The Seven-String Guitar in 19th-Century Russian Culture


O. Timofeyev and M. Bazzotti


When we are listening to music (say, an ensemble or several different instruments and/or voices), and suddenly there comes a strummed guitar chord — just the luxuriant tone quality of it immediately pushes the invisible “Hispanic button” within our receptive mechanism. We habitually and justly associate guitars with Spain (or Latin America), since so much delightful guitar-playing came and still comes from those warm areas. For the cold Russia, on the other hand, another plucked instrument is traditionally reserved — the triangular balalaika whose uneven shivering tremolo does not fail to push the “Russian button.” Film directors use this sound effect over and over when they need to bring out a Russian theme in their soundtracks.
But very few people realize the magnitude and wealth of the early-19th-century Russian guitar repertoire, mainly associated with the instrument whose seven strings are tuned to the pitches of the G major chord. (Note 1: Those who read Il Fronimo regularly will remember a substantial article by Matanya Ophee in the no. 58 (1987), one of the first works introducing the Russian guitar tradition to the Western audience.) During the first half of the 19th century, a number of first-rate composers wrote music for the Russian guitar, and the instrument itself was depicted in numerous paintings, literary texts and personal memoires. Toward the end of the century the guitar apparently migrated down the society hierarchy, becoming mainly the instrument of the poorer classes and gypsies. (Note 2: There must have been some real virtuosi among such performers, no doubt. Yet, we prefer to focus on the music of the earlier period, since so much of it survives in the libraries.) By the mid-century, in his first attempt to write a history of the seven-string guitar, Mikhail Stakhovich addresses the guitar tradition with an air of nostalgia:

There was a time when the guitar could be found not only in middle-class households, but in all houses of rich noblemen, and it was respected there; now these old guitars are gathering dust in closets and attics, or are in exile on front porches.
(Note 3: Stakhovich 1864, p. ?. 1864 is the year wnen Stakhovich’s essay was published as a separate brochure. Originally it appeared as a journal article in the 1854 issue of the Moskvitianin magazine.)

Stakhovich returns to the idea of a “vanishing tradition” in few other places throughout his essay. He also publihed several Russian folk songs with a simplistic guitar accompaniment, thus promoting the utilitarian usage of the instrument.
The short musical examples in our article are designed to represent the “Golden Age” of the Russian guitar. i.e., the seven-string guitar music from ca. 1800-1850.


The Mysterious Origin

From its first appearance in the late 18th century, the seven guitar in Russia has been most commonly tuned to the G major chord in the second inversion: D G B d g b d’ (In some publications a scordatura is required with the low bass to be tuned down to C, or even up to E.) Unlikely it is a coincidence that the first six strings here are tuned a perfect fourth lower than the strings of the so-called “English guitar” or “guittar,” an instrument popular in late-18th-century England. (Note 4: Matanya Ophee was the first to point out this connection, in his preface at The Russian Collecion vol.1, Orphée ed. 1986)
A possible link between the Russian and West/Central-European instruments could have been made with the help of a Czech guitarist, composer and the author of the 1798 method book for 7-string guitar, Ignatz von Held (1766-1816). Besides the Spanish and seven-string guitars, the English guitar is known to be one of Held’s instruments. Given that the most influential “pioneer” of the Russian guitar, Andrei Sychra (1773-1850), was also of Czech origin, one may expect to find traces of the English guitar (or any plucked instrument in chordal tuning) in Czech culture of the time. (Note 5. The story is made more compicated due to the fact that despite his Czech name and origin, Andrei Sychra actually originates from Vil’no, now Vilnjus, Lithuania. It is also conceivable that there was a specifically Lithuanian tradition to tune guitar to the sounds of a chord, since in the 1880s some Balitzki published a “Method for the seven-string guitar with Spanish or Lithuanian tunings.”)
According to the expert in the area, Prof. Jiri Tichota, the bulk of the Czech music for guitar calls for a “normal,” Spanish tuning. However, after examining about 400 hundreds Czech publications from the time, Prof. Tichota located two publications for the instruments in “chordal” tuning. (Note 6. Prof. Tichota kindly supplied this information to us in a private letter. One of these two pieces — a sonata by Vojtisek — explicitely calls for the “Englische Gitarre” in its usual C major tuning.) However, if we are to believe that the chordal tuning was imported to Russia from Bohemia, it is surprising that it was not more popular (2 out of 400!) among the Czech guitarists.
To summarize: although the Russian guitar’s connection to the English guitar is extremely likely, the instrument’s precise origin remains a mystery. As a working hypothesis we believe the following: after they moved to Russia, von Held or Sychra created a hybrid instrument. The shape, dimensions, and the use of gut strings were taken from the Spanish guitar, while the raised fingerboard and the chordal tuning were inherited from the English “guittar” (or some of its close relatives). Another organological feature worth mentioning is that the necks of most of the surviving Russian guitars are adjustable — the system similar to what we see on Scherzer’s guitars, but it was used from considerably earlier times. (Note 7. For this observation we are indebted to Alexandr Batov, a Muscovite luthier and a restorer at the Glinka Museum of Musical Culture.)
But why would an instrument whose repertoire will be firmly dominated by arrangements of and vanations on Russian folk-songs (notorious for their melancholy) be tuned to a major triad? First, in certain minor keys (G minor, B minor, C minor, D minor especially) this tuning is very effective. Second, genuine Russian folk songs (as opposed to the early-19th-century art song in “Russian style”) and dances very often are in “major keys.” But one should also not forget that the instrument was developed by professional musicians in the last decades of the 18th century, during the reign of the “galant style” where major keys were used far more often than minor ones.

The Seven-String Repertoire

In their relationship with Western music, the Russian semistrunniki (seven-string guitar players and composers) seem to have been particularly interested in the non-guitar repertoire: they mainly transcribed fragments from operas by Rossini and Mayerbeer, single movements from sonatas and chamber works of Mozart and Beethoven, piano compositions of John Field, etc. Transcriptions from the repertoire for the six-string guitar occupied a relatively modest place, although their frequency seems to have increased toward the middle of the century. (Note 8. Sychra published few elegant adaptations of variation sets by Sor and L’Hoyer, while his student Vladimir Morkov (1801-1864) transcribed several works of Giuliani and Mertz. Still, these pieces constitute insignificant portion of Sychra’s and Morkov’s extensive outputs. More typically, their publications were Italian and Russian opera fragments and song arrangements, all adapted for the seven-string guitar.)
The likely reason for this “resistance” lies in the relative difficulty of adaptation: idiomatic writings for the six- and seven-string guitars (due to the tunings, not numbers of strings!) differ considerably. (Note 9. The predominance of major and minor thirds in the tuning of the Russian guitar enables the player to perform chords in close’ position, which would be highly untypical for the six-string guitar, which is tuned mostly in fourths).
The contents of the MS book that we call Beloshein II offers a rather representative distribution of genres for its time (ca. 1830):

Total number of pieces: 34
Variations (exclusively on Russian and “Russian” themes) 12
Transcriptions of opera fragments 7
Transcriptions of dances (non operatic) 3
Transcriptions from non-operatic vocal pieces 2
Original dances 9
Original non-dance pieces 1

Note 10: This MS survives in the Glinka Museum Archive in Moscow without a call number. As known, the museum has inherited a vast private collection of Vladimir Mashkevich (1888-1971), an amateur guitar historian who accumulated a enormous number of unique materials concerning the Russian guitar.
The scribe, Pyotr Beloshein, was an active guitar player and teacher, who studied first in Moscow with Vysotsky and then with Sychra in St. Petersburg. How this must have influenced his musical taste will become clear from the discussion below. His MSS include works by both of his teachers as well as many other composers (Morkov, Pettoletti, Ziks, Aksyonov, and Beloshein himself) and thus exemplify the tendencies of the time: the repertoire was dominated by variation sets. Second in popularity were transcriptions from popular operas and vaudevilles. Original pieces were rare, and sonata forms were hardly ever explored (Note 11: With the exception of the handwritten B minor sonata by A. Vetrov (d. 1877) that survives in Mashkevich Funds of Glinka Museum and was reprinted twice in Soviet era).

The Two Schools

By the mid-1820s, Russia’s two political and cultural centers — Moscow and St. Petersburg — each had their important “supreme authority” in guitar performance and pedagogy. Andrei Sychra left a great number of excellent students in Petersburg: Morkov, Sarenko, Alexandrov, and many others who did not become composers (Note 12: we recently counted 27 students, in behalf of a modern Guitar Dictionary, see Bibliography, but a list is surely uncomplete). In Moscow, the most popular guitarist and instructor was Mikhail Timofeyevich Vysotsky (1891-1837), who also had many distinguished students — Beloshein, Liakhov, Vetrov, among others. The two masters never met, but reportedly respected each other’s publicatios.
The dichotomy “Moscow — St. Petersburg” presents a special topic in itself in the context of the 19th-century Russian culture. Moscow is normally considered a typical Russian creation, a city of merchants; Petersburg is the most Westernized of Russian towns, the city of officials. Hence, it is not surprising that on the average, Vysotsky and his school payed more attention to Russian folksongs than Sychra and his desciples did. The fascinating part is that the two schools differed even more from a purely technical point of view. According to Stakhovich’s “Essay,” Sychra and Vysotsky emphasized two different aspects of guitar technique: the former emphasized the perfection of the right hand — its technique and articulation; the latter and his followers paid particular attention to the left hand, imaginative legato and “singing” effects. Example I shows the beginning (i.e., the theme and the first variation) of Vysotsky’s Kak za rechen’koj slobodushka stoit. Both Vysotsky and Sykhra composed dozens of such pieces, but their approaches to guitar technique were strikingly different. The “Muscovite interest” for the left-hand effects is expressed in the short Vysotsky sample by a number of slides (mm. 5, 17), ascending and descending legato notes (e.g., mm.1, 2, 4, 5, 7, etc., up to five notes), left-hand grace notes (m.4). Noticeable is also the placement of the legato: for example, in the third measure of the variation, in each group of sixteenth notes the two middle notes are slurred. Apparently, Vysotsky and his disciples were not interested in simple and clear articulation, but rather in a continuous, smooth flow of passages, consciously obscuring the beats.

Example I

The beginning of Vysotsky’s variations on Kak za rechen’koj slobodushka stoit.

All of these left-hand effects can also be found in the works of St. Petersburg guitarists, but Sychra and his students use them in a more controlled fashion. Their slurs are normally shorter, and they do not run counter to the rhythm as much. Yet the right-hand virtuosity necessary to perform the fragment in Example II was cultivated only by Sychra’s school. The repeated Gs in mm. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 of the example are to be performed on the adjacent strings, thus making the resulting tremolo particularly smooth.

Example II

From A. Sychra’s variation set on Air Tirolienne

A Barin-Guitarist

Though the central figures of the Russian art of guitar playing lived in the two capitals, there were hundreds of good players all over the country. The adjustable neck of the instrument has been commented upon as a positive feature, precisely since it could be adjusted by anyone, in the rural areas of Russia where no expert help was available. This quiet and pleasant instrument together with the plentiful publications of Sychra, Aksyonov, Vysotsky, Morkov, and many others brought entertainment to thousands of Russian noble households of the time.
For some landlords, playing the instrument was mere recreation, but for some it became a near-professional activity. A passage in Nikolaj Petrovich Makarov’s memoires, Zadushevnaia Ispoved’ (“Full-hearted Confessions”), recounts a meeting with a provincial barin for whom the seven-string guitar was obviously more than a toy. Makarov himself learned to play the Spanish 6-string guitar during his time in the Imperial Guard Academy in Warsaw. On his way to becoming an ambitious performer, an adventurous composer, and a sponsor of the 1856 Guitar Competition in Brussels, Makarov almost wanted to “switch” to the seven-string instrument as a result of the following encounter:

     It happened in October 1837. [...] I became aware of voices through the wall of an adjacent room. I soon realized that the conversation dealt with the guitar. Someone began to play guitar and played it better than I had ever heard anyone before. I began to feel feverish through admiration and surprise. Never in my life will I forget that deep overwhelming impression that this playing behind the wall produced on my entire nature. There was strength, clearness, unbelievable rapidity, tenderness and deep feeling in that playing. Oh what a crescendo, what a morendo! [ ] When the playing stopped, I immediately sent my servant to find out who the player was. He learned that it was a squire from Tula — Pavel Ladyzhensky. The next minute I presented myself to him. He was extremely attentive to me and readily told me a few things about himself. He used a seven-string guitar and was one of the pupils of Sychra who was quite famous at the time throughout the whole country. I spent the entire evening with him. He played a lot, and everything — with the same charming effect.

Unfortunately, Pavel Ladyzhensky seems to have published only two compositions (and to our knowledge, no surviving MS sources contain his music). His Grande Fantaisie, mentioned in a brief concert review of 1841 (Note 13. Severnaia pchela (1841) 22: 85) is a really true virtuosistic piece, consisting of 2 movements (Andante, All.o agitato) and 8 pages. The following miniature Valse (Example III) which appeared in the music journal Severnaia Arfa (“L’harpe du Nord”) in 1824. Ladyzhensky certainly grew considerably as a performer and composer between the middle twenties and the late thirties of the last century. But even from these 16 bars we can form some idea of Pavel Alexandrovich’s musical persona. Of particular interest is the use of legato in the second section: perhaps the first three measures of it and the fourth measure from the end illustrate what Makarov called “tenderness” and “unbelievable rapidity” respectively.

Example III(a).

The beginning of Grande Fantaisie by Pavel Ladyzhensky

Example III(b).

Valse by Pavel Ladyzhensky (1824)

Oblomov and Stoltz of the Russian Guitar

Oblomov is a Russian literary character whose name — similar to Baron Münchausen and Don Quixote — have become a depersonalized word that name the syndrome he epitomize. In his literary existence, Oblomov illustrates the anachronistic nature of 19th-century feudal society in Russia. Goncharov’s novel “Oblomov” (1848) is a unique piece of literature, the central theme of which is the utter passivity of the main character — and hence, his total lack of action. Living in a rented Petersburg apartment, Ilya Ilich Oblomov completely loses contacts with his estate in the countryside, and hardly ever gets off the sofa on which — always dressed in his immutable robe — he sleeps, sits, eats, and receives guests. The guests are coming all the time, encouraging Oblomov to get up an do something, but in vain.
In comparison with their industrious Western-European colleagues, the mid-19th-century Russian guitarists are often reminiscent of both literary characters just described. For example, let us consider the following memoir by the painter Sukhorevsky about Vasily Sarenko, professional medical doctor and amateur guitarist:

One night my wife became seriously ill. I rushed to the first available doctor, and found myself at the place of V. S. Sarenko. His servant led me to the bedroom, where I saw the doctor sitting on his bed and playing guitar.
He nodded in the direction of an armchair near him and continued playing.
–Doctor, — said I – I am sorry.
– just a moment, — he interrupted, — now: listen… it’s growing…
– Pardon me, it is very nice, but …
– Only one more minute, — he interrupted. — Listen, what follows. Great music, huh?
– Very excellent, — I said, — however…
– And here comes the finale… Listen, listen…
Thus he tortured me for about half-an-hour, before we managed to get on the road. I feel responsible to add that he helped my wife very much, and played better than anything I had ever heard …

(Note 14. Translated from Rusanov 1906, p. 244.)

Subtract the guitar from the picture of the composer on his bed or sofa, most likely dressed in his robe, and you have the iconography of Goncharov’s Oblomov. But this episode provides a wider view of the Russian mentality: completely absorbed in his musical hobby, a professional doctor does not respond immediately to the need of a patient; however, what is remembered is that a) although it took him awhile to get on the road, his competence as a doctor was impeccable; b) that his playing was highly artistic. The author of the memoir apparently admires Sarenko’s languor, especially in combination with his ability to be a good doctor. To dissociate the composer from Oblomov one should acknowledge that Sarenko was relatively well-organized in his music activities: he published about 14 original compositions, and all of them are of excellent quality. The son of a civil servant, he graduated from the Department of Medicine at Moscow University in 1833. A few years later, he defended his Ph.D. dissertation in Medical Science. For several years he served as a military doctor in Oranienbaum. As his medical career progressed, he was able to spend more and more time with his favorite hobby — the seven-string guitar. Bringing together the few biographical facts on this musician and despite the anecdote above, one gets a picture of an actually energetic person who balanced two entirely different careers.
Among the Russian guitarists, Fyodor Mikhailovich Zimmerman (1813-1882) gets closer than any other to the image of Oblomov. Sarenko and Zimmerman were good friends, curiously reversing the distribution of nationalities which Oblomov and his industrious friend Stoltz represent in Goncharov’s novel (according to Rusanov, Zimmerman’s family was originally German and were officially accepted into the Russian nobility in 1773). Especially remarkable was Zimmerman’s reluctance for writing down and publishing his brilliant improvisations, waltzes, mazurkas, and etudes. Thus, the 14 pieces by him which survive in published form did so only due to the efforts of his well-meaning friends, who took the trouble to write down Zimmerman’s improvisatory output, as it were, from under his fingers. It is also no surprise, therefore, that these publications are flooded with mistakes and ambiguities.


The Piece That Uncle Should Have Played

In Tolstoy’s masterpiece “War and Peace,” there is an episode where Natasha and Nicholas visit their Uncle, and where Natasha suddenly begins to dance “the peasant way.” Lotman uses this passage in order to illustrate how around this time — (the first decade of the century) the folk spirit (bytovala narodnost’) penetrated consciousness of the noble class (Note 15. Lotman, op. cit., p. 110). But let us pay attention to the instruments that Tolstoy mentions: Mitka, the Uncle’s coachman, very impressively plays a tune named “Barynia” using the good balalayka that the Uncle got for him. He does so from behind the door, so that the “important” characters do not see him. At some point, the Uncle becomes critical of Mitka’s performance.

     ‘He doesn’t play that part right!’ said “Uncle” suddenly, with an energetic gesture. ‘Here he ought to burst out — that’s it, come on! -ought to burst out.’
‘Do you play then?’ asked Natasha.
‘Uncle’ did not answer, but smiled.
‘Anisya, go and see if the strings on my guitar are all right. I haven’t touched it for a long time. That’s it — come on! I’ve given it up.”
Arúsya Födorovna with her light step willingly went to fulfill her errand, and brought back the guitar.
Without looking at anyone, ‘Uncle’ blew the dust off it, tapped the soundboard with his bony fingers, tuned the guitar and settled himself in his arm-chair. He took the guitar — with a somewhat theatrical gesture a little above the fingerboard, arching his left elbow — above the neck, and with a wink at Anisya Födorovna struck a single chord, pure and sonorous, and then rhythmically, calmly, and confidently began playing not Barynia, but the well-known song Po ulítse mostovoj (“Down the street”). [...] Something seemed to be laughing a little on one side of his face under his red mustaches, especially as the song grew brisker and the time quicker, and when, here and there, as he ran his fingers over the string, something seemed to snap.

(Note 21. Tolstoy, op. cit., p. 220.)

Though the instruments themselves (balalayka and guitar) suggest a certain class difference, the mentioned pieces of folk music do not. In order to show Mitka how to “burst out” in rapid passages, “Uncle” could just as well have played the following setting of Barynla which comes from Beloshein I MS:

Example V.

Barynia from Beloshein I MS.

Strikingly mixolydian, this energetic piece makes excellent use of the Russian guitar tuning — Natasha could well have danced to the strong and resonant sounds of this song. Numerous arrangements of Po ulitse mostovoi can also be found in early-19th-century printed editions and MSS.


Concluding Remarks

We have presented here a collage of music, pictures, poems, and anecdotes. All of the above indicate the high degree to which the Russian seven-string guitar and its repertoire were part of Russian culture of the first half of the last century. But where are the traces of this tradition in the countries of the former Soviet Union?
As in the West, the guitar’s popularity declined in Russia in the second half of the 19th century. Around the turn of the century, there was à brief revival, associated with the writings of Valerian Rusanov (1866-1918) and magazines like Gitarist, Akkord, and Muzyka Gítarista. Throughout the 20th century, both kinds of guitar — six- and seven-string — coexisted in conservatories and music schools. Yet, even when the students and their teachers did play the seven-string instrument, they for the most part ignored the rich 19th-century repertoire for the Russian guitar and preferred transcriptions from Western guitar music.
Today, the tradition I have been discussing is almost completely obscure. However, there are a few individual enthusiasts who still maintain the remnants of that performance tradition. We are aware of many of them and have established contact with three such living amateur guitarists/scholars: Vladimir Bogdanovich (*1936) in Kingisepp (Leningrad Region), Yurij Lenivtsev (*1938) in Smolensk, and Pyotr Sidorchuk (*1946) in Khar’kov. They have inherited their interest in the glorious past of the Russian guitar from their teachers, who in turn came out of the mentioned revival at the turn of the century. Although they now live in post – Perestroika poverty, they have over the years accumulated sizable collections of music, and all three of them play the instrument with varying degrees of proficiency. Contact with them has already provided indispensable help for our project: we exchange sheet music, microfilms, and tapes, and discuss various facets of the seven-string guitar technique used by the founders of the tradition. We take here the opportunity to thank them strongly.

Selected Bibliography

  1. OPHEE, Matanya. See for example, La chitarra in Russia – Osservazioni dall’Occidente, in il “Fronimo” no. 58, Milan, 1987; many other articles of this author are relevant to the present article, for a complete list of them, please refer to the Internet page Writings about the guitar by Matanya Ophee: An Annotated Bibliography Compiled and annotated by Erica M. Lohmann and Matanya Ophee)
  2. ABRAHAM, Gerald. Essays on Russian and East European Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.
  3. AGOSTINELLI, Massimo (in collaborazione con Marco Bazzotti). Dizionario Chitarristico 1800-1860. Edizioni Musicali Ottocento.
  4. IVANOV, Mikhail. Russkaia semstrunnaia gitara. (The Russian seven-string guitar) Moscow: Muzgiz, 1948.
  5. RUSANOV, Valerian. Gitara i gitaristy (Guitar and guitarists). Biography of Vysotski. Moscow, 1899.
  6. RUSANOV, Valerian. “V. S. Sarenko.” in Gitarist 11 (1906) p. 243-45.
  7. TOLSTOY, Leo. “War and Peace”. Translated by Constance Gernett. New York, Modern Library, 1976.
  8. YABLOKOV, Mikhail. Klassicheskaia gitara v Rossii i SSSR (The classical guitar in Russia and USSR). Ekaterinburg: Russkaia entsiklopedia, 1992.
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