May 01, 2011

Russian Strings

Russian Strings

Unlike the balalaika and the harmonica, the guitar is not yet established as a musical symbol of Russia, yet its importance for Russian culture is hard to overestimate. Among other essential elements of Russian culture, the guitar conjures up images of traditional romances and Gypsy songs, and more recently was the instrument of choice for the bardy of the Khrushchev-era thaw (see Russian Life, Jan/Feb 2009). These days, “guitar” is usually taken to mean the six-stringed version of the instrument closely associated with Spanish music and popularized during the twentieth century by musicians such as Andrés Segovia. With even most Russian guitarists now using this type of guitar, the seven-stringed version — which has a much longer history in the country, where it has been played for well over 200 years — has fallen out of favor, a far cry from its peak of popularity in the nineteenth century, when dozens of composers wrote hundreds of works for it.

All may not be lost, however. By an irony of fate, it is in the U.S. that the Russian seven-stringed guitar is making something of a comeback. Held in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, IA, the annual Russian Guitar Seminar and Festival celebrated its fifth anniversary in 2010. The festival is the brainchild of Oleg Timofeyev, a long-time advocate and virtuoso exponent of this rarer form of the guitar. Timofeyev took up the cause of the seven-stringed guitar — or, as it is affectionately referred to, the semistrunka — when he moved to the United States to study at the end of the Soviet era, eventually obtaining a Ph.D. in performance practice from Duke University.

“The repertoire for the seven-string guitar is enormous, and even today it remains little studied,” Timofeyev said. “In the context of nineteenth-century Russian culture, it is a priceless musical layer that I am trying to resurrect by any means possible.” As part of this mission, he has recorded more than a dozen discs of Russian music, both as a soloist and with various ensembles, and said that Western audiences are receptive to the music’s beauty. The annual festival that he founded in Iowa, meanwhile, encompasses genres from early music to Gypsy romances to contemporary compositions.

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