Russia’s Happiest and Saddest of Instruments

Everything you didn’t think you needed to know about the balalaika

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Say “balalaika” to most Americans, and they think of “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago — where no balalaika was actually played — or a cheesy 1930s Nelson Eddy movie of the same name.

And from this they might conclude that the three-stringed, triangle-shaped instrument is either a folk relic of limited musical range or, worse, a quaint purveyor of string-laced schmaltz.

But the humble balalaika can, in the hands of a master, produce a sound and richness unequaled by any other musical instrument. And its virtuosity is celebrated not only by brilliant soloists, but entire orchestras as well.

Musical icon or devilish tool?

This most Russian of instruments had already found its way into Russia, probably from Central Asia, by the tenth century. Early instruments were round, resembling more the balalaika’s sister instrument, the domra, and displayed anywhere from two to six strings. Frets were made from animal gut and tied to the neck so the player could move them as needed.

The instruments later became popular with the skomorokhi — the wandering minstrels of the middle ages. But the Church and State found lots to dislike about the troubadours’ non-liturgical attitude towards song, and in 1648, Czar Alexei Mikhailovich signed an edict banning the playing of all such “devilish” instruments. To prove his sincerity, the czar added that he would confiscate and burn the musical instruments, then flog and banish the music makers.

In fact, one of the first known references to the balalaika was a 1688 document that detailed how Savka Fedorov, from the city of Arzamas, and Ivashka Dmitriev, a peasant, were severely punished for playing the balalaika as they ambled drunk through the Yauza Gates.

How its trademark triangle shape evolved is uncertain. Some say the three sides and three strings represent the Holy Trinity. Unlikely, considering the early Church’s harsh view of balalaika music and musicians.

The writer Gogol probably comes closer to the mark when he suggested that peasants fashioned the balalaika from hollowed-out Moldovan pumpkins, which are gourds with a narrowing neck. Its name was probably derived from the Old Slavonic language word balakat’ — to chat or chatter — that is, the instrument “chatters.”

Rediscovering the balalaika

By the end of the seventeenth century, the balalaika persecutions had stopped, and for the next hundred years the instrument enjoyed a brief wave of popularity before it began to fade from wider public view, becoming mostly a village instrument.

Then in the late nineteenth century, a nobleman and amateur violinist, Vasili Vasilievich Andreyev, chanced to hear a local peasant playing the balalaika.

This simple act made a deep impression on the nobleman, launching him on a mission to “rediscover” and popularize the cultural icon, and to standardize the balalaika for orchestra. It was Andreyev who developed the multiple balalaika sizes and tunings used today.

Andreyev became an accomplished player himself, and his first solo performance in 1886 caused a sensation. By 1897 he had gathered a larger ensemble of balalaika enthusiasts into what became known as the Great Russian Imperial Balalaika Orchestra. This ensemble incorporated the domra and an ancient stringed instrument, the gusli. The orchestra was a success in Russia and later throughout Europe and the United States.

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Andreyev’s efforts brought the balalaika back into wide public favor and enshrined it as a performance instrument. He also wrote pieces for both balalaika and full orchestra.

During Soviet times, the ruling establishment, seeing the balalaika as a peasant instrument, wed it with the “proletariat” instruments — the bayan (accordian) and harmonica — within the musical education system and within the balalaika orchestra, thus creating the ideal Socialist musical union.

Modern balalaika orchestras

Since Andreyev’s time, balalaika orchestras have incorporated elements of both traditional folk music and symphonic music. Composers such as Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky often wrote with the sound of these instruments in mind.

The modern balalaika orchestra employs the full range of Andreyev’s tunings for balalaika. From the highest to the lowest pitch, these include the prima, secunda, alto, bass, and contrabass balalaikas. Played together, they produce a rich, shimmering sound unlike traditional stringed orchestras, and tremolo is often used to breathtaking effect.

An immense repertoire for balalaika orchestras now exists in Russia and Eastern Europe, where every city boasts at least one such ensemble. Paris, Stockholm, Sydney, Tokyo, and Helsinki are also home to balalaika orchestras.

Americans began playing in balalaika orchestras when the Great Russian Imperial Orchestra toured in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And in the last twenty years, there has been a revival of interest that has spawned more than a half-dozen community balalaika orchestras in the United States as well as a Balalaika and Domra Association of America.

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So, balalaika lovers of the world, unite! It’s time to come out of the shadows and celebrate the unique sound, scope, and repertoire of this three-stringed musical marvel.

Here are some examples of what, first, a non-traditional virtuoso can do and, second, the full balalaika orchestra effect.

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