Heart-wrenching tones of Kyiv children’s choir, silenced by Russian invasion, finally shared with the world

8 April 2022, 12:25 | Updated: 8 April 2022, 12:36

Shchedryk Children’s Choir
Shchedryk Children’s Choir. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

“I don't understand Ukrainian, but when you listen to their songs, it’s like it all makes sense on the highest level...”

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Shchedryk Children’s Choir from Kyiv, is one of Ukraine’s most recognised youth musical ensembles.

The choir celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, a year which was meant to be marked with recordings and even a world tour. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 put a stop to all that.

Children and their families were scattered across Ukraine, as some fled the country, while others sheltered in their homes.

Prior to the invasion, the children’s choir had only managed to record two songs, both lullabies, in St Andrew’s Church in Kyiv.

Danish-Argentinian-Israeli conductor, Saul Zaks, is the artistic director of the Summa Cum Laude International Youth Music Festival, held in Austria, and he first heard the Shchedryk Children’s Choir perform three years ago.

When the invasion began, Zaks attempted to get the children out of Kyiv to Denmark, arranging transport and starting to organise accommodation; but the effort proved impossible.

Instead Zaks decided to help send out the Shchedryk Children’s Choir’s music out into the world. Listen to the choir sing a Ukrainian folk song below.

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Shchedryk Children's Choir Kyiv singing Roman Surzha - Ukranian Folk Song (Text Part II - see below)

The folk song is about a boy named Romtsiu who listens to his grandmother tell him fairytale stories. A rabbit walks past their house, and then the boy goes to sleep. The song is arranged by Ukrainian composer Roman Surzha.

The music is characterised by a soaring solo voice. Zaks explained the music to the Danish website Zetland, “[This solo] voice sings in the most naively way a folk tone – a lullaby – which is strophic. That is, it’s the same tune over and over again.

“But each time that melody comes, it is illuminated like a prism in new ways from the other voices in the chorus. The melody stays the same, while the harmonies in the rest of the choir change and colour the melody in new ways.

“There is a painting by Claude Monet of a French cathedral, in which he paints the same window – and the same cathedral façade – many times. But each time he paints it, it’s a different colour. And it’s exactly the same here.

“The same main motif – the window, or the melody that the child sings. And every time that melody is repeated, it’s in a different colour, in a different constellation, as if the whole thing is moving without moving. Without taking us out of focus.

“Then the song reaches some kind of climax, then it comes back, and then it dies. Then it’s like it disappears the same way it started.”

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Shchedryk Children's Choir Kyiv singing Giya Kancheli (Text Part I - see description)

The second piece recorded by the Shchedryk Children’s Choir (listen above) is called ‘Rocking the sun to sleep’, written by the Georgian composer, Giya Kancheli. The entire song is just one word repeated over and over again; ‘sun’.

However, ‘sun’ is sung in 17 different languages throughout the piece, including Japanese, French, Georgian, Turkish, Abkhazian, German, ancient Egyptian, Russian, and Ukrainian.

Zaks told Zetland that even though he doesn’t understand Ukrainian, “when you listen to their songs, it’s like it all makes sense on the highest level.”

That’s why [I’ve shared their songs. Because [anyone] can empathise with these notes and find their own description of what they're feeling. What this music does to each one of us is quite unique.”

The sheet music for the two recorded songs were lost however, the choir’s conductor, Marianna Sablina, sent Zaks a handwritten score from a bunker in Kyiv, having rewritten the music by memory.

On the score, Sablina wrote, “We do not know if we can ever assemble the choir [again]. That's why we do not want our music lost in the fog and fires of this terrible war.”

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Saul Zaks tells the story of Shchedryk Children's Choir, Kyiv

The director of the choir, Tanya was contacted by Zetland for interview. Tanya is the head of the NGO Cultural Diplomacy International Institute, which represents the choir internationally.

She replied simply saying, “Living with the threat of bomb attacks, we are always busy. Because we can only plan one day ahead. If we wake up tomorrow.

“We have a different sense of time now. We work on the things that are urgent in our lives. Because everyone knows that people and children die in wars.”

This is one of the reasons Zaks is so passionate about getting the music of the Shchedryk Children’s Choir to the world.

“In my opinion, it’s the only thing that can stop the war”, he told Zetland. “The sound can not be killed. You can not kill it. There are so many messages in those tones.

“They are very young people, but they have a singing technique that is completely unique. Suddenly, when they open their mouths, this warm sound comes out.

“How do you put words into sound? Fantastic is too little to say, it’s almost magical.

“I almost feel like sending the music to those who are fighting each other. I believe that deep, deep inside themselves, this music can help them find something that will make them stop.”