The Russian Seven String Guitar

The Russian Seven String Guitar:
Celebration of an Anniversary.

By Matanya Ophee.

I wish to introduce to you my friends Igor Golger and Hiroko Kajimoto, who will be assisting me in this lecture by playing some pieces. This instrument looks like a guitar. Actually, it IS a guitar. But there are some differences between this instrument and the one you all play. There are seven strings, and they are tuned in an open chord of G Major. I will now play a piece of music you are all very familiar with. My purpose is not to show you what a great guitarist I am, but to demonstrate how this instrument sounds. It is not my intention to claim any advantage or superiority for this tuning, but simply to show the difference in sonority, and in the way Russian guitarists employ the particular attributes of their instrument.

J.S. Bach, Prelude from the first Cello Suite. bach[MP3, stereo, 491KB] This arrangement in C major was made by Vasilli Iuriev in 1939. The version here played contains a few bass notes not included by Iuriev, but which I am renting from Stanley Yates. For the most part, I am keeping to Iuriev’s extensive and detailed fingering for both hands.

This lecture is celebration of an anniversary. Twenty years ago, at the GFA festival in Quebec City, I read my first lecture on the Guitar in Russia. It was also my honeymoon. My bride, unfortunately, is not present here, but rest assured that we celebrated our own private anniversary properly. My lecture in Quebec City was accompanied with musical illustrations played by Leif Christensen and Maria Kämmerling. At the time, none of us had access to an actual Russian seven string guitar, and we had to make do with transcriptions. Eventually, this collaboration led to Leif Christensen’s recording, on the original instrument, of the music of Vasilli Sarenko. This recording was greeted with amazement by Russian seven-string players, who were flattered that a non-Russian guitarist would play their repertoire. Nevertheless, the general opinion among them was that it was Russian guitar music with a foreign accent.

I have given similar lectures in many venues since then, wrote some articles about the subject and the seven volumes of the Russian Collection are a well known representation of the relevant repertoire, the old and the new. It is only appropriate, I think, to bring up this subject once again, here in Mexico, where the heritage of the Mexican Guitarra Séptima is beginning to interest scholars and players. I do not wish to say that the similar number of strings in both the Russian and Mexican models has any relationship to each other. The point is that the six-string configuration is not, and has never been, the only one guitarists have chosen.

During the course of history, the label “guitar” was applied to many different instruments with different tunings and sonorities, the same situation as we have today. Regardless of configuration, there was a general tendency in Spain, Italy and France to arrange the strings in intervals of a fourth with one major third in the middle. At the same time, the general tendency in England, Germany, Portugal and Central Europe was to arrange the strings in intervals of a third.

The precise origin of the Russian preference for the G Major tuning has been the cause of many heated debates in Russia. It could well have been a descendant of the English guitar tuned in C major, or the Baroque lute tuned in d minor. The last decade of the eighteenth century and the first decade of the nineteenth, saw the emergence of several important composers for this instrument, chief among them was Andrei Sychra. Perhaps no other musician in early nineteenth century Russia remained in the collective memory of Russian guitarists as much as Sychra. In certain circles his name even acquired definite hallowed connotations. He is often referred to as the «Patriarch» of the seven-string guitar. Indisputably, Sychra was a major force in the development of Russian guitar music, both as one of its most prolific composers and as a pedagogue who left behind many disciples. The great majority of his more than one thousand compositions, are themes and variation on Russian and Ukrainian folk songs, on popular operatic arias, and on popular dances and melodies from various sources. He was not much different in his choice of material than his Western contemporaries. Where the difference lies is in his audacious use of modulations, using harmonies that were far ahead of the time, and a most creative exploitation of the resources of the instrument, using technical devices that were not yet imagined by his Western contemporaries. Perhaps the best demonstration of this aspect is contained in the Four Concert Etudes of 1817. Let us listen now to Igor Golger playing  Etude No. 1 in b minor etude-1by Andrei Sychra. (MP3, Stereo, 1.78MB).

The innovations demonstrated by Sychra include:

1. The four-finger cross-string trill. Cross-string trills using two fingers were explained in many Western guitar methods even prior to 1817, but I am not aware of any that advocated the use of the thumb and three fingers of the right hand before Sychra.

2. Extensive use of left-hand slurs in scale runs and passage work.

3. Careful attention to r.h. fingering. While it is common to see r.h. fingering notation in many guitar methods, most guitar sheet music of the time does not address this issue.

4. Single-string glissandi, mainly on the treble strings, sometimes across large distances along the finger-board.

5. Complex ornamentation, often written out in full.

6. Campanela figurations, which, although used by Western guitarists a few times before 1817, have rarely received the degree of inventiveness manifested in this work. As one reviewer said, in these Etudes the range of the instrument is explored to the full, and the harmonic language displays a degree of sophistication shared by few guitar works of the period.

I will continue now with  Etude in g minor sychraby Andrei Sychra. (MP3, Stereo, 422KB).

The influence of folk music on the development of art music, is, of course, a part of the tradition of many nations. In Russia, however, folk music became the subject of a most fantastic infatuation of the people with their own music, perhaps one of the most remarkable attributes of the Russian soul. Russian composers, from Ivan Khandoshkin and Evstignei Fomin in the eighteenth century, up to and including Russian composers active during the Soviet era and even today, have capitalized on the richness and emotional intensity of Russian folk music. The early nineteenth century saw the emergence of a national consciousness. Russian artists began to seek their own roots and to look for a national identity based on their own heritage. Western influences were still strong, but the movement inward became a focal point of cultural life. The folk song arrangements of Andrei Sychra became thus an integral part of guitar tradition in Russia. The next piece I play is a set of Variations by Sychra on the Russian folk song  Ia Po Tsvetikam Khodila. [I walked among the flowers]. (MP3, Stereo, 452KB). As you can instantly recognize, this was one of the tunes employed by Fernando Sor in his Souvenir de Russie.

Besides Sychra who was mainly active in St. Petersburg, we have also the legacy of Mikhail Vyssotsky, a guitarist who was active in Moscow. Although contemporaries, there is no record that the two ever met, though they must have known each other’s music well. Some researchers, both in Russia and in the West, consider the style of Vyssotsky as distinctly different from that of Sychra. This is a question that requires a great deal more attention than we have in the short time available today. For the time being, let us listen to Igor playing a set of variations by Vyssotsky on the Russian folk song, “Ah, matushka, golova bolit” [Mother dear, I have a headache]. [MP3, stereo, 811KB]

The fortunes of the Russian seven string guitar have come to an abrupt stop in Russia in the later part of the nineteenth century. There was a brief revival of the instrument during the first decades of the twentieth century, but that too came to an inconclusive end with the concert tours of Andres Segovia in the Soviet Union between 1926 and 1936. His impact on Russian society was decisive, and the majority of Russian guitarists abandoned their native instrument and its repertoire and switched over to the Spanish guitar and the Segovia repertoire. As we know, there are very fine guitar players in Russia today, and there are a few inspired composers who write music for it. The great majority of them play the standard six-string guitar. Strangely enough, the tradition of the Russian seven string guitar was kept alive by Russian and gypsy guitarists who were working in the popular music field. Although based on gypsy traditional songs, a genre which has captivated Russian artists from Pushkin on, the guitar renditions of composers like Sergei Orekhov are superb examples of instrumental inventiveness and inspiration. I will now play, accompanied by Igor,  a set of variations by Sergei Orekhov on a polka that became famous at the early nineteenth century as the theme song of a popular gypsy restaurant in Moscow run by a fellow named Sokolov. (MP3, Stereo, 980KB).

As you can hear, the variation form used by Orekhov is entirely different than the one used a century and half earlier by Sychra and Vyssotsky. The next piece is also by Orekhov and will be played by Igor and Hiroko. Although in the variations form, Yehali  Tsygane [The Gypsies traveled] (MP3, Stereo, 456KB) is more like a fantasia.

Kumushka [the Woman] (MP3, stereo, 1050KB), also by Sergei Orekhov, is not a Gypsy song per se, but rather a Russian folk song. Here the variations employ some very modern harmonies. Played by Igor and Hiroko.

Dui-dui (MP3, stereo, 703KB) is a well known gypsy tune. These are variations by the contemporary gypsy guitarist Alexander Kolpakov. Also played by Igor and Hiroko.

There is a great deal more material we could have discussed, much of it is in a far more classical vein, such as the sonatas by Alexander Vietrov and Matvei Pavlov Azancheev. Our purpose was to simply give you a taste of what this music sounds like.

Thank you very much.

Copyright © 2003 by Editions Orphée, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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