(1883 - 1921)
From Imperial choirboy to Soviet composer, much of the life story of Yakiv Stepovyi is lost in the historic upheavals that ravaged Ukraine in the 20th century. Even so, Stepovyi’s legacy of art songs, piano pieces, and other vocal works survives almost intact. It reveals a composer who could adapt to changes in politics, culture, and society. His eclectic preludes and other ephemeral piano pieces give way, after WWI, to revolutionary mass songs and arrangements for bandura, a lute-like Ukrainian folk instrument. But there was one constant in Stepovyi’s life: the art song. Each one is an uncompromising declaration of the composer’s artistic ideal. Stepovyi was one of the first modern Ukrainian composers to avoid the direct use of folk material. He sought to transform the traditional language of music into a new modernist idiom and thus create a new national identity.
Yakiv Yakymenko (pseudonym Stepovyi) was born in the city of Kharkiv, in north-eastern Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. His father was a poor, retired non-commissioned officer. In 1886, Yakiv’s older brother, composer Fedir Yakymenko (aka Theodore Akimenko), was sent to the Imperial Chapel as a choirboy. Nine years later, Yakiv joined him there in St. Petersburg. Within three years, Yakiv's voice broke and he was forced to leave the choir. Somehow he managed to continue his music studies. A year later, in 1899, he composed the liturgical Cherubic Hymn, opus 1. Then, in 1902, Fedir arranged an interview for his younger brother with Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Both Russian composers were so impressed with Yakiv’s talent he St. Petersburg Conservatory. The studies lasted for twelve years, until 1914, when Stepovyi finally graduated....