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A Short History of the Bandura

Hryhory Kytasty

From ancient times to present days the bandura was the favorite musical Instrument, the "soul" of the Ukrainian people. And more than that, the bandura is closely connected with the historical struggle for national independence, in the battles for the lands of Ukraine. Among the Slavic nations only the Ukrainian people accepted and developed the bandura as their national instrument. In spite of this, in the 17th and l8th centuries, the Russian tzars or Polish kings kept for their entertainment not only individual bandura players kobzari but sometimes-entire ensembles. The greatest flowering of the kobzar art was during the 17th and l8th centuries, that is, luring the glorious Kozak era when the Ukrainian people, led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1648), with the strength of arms won the right for their own independent Kozak (cossack) nation. The kobzari were honored members of the Kozak leaders' retinues, and some of the Hetmans (leaders), for example Ivan Mazeppa, learned to play -the bandura themselves and even composed songs and ballads for their instrument. In Ukraine the kobzari, as in medieval Europe the meistersingers, rhapsodists, and troubadours, composed songs and ballads (called duma) that were permeated with patriotic Kozak national and moral ideals. Heroes were glorified, prisoners in Turkish prisons were remembered, and the religious and spiritual was embodied in lyrical and religious psalms, which even today create their spiritual value. In 1752 Catherine II became the tzarina of Russia, and it was at her command that the Kozak state was destroyed by force of arms in 1775. At that time, Ukraine took on the look of mysterious, universal burial mounds. The

kozak bandurists, most of whom were blind, went among the people with songs and ballads of freedom, of the glory that had been the Kozak state and its leaders, who did not hold back their lives in the defense of truth and the liberty of their people. The occupying forces persecuted these kobzari; their banduras were smashed, they were jailed, their heads were cut off. But probably the biggest number of them perished in -the first half of the 20th century in the modern Russian occupation from a bullet in the temple. The first appearance of the bandura can be seen on the walls of the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev that dates back to the 10-12th centuries. The frescos show gathered musicians, who were the kobzari of their time, playing multi-stringed instruments. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the bandura, or kobza, had from 12-16 strings, but gradually strings were added and the range expanded. The modern, developed bandura has from 54 to 60 strings that are arranged in chromatic order over 5 octaves. The bandura belongs to the family of plucked instruments. The controlled touch of the fingers on the strings produces a deep, but soft, timbre in the lower and middle registers, and a bright and silvery sound in the upper strings. In all, the sound of the bandura approximates a cross between a harp and a harpsichord. In the 19th century the best known kobzar was Ostap Veresay (1803-1900), whose talent and artistry in song and instrumental play made him famous not only in Ukraine and in Russia, but also in the musical circles of Europe, especially France. At the end of the 19th century, and at the beginning of the 20th, there appeared quite a number of learned, distinguished, musically accomplished kobzari. Among them was Hnat Khotkevych, who had the most influence on the technical development of the bandura. With the fall of tzarist Russia (1917), grim times lay ahead for the national rebirth of Ukraine. In 1918 individual

bandurists formed a choral group of bandura players. From this came the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus in the honor of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine's greatest poet. The Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus resides now in the U.S.A. and recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of its founding. The Chorus was born and hardened under the conditions of the Soviet state. It was further tested in German concentration camps during the Second World War. It was from Germany that the Chorus emmigrated to the U.S.A. in 1949. Today the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus is known worldwide as an original, unique and unforgettable musical ensemble, and it has enjoyed triumphant success in the major concert halls of Europe, USA, and Canada. Its conductor is Hryhory Kytasty.