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July 4, 2007 16:21


Today the Russian folk stringed musical instrument balalaika is going through hard times. There are not so many professional balalaika players left; country people have abandoned this once popular instrument. There have been ups and downs in the history of balalaika, yet it still lives and remains one of the symbols of Russian folk culture.

Historic Facts

Many people think that balalaika was invented in Old Rus and others suppose it sprang from dombra, a folk instrument of kirgiz-kaisaks. Another version suggests that balalaika was possibly contrived during the Tatar yoke or even adopted from the Tatars. Hence it is difficult to define the year when balalaika came into the world. Most of historians and musicologists tend to adhere to the year of 1715, but this date is rather relative, since there are earlier records, of 1688.

Balalaika was probably invented by serf peasants to relieve their hard living under cruel landlords. Gradually the instrument spread among peasants and skomorokhs (wandering minstrels and jesters) who traveled all around the vast expanses of Russia. Skomorokhs performed at fairs, earning their bread and amusing people, and did not even suspect what a wonder-instrument they played. In the end the tsar of Russia Alexei Mikhailovich exasperated by the wandering mockers issued the order to take all the instruments (balalaikas, dombras, horns, guslis, etc.) and burn them down, and to whip and exile those who would not yield and give their balalaikas away. When the tsar died and repressions were over, balalaika started playing again all over the country, but it did not last long. The time of popularity gave way to almost complete oblivion till the mid 19th century.

Vasili Andreyev, the Developer of Balalaika

One day, while walking in his estate, the young nobleman Vasili Andreyev heard his house-serf playing the balalaika. He was astonished at the peculiar sounding of the instrument, whereas he considered himself a connoisseur of Russian folk instruments. So he decided to make balalaika a most popular instrument. For a start he learnt playing it himself, and soon found out that the instrument harboured great potential. He made up his mind to perfect balalaika and went to St. Petersburg to ask the violin master Ivanov for advice. At first Ivanov flatly refused to make a balalaika, but after listening to Andreyev masterly playing a folk song, he could not resist it. The work was hard and long, and finally resulted in the creation of a new, improved balalaika.

But it was not everything Andreyev had in mind. He wanted to bring the perfected balalaika back to the folk and popularize it. On his initiative all the soldiers serving the army were given balalaikas which they took with them after retiring from the army. In this way balalaika again spread all around Russia and became a popular instrument.

More than that, Vasili Andreyev planned to create a family of balalaikas of various sizes, like in a string quartet. For this purpose he resorted to the masters Paserbsky and Nalimov who jointly worked out a range of balalaikas, such as piccolo, descant, prima, secondary, alt, bass, and contrabass. These instruments formed the basis of the Great Russian Orchestra, which later toured in many countries of the world and glorified balalaika and Russian culture.

What it is like

Balalaika is an instrument about 600 to 700 mm long, with a triangle (in the 18-19th cc also with an oval) wooden frame glued together of separate segments. It has three metal or nylon strings. The neck of the modern balalaika has from 16 to 31 metal frets (till the late 19thcentury it had 5 to 7 frets). The tuning of the folk balalaika is as follows: unison of two strings at mi and one string at la, a fourth higher than the first two. The sound is sonorous and is evoked by clanging of the forefinger of the right hand.





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