Music's Resonance in Times of War

Author: Stephen Lancaster

As Russia's invasion of Ukraine persists, music emerges as a powerful force, capable of touching the deepest chords of human emotion and resilience. In the midst of conflict and uncertainty, music transcends language barriers to unite hearts, bolster spirits, and remind us of enduring beauty in the face of adversity. Songs, in particular, provide multidimensional emotional spaces: processing trauma through expressions of hope, lamentation, fragility, and resilience.

The Healing Power of Song

In these challenging times, the power of music, as experienced through Ukrainian art songs, remains a beacon of hope.

A recent guest artist residency, sponsored by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, featured the extraordinary talents of baritone Simon Barrad and pianist Kseniia Polstiankina. Their performance unveiled the remarkable potency of Ukrainian art songs, offering solace, strength, and a sense of shared history. Barrad, a Grammy-nominated baritone, and Polstiankina, a distinguished pianist, embarked on a journey to explore the rich tapestry of Ukrainian art songs, a musical tradition that had been silenced for decades.

Kseniia Polstiankina, originally from Ukraine, embarked on a personal voyage of discovery as she delved into the world of Ukrainian composers. Trained primarily in Western and Russian classical repertoire, she was previously unaware of the hidden gems of her own cultural heritage. With the help of fellow Ukrainian musicians, Kseniia and Simon (who has Ukrainian Jewish heritage) breathed life into compositions that have long been suppressed, revealing a profound connection to their homeland and its enduring spirit.

The Power of Shared Experience

Simon Barrad and Kseniia Polstiankina
Simon Barrad and Kseniia Polstiankina.

The concert “An Odyssey of Ukrainian Songs” on October 31, 2023, went beyond the mere rendition of notes on a score. It became a conduit for shared experiences and collective memory. Barrad's dramatic readings of modern Ukrainian poets, interwoven with the songs, illuminated the resilience and defiance that have been constants in Ukraine's history. The concert drew a diverse audience of faculty, students, and community members; its global accessibility through livestreaming reached listeners in Ukraine who expressed profound appreciation. Audiences were treated to evocative performances of overlooked works by Ukrainian composers like Lysenko and Lyatoshynsky, alongside compositions by German, Austrian, American, and Jewish composers of Ukrainian heritage, including Leonard Bernstein. Through the concert and ensuing conversations among the audience and artists, participants bonded by communally experiencing art that preserves cultural memories. Scored as soft lamentation, defiant anthem, rapturous ode, or nostalgic echo, the renditions channeled diverse emotions while seeding hope’s renewal through musical act and witness.

In these challenging times, the power of music, as experienced through Ukrainian art songs, remains a beacon of hope. It stirs something deep within us, reminding us of our shared humanity, resilience, and capacity for solidarity. Music, in its ability to uplift spirits and kindle a sense of unity, continues to wave the flag of hope even in the face of adversity. It is a testament to the enduring power of art to heal, inspire, and connect, offering solace and strength during humanity's darkest hours.