Book in Focus
The Seven-String Guitar in Russia"/>
  • "Controversies in Medicine and Neuroscience: Through the Prism of History, Neurobiology, and Bioethics (2023) is well worth reading and studying. It should be standard on all doctor’s bookshelves and among the interested laymen."

    - Russell L. Blaylock, President of Theoretical Neuroscience Research

26th April 2023

Book in Focus
The Seven-String Guitar in Russia

Its Origins, Repertoire, and Performance Practice, 1800-1850

By Oleg Timofeyev

Like many other children, I collected stamps throughout my Soviet childhood, and I remember cherishing this one. Although immune to the fact that this 1822 painting by Vasily Tropinin presented one of the most iconic early images of Russian guitarists, I must have at least registered that there was something quite special about his unbuttoned shirt and overall Romantic look. It is unlikely I paid much attention to the features of the guitar in his hands: in particular, that it has seven strings rather than the “usual” six.

The first musical instrument I laid my hands on was a cheap seven-string guitar I inherited from my paternal grandfather Piotr Timofeyev. I heard praises of his guitar chops from a family member, but I never heard him play. Due to the instrument’s tuning, anybody can produce a sonorous chord on it without even realizing that one’s left hand is supposed to stop certain strings whilst playing. My mother, a professional cellist, could play a couple of songs on the Russian seven-string guitar, but before she taught me how to play I switched to the dominant, cosmopolitan variety—the so-called "Spanish" guitar.

Many years passed, and in 1995 I was completing my Ph.D. at Duke University, wondering what subject to choose for my doctoral dissertation. Purely practical considerations suggested a strong preference for something Russian-related: I knew that Russian is by far my best language, and I anticipated having a great advantage doing research in Russian archives. But what should the topic be? The pre-Petrine repertoires were all purely vocal and sacred and, as interesting as they may have been for many, they never attracted me. By this point, I had already developed an interest for the seven-string guitar repertoire of the 19th century, but I still knew extremely little and was in doubt whether there was enough substance for a dissertation.

The same year, in June of 1995, I visited Moscow. I asked several friends—admittedly, all mainstream classical guitarists—about what they knew of the Russian guitar tradition. “Oleg, don’t waste your time"—they discouraged me univocally—"you will find no masterpieces there, just the countless boring variations on Russian folk songs.” It is hard to express how glad I am now that I did not listen to anybody back then. Ignoring all the warnings, I located a large pile of manuscript scores with the music of Alexander Vetrov (d. 1877) at the Glinka State Museum of Music. It was clearly very unusual music, especially compared with any guitar repertoire I was familiar with. But even more striking was the amount of care it took the scribe (apparently, one of Vetrov’s students) to write the meticulous fingerings for almost every note. For example, the left-hand fingerings were written as ratios: take 1/7, which meant “the first finger on the seventh fret.” Far from being able to play this music myself, I became convinced that there was enough sophistication and substance for my doctoral opus. Little did I know that my problem was soon to become how to squeeze the entire tradition into one volume.

The same summer I also acquired my first antique seven-string guitar, which now appears on the cover of this book (it is the one to the right). Again, the incredible level of craftsmanship, the elegant shape, and the phenomenal comfort of playing it spoke to me eloquently: this was clearly the beginning of a life-long exploration into a once-powerful tradition.

Since the successful defense of my doctoral dissertation in 1999, I had several grants and fellowships in which a part of the deal was “to re-work my dissertation into a book.” But, instead of writing, I was heavily involved in performing the seven-string guitar music, recording it, and organizing festivals. Only the pandemic of 2020-22 made me concentrate fully on writing. By then, I was much better informed on all aspects of the guitar tradition in Russia, and the opportunities for digital searches on the internet had also increased dramatically. For example, I discovered a memoir about the first published seven-string composer, the Pole named Joseph Kamensky; or that the first Russian guitar concerto (alas, for the European guitar!) survives in a German library.

To sum up, what type of information can one find in my book? First of all, this is the most comprehensive attempt to investigate the genesis of the seven-string guitar in Russia, its organic connection to its Spanish relative as well as to the English wire-strung cittern that came in the 18th-century from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Second, to the best of my abilities, I describe how the style of music that was written for this instrument absorbed the peculiarities of Moscow’s and St. Petersburg’s soundscapes of ca. 1800, from the obvious harp and gusli sound to that of much less obvious Tyrolean choirs and mechanical toys. Third, for those who believe that a repertoire based on pre-existing music (i.e., arrangements and variation sets) lack originality, I have a number of counter-arguments. Fourth, once we make it to the mature, sophisticated style of Andrei Sychra, Semion Aksionov, and Mikhail Vysotsky, we clearly see that we are dealing with a lost instrumental tradition. Very few people on Earth today would do it justice in performance, even if they do play the properly tuned seven-string instrument. It is airy, transparent music full of elegance and languor, and it surely deserves better acknowledgement among performers and scholars alike.

Interestingly, ca. 1800 the beginning of the great seven-string guitar tradition coincided with the sweeping fashion for the Romani (“Gypsy”) performance in Russia. The Romani musicians chose the seven-string guitar as their main instrument: before this, their music (just like any Russian folk music around them) had been predominantly vocal. In the 20th century, the Roma were the last professional players who clung to that instrument. It was only in the 1970s they, too, switched to the cosmopolitan six-string guitar. I did include some references to their oral tradition in this book, but I am planning to deal with it at length in my next opus. I do not think I will have to wait for another pandemic to start working on it. In fact, I have already started writing.

Oleg Timofeyev is a musicologist, guitarist, composer, documentary film director, and a world authority on the Russian seven-string guitar tradition. His previous publications include a book on Russian-Romani guitar playing (2018) and a critical edition of collected works by Matvei Pavlov-Azancheev (with Stefan Wester, 2020). Timofeyev has recorded and released over 20 solo and ensemble albums to critical acclaim worldwide. The recipient of two IREX Fellowships, two Fulbright Research and Teaching Fellowships, he has also won the coveted Noah Greenberg Award for his CD Music of Russian Princesses at the Court of Catherine the Great. He holds an MA in Early Music Performance from the University of Southern California and a PhD from Duke University, USA. He has taught at universities and conservatoires in the USA, Russia, and Ukraine.

Intersted in how it sounds? Take a look at Oleg playing the Russian Seven-String Guitar on YouTube here

A comprehensive collection of compositions, meanwhile, can be found here (audio only).

The Seven-String Guitar in Russia: Its Origins, Repertoire, and Performance Practice, 1800-1850 is available now at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 to redeem.

Read Extract