Russian Revival: Celebrate the Overlooked Repertoire of the Seven-String Russian Guitar

Russian Guitar Oleg Timofeyev John Schneiderman Classical Guitar Seven String Nylon Russia
John Schneiderman and Oleg Timofeyev
From the Spring 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY BLAIR JACKSON

On the surface, the lightly populated state of Iowa—in the heart of America’s agricultural Midwest—seems an unlikely place to be the de facto world center of the current revival of Russian seven-string guitar. Yet this spring Iowa will see the eleventh edition of the International Annual Russian Guitar Seminar and Festival (IARGUS), an event that regularly draws many of the most important players and scholars involved with that instrument and its bountiful repertoire, much of it from the first half of the 19th century. Why Iowa? Because that’s where Oleg Timofeyev, the Russian musician who has spearheaded the revival, has been living on and off since 1989.

In addition to the festival, Timofeyev made two CDs for Dorian Recordings titled The Golden Age of the Russian Guitar (Vol. 1 came out in 1999, Vol. 2 in 2000), which gave many classical guitar fans their first exposure to this unique strain of Romantic music, which draws heavily from Russian and Gypsy folk sources as well as Western classical elements. Among Timofeyev’s other recordings are Music of Russian Princesses from the Court of Catherine the Great (2003), A Tribute to Stesha: Early Music of Russian Gypsies (2005), Music of Mikhail Glinka / The Czar’s Guitars (2006), and Souvenirs of Russia, The Czar’s Guitars (2010). The last two are collaborations with guitarist John Schneiderman.

However, in 2016, Timofeyev and Schneiderman, who have played together as The Czar’s Guitars and in other configurations for more than a decade, completely outdid themselves, unleashing their capo lavoro: the ambitious seven-CD box The Russian Guitar 1800–1850, released by Brilliant Classics. The lovingly crafted set contains more than seven hours of music, divided into logical subsets: “The Moscow School,” “The St. Petersburg School,” “The Earliest Music for the Russian Guitar,” “The True Romantics,” and “Chamber Music with the Russian Guitar,” plus entire discs devoted to the music of Andrey Sychra and Mikhail Vysotsky. The clearly written accompanying booklet offers much-needed history and context for the music, which was recorded at various sessions at Sono Luminus Studios in Boyce, Virginia, between 2008 and 2013.

“When I did my first recording for Dorian, The Golden Age of the Russian Guitar,” Timofeyev says, “I realized that I chose unambitious, simple pieces; just a sampler, it was only the tip of the iceberg. Now it turns out this seven-CD set is also the tip of the iceberg—there’s this whole alternative universe out there, so much more music to explore.

Before we dive into the making of this extraordinary and important box, perhaps some explanation about the seven-string Russian guitar itself might be helpful. “There are two types of 19th-century seven-string guitars,” Schneiderman notes. “The Western European seven-string guitar has six strings on the fingerboard, and one additional floating bass string off the fingerboard. I became interested in this type of guitar when I was putting together pieces for a program and recording of the music of Napoléon Coste. Having the seventh string off the fingerboard means it is never fretted and it also enables the player to make use of the left-hand thumb on the sixth string while leaving the seventh string open. The Russian seven-string guitar is a completely different instrument. The seven strings are all on the fingerboard which means the seventh string can be fretted. The tuning is completely different than the Spanish guitar. The Russian guitar is tuned to an open G chord—D G B d g b d. The fingerboards on the early Russian guitars are often crowned—convex—which facilitates playing with the left-hand thumb, a technique which is quite common on the sixth and seventh strings of the Russian guitar.”

“John and I both come from playing lute,” Timofeyev says, “and that means we take the choice of instrument, performance issues, and original fingerings very seriously. The Russian 19th-century masters were very inventive with their usage of the tuning, and the old editions and manuscripts are covered with fingerings. Often they are notated as a ‘ratio’—thus 1/8 means ‘first finger on the eighth fret.’ The sophistication of the Russian repertoire is not so much in formal discoveries, but rather in the ingenious usage of the open-G tuning. Both John and I are trying to observe most of the nuances that are in the original. At times, it even involves the use of the left-hand thumb, something that may shock a classically trained guitarist. Once you have a tuning like that, it’s a little similar to Baroque lute D-minor tuning. You can get these very airy, pleasant, ethereal textures, with a mixture of harp effects and slurs. John and I are religiously committed to that. So if it’s written down we do it, and if it isn’t written down, we still may do it,” he says with a laugh.

The Czar's Guitars Pebble Beach Photo II

Timofeyev was born into a musical family in Moscow. His mother played cello, his grandmother played piano, and his grandfather played the seven-string guitar. “It was a beautiful instrument,” he says of that guitar, “and because it was in open-G tuning, even if you didn’t know how to play it at all, you could already produce a chord with just a strum.” He says he wasn’t encouraged to go into music and was instead pushed to become an architect, so he attended art and math schools as part of that pursuit. On his own, however, “I got interested in classical guitar seriously and started taking lessons from an influential teacher in Moscow, Kamil Frautschi; his son Alexander was a very well-known Russian guitarist. In the early ’80s, though, I fell in love with the lute and became interested in early music, and that is how I came to the stage in 1989—as a lute player.”

He left Russia and became an artist-in-residence at the University of Iowa and also studied with New York lutenist Patrick O’Brien. Timofeyev earned a master’s degree in early music from the University of Southern California in 1993, and several years later, a Ph.D. in performance practice from Duke University in North Carolina. It was work on his dissertation at Duke that reignited Timofeyev’s interest in Russian guitar. He, and his German wife and young daughter traveled to Moscow, “and I went to museums and archives and I found so many things—scrupulous writings and manuscripts with lots of fingerings.


“When I talked to Russian guitarists—the vast majority of whom played the six-string—about my interest in this old music for the seven-string guitar, they all said, ‘Oh, there’s nothing there, it’s not interesting, it’s boring. It’s just variations on Russian folk songs. They’re all the same.’ From that I learned my lesson that you shouldn’t listen to anybody!”

Over the years, he developed a database of composers and their works for the instrument, and managed to collect copies of scores from a wide variety of sources: “One person [in Russia] even sent me pictures he took with a black and white film camera, going from one library to another, because there was no other way for me to get that music.”

Timofeyev says that during Russia’s Soviet (communist) era—1922–1991—the seven-string guitar was suppressed, viewed as a bourgeois instrument and a relic of the country’s czarist past. “Why didn’t this truly Russian instrument, with its incredible background structured around Russian music, get to be heard in the country of its origin?” he asks incredulously.

“Instead, once Segovia played in Russia [first in 1926], we had feeble attempts to imitate the West to play the six-string guitar. Most of those attempts were pathetic and uninspiring, until the 1990s, when finally more Russians started studying abroad. Now there are quite a few good Russian guitarists; some have even won the GFA [Guitar Foundation of America competition] and other international competitions. But if you go to a standard guitar festival in Russia, you won’t hear any Russian music! You’ll hear flamenco and Albéniz, Granados, Villa-Lobos, Domeniconi…”

Many of the composers on The Russian Guitar 1800–1850—most Russian, but some not—will be new to readers of this magazine, and dozens of the pieces are world premiere recordings, including the entirety of Disc 7, “Chamber Music with the Russian Guitar,” which features rarities such as a lovely short sonata for violin and guitar by Antoine L’Hoyer, several guitar-and-pianoforte works, and seven on which the guitar accompanies a soprano.

“I really wanted music with voice and other instruments,” Timofeyev comments. “In the 19th century there were no professional guitarists in Russia. There was lots of music written by aristocrats who were shy to give their names and would add the word ‘amateur’ after their name if they did supply it. The people who played were mostly retired doctors, military officers, landlords, merchants, aristocrats—people who played at their leisure—so there is very little ensemble music, but I was pleased that I managed to find some.”

Asked whom he felt are the most significant composers on the set, Timofeyev pauses thoughtfully, then relates: “Andrey Sychra [1773–1850] was a very hard-working person and he sort of laid the foundation of the whole thing and created the style. It’s important that he was a harpist before he became a guitarist, because he was a master of textures, of various arpeggios, and his imagination was almost unlimited. However, when it comes to originality and creating memorable melodies, he’s not necessarily the best. He was not Russian [he was a Czech raised in Lithuania] and never really became Russian, so his music tends to sound cosmopolitan, so in some ways it’s not that different from the style of Sor or Giuliani.

Mikhail Vysotsky
Mikhail Vysotsky

“But the composer who really strikes me as a genius is the founder of the Moscow School, Mikhail Vysotsky [1791–1837], who was the son of a serf, got some guitar instruction, spent a lot of time with the Gypsies, and adopted the style of  ‘singing’ in his playing, which was fashionable in Russian-Gypsy entertainment of that time. He was barely literate, so there are lots of mistakes and incorrect spots in his music, so one needs to look at them closely. But he was able to paint extremely exciting canvases with a very limited palette. For example, all of his best works are variations on Russian folk songs, but they’re all quite different.”

Timofeyev and Schneiderman initially knew each other only through recordings—Oleg owned a couple of John’s lute CDs and John had a copy of Oleg’s first Golden Age disc. Timofeyev also had seen Schneiderman perform with some Early Music ensembles. Schneiderman says, “We first met when Oleg was giving a lecture-demonstration on the Russian guitar that was sponsored by the Southern California Early Music Society. Although I had already found the music interesting and beautiful, I did not fall in love with the instrument until I heard and saw it in person. Oleg was playing on a beautiful 19th-century Russian guitar, and seeing the instrument played while hearing the music, it struck me how well it lay on the fingerboard, and how many interesting effects the open-G tuning facilitated.

“I was excited and spoke to Oleg after the presentation,” he continues. “He mentioned that there was a substantial duo repertoire for the instrument and asked if I was interested in learning how to read in the tuning in order to explore some of it. I was of course more than interested, and about a week later Oleg sent me a gorgeous 19th-century Russian seven-string guitar, heavily ornamented with mother of pearl and veneered in tortoiseshell. It was in its original case, which also was a work of art. It was one of the most beautiful 19th-century guitars I’d ever seen. The first thing I did was call him up and reprimand him for sending me such a valuable instrument—the risk of damage seemed too great, but thankfully it had arrived safe and sound. Along with the guitar, Oleg sent me a pile of music. I spent time every day reading in the new tuning. When I finally began to make mistakes when I was reading on the Spanish guitar, then I knew the Russian tuning was beginning to sink in. The guitar was so beautiful we began to refer to it as ‘The Czar’s Guitar,’ and when we were later trying to think of a name for the duo, Oleg’s wife, Sabine, suggested ‘The Czar’s Guitars’ and we went with it.”

Many of those two-guitar pieces are on the box set; for the many solo guitar works, the pair divvied them up, with each expressing certain preferences here and there, “and if there was some overlap,” Schneiderman says, “we might negotiate a bit. If there was something he held near and dear, then I probably wouldn’t see it. Oleg was and is more familiar with the repertoire overall, so in some situations he would suggest pieces he thought I might be successful with. It might be a piece with a folk flavor to it, as Oleg knows I have a background in folk music. That background might even lead to my fingering the piece in a particular manner that one who is only schooled in classical playing might not consider. It is a huge goldmine of repertoire that we had to sift through. This project forced me to become proficient on the instrument, and to cover a larger spectrum of repertoire in a shorter period of time than I would have left on my own accord.”

The duo will, not surprisingly, be celebrating the release of the box with an event at this year’s IARGUS, which takes place May 18–21, for the first time in four Iowa locales: Iowa City (where Timofeyev lives and teaches), Coralville, Dubuque, and Des Moines.

Might there be more collaborations between the two on this music down the road? “The biggest problem Oleg and I have is narrowing it down to which project to work on next,” Schneiderman offers. “As massive as the box set seemed, we have really only scratched the surface; there are many more gems waiting to be discovered!”

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