Regarding polyphonic singing traditions, the second largest country of Europe (after Russia), the Ukraine has quite a paradoxical situation. On one hand, Ukraine is a home of very interesting and rich forms of traditional polyphony (in Ukrainian bogatogolosie) and on the other hand most of the Ukrainian ethnomusicologists display almost total neglect towards their own polyphonic traditions.
Founders and the greatest representatives of early Ukrainian musicology Filaret Kolessa (beginning of the 20th century) and Klyment Kvitka (from the 1920s and 1930s) were concentrated on the study of solo professional singers (mostly blind musician-minstrels, kobzars). Polyphonic singing (“Gurtovoe penie”) was not in the mainstream of their research interests. K. Kvitka, considering polyphony a late phenomenon, wrote with regret about the replacement of the ancient monophonic tradition of refined music with the late mass tradition of “gurtovoe penie” (group singing, or choral polyphony. Kvitka, 1986:87).
One of the best publications of the beginning of the 20th century, representing the Ukrainian polyphony (unfortunately, regionally very limited), was published by Russian scholar Evgeniya Lineva (Lineva, 1991, the first edition –1905). Severely criticized by Kvitka, the publication did not have much influence on the development of Ukrainian ethnomusicology. It is clear today that at least some points of the critique were not deserved by Lineva. For example, Kvitka wrote that the transcription of traditional songs by the ear from memory is much more scholarly appropriate than the transcription from the phonographic recording (as it was done by Lineva).
A monumental volume “Ukrainian Traditional Polyphony” was published in 1962 (Iashchenko, 1962). A special research article about the Ukrainian polyphony came out as a part of this volume. Unfortunately, although the songbook gives plenty of examples of Ukrainian polyphony, the songbook (1) did not provide the regional study of polyphonic traditions; (2) failed to pay any attention to the most important polyphonic northern region of the Ukraine – so called “Polissia”, and (3) failed even to mention the drone type of polyphony on the territory of the Ukraine (more so: there is a special declaration that drone in Ukrainian music exists only in instrumental music, and not in a vocal music. Iashchenko, 1962:57). The whole volume represents solely the examples of late style polyphony, obviously influenced by European classical music (with parallel thirds and European style triadic harmony). There is almost no mentioning of any possible parallels of Ukrainian polyphony in the accompanying the songbook research (even with Eastern Slav polyphonic traditions), and the polyphonic traditions in Ukrainian music are declared to be a result of the late influence of European classical polyphony on Ukrainian traditional monophonic music. My colleagues would agree that this position was generally abandoned in European musicology at least after the first publication of Schneider’s “History of Polyphony” in 1934-35.
In my opinion, the most informative publication on Ukrainian polyphony is a relatively small article (14 pages) of Vladimir Matvienko “On some peculiarities of Ukrainian Traditional Polyphony” (Matvienko, 1967). Matvienko rejected the idea of late (19th –20th century) origin or Ukrainian polyphony and suggests that the traditional polyphony was one of the main forces behind the development of Ukrainian professional polyphonic music. Matvienko was also the first who wrote about the existence of drone polyphony in the earliest layers of ritual and calendaric songs of Polissia, and pointed at Polissia as the most important region of the distribution of Ukrainian traditional polyphony. He also was the first to write about the tradition of using dissonant chords and intervals, containing seconds (the idea of using of dissonances in Ukrainian polyphony was totally rejected in the 1962 volume on Ukrainian polyphony).
Despite the 1967 article of V. Matvienko, the same neglect towards traditional polyphony continued in Ukrainian ethnomusicology. In the early 1990s I received a PhD of a Ukrainian scholar, Irina Belosvetova, and as I looked through the musical examples first, I remember how delighted I was to see plenty of examples of very interesting drone polyphony with secondal dissonances. The dissertation was about one of the regions of Polissia. I started reading the manuscript with much anticipation of the discussion of this interesting phenomenon. Despite the fact that the work was very professionally written, there was hardly even a mentioning of the existence of polyphony in the analyzed tradition (let alone drone polyphony). To be precise, the words “polyphony” was mentioned only twice, and the term “drone” was not mentioned at all. In the later published standard work, “The History of Ukrainian Music”, published in 1989, and written by a group of the leading Ukrainian musicologists, the special section about the Ukrainian traditional polyphony mostly follows the 1962 book on Ukrainian polyphony. So, for example, the archaic polyphonic tradition of Polissia with the drone and dissonant intervals is totally missing in 1989 book. Generally speaking, the same trend still continues, and even in the feature article about the Ukrainian music in the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music there is nothing about the drone polyphony with dissonant intervals in Polissia (Noll, 2000).
Fortunately, from other smaller publications (together with the article of Matvienko, mentioned earlier) and some unpublished materials (mostly papers, delivered at the polyphonic conferences in Georgia) we do have more complete idea about the distribution of different types of vocal polyphony on the territory of the Ukraine. For example, in a special paper about the polyphony in Polissia written for the 2004 Tbilisi conference, dedicated to the traditional polyphony, E. Efremov distinguishes two main styles of polyphony in Ukrainian Polissia: (1) Drone polyphony, and (2) heterophony. Drone polyphony with a small range melody is characteristic to northern regions of Ukrainian Polissia. Heterophony is characteristic for both northern and southern regions. In northern regions heterophony is based on dissonant harmonies and develops within the third, and in southern regions heterophony is more parallel third oriented and has wider range melodies (Efremov, 2005).
Generally speaking, the tradition of polyphonic singing in the Ukraine decreases as we go from East to West, and from North to South. Therefore, the most polyphonic region is the northeast part of the Ukraine (eastern Polissia), and the only region where there are no data about vocal polyphony, is the southwest part of the Ukraine.
Not going into the detailed classification of polyphonic traditions into types and sup-types, we can say that there are three main polyphonic styles on the territory of the Ukraine:
(1) Drone polyphony, present in the most archaic genres of the Polissia region, both in West (for example, in Brest district) and particularly – East Polissia. Although Shevchuk mentions drone polyphony in Polissia as a sub-type of heterophonic polyphony (Shevchuk, 2001:200), the difference between drone and heterophonic types of polyphony is a difference of kind.
(2) Unison-Heterophonic polyphony with the elements of two-part Russian type podgolosochnaia polifonia. In this style the main melody is performed by the majority of singers and a solo singer performs a contrasting melodic part on top of the melody. This style has not received much attention in Ukrainian musicology as well, although definitely was not neglected as drone polyphony. East Ukraine is rich with podgolosochnaia polifonia, and the west Ukraine (Northwest) is mostly heterophonic.