernihiv, both cities in Ukraine.  At a young age, Kuzmenko learned to play the bandura, a Ukrainian lute-like instrument, and even toured with a group of bandurists.  In 1992, Kuzmenko’s Vibraphone and Marimba Concerto was performed in Lviv Ukraine.  She has also accompanied for Ukrainian choirs and soloists, and helped prepare singers for the premier of a Ukrainian opera called “Kupalo” in 1981.  Kuzmenko’s deep connection to her Ukrainian heritage is evidently and effectively manifested in her music.

Larysa Kuzmenko is a Canadian Ukrainian musical activist whose role is vital in representing the suppressed Ukrainian voice. This paper will investigate how her compositions such as “Golden Harvest,” “In Memoriam to the Victims of Chornobyl,” and “Voice of Hope” function to address important political issues as well as historical events that have severely impacted or threatened the Ukrainian community within Canada and around the world.

For the 125th anniversary of Ukrainian settlement in Canada, Larysa Kuzmenko was commissioned by Laurence Ewashko to compose “Golden Harvest.”  This 30-minute oratorio honours Ukrainians who suffered during the anti-Ukrainian movement in Canada that have not only successfully managed to preserve their own heritage but significantly contributed to Canada’s national identity.  In a 2017 interview with Ewashko, he stated that “the work describes the challenges of emigration.” 

The three main waves of Ukrainian immigration occurred during the First and Second World Wars as well as during the Cold War.  Notable events during these periods included the 1914-1920 internment of thousands of Ukrainians into camps, who were considered “enemy aliens” at the time.  Both the families of Ewashko and Kuzmenko suffered immensely during the first few years of their new chapter in Canada as immigrants.  In the 1920s, during the second wave of immigration, Ewashko’s family arrived in Canada.  He recalls the stories that were told by his relatives who were “punished for speaking in and around Ukrainian school.”  Kuzmenko’s family, who had arrived in Canada during the year of 1954, endured financial and work-related hardships.  The title of their oratorio alludes to a highly important juncture in Canadian agriculture history: the spread of the Red Fife wheat across the Prairies from the Galicia region in Ukraine.  The Prairies became known as “Canada’s breadbasket,” creating an international demand for Canadian wheat and a success story about the Ukrainian immigrants. 

Each of the three movements of “Golden Harvest” tells a different story and showcases a different side to the immigration experience. A well-known traditional Ukrainian tune called “The Mighty Dnieper Roars and Bellows,” is employed within the orchestral overture of the first movement.  The tune, which Kuzmenko loved since childhood, is famous in Ukraine, and is considered much like a national anthem to the people.  Much like the pieces that will be discussed below, this tune reoccurs throughout the entire work, constantly being reshaped and reformed. The first movement depicts the ocean journey of an immigrant family to Canada in an exciting manner until its ending, where the oboe solo suddenly becomes threatening, “foreshadowing the many struggles to come.”   

In the next movement, a train ride across Canada is portrayed in an energetic manner.  However, the music transforms as the immigrant family realizes that there is no homestead awaiting them.  This is then followed by the heartbreaking death of the family’s son from starvation, whom the mother must bury alone because her husband had left to seek work.  The melody she sings is heartfelt and the male chorus that accompanies her sing “Eternal memory,” a Ukrainian funeral dirge. 

The last movement features a rhythmic motive to portray the beginning of War World I, where men were taken as prisoners into camps.  However, the oratorio ends optimistically, as the men who returned from the camps are greeted with the Red Fife wheat, harvested by the women.  With this large work, Kuzmenko wished to take the listeners “on some kind of journey” in hopes that it would move them in any way.  “Golden Harvest” is a testimony to all  Ukrainian immigrants that fled their own country in search for a better future, only to be greeted in Canada with a great deal of hardship and racial discrimination, yet finding means to thrive.

Inspired by a man-made disaster that occurred in Chornobyl, Ukraine,
“In Memoriam to the Victims of Chornobyl” pays tribute to those who were affected or continue to be affected. In 1986, one of the reactors at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant had exploded, causing a chain of further explosions.  Though only two had died from the initial explosion, the radioactive particles that had contaminated the air and diffused across Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, had ripped away 70 additional lives almost immediately.  This fog of radioactive fallout was four hundred times the amount produced by the bomb that detonated at Hiroshima.  Over 600,000 individuals were exposed to radioactive nuclides, more than 6000 people later died from thyroid cancer.  This catastrophe remains up to the present day, the worst nuclear accident in history. 

Within her solo piano work, Kuzmenko captures the essence of the disaster through jarring harmonies and mechanical sound. She incorporates these elements in the very opening theme which sets the dark, ominous, and tragic atmosphere of the piece.  First seen in measure 14, the melancholically lyric main theme is drawn from an old Ukrainian folk tune called “A Grave in the Field.” This traditional song speaks of a grave in the field that pleads the wind to protect it from dying, and asks the sun to shine upon it.  Here, the grave is seen as analogous to the victims that begged for their lives as the deadly air poisoned their lungs. After its initial statement, the main theme is presented in various forms and characters throughout the piece, amidst all the chaos, notably in measures 45-48, 58-61, and 104-111.  The latter is an instance of where Kuzmenko represents the invisible radioactive particles themselves, that are fatal to not just the victims but to the environment as well.  Kuzmenko effectively achieves this by separating the melody into little fragments, as though it has exploded itself, creating a pointillistic texture. 

There are two major climaxes in the piece, each a depiction of a separate explosion.  In measure 124-155, during the second climax, Kuzmenko quotes a sacred chant from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church practice, “asking God for forgiveness.” The piece recalls the folk tune and the opening theme at the end of the piece, which, as Kuzmenko said, “questions the future of our planet.”  Though many decades have passed since this catastrophe, it has permanently shaped the lives of all Ukrainians, whether physically or emotionally, directly or indirectly. Kuzmenko notes that she knew a musician who had performed in Chornobyl that later died from thyroid cancer due to radioactive exposure. 

By depicting a horrific tragedy through music that is imbued with Ukrainian folk elements, Kuzmenko honours the abundance of life that was lost, and expresses a personal response in hopes that other Ukrainians can connect to it at any level, and feel comforted in knowing that their pain has not been forgotten. What is more, “In Memoriam to the Victims of Chornobyl” has a crucial role in educating non-Ukrainian listeners in Canada and around the world of this historically significant event and its level of severity.

Kuzmenko’s “Voice of Hope,” was commissioned for the 70th anniversary of the Great Famine-Genocide by Vesnivka Choir. 

During the years of 1932-1933, the Holodomor, also known as the Famine-Genocide had struck Ukraine, claiming the lives of up to 10 million people.  The genocide was a part of the new Soviet policy, under Stalin’s guard, to eradicate all supporters, but primarily the peasants and landowners, of Ukraine’s nationality and independence.  The new regime introduced unrealistically high taxes on agricultural produce, which consequently deprived the Ukrainian people of their food supply.  A new law was enacted in August of 1932, authorizing either a 10 year exile or the death penalty for the theft of grain and other crops, which the government deemed as “social property.”  Meanwhile, large quantities of grain (over 1.7 million tons) were brought to Western markets.  The closed borders of Ukraine posed a challenge to the Western press that wished to document and report the injustices that were happening inside the country. 

A work for soprano and string orchestra, “Voice of Hope” was dedicated to Kuzmenko’s family on her mother’s side, who all died from starvation during the Holodomor.  This included her great grandmother Katerina Kozar, grandparents Tatiana Breha, and Gregory, as well as their children: Peter, Philip, and Anastasia.  The only survivor was Paraskevia Breha Kuzmenko, Larysa Kuzmenko’s mother, who was orphaned at age nine.  Kuzmenko stated that during the composition process, she could actually sense her mother’s pain.  This made her feel as though the piece was writing itself, as if “some invisible force was moving [her] pencil on the manuscript paper.”

The work begins with a dark theme, executed by the strings. The first verse of text tells the story of a girl who sees a bird begging for food by her window.  Here, the atmosphere created by the music is one of great sorrow and despair. The girl barely has any food for herself, let alone for the bird. Instead, she tells the bird to fly far and inform the world that Ukrainians are dying from starvation.  All at once, the music intensifies and changes character. The tempo increases and the music becomes highly rhythmic to represent Stalin’s forces taking away the food from families in the villages and leaving them to die from hunger.  In the final verse, the opening theme is recalled, however, since thousands have already died, it is now imbued with a sense of helplessness.  As the music reaches its climax, the soprano and tutti orchestra close with “O barbarous savage, your regime is cruel! But we haven’t died! We’re still alive!”

In this piece, Kuzmenko is more than just commemorating the victims of a catastrophe fashioned by politics, she is conveying a powerful political message against hatred and all of its evils to the entire world. “Voice of Hope” is about human resilience: that no matter what kind of maliciousness humanity is faced with, it will prosper. Kuzmenko depicts the Soviet’s oppression but most importantly, the protestation of the Ukrainian nation against this cruel government. During the famine itself, it was impossible for the peasants to rebel against Stalin, and thus “A Voice of Hope” can be equally seen as a voice for or of the suffering Ukrainian people.

In all, Larysa Kuzmenko is more than just a composer. When she is composing music, she becomes an environmentalist, a politician, a historian, and most importantly, a humanist. Although she was born and raised in Canada, she has maintained a tightly knit relationship with her Ukrainian background and culture. “Voice of Hope,” “Memoriam for the Victims of Chornobyl,” and “Golden Harvest” has touched the lives of many Ukrainians, Ukrainian-Canadians, and any other nations that may have related to the stories behind the pieces or appreciated their profoundness. Imbued with Ukrainian folk tunes and powerful statements to express a personal or political response to significant Ukrainian events, her music is alive. It ruptures the silenced repression that Ukrainians had to endure over the course of history. Larysa Kuzmenko uses her Canadian identity and the freedom of expression that comes with it to represent through music, the voice of the voiceless.

“Composer Showcase: Larysa Kuzmenko.” Canadian Music Centre. Accessed March 20, 2018.

Hunter, Sylvia. “Interview With Larysa Kuzmenko.” Orpheus Choir Toronto. February 23, 2017. Accessed March 18, 2018.

Kuzmenko, Larysa. In Memoriam: for the Vicitms of Chornobyl. Toronto: Plangere, 2008.

Kuzmenko, Larysa. “Larysa Kuzmenko: Composer and Pianist.” 2011. Accessed March 20, 2018.

Melnycky, Peter J. “Enemy Aliens, Prisoners of War: Internment in Canada during the Great War/A Bare and Impolitic Right: Internment and Ukrainian-Canadian Redress.” Journal of Ukrainian Studies28, no. 2 (Winter 2003): 134-36. doi:10.5260/cca.199462.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Accident.” In Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Accident. District of Columbia: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 2013.
« Last Edit: April 01, 2018, 09:31:53 AM by Olga Drozd »