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Bridging Connections through Ukrainian Cello Music

As we mark the second anniversary of the war in Ukraine, Gill Tennant shares the story of how she came to arrange Ukrainian folk and Christmas songs for cellos—a poignant journey of music and solidarity.

Gill Tennant and Her Connection with Ukraine

Gill Tennant

Gill Tennant (c.2004)

In February 2022, as conflict enveloped Ukraine, Gill Tennant, a dedicated cellist and educator, found a unique way to lend her support from afar. Drawing upon her deep-rooted connection to music and her compassion for those in strife, Gill initiated the Ukrainian National Anthem Cello Project. This ambitious online endeavor resonated with cellists worldwide, garnering participation from over 225 musicians, with 146 featuring in a poignant collaborative video. Among these was Vladyslav “Vlad” Primakov, a professional Ukrainian cellist, who passionately declared, “Ukraine is my life!” reflecting the intense personal stakes and national pride involved.

The Ukrainian National Anthem Cello Project stands as a testament to Gill’s unwavering commitment to using her art to inspire, unite, and aid those in need. By rallying the global cello community, she not only facilitated a powerful gesture of solidarity with Ukraine but also showcased the unifying force of music in challenging times. Through this initiative and her broader body of work, Gill Tennant exemplifies the profound impact one individual’s passion and creativity can have on the world.

Gill has sent the wonderful article below. Continue reading to learn more about Gill’s connection with Ukraine.

A Family’s Journey: Historical Roots

Tehran schooling

Tehran schooling in 1914/15. Gill’s great aunt Hilda was the teacher. Her aunt is on the far left with bows in her hair, and her mother is in front of Hilda, looking down.

When my mother was four years old, in 1913, her father took a job in Tehran. The entire family—including her father, her mother, and her older sister—made the long and difficult journey out from London to Tehran. Her mother’s sister, a trained teacher, accompanied them as a tutor for the children. First, they traveled by train through the Netherlands and across Germany, sleeping as the train traveled on to the Russian frontier.

Odessa to Tehran: Ancestral Bonds

Because they were not staying in Russia but just passing through, at Alexandrowowa (Aleksandrova, in modern-day Poland) their heavy luggage was sealed so that they could not open it, and sent in transit to Persia (modern-day Iran).

They traveled on via Warsaw where they had to change stations. The gauge of rails that trains to their destination ran on was different from that in western European countries. Eventually, they arrived in Odessa, where my mother’s uncle ran a tanyard. They stayed in Odessa in the run-up to Easter before traveling on to Tehran.

The Echoes of War: A Personal Reflection

In June 1914, a Bosnian Serb nationalist assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, for which Austria-Hungary held all of Serbia responsible. They declared war on 28 July 1914. The Triple Alliance, including Germany and Austria-Hungary, supported by Italy and Ottoman Turkey, invaded France and Belgium, members of the Triple Entente in August 1914.

My grandfather immediately took British citizenship at the embassy in Tehran in protest. He then had to get his family back to the UK whilst avoiding the German army, as he was born a German citizen. The family stopped again in Odessa on the more convoluted return journey which took them through Scandinavia.

Steffen Family 1917

Gill’s mother with her older sister, mother and father, after returning to the UK in 1917.

Because of this family history, I have an affection for Odessa. I can read the story in the diary of my mother’s Auntie Hilda, who accompanied the family as the children’s tutor, and the diary of my mother’s then 13-year-old sister, my Auntie Winnie, who documented their return journey in 1915. I admire the Ukrainian people who managed in 1991 to become an independent, democratic country.

Community and Compassion: Hosting Ukrainian Refugees in Orkney

Report from Orkney

Gill has welcomed Ukrainian refugees to her home in Orkney, Scotland.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia brought back memories of my own family fleeing war. It was natural for me to extend a hand to help those displaced Ukrainians who themselves were having to flee a war they didn’t want, amid a hostile invasion.

We first hosted a young Ukrainian woman and her daughter. The mother was working online which meant getting up very early, as Ukraine was two hours ahead of us. Sometimes her daughter was not tired when her mother wanted to retire for the night, and would come down to talk to me, as I’m a night owl. We’d look for online versions of Ukrainian folk songs to play and she would enjoy singing along to ones she knew.

Later, when they had moved on, with the mother working towards getting their own home, we hosted a young man exempt from military service because of a congenital condition.

Concerts for a Cause: Raising Funds and Awareness

I managed to encourage many other people living in my island community to offer to host a family or a single person. That brought me in touch with a Ukrainian man over 60, who loves to sing. Vasyl came up to our house to sing with me accompanying him on my cello, and so my collection of arrangements of Ukrainian folksongs and Christmas songs grew. Some I arranged for groups of cellist friends to play with me. We have done a couple of charity concerts with Vasyl and a Xhosa friend, Vanessa, singing in Ukrainian, Xhosa, and Scots-English with cello accompaniment.

The first of these concerts was to raise funds for Ukraine; the second performance was to raise funds for a homeless charity. Vasyl also sang with me at a party held for the Ukrainians and their hosts which raised funds for my two favorite Ukrainian charities.

Vlad Primakov

Ukrainian cellist, Vlad Primakov.

The first of these is that of my Facebook Ukrainian professional cellist friend, Vlad Primakov, who works with the Pentecostal Church of Ukraine to distribute aid within the country. The other is a fund raised by an individual, Helen Wills, in Scotland. Helen has driven many coachloads of relief goods out to Ukraine and brought coachloads of refugees (including some of their pets) back to the UK.

Looking Ahead: Music as a Bridge

Gill Ukraine Update

My next fundraiser will, I hope, be for the Halo Trust which clears landmines across the world. They work within Ukraine as well as many other countries.

Now, you can also download these arrangements of lovely folk songs and carols to play on the cello or your instrument of choice. If you can identify ways to use this music to raise funds for these or other Ukrainian charities, too, that would be wonderful. If you need help choosing a charity, I suggest the Halo Trust.

Ukrainian Sheet Music to Download

Here are Gill Tennant’s arrangments of Ukrainian folk tunes. They are free to download, but she encourages you to use this music to raise funds for charities to support Ukraine and donate directly to a charity that supports Ukraine, such as the Halo Trust.

Folk Tunes

  1. Come Back Flying/Прилетай, прилетай cello duet
  1. Green, Green rye/Зеленеє жито зелене arranged by Gill Tennant
  2. Oh, on the Mountain, and the Reapers Are Reaping/Ой, на горі, та й женці жнуть
  3. Oh, Marichka/Ой, Марічко
  4. Why didn’t you come?/ Чом ти не прийшов
  5. Willow Board/Вербовая дощечка
  6. Come Back Flying/Прилетай, прилетай

Christmas Tunes

  1. All Over the World/По всьому світу
  2. Good Evening/Добрий вечір arranged for cello quartet by Gill Tennant. Also, see the version above, on the same sheet as “All Over the World.”

Want more Ukrainian cello music?

Cellist and scholar, Dr. Yuriy Leonovich, born in Born in Kyiv, Ukraine, has provided a list of music in his article “Critical Notes Series: Ukrainian Cello Music.”

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