“Poisonous Gas”: Mykola Kolessa’s Forgotten Legacy

“Poisonous Gas”: Mykola Kolessa’s Forgotten Legacy

On December 6, 2023, marks the 120th anniversary of Mykola Kolessa’s birth. The century-long life of the prominent Ukrainian composer, conductor, and educator, especially today amidst the bloody struggle of Ukrainians for their physical and spiritual survival, unveils a deeper understanding of the dramatic nature of some of its chapters, and at times, entire sections.


The First and Second World Wars, a half-century life under Soviet-Moscow occupation, placed all artists in a tragic dilemma: creativity solely within the regime’s boundaries or the curtailment of physical freedom, moral suppression, and often, physical annihilation. Choosing the former, composers condemned themselves to a life under double standards.


From KGB records about M. Kolessa: “Carefully conceals his hostile attitude toward everything Soviet, as well as towards the party organization. In casual remarks, he expresses disagreement with the party’s art policy… (Quoted from Samotos-Baierle N. Mykola Kolessa. One hundred years of youth. – Lviv: Avers, 2014. – P. 229)


Mykola Kolessa recalls: “It’s impossible to forget those dreadful years… I had to constantly compromise, limit my creative flight, and ‘lower’ the means of musical language to the level of ‘understandability for the masses’ (From the book by Liubov Kiiianovska “The Son of the Century Mykola Kolessa in Ukrainian Culture of the 20th century”. – Lviv, 2003. – P. 164).


Therefore, a part of the composer’s creative legacy remains little known or entirely unknown. The choral piece “Poisonous Gas” for the male choir, composed by M. Kolessa in the pre-Soviet period (1932). It is based on the verses of his close friend Ivan Krushelnytskyi, whose ruthless execution in 1934, as well as the destruction of the entire Krushelnytskyi family, was profoundly shocking for M. Kolessa.

Therefore, the performance of the piece during the Soviet period was impossible

Nevertheless, “Poisonous Gas” debuted at the gala concert of the Summer Choral Academy in Lviv in June 2018. The piece’s narrative encapsulates the horrors of World War I, specifically the use of poisonous gases as a weapon of mass destruction.

The anti-militaristic and naturalistic themes of the composition, which introduced an entirely new layer of artistic expression to Ukrainian choral music, remain relevant especially  today.”

By Hrystyna Fleychuk (Lviv)