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Chernihiv-style bandura.jpg
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 321.321-5
Playing range
Bandura range.tif
(Modern Kyiv and Kharkiv-style banduras)[1]
Related instruments

A bandura (Ukrainian: банду́ра) is a Ukrainian, plucked string, folk instrument. It combines elements of the zither and lute and, up until the 1940s, was also often referred to by the term kobza. Early instruments (c. 1700) had 5 to 12 strings. In the 20th century, the number of strings increased initially to 31 strings, and up to 68 strings on chromaticised 'concert' instruments.[2]

Musicians who play the bandura are referred to as bandurists. Some traditional bandura players, often blind, were referred to as kobzars.


Kharkiv style bandurist Hryhory Bazhul

The earliest mention of the term bandura dates back to a Polish chronicle of 1441, which states that the Polish King Sigismund III[3] had a court bandurist known as Taraszko who was of Ruthenian (Ukrainian) ethnicity and was also the king's companion in chess. A number of other court bandurists of Ukrainian ethnicity have also been recorded in medieval Polish documents.

The term bandura is generally thought to have entered the Ukrainian language via Polish, either from Latin or from the Greek pandora or pandura, although some scholars feel that the term was introduced into Ukraine directly from the Greek language.

The term kobza was often used as a synonym for bandura and the terms were used interchangeably until the mid-20th century. The use of the term kobza pre-dates the first known use of the term bandura. Kobza was first mentioned in a Polish chronicle in 1313, having been introduced into the Ukrainian language sometime in the 12–13th century. It is thought to have Turkic pedigree. The less used term kobza-bandura refers to the dual origins of the instrument. However, it is rarely used in spoken language.

The term bandore or bandora can also be found when referring to this instrument. The usage of this term stems from an inaccurate and discredited assumption made by Russian music scholar A. Famintsyn that the Ukrainian people borrowed the instrument from England. The term made its way into usage through early 20th century Soviet Ukrainian-English and Russian-English dictionaries.

The term bandura is also occasionally used when referring to a number of other Eastern European string instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy and the five string guitar (commonly referred to by the diminutive bandurka).

Early history

The use of lute-like instruments by the inhabitants of the lands that now constitute Ukraine dates back to 591. In that year, Byzantine Greek chronicles mention Bulgar warriors who travelled with lute-like instruments they called kitharas.

There are iconographic depictions of lute-like instruments in the 11th-century frescoes of St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, once the capital of a vast medieval kingdom of the Rus'. It is not known by what specific term these instruments were referred to in those early times, although it has been surmised that the lute-like instrument was referred to by the generic medieval Slavic term for a string instrument—"husli".

The instrument became popular in the courts of the nobility in Eastern Europe. There are numerous citations mentioning the existence of Ukrainian bandurists in both Russia and Poland. Empress Elisabeth of Russia (the daughter of Peter the Great) had a morganatic marriage to her Ukrainian court bandurist, Olexii Rozumovsky.

Use of the instrument fell into decline amongst the nobility with the introduction of Western musical instruments and Western music fashions, but it remained the favourite instrument of the Ukrainian Cossacks. After the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich, the instrument continued to be played by wandering, blind musicians known as kobzari primarily in Right-bank Ukraine.


The invention of an instrument combining organological elements of lute and psaltery is sometimes credited to Francesco Landini, an Italian lutenist-composer during the trecento. Filippo Villani writes in his Liber de civitatis Florentiae, "...[Landini] invented a new sort of instrument, a cross between lute and psaltery, which he called the serena serenarum, an instrument that produces an exquisite sound when its strings are struck." Rare iconographic evidence (by artists such as Alessandro Magnasco) reveals that such instruments were still in use in Italy ca. 1700. Similar instruments have been documented as having existed in Ukraine in the preceding century.

In the hands of the Zaporozhian cossacks, the bandura underwent significant transformations, due to the development of a specific, singing repertoire. The construction and playing technique were therefore adapted to accommodate its primary role as accompaniment to the singing voice. At the Zaporozhian Sich, special schools for blind bards were established, setting the foundation for a class of itinerant musicians known as the kobzars. By the 18th century, the instrument had developed into a form with approximately four to six stoppable strings strung along the neck (with or without frets) and up to sixteen treble strings, known as prystrunky, strung in a diatonic scale across the soundboard. The bandura existed in this form relatively unchanged until the end of the 19th century.

The development of the bandura without stopped strings on the neck was thought to have happened later, some time before 1800. This type of bandura superseded the fretted type, and became the forerunner of the modern-day bandura.

The bandura underwent significant changes in the 20th century, paralleling the development of Ukrainian ethnic awareness. Sanctions introduced by the Russian government in 1876 (Ems ukaz) severely restricted the use of Ukrainian language; this, in turn, also restricted the use of the bandura on the concert stage since, at the time, virtually all of the repertoire was sung in Ukrainian.

Because of these restrictions and the rapid disappearance of kobzars and bandurists, the topic of the minstrel art of the itinerant blind bandura players was again brought up for discussion at the XIIth Archeological Conference held in Kharkiv in 1902. It was believed that the last blind kobzar, (Ostap Veresai) had died in 1890; however, upon investigation, six blind traditional kobzars were found to be alive and performed on stage at the conference. Thereafter, the rise in Ukrainian self-awareness popularized the bandura, particularly among young students and intellectuals. Gut strings were replaced by metal strings, which became the standard after 1902. The number of strings and size of the instrument also began to grow, in order to accommodate both the sound production required for stage performances, and a new repertoire of urban, folkloric song.

Subsequent developments included metal strings (introduced post-1891) and metal tuning pegs (introduced in 1912), additional chromatic strings (introduced from 1925) and a mechanical lever system for rapid re-tuning of the instrument (first introduced in 1931).

Although workshops for the serial manufacture of banduras had been established earlier outside of Ukraine (in Moscow (1908), and Prague (1924)), continuous serial manufacture of banduras was started in Ukraine, sometime in 1930. After World War II, two factories dominated the manufacturing of banduras: the Chernihiv Musical Instrument Factory (which produced 120 instruments a month, over 30,000 instruments from 1954 to 1991) and the Trembita Musical Instrument Factory in Lviv (which has produced over 3,000 instruments since 1964). Other serially manufactured instruments were made in Kiev and Melnytso-Podilsk.


Vasyl' Potapenko advertising bandura lessons ca. 1925

The first mentions of an institution for the study of bandura playing date back to 1738, to a music academy in Hlukhiv where the bandura and violin were taught to be played from sheet music. This was the first music school in Eastern Europe and prepared musicians and singers for the Tsarist Court in St Petersburg.

In 1908, the Mykola Lysenko Institute of Music and Drama in Kyiv began offering classes in bandura playing, instructed by kobzar Ivan Kuchuhura Kucherenko. Kucherenko taught briefly until 1911, and attempts were made to reopen the classes in 1912 with Hnat Khotkevych; however, the death of Mykola Lysenko and Khotkevych's subsequent exile in 1912 prevented this from happening. Khotkevych published the first primer for the bandura in Lviv in 1909. It was followed by a number of other primers specifically written for the instrument, most notably those by Mykhailo Domontovych, Vasyl Shevchenko and Vasyl Ovchynnikov, published in 1913–14.

Formal conservatory courses in bandura playing were re-established only after the Soviet revolution, when Khotkevych returned to Kharkiv and was invited to teach a class of bandura playing at the Muz-Dram Institute in 1926. This had also prompted Vasyl Yemetz to establish, in 1923, a bandura school in Prague, with over 60 students. Other classes in bandura instruction were opened in 1930 at the conservatories in Kiev and Odessa. By 1932–33, however, the Soviets tried to control the rise of Ukrainian self-awareness with severe restrictions on Ukrainian urban folk culture. Bandura classes in Ukraine disbanded, and many bandurists were repressed by the Soviet government.

After World War II, and particularly after the death of Joseph Stalin, these restrictions were relaxed and bandura courses were again re-established in music schools and conservatories in Ukraine, initially at the Kiev conservatory under the direction of Khotkevych's student Volodymyr Kabachok, who had recently been released from a gulag labor camp in Kolyma.

Today, all the conservatories of music in Ukraine offer courses majoring in bandura performance. Bandura instruction is also offered in all music colleges and most music schools, and it is now possible to get advanced degrees specialising in bandura performance and pedagogy. The most renowned of these establishments are the Kyiv and Lviv conservatories and the Kiev University of Culture, primarily because of their well-established staff. Other centers of rising prominence are the Odessa Conservatory and Kharkiv University of Culture.

Performance and performers


Document ordering the execution by shooting of blind kobzar Ivan Kuchuhura Kucherenko in 1937.
Monument to the murdered kobzars in Kharkiv

Many bandurists and kobzars were systematically persecuted by the authorities controlling Ukraine at various times. This was because of the association of the bandura with specific aspects of Ukrainian history, and also the prevalence of religious elements in the kobzar repertoire that eventually was adopted by the latter-day bandurists. Much of the unique repertoire of the kobzars idealized the legacy of the Ukrainian Cossacks. A significant section of the repertoire consisted of para-liturgical chants (kanty) and psalms sung by the kobzari outside of churches as the latter were often suspicious of, and sometimes hostile to, the kobzars' moral authority.

In the 1930s, Soviet authorities took measures to control and curtail aspects of Ukrainian culture (see Russification) they deemed unsuitable. This also included any interest in the bandura.[4] Various sanctions were introduced to control cultural activities that were deemed anti-Soviet. When these sanctions proved to have little effect on the growth in interest in such cultural artifacts, the carriers of these artefacts, such as bandurists, often came under harsh persecution from the Soviet authorities. Many were arrested and some executed or sent to labor camps. At the height of the Great Purge in the late 1930s, the official State Bandurist Capella in Kyiv was changing artistic directors every 2 weeks because of these political arrests.

In recent years evidence of this has emerged, pointing to an event (often masked as an ethnographic conference) that was held in Kharkiv, the capital of the Ukrainian SSR, in December 1933 - January 1934. Many itinerant street musicians from all over the country, specifically blind kobzars and lirnyks, were invited to attend, amounting to an estimated 300 participants. All were subsequently executed as unwanted elements in the new Soviet Society.

After the death of Joseph Stalin, the severe policies of the Soviet administration were halted. Many bandurists who, during that period, had been shot or sent to labour camps were "rehabilitated". Some returned to Ukraine. Conservatory courses were re-established and, in time, the serial manufacture of banduras was rekindled by musical instrument factories in Chernihiv and Lviv.

Although direct and open confrontation ceased, the Communist party continued to control and manipulate the art of the bandurist through a variety of indirect means. Bandura players now had to self-censor their repertoire and stop any cultural aspects that were deemed to be anti-Soviet. This included songs with religious texts or melodies, Christmas carols, historic songs about the cossack past, and songs with any hint of a nationalistic sub-text. Some bandurists rose in the ranks of the Communist Party to become high-level administrators. (e.g. Professor Serhiy Bashtan was the first secretary of the Communist Party at the Kiev conservatory for over 30 years and, in that position, restricted the development of many aspects of Ukrainian culture in the premier music establishment in Ukraine).

A policy of feminization of the bandura also severely restricted the number of male bandurists able to study the bandura at a professional level (kobzarstvo had originally been an exclusively male domain). This was perplexing as there was only one professional ensemble and it was made up exclusively of male players. The feminization of the instrument influenced a significant change in the repertoire of the bandurist from a heroic epic tradition to one singing romances. Restrictions existed in obtaining instruments and control was exercised in the publication of musical literature for the bandura. Only "trusted" performers were allowed to perform on stage with severely censored and restrictive repertoire. These restrictions continued to leave a significant impact on the contemporary development of the art form.


The back of a traditional bandura is usually carved from a solid piece of wood (either willow, poplar, cherry or maple). Since the 1960s, glued-back instruments have also become common; even more recently, banduras have begun to be constructed with fiberglass backs. The soundboard is traditionally made from a type of spruce. The wrest planks and bridge are made from hard woods such as birch.

The instrument was originally a diatonic instrument and, despite the addition of chromatic strings in the 1920s, it has continued to be played as a diatonic instrument. Most contemporary concert instruments have a mechanism that allows for rapid re-tuning of the instrument into different keys. These mechanisms were first included in concert instruments in the late 1950s.

Significant contributions to bandura construction were made by Hnat Khotkevych, Leonid Haydamaka, Peter Honcharenko, Ivan Skliar, Vasyl Herasymenko and William Vetzal.


Today, there are four main types of bandura which differ in construction, holding, playing technique, repertoire, and sound.

Folk or Starosvitska Bandura

The Starosvitska or authentic traditional banduras: also sometimes referred to as classical or old-time bandura.

A starosvitska reproduction by William Vetzal

These instruments usually have some 20–23 strings and are handmade, with no two instruments being exactly the same. The backs are usually hewn out of a single piece of wood. Wooden pegs hold the strings, which are tuned diatonically. Traditionally, these instruments had gut strings; however, at the beginning of the 20th century common performance practice changed over to steel strings.

There has been a revival in interest in authentic performance in Ukraine, spearheaded by Heorhy Tkachenko and his followers—notably Mykola Budnyk, Kost Cheremsky, Mykola Tovkailo, Mykhilo Khai and Jurij Fedynskyj.

Several notable, present-day makers of the instrument include the late Mykola Budnyk, Mykola Tovkailo, Rusalim Kozlenko, Vasyl Boyanivsky, Jurij Fedynskyj, and Bill Vetzal.

Kyiv-style bandura

The Kyiv-style or academic bandura: these are the most common banduras in use today in Ukraine. These instruments have 55–64 [1] metal strings tuned chromatically through five octaves, with or without re-tuning mechanisms. The instruments are known as Kyiv-style banduras because they are constructed for players of the Kyiv-style technique pioneered by the Kyiv Bandurist Capella. Because the playing style was based on the techniques of the kobzars from Chernihiv, the instrument is occasionally referred to as the Chernihiv-style bandura.

These instruments exist in two main types: 'Standard Prima' instruments and 'concert' instruments, which differ from the 'Prima' instruments in that they have a re-tuning mechanism placed in the side of the instrument.

'Concert' Kyiv-style banduras were first manufactured in Kiev at a music workshop organized by Ivan Skliar from 1948–1954 and from 1952 by the Chernihiv Musical Instrument Factory. The Chernihiv factory stopped making bandurs in 1991. Another line of Kyiv-style banduras was developed by Vasyl Herasymenko and continues to be made by the Trembita Musical Instrument Factory in Lviv. Rarer instruments also exist from the now defunct Melnytso-Podilsk.

Kharkiv-style bandura

These instruments are primarily made by craftsmen outside of Ukraine; however, in more recent times, they have become quite sought after in Ukraine. They are strung either diatonically (with 34–36 strings) or chromatically (with 61–68 strings).

The Kharkiv bandura was first developed by Hnat Khotkevych and Leonid Haydamaka in the mid-1920s. A semi-chromatic version was developed by the Honcharenko brothers in the late 1940s. A number of instruments were made in the 1980s by Vasyl Herasymenko. The Hnat Khotkevych Ukrainian Bandurist Ensemble in Australia was the only ensemble in the West to exploit the Kharkiv-style bandura.

Currently, Canadian bandura-maker Bill Vetzal has focused on making these instruments with some success. His latest instruments are fully chromatic, with re-tuning mechanism, and the backs are made of fibreglass. Additionally, Andrij (Andy) Birko, an American bandura maker, is also making Kharkiv instruments, applying construction and acoustic principles from guitars (both flat-top and arch-top) in an attempt to provide a more balanced and even tone to the instrument. Currently, he produces chromatic instruments but without re-tuning mechanisms.

Kyiv-Kharkiv Hybrid bandura

Attempts have been made to combine aspects of the Kharkiv and Kyiv banduras into a unified instrument. The first attempts were made by the Honcharenko brothers in Germany in 1948. Attempts were made in the 1960s by Ivan Skliar, in the 1980s by V. Herasymenko, and more recently by Bill Vetzal in Canada.

Orchestral banduras

Orchestral banduras were first developed by Leonid Haydamaka in Kharkiv 1928 to extend the range of the bandura section in his orchestra of Ukrainian folk instruments. He developed piccolo- and bass-sized instruments tuned, respectively, an octave higher and lower than the standard Kharkiv bandura.

Other Kyiv-style instruments were developed by Ivan Skliar for use in the Kiev Bandurist Capella, in particular alto-, bass- and contrabass-sized banduras. However, these instruments were not commercially available and were made in very small quantities.

Music and repertoire

Up until the 20th century, the bandura repertoire was an oral tradition based primarily on vocal works sung to the accompaniment of the bandura. These included folk songs, chants, psalms, and epics known as dumy. Some folk dance tunes were also part of the repertoire.

In 1910, the first composition for the bandura was published in Kiev by Hnat Khotkevych. It was a dance piece entitled "Odarochka" for a starosvitsky Kharkiv-style bandura. Khotkevych prepared a book of pieces in 1912 but, because of the arrest of the publisher, it was never printed. Despite numerous compositions being written for the instrument in the late 1920s and early 30s, and the preparation of these works for publication, little music for the instrument was published in Ukraine.

A number of bandura primers appeared in print in 1913–14, written by Mykhailo Domontovych, Vasyl Shevchenko and Vasyl Ovchinnikov and containing arrangements of Ukrainian folk songs with bandura accompaniment.

In 1926, a collection of bandura compositions compiled by Mykhailo Teliha was published in Prague.

Hnat Khotkevych also prepared a number of collections of pieces for the bandura in 1928; however, because of dramatic political changes within the Soviet Union, none of these collections were published.

Professional Ukrainian composers only started composing seriously for the instrument after World War II and specifically in the 1950-70's, including such composers as Mykola Dremliuha, Anatoly Kolomiyetz, Yuriy Oliynyk and Kost Miaskov, who have created complex works such as sonatas, suites, and concerti for the instrument.

In recent times, more Ukrainian composers have started to incorporate the bandura in their orchestral works, with traditional Ukrainian folk operas such as Natalka Poltavka being re-scored for the bandura. Contemporary works such as Kupalo by Y. Stankovych and The Sacred Dnipro by Valery Kikta also incorporated the bandura as part of the orchestra.

Western composers of Ukrainian background, such as Yuriy Oliynyk and Peter Senchuk, have also composed serious works for the bandura.


The premier ensemble pioneering the bandura in performance in the West is the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus. Other important bandura ensembles in the West that have made significant contributions to the art form are the Canadian Bandurist Capella and the Hnat Khotkevych Ukrainian Bandurist Ensemble.

Numerous similar ensembles have also become popular in Ukrainian centres, with some small ensembles becoming extremely popular.

See also


  1. Крылатов, Юрий. "Взяв і я бандуру". проект "Українські пісні. Retrieved July 11, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Mizynec, V. Folk Instruments of Ukraine. Bayda Books, Melbourne, Australia, 1987, 48с.
  3. Diakowsky, M. A Note on the History of the Bandura. The Annals of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences in the U.S. 4, 3–4 №1419, N.Y. 1958, С.21–22.
  4. Ukrianian Bandurists Chorus #2 (78rpm album set). Ukrainian Bandurists Chorus. Ukrainian Bandurist's Chorus. 1951. No. 2.CS1 maint: others (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Diakowsky, M. A Note on the History of the Bandura. The Annals of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences in the U.S. 4, 3–4 no. 1419, N.Y. 1958, С.21–22
  • Diakowsky, M. J. The Bandura. The Ukrainian Trend, 1958, no. I, С.18–36
  • Diakowsky, M. Anyone can make a bandura – I did. The Ukrainian Trend, Volume 6
  • Haydamaka, L. Kobza-bandura – National Ukrainian Musical Instrument. "Guitar Review" no. 33, Summer 1970 (С.13–18)
  • Hornjatkevyč, A. The book of Kodnia and the three Bandurists. Bandura, #11–12, 1985
  • Hornjatkevyč A. J., Nichols T. R. The Bandura. Canada crafts, April–May 1979 p. 28–29
  • Mishalow, V. A Brief Description of the Zinkiv Method of Bandura Playing. Bandura, 1982, no. 2/6, С.23–26
  • Mishalow, V. The Kharkiv style #1. Bandura 1982, no. 6, С.15–22 #2; Bandura 1985, no. 13-14, С.20–23 #3; Bandura 1988, no. 23-24, С.31–34 #4; Bandura 1987, no. 19-20, С.31–34 #5; Bandura 1987, no. 21-22, С.34–35
  • Mishalow, V. A Short History of the Bandura. East European Meetings in Ethnomusicology 1999, Romanian Society for Ethnomusicology, Volume 6, С.69–86
  • Mizynec, V. Folk Instruments of Ukraine. Bayda Books, Melbourne, Australia, 1987, 48с.
  • Cherkasky, L. Ukrainski narodni muzychni instrumenty. Tekhnika, Kiev, Ukraine, 2003, 262 pages. ISBN 966-575-111-5

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