Rutger Helmers

Rutger Helmers

Assistant Professor, University of Amsterdam
Rutger Helmers
Title of Research

Ukraine and the Music of the Russian Empire: Empire, Nation, and Province in Musical Representations and Discourse, 1863-1917


The musical culture of the Tsarist Empire was rich in works exhibiting a fascination with Ukraine and Ukrainian culture. The later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries produced a vast repertory of compositions ranging from piano works employing folk melodies to operas based on Gogol’s Ukrainian stories. This involved composers mining the same or similar material from different perspectives and with different agendas, from Mykola Lysenko, who produced works for Ukrainian audiences intended as expressions of a specifically Ukrainian musical culture, to Piotr Tchaikovsky or Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who worked in the imperial capitals and whose output is commonly understood as a contribution to the Russian national tradition.

The period in which Ukrainian topics became a common feature in opera and concert music coincides with the state’s repressive measures meant to curb Ukrainophile activity. Consequently, the cultivation of Ukrainian topics and styles was inevitably politicized. 

Drawing on recent scholarship of nineteenth-century Ukrainian and imperial cultural politics, I propose a detailed analysis of these repertories and their reception, as a means to gain a better understanding of how the notion of national culture and the relations between Russia, Ukraine and the Empire were understood and negotiated in the musical life of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Short Biography

Rutger Helmers is Assistant Professor in Musicology at the University of Amsterdam, and previously worked as a lecturer and researcher at Radboud University Nijmegen and Utrecht University. His main field of interest is nineteenth-century musical life in the Russian Empire, with a focus on opera, nationalism and travel. His current research concerns musical representations of Ukraine in Russian and Ukrainian music, which he will work on during his stay at Harvard as a HURI Research Fellow in the Spring of 2022. He is the author of Not Russian Enough? Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism in Nineteenth-Century Russian Opera (University of Rochester Press, 2014), alongside contributions for Music & Letters, the Oxford Handbook of the Operatic Canon and other scholarly media. Forthcoming publications include contributions for the Cambridge History of Nationhood and Nationalism and Čajkovskij-Studien. He has been an editor at the journal De Moderne Tijd (Modern Times: The Low Countries, 1780-1940) since 2015, and served as member of the board of the KVNM (Royal Society for Music History of The Netherlands) from 2016 to 2019..

Research Interests

Music, national identity, Russian Empire, Ukraine, nationalism

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