Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Who was Oleksander Koshyts?

 By Natalie Obal

If you've ever heard Shchedryk played as a Christmas jingle — it’s very likely because of Oleksander Koshyts. Who was this man who introduced a beloved Ukrainian melody to the world?

Oleksander Koshyts was a brilliant choirmaster, composer, arranger, ethnographer, lecturer and ambassador for Ukrainian culture and music in the early 20th century. He co-founded the Ukrainian National Chorus, which introduced Mykola Leontovych’s well-known composition, Shchedryk, to North American audiences in 1921.

That was two years after it was first performed in Kyiv in 1919. Koshyts founded the Ukrainian National Chorus, originally the Ukrainian Republic Capella, at the request of the newly formed Ukrainian government. The Chorus set out on a seven-year tour of Europe and the Americas to showcase Ukrainian culture and gain international recognition of Ukraine as an independent nation.

The political upheaval of the 1920s and the advent of the Soviet Union made it impossible for Koshyts to return to his homeland. The Soviet regime labelled him a bourgeois nationalist and traitor. In 1927, Koshyts settled in New York City, where he continued to work as a choral director, teacher and composer.  In 1941, the Ukrainian National Federation (UNF) offered Professor Koshyts a position as choral director of its summer Cultural Educational Courses in Canada – and he eagerly accepted.

Koshyts spent his summers in Winnipeg under the patronage of the UNF, lecturing, teaching and imparting his love of Ukrainian music to his students. When he died in the fall of 1944, his wife, Tetyana Koshyts, carried on this culturally important work. She moved to Winnipeg in 1946, published books of Ukrainian choral music, and later became the director of the Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre, or Oseredok

Today, Koshyts is recognized as a leader in the development of Ukrainian choral singing and composition. And the melody of Shchedryk, which was set to English lyrics by Ukrainian-American composer Peter Wilhousky in 1936, became known worldwide as “Carol of the Bells.”

Fun facts about Koshyts and the UNF
1)      Koshyts and the Ukrainian National Chorus served as cultural ambassadors for Ukrainian music after Ukraine’s independence in 1918
2)      Koshyts came to Canada at the invitation of the UNF in 1941 and taught master classes in Winnipeg
3)      Tetyana Koshyts, his widow, later became director of Oseredok and published many books of Ukrainian choral music
4)      Without the UNF’s support, much of Koshyts’ research, knowledge and composition would have been lost to future generations

Quotes from the Maestro’s commentary on the Courses

“In my cultural work within the Ukrainian community in Canada, I consider the establishment of Masterclass Conducting Courses at the Ukrainian National Federation essential and indispensable.” 

“We know that almost every activity of our community life takes on an artistic, cultural character in the form of a concert or any other presentation not just for entertainment but to fulfill its spiritual need and nourishment.”

“In our various performances, the Ukrainian song plays a huge role.  Its influence and importance is immeasurable.”

“Our song – our greatest treasure, the heart that pulses blood through the nation’s veins.”

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