The Odessa Balalaikas
The balalaika is both prince and pauper, an instrument born in a Russian village and bred in the Tsar’s palace. In its construction, the music it plays, and its sound there is a mixture of naivet£ and sophistication. It has performed, with equal effectiveness, under the spreading branches of a linden tree and before the footlights of a concert stage. Where does this mixed-up childhood leave the balalaika today? With an identity crisis? A closer look at its history and a sampling of this record will show how the three-cornered instrument has turned its complex genealogy into a rich source of musical expression.
Commoners delivered the balalaika into the world. Appropriately, it first appears in the colorful fabric of Russian history as a victim of persecution. A legal document, dated 1688, describes how two peasants were beaten, ridiculed and exiled for disturbing the peace outside Moscow’s main gates. The instrument of their offense, a balalaika, was presented in court as evidence against them. This is the first written reference to the balalaika, but we can assume that it existed for some years prior to its first misdemeanor and that it did not materialize spontaneously but evolved from earlier, undocumented forms. A list compiled by Peter I in 1715 states that four balalaika players in a formal procession were dressed as Kalmyks—this gives rise to speculation that the instrument is of Mongolian origin.
However obscure the balalaika’s early history, it is clear that by the middle of the eighteenth century it had become the most popular instrument among the Russian people. Several factors contributed to its success. Earlier types of stringed instruments such as the gusli, domra and gudok, which might have rivaled the balalaika, had gone out of vogue. The guitar (a formidable competitor wherever it took root) had not yet penetrated Russian musical life. Finally, the balalaika owed much of its popularity to the fact it could be home-made. Anyone with moderate skill and simple tools could hew a balalaika from a solid block of wood or piece it together the way a cooper would make a barrel. Ease of construction may be the answer to a nagging question—why the triangular shape? The straight sides of a triangular body can be formed much more easily than the convoluted outline of the guitar or fiddle.
The mid-eighteenth century marked a peak in the balalaika’s popularity and a split in its personality. Around this period we begin to find accounts of the peasant instrument making its way into the hands of the nobility. One of these accounts, Jacob Steling’s Music and Ballet in Eighteenth-Century Russia, indicates by its prejudice that the balalaika was leading a dual life. Steling calls the balalaika anti-art, unworthy of anything other than the strumming of simple village tunes. Later in the same work he talks of a blind court musician who played arias, minuets and Polish dances on the balalaika with extraordinary artistry.
Even court patronage could not protect the balalaika from foreign interlopers. The introduction of the seven-stringed guitar into Russia around 1800 began to decimate the ranks of balalaika players. When the garmoshka (a Russian concertina inspired by an Italian import) became popular in 1850, the balalaika was threatened with extinction. It might have become a museum curiosity if not for the obsession of a remarkable visionary.
In 1883, Vasili Vasilevich Andreev, a young aristocrat like many others, was sent on a “Grand Tour” of Europe. He returned from this tour with a heightened sense of nationalism and set about the esoteric process of collecting Russian folk songs. Andreev, the ethnographer, would sojourn for long periods in the village of Marino close to his family’s estate. There, at the end of a long summer day, he heard the strumming of a balalaika floating through the stillness of the rural evening. He was transfixed by the bright, chattering sound and by the lively manner in which the instrument was being played. He searched, found the source of the music and came face to face with his life’s work.
But Andreev was as disappointed as he was enchanted by his new foundling. He was smitten by an ambitious dream—to integrate the balalaika into polite society, to take it into the salons, to dress its players in formal evening attire, to make it respected by ladies and gentlemen of the Russian court and the world. The balalaika given Andreev by the peasant in Mar’ino was hardly equal to this undertaking. It had but a few gut frets tied around its long neck. It was intended to be played in one position, which severely limited its range. Further, its triangular soundboard and body, the resonating parts of the instrument, were small and lacked sustaining power.
Andreev began what was to be a long collaboration with two violin makers, V. Ivanov and Francois Paserbski, and a talented carpenter, Semeon Nalimov. These men set about reconstructing the balalaika. They gave it fixed metal frets arranged to produce a chromatic scale of over 2Vz octaves. They enlarged and restructured the soundboard and body according to traditional principles of European lutherie. Incidentally, the creations of Paserbski and Nalimov have become, respectively, the Magginis and Stradivaris of the balalaika world.
With his improved balalaika, Andreev began to make a small but growing impression on St. Petersburg society. His virtuosity and personal diarm won him access to many salons. Newspaper articles and reviews were already calling the young man ’’the father of the balalaika.” He began to teach a group of admirers who constituted the first formal school of balalaika playing. While Andreev worked tirelessly with his pupils, a new idea formed in his mind—the creation of a Russian folk instrument ensemble.
When Andreev was in Europe he had seen orchestras of mandolins and guitars and reasoned that the balalaika was equally worthy of such artistic treatment. He went back to Paserbski with plans for the construction of an entire family of balalaikas. After some trial and error, the instrument-maker produced a piccolo, secunda. alto, bass and contra-bass to accompany the already existing prima balalaika. The invention was a brilliant stroke but by no means an assured success. A whole new art form had to be organized in short order to be ready for the upcoming musical season. Andreev rehearsed, wrestled with ensemble problems. and arranged Russian folk songs as well as some of his own compositions.
On the 20th of March, 1888, Andreev’s seven-member Kruzhok I’ubitelei igry na balalaike. The Circle of Balalaika Lovers, gave its first performance. Subsequent newspaper articles summarized the Circle’s accomplishment this way: “The question of the legitimacy and suitableness of the balalaika has been decided affirmatively. From a sphere where it was both downtrodden and forgotten. the perfected balalaika has come out onto its own musical road.”
The momentum created by Andreev’s innovations has carried his beloved instrument a long way. “The father of the balalaika” himself reconstructed other Russian folk instruments: the domra (a three-stringed, plucked instrument with a round body that had become extinct in the 15th century as a result of official persei ution by the Orthodox Church), gusli (a type of Russian zither and the most ancient form of Russian folk stringed instrument), zhaleika and svirel ’, (Russian folk wind instruments). Together with the expanded balalaika family they became the Great Russian Orchestra, a phenomenon of symphonic proportions and capabilities. Three generations of virtuosos have descended from Andreev’s school. They have enriched the balalaika’s technical resources, discovered new colors in its unique voice and made it possible to play anything from Paganini to Stravinsky on just three strings. Professional composers have written original music for solo and ensemble performance, including concertos, sonatas, toccatas and orchestral fantasies.
With all the changes wrought by Andreev and his successors, the balalaika repertoire is still predominantly folk oriented. Any balalaika player will tell you, as he struggles to create certain effects on the instrument, that Andreev improved it—but not too much. It is a mixture of the old and the new. Balalaika performance is still in a state of flux, still a developing art form. The instrument and ensemble are in their infancy compared to other musical traditions. At the same age (approximately 100 years if we count from the time Andreev began his work) the violin could loo.k forward to the innovations of Tartini, Viotti, Rode, Kreutzer and Paganini. The Odessa Balalaikas believe that the future of the balalaika lies in expressing both facets of its dual nature—the clarity and emental vitality of its village voice and the bravura style of its stage voice. This aesthetic has guided the production of their record.
Kumushki (All the Gossips Left for Home)
Each member of The Odessa Balalaikas is proficient on at least two Russian folk instruments. The quintet uses three different balalaikas, three different domras, a bayan (Russian button accordion), gusli, guitar and assorted percussion in its arrangements. This gives the ensemble many possible combinations. Kumushki represents one of the group’s favorite orchestrations: two prima balalaikas, an alto balalaika, bass domra and contra-bass balalaika.
Variations on Themes of Two Russian Folk Songs
This piece artfully blends two beautiful Russian folk songs. To ne veter vetku klonit (“It’s Not the Wind That Bends the Branch”) and Kak podyablon’koi (“Under the Apple Tree”), in a work for solo gusli and Russian folk ensemble.
The gusli is a Russian zither dating from the year 951. Its various forms include a psaltery gusli, a table gusli and the wing-shaped zvonchatye gusli used by The Odessa Balalaikas. This arrangement features some of the gusli’s most characteristic effects-shimmering glissandos, delicate pizzicatos and broad, harp-like chordal passages.
Rodnye prostory (Expanses of My Homeland)
People everywhere feel a powerful attachment to their native soil, but few express this love with such passion and intimacy as the Russians. Russian folk songs overflow with warm affection for the gentle countryside that the peasant knew so well. Time and social change have not altered this deep sympathy. It can be felt in the lyrical Expanses of My Homeland by Nikolai Budashkin. Budashkin was the first Soviet composer to devote his entire career to the treatment of folk themes and the composition of pieces for Russian folk instruments. He is now Professor of Orchestration at the Moscow State Institute of Culture.
Russkoye intermezzo (Russian Intermezzo)
Vladimir Dmitriev started his career as a popular accordionist and eventually became a nationally-loved composer of songs, operettas and instrumental miniatures. His Russian Intermezzo was originally named Here in UdeVnaya, after a district in Leningrad. The music inspired by this setting evokes a picture of young men and women strolling through a quiet city park on a summer evening. Kalinka
Russian folk songs have not made a dramatic impact internationally; however some, such as the wonderful nonsense song, Kalinka, have become very popular all over the world.
Podmoskotmye vechera (Evenings Near Moscow)
This is the best-known work by composer Vasili P. Soloviov-Sedoi. Like many of his songs, Evenings Near Moscow was at first unappreciated by the public. But by 1958, the year of the first international Tchaikovsky competition, the piece was known and loved by most Russians. During a gala recital following his victory in that competition. Van Clibum played E venings Near Moscow as an encore and created a sensation that is still talked about in Moscow today.
Shtoy to zvon (What’s That Ringing?)
The title of this Russian folk song translates literally as “What’s That Ringing?” It moved arranger Emanuil Sheynkman to write a musical answer that is a coloristic tourde force. A whole array of effects are distributed throughout the quintet. The first statement of the theme is accompanied by a clatter of double pizzicati in the prima balalaikas and an exchange of harmonics in the bass and contra-bass, all imitating the boisterous ringing of village church bells. When the melody is repeated by the alto balalaika, it is in duet with the bass domra. The two, playing in their upper registers, produce a taut, brassy sound, almost like a pair of trumpets. Following a contrapuntal variation the piece modulates into a vibrato-sweetened duet between the two primas, set against a bowed-sounding counter-melody in the middle voices. The final reprise features the primas playing in the syncopated fashion so characteristic of the br’atsanie (strumming) technique. Here the bass and contra-bass double in octaves to produce the effect of a German oom-pah band.
Since the waltz became popular in the mid-18th century, it has held generations of dancers hypnotized by its lilting rhythm. Today, although it has lost its preeminence as a dance form, waltz music retains its power as an evocation of youth, romance and a golden era of salons with men and women in glittering costume.
For Russians these connotations are tinged with a bittersweetness. Rarely will a Russian waltz burst with the same exuberance as its Viennese counterpart. Its pathos can be heard in Memory Waltz by Michel Michelet (b. 1900), a Russian-American composer who has worked for fifty-five years scoring European and American films.
Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) is known as the “father of Russian music.” He established a nationalistic trend that culminated in the works of “the Mighty Five”: Cui, Balakirev, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. The finale to his opera “A Life for the Tsar” is laden with patriotic sentiment. The chorus sings “Slav’s’a (“Glory to the Tsar! Glory to Russia! Glory to the Russian people!”).
Svetit mes’ats (Bright Moon)
These variations on the Russian folk song. Bright Moon, are classics of balalaika literature. They were written by Vasili Andreev, who regarded them as a musical calling card for his Great Russian Orchestra. Andreev often used Bright Moon to close his concerts.
Dorogoi dlinnoyu (Down the Long Road)
The romance Dorogoi dlinnoyu (composed by Boris Fomin in the 1920s) became enormously popular in the United States when it was released in an English version, “Those Were the Days,” sung by Mary Hopkin. After travelling incognito to the Soviet Union in the mid-60’s. the Beatles, who soon thereafter recorded “Back in the USSR,” wanted to produce a song in the Russian style Presumably Mary Hopkin received the music from Paul McCartney, but it was actually Gene Raskin who wrote the English text after hearing a rare recording of the piece made by Aleksandr Vertinski in the 1920’s.
Tsyganskaya fantazui (Gypsy Fantasy)
Gypsy life, with its freedom, its pagan rituals and exotic dress, has played upon the imaginations of poets, novelists and composers for centuries. In Russia, artists have always had a special fascination with the qualities of these nomadic people. The contemporary composer Aleksandr Goncharov has captured some of the prominent features of gypsy music in his Gypsy Fantasy.
All the Gossips Left For Home 2:25
Variations on Themes off Two Russian Folk Songs 6:51
Expanses off My Homeland 2:52
Russian Intermezzo 2:44 Kalinka 3:14
Evenings Near Moscow 3:11
What’s That Ringing? 2:24
Memory Waltz 3:04
Bright Moon 2:55
Down the Long Road 2:49
Gypsy Fantasy 3:49
THE ODESSA BALALAIKAS
Peter Rothe ……….. prima balalaika, alto domra, bass domra
Jonathan Rothe ……… prima domra, bass domra, gusli
Ksenia Sudarikova …….. prima balalaika, alto balalaika
Linda O’Brien …………..alto balalaika, bayan, vocals
David Lieberman ………..contra-bass balalaika, guitar
Peter Rothe, Jonathan Rothe, Linda O’Brien and David Lieberman were founding members of The Odessa Balalaikas in 1972, Unbounded enthusiasm and a fascination with the Russian folk instrumental tradition nurtured the group during its early periods of musical growth and research. By 1975, the ensemble had matured into a popular concert attraction, performing in concert halls throughout North America. In 1979 the ensemble became acquainted with two recent emigres from the Soviet Union, Ksenia Sudarikova and Emanuil Sheynkman. Ksenia Sudarikova, who had been a professor of music at the Mussorgsky Institute in Leningrad before she left Russia, joined the ensemble as a full-time member. Emanuil Sheynkman, who had been the arranger for one of the finest folk orchestras in Russia and is himself an excellent balalaikist, assumed the position of The Odessa Balalaikas’ arranger. This recording is the first document of the collaboration between The Odessa Balalaikas and Mr. Sheynkman.
Arranger/Production Consultant: Emanuil Sheynkman Recorded December 1981 at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles, California using the JVC Digital Audio System (DAS-90).
Nonesuch Records would like to express its appreciation to the Minister and staff of the church for their help and cooperation.
Producer: Shirley Walker
Engineering: Roger Mayer, Elektra Sound Recorders
Assistant Engineer: Steve Blazina
Digital equipment provided by JVC Cutting Center, Los Angeles
Mastered by Jack Hunt, JVC Cutting Center
Production Coordinator: Elise Keen
Art Direction: Ron Coro
Design: John Barr
Illustration: Jim Jacobs
Director: Keith Holzman
© and © 1982 Elektra/Asyl urn/Nonesuch Records for the United States and WEA International Inc. for the world outside of the United States. 962 North La Cienega Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90069,665 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10022. A Division of Warner Communications Inc. O Printed in U.S.A.