Life & Culture

Pictures plus music: A video to help Ukraine rise again

The pianist Margaret Fingerhut has teamed up with a Ukrainian filmmaker to raise funds for warzone aid


One year ago, on 24 February 2022, the world woke up to the horrific news that Vladimir Putin had sent Russian military forces into Ukraine. The invasion continues, with no clear end in sight, leaving cities in ruins, hundreds of thousands of people injured or dead, and millions displaced.

Many of us have felt swamped with a sense of powerlessness, wanting to help, wondering what we can do.

The pianist Margaret Fingerhut decided to do what she could. In collaboration with a young Ukrainian filmmaker, Viktoriia Levchenko, who had managed to get safely to Britain, she has produced a short video entitled Ukraine Will Rise Again.

In it, images of Ukrainian landscapes, from before and during the war, join forces with the inspiring, late-romantic piano piece Les Rochers d’Outche-Coche (The High Rocks) by Sergei Bortkiewicz. The film aims to raise money for the volunteer organisation British Ukrainian Aid, in particular to fund ambulances in Ukraine.

“My initial goal was to raise enough to buy one ambulance,” Fingerhut says, “but we’ve already raised enough for two. Yet still it feels like a drop in the ocean.”

When the invasion took place, Fingerhut started to explore piano music by Ukrainian composers, hoping to include some in her recital programmes.

“This particular piece was inspired by the landscape in Crimea when Bortkiewicz visited the place in 1908. As soon as I played it through, I felt completely overwhelmed. I felt not only that I had to learn it at once, but that it demanded images to match it.”

She was concerned that “compassion fatigue” might set in among the public as the conflict continued. “I was worried that I’d missed the boat. What could I do to get through to people? But this has really elicited a very powerful emotional response. That combination of music and visuals can be moving in a way that seeing the images alone might not have been.”

Fingerhut set out to find a Ukrainian filmmaker to work with. “Through some friends in Marlow, I managed to be put in touch with Viktoriia, who is displaced in Buckinghamshire having just graduated from film school.

"Essentially she gave shape to the video. It starts off by showing how beautiful the country was, and then there follows some scenes of the devastation caused by the invasion. But it ends in a very uplifting way.”

Bortkiewicz is hardly a household name, but given the grand-scale opulence of his music, he is overdue a resurgence of interest. Born in 1877 in what today is Kharkiv, Ukraine, to parents who were Polish aristocrats, he fled to Austria in 1922 after the city fell to the Red Army.

He lived thereafter in Vienna, composing, teaching and translating the letters of Pyotr
Tchaikovsky and his patron Nadezhda von Meck. The Second World War nevertheless had a deleterious impact upon his work, family and health. He died in 1952.

Fingerhut has Ukrainian origins of her own. “My grandfather came from Odessa,” she says.

She’s frustrated to know so little about him. “He came to Britain as a child with his parents around the end of the 19th century, fleeing the pogroms. It is quite ironic that now Ukraine has become the first country apart from Israel to have a president and prime minister who are both Jewish.

Her grandfather longed to be a singer. “He had a beautiful tenor voice and he longed to go to Italy to study singing, but of course they were very impoverished and there was no hope.

"My dad was brought up in dire poverty and it was only because of what was then a wonderful, free education system in this country that he got a place at Manchester Grammar School and then a place at Manchester University.”

With a long career as a soloist, collaborative pianist and teacher (she is a professor at Birmingham Conservatoire), Fingerhut has often supported charitable causes. “I’ve always wanted to use my abilities, such as they are, to do something good in the world,” she says.

She is working next with the Persian composer Farhad Poupel on a musical project to draw attention to the situation of women in Iran, and in the past she has given a number of fundraising concerts for Neve Shalom, the “Oasis of Peace” village founded in 1970 to encourage Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel to live together in equality, partnership and mutual respect.

Good deeds sometimes have good consequences, too. Once when Fingerhut gave a charity concert at the Wigmore Hall, an old friend from her student days whom she had not seen for three decades came along to support the cause, then went backstage to congratulate her. Some years later, reader, she married him.

The ‘Ukraine Will Rise Again’ video can be seen on YouTube

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