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Three-stringed miracle

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Three-stringed miracle

07.10.2021

Sergey Vinogradov

Photo credit: xavo_rob / flickr.com

A bear dressed in kosovorotka (a traditional Russian shirt) and bast shoes playing balalaika is one of the strongest Russian stereotypes. In reality, bears live in Russian woods or zoos, kosovorotkas and bast shoes could be traced in museums and at folk concerts. In contrast, the balalaika has won its unique place not only on concert posters but also at an international stage, in academic concert halls and jazz and rock clubs.

Today there are several balalaika museums in Russia. The factory production of balalaika is being revived. The secret of the popularity has not been solved after 130 years of the balalaika's existence. Many believe that it ideally reflects the Russian soul: it is simple and uncomplicated, but deep and original, it doesn't open its heart to everyone.


The instrument that sounds

The balalaika has a lot of relatives, well, almost every nation has a similar string instrument. Experts believe that once upon a time the balalaika was round, like domra and other sisters. The triangular appearance comes from manufacture convenience. Literally, it's easy to tore the board off the fence, to saw couple times, glued two triangles together and play.

It is known that balalaikas were triangular at the first performance of the "Circle of balalaika fans" in St. Petersburg. It happened on March 20, 1888, celebrated as the birthday of the balalaika.

Due to the simplicity of balalaika making, it still remains truly folk instrument today. Hundreds of video tutorials on how to make a balalaika from a pair of old stools and other improvised means.

The instrument making starts with choosing the right wood and drying it. The wood parts should not be just “musical”, they should be related by the sound. Spruce, maple, rosewood and ebony wood species are usually used. Before dense tree species were imported to Russia, animal bones were employed.

The Russian balalaika consists of three parts: neck, body and head. The fretboard includes a handle and fretboard with metal fret plates. The body is made out of 6 – 7 wooden parts. There are mainly nylon strings used. In the old days artisans used sheep guts.

The balalaika performer is lively and agile, but the balalaika maker is unhurried and patient. According to the professor of the department of folk instruments of the Nizhny Novgorod State Conservatory Sergei Malykhin, real craftsmen let the tree rest for 30 to 50 years.The father prepared the wood and only the son, or even the grandson, made the balalaika.


"The father prepared the wood and only the son, or even the grandson, made the balalaika."


There are several balalaika manufactures today in Russia. In Ulyanovsk on the Volga River the balalaika workshop was opened a few years ago, and then a factory. The owners say that they had an idea to open a factory after a shortfall of instruments arised. Soviet production facilities were closed in the 1990s, and quantity of private craftsmen has drastically decreased.

A group of peasants with a balalaika at the table, circa 1907-1915 Photo by S.M. Prokudin-Gorsky. Photo credit: wikipedia.org


"Stradivarius of Balalaika"

The oldest known balalaika is kept in the privateBalalaika Museum in Ulyanovsk, and is about 120 years old. Most appreciated are the tools made by the northern craftsman Semyon Nalimov. As a matter of fact, the participants of the first balalaika concert (who later became the Orchestra of Russian Folk Instruments by Vasily Andreev) played not on fence boards, but on balalaikas crafted by Nalimov.


Photo:Balalaika Museum in Ulyanovsk

The instruments of the "Russian balalaika Stradivarius", as the masters called them during his lifetime, are highly valued today. Two of them are owned by the Russian virtuoso Alexei Arkhipovsky, who is the most famous contemporary balalaika performer in the world. One of the Nalimov balalaikas was presented to him, and the other he bought for 20,000 EU from a German collector.

According to Arkhipovsky, many unique balalaikas were brought away from Russia in the 1990s. They have ended up as interior decoration pieces in foreign antique collectors' houses. Therefore, hundreds of great Russian instruments have been silent for many years, just collecting dust. This is the property of Russia, Arkhipovsky is sure, instruments must be heard.

New models sometimes are too kitschy. Electro-balalaika might be called a real novelty. Those who play them claim that the technology only affects sound amplification, but the essence of the balalaika playing remains the same. Although, many experts are convinced that electrical models have different sound, especially when nylon strings are changed to metal ones.

The modern Russian rock group LosTradition made electric balalaika famous all over the world.


How the sound is born

It is believed that the name of the instrument comes from the verb balakat', in Russian to chat, to strum on the strings. In the professional literature, it is said that the thickness of the strings plays an important role to the special balalaika sound.

Apart of technical characteristics, the personality of a performer is much more important. The most common reaction to the sound of a balalaika is surprise. What could be played on three strings? Leo Tolstoy, listening the virtuoso Boris Troyanovsky, said, "It is as if several instruments are playing at once."

Alexey Arkhipovsky often hears such confessions. Listeners in Russia and abroad can't believe that a solo balalaika is capable of such a spacious space sound. Some even suspect the performer of using a phonogram or an extra voice in the instrument.

According to Arkhipovsky, the unique timbre of the balalaika is the tuning fork of Russian folklore. For Russians, the sound of the balalaika falls on the soul as something familiar and familiar, while foreigners are amazed by the power of originality - the balalaika cannot be confused with anything.


"Thebalalaika is the tuning fork of Russian folklore.


One balalaika is good, two are better, and 40-50 are pure delight. Balalaika orchestras create a voluminous, enveloping sound that has a pacifying effect on representatives of all cultures.


Russian virtuosos

A portrait of an elegant man with a mustache and a beard with balalaika on his knees can be seen in study rooms and rehearsal spaces of nowadays folk musicians. It is Vasily Andreev, the founder of the first Orchestra of Russian Folk Instruments, which gave its first performance at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1889, and continued all over the Europe. Andreev is actually considered the very the first balalaika virtuoso and composer. The worldwide fame of three-strings wonder started because of him.

Vasily Andreev. Photo credit: peterburg2.ru

Later, at the beginning of the 20th century, the orchestra soloist Boris Troyanovsky had become very popular around the world. In 1909, the British King Edward VII and the Portuguese Monarch Manuel II have attended his balalaika performance in the Windsor Castle. The newspapers recorded the amazement of Edward, who couldn't believe ... right, that the most complex and profound compositions could be performed on a virtually simple instrument.

Boris Troyanovsky and Leo Tolstoy. Photo credit: meisterdrucke.ru

Many associates, students and successors of Vasily Andreev came into history. Alexander Dobrokhotov is remembered for his arrangements for balalaika and piano, Nikolai Uspensky - for balalaika tutorial book for beginners. Leonid Voinov played and composed for balalaika, and Alexander Ilyukhin opened the first folk instruments department.

Artistic director of the Andreev Orchestra and professor at Gnesin Academy Pavel Necheporenko was one of the pillars of balalaika in the Soviet period. In addition to Alexei Arkhipovsky, modern balalaika virtuosos are considered Alexander Murza, Andrei Gorbachev, Dmitry Kalinin, Yuri Klepalov, Alexander Marchakovsky and others. And more recently, in 2018, a real legend left us - one of the best balalaika players of the 20th century, who was called the "Paganini of the Russian balalaika", Mikhail Fedotovich Rozhkov.

The list of outstanding balalaika soloists also includesMicha Tcherkassky, who was born into a French-Russian family and lives in Paris. His grandfather, who came to France in 1917, showed the grandson how to play a Russian instrument. And Micha's other grandfather was a famous tenor who performed at the Paris Opera. Micha has completed his studies at The Conservatoire Serge Rachmaninoff de Paris, and now he teaches balalaika in Paris. Misha Cherkassky performs all over the world with his ensemble.

So much for three strings!

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