Dating to pre-Christian times, and now for over a thousand years of Christianity, spring is greeted in Ukraine through joyful songs, games and ceremonial round dances known as "Vennianky" and "Hahilky". Vesnianky dating back to Ukrainian pagan times, in the fourth century A.D. or earlier express the gentle ancestors of today's free Ukrainians who live in harmony with nature and feel the great joy of spring. Vesnianky express this joy by the creation of songs, dances, and games which imitate and celebrate nature, and are still performed today at the end of the forty-day Lenten period before Orthodox Easter which greets - "Velykden - The Great Day", and sometimes continue until the following 'green feasts'.
Because it is known that Christ was crucified after Passover, the date for Easter falls after Passover and on the fourteenth day of Nisan (the first month of the Jewish ecclesiastical year and around the vernal equinox) which is a fixed date in the Jewish lunar calendar. Currently, churches using the Gregorian calendar (13 days earlier than the Orthodox Julian calendar) calculate Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon that comes on or after the vernal equinox (March 21). Easter therefore can fall within a 35 day period between March 22nd and April 25th, inclusive. Churches using the Julian calendar, but through the different method of calculation may celebrate Easter or Velykden anywhere from one to five days later.
The author of the DISK later explains in more detail sophisticated seasonal traditions that arise between the period of March 1st to May 31st.
Vesnianky (or spring songs) are commonly performed on Easter Day by young girls at the forest edge or in the open forest, on the bank of rivers, in the village square or in the churchyard near the cemetery. Song and movement are combined in many ways, sometimes as two-part choral groups, sometimes as synchronized round movements combined with song, and their themes are mostly concerned with welcoming the sun, the burial of winter, and calling upon the forces of nature. The young maidens are dressed in a lightly embroidered chemise, a brightly colored skirt, and wear garlands of spring flowers on their heads. Usually the girls form a circle— symbolizing the sun—performing round dances while singing spring songs.
Vocal tradition and polyphony
As in Ukrainian art, Ukraine's vocal traditions also exist within a great sphere of diversity. The origin, age and level of development of songs can be determined on the basis of the theme, the literary style and the rhythmic and melodic structures. Within Europe, folk polyphony exists in Ukraine, Georgia, Russia, and in isolated areas in the Mediterranean (Corsica, Sardinia and inland Spain). The tradition of singing in Ukraine has no comparison to any other choral tradition, except for certain areas of southern Russia.
Solo and choral singing is practiced in the main: some songs are sung by a single male or female singer; other are sung by choirs exclusively. The melody line in solo singing is mostly characterized by it's greater liveliness and richer melismata.
A frequent and popular type of song is one in which the beginning of the verse is sung by one or two singers (called zaspiv, introductory singing), and the rest of the verse or the refrain is then sung by the choir (called pryspiv).
Choral singing in western Ukraine is performed in unison, while two-part singing is mostly practiced in the eastern regions. The latter is characterized by a higher leading-voice and a sub-voice. Sometimes a middle melody line develops from these, resulting in three-part singing. By singing in octaves, a mixed choir generates a larger power of separate voices, but the basis always remains two-part singing. More typical for Ukrainian two-part singing uses the voice in parallel thirds, sometimes changing into fifths or octaves. Apart from the thirds, fifths, and octaves, that form the basic harmonies, other intervals may occur in choral singing, like added 'passing through' tones (passages through main melody and corresponding harmonies) and assisting sounds for the melody, as well as those that are generated by the performers through variations on the melody. This style of singing is called ‘polyphony of sub-voices’, or ‘variant-polyphony’.
Three-part and four-part singing – following homophonous harmonies – also occur in Ukraine. These are a later development and are connected to melodies that have their origin in the cities, rather than in the countryside and villages.
Bandura - Ukraine's national instrument bandura is a plucked instrument which is related to the medieval psaltery and to the Russian husli types, though its form is entirely different. The bandura is a chromatic, harp-like hybrid instrument with forty or more melody strings and ten to thirteen unfretted bass strings on the neck. It has an oval, flat body. The body is made out of a hollowed log, which is rounded off. The table is oval or pear-shaped. The neck is relatively short. Originally it used to be placed in the middle, but in more recent times it was moved to the right. Generally handmade instruments have no more than thirty strings, whereas the modern mass-produced models can have up to sixty strings.
The bass-strings are played with the left hand and the melody strings with the fingers of the right hand. The bandura is held in the lap almost vertically in front of the chest. The bandura originated in Ukraine and developed two different schools of playing and instrumental styles: the Kiyivan and the Kharkiv schools. The bandura does not appear in any other world cultures. The bandura is an instrument that can accompany ones own or group singing or for be used for performance of pure musical pieces. There are different traditional tunings. The first six strings, called bunty and pidbasky (bass strings), pass over the neck and the tuning is D-G-A-d-g-a. The melody strings, called prystrunky (short strings) give a diatonic scale, with a b flat in both octaves, whereas the deepest note is d. The right hand plucks the melody strings. The left hand plucks the bass strings and sometimes also the nearest melody strings.
Experts cannot agree on the bandura's exact origin. The predecessor to the bandura was the kobza, a more simple but otherwise similar instrument, with less bass-and melody strings. A kind of lute still played nowadays in Ukraine and in Rumania/Moldavia also bears the name kobza, but most probably only the short neck and the name are derived from the old kobza. The part with the melody strings of the kobza/bandura could be interpreted as stemming from the old east-Slavonic husli. The kobzars (kobza players and singers) played an important role in the Ukrainian fight for freedom and the uprisings against the feudal lords. Bandurists existed from the 16th to the 19th century; they were generally blind and with the aid of their horses travelled throughout Ukraine as wandering minstrels, singing songs known as Dumy, which were songs based on heroic Cossack deeds and free spirit, which united the bandurists into a kind of brotherhood and musical guild.
Bayan - button accordion with a keyboard.
Bubon (tambourine) - a round tambourine (frame drum), with skin on one side mounted with five pairs of metal discs and a few small bells. The tambourine is beaten with a short and thick stick, played in the central and eastern regions of the Ukraine.
Bukhalo - drum, somewhat similar, although smaller than a Turkish drum.
Bukhalo z Tarilkoyiu - drum with cymbal, as played in the west of Ukraine.
Both the repertoire and the playing style of the Ukrainian accordion are deeply influenced by the Russian tradition. A small single-action instrument with 25 melody keys arranged in two rows. The bass side also has 25 keys, which produce a number of chords and fundamental bass notes. The small single-action accordions are called harmoshka just like the old double-action models.
Husli – psaltery, a flat harp with a soundbody under the strings.
Kuvitsi – panpipe
The Ukrainian hurdy-gurdy works exactly like the other European types: a wheel made to rotate by a crank acts as a bow. The old examples are diatonic and provided with nine to eleven keys. They have one melody string and two drone strings (tenor and bayork). Chromatic hurdy-gurdies, which are furnished with two rows of keys, were probably introduced after 1920. These instruments are not held obliquely but laid horizontally on the lap. Their keys are provided with a device (often a simple rubber band) to make them return to their starting position.
Contrary to most European hurdy-gurdy forms, the Ukrainian lira has never had a trompette (drone string with rhythmical function). It is also noteworthy that quite a few players turn the crank in both directions (first forwards and then backwards); when the direction is changed, the sound is briefly interrupted. The tradition of the lirnyky (hurdy-gurdy players) has played a particular role in the Ukrainian musical culture of the 18th and 19th centuries. All the musicians who are still active today belong to the revival generation. Supposedly the instrument was imported from France by the Ukrainian Cossacks of colonel Ivan Sirko, who took part in The Thirty Years War (1618-1648).
Okaryna - pottery or clay flute.
Tsymbaly - hammered dulcimer without legs. It is played while sitting, held on the lap, or standing upright with the tsymbaly in front of the stomach and held in position with the help of a belt around the neck of the player.
Skrypka (fiddle) - violin
The fiddle tradition is dying out now, but there are indications that the level of playing used to be very high, with remarkably strong bowing. The tunes are played in the first position, but the compass is sometimes extended on the E string with a glissando by the 2nd or 3rd finger. Some fiddlers produce an archaic vibrato with these two fingers. Like the classical violin the skrypka is tuned in fifths and roughly in concert pitch, even when it is played solo.
Sopilka (duct flute) - a wooden end-blown flute. Sopilkas of various length and tuning exist. The instrument usually is between 20 and 30 centimeters long and has 6 finger-holes.
Ukrainian is one of the three east-Slavonic languages. It differs from Russian and Byelorussian as Spanish differs from Italian.
The most characteristic sounds in the Ukrainian language are:
1. The three i's.
a) The i which sounds more or less like ee in 'see', or like ea in 'eat’.
b) The è which souns like i in 'it', but with a raised middle of the tongue.
c) The ¿ sounds like yie in 'yield'.
2. The two e's.
a) e sounding like e in 'ten'.
b) ç inversed(e) sounding like ye in 'yes'.
3. The h sound, which exists in the Ukrainian language. On the other hand, the Ukrainian language doesn't have the sound g, like in 'good'.
Some of the songs are sung in a Ukrainian dialect, and some in a border dialect that inclines towards Russian language.