Gusli, the oldest and most Russian musical instrument

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Russian fairy tale characters play music on gusli and even beat enemies with its help. How? ‘Or’ What? By making them dance!

The sound of this folk instrument will make you imagine yourself in a Russian forest kosovorotkashirt and hugging a birch. This instrument was in the hands of long beard starets (elders) who told their byline (captions) accompanied by calm music. It was the only instrument the bogatyrs (warrior fairies) played, making their enemies dance to the end. It is neither a balalaika nor a horn. It is a gusli, the ancient stringed musical instrument mentioned in most Slavic fairy tales. But what makes it so magical and who is playing it now?

Let’s make some ‘buzz’

The name gusli comes from the words “hum” and “buzz”. The soft voice of a gusli sounds like a whispering stream and birdsong.

This ancient instrument has been known since the 9th century and is now widely used in folk and symphony orchestras. Traditionally, a gusli has from 5 to 60 strings, depending on the type: the shape of the helmet (shlemovidnye) and wing-shaped (krylovidnye), which should be placed on the knees, read it vertically in shape (lirovidnye) and in the form of a table in the form of a piano (klavirnye), which are most often used in large folk orchestras. A musician called a guslyar play with two fingers or a mediator, depending on the size of the gusli.

Traditionally, this instrument is made from maple, birch or Rowan.

It was impossible to organize an ancient Slavic feast without this instrument: nobles and peasants liked to listen to gusli music. Even Russian tsars had gusli orchestras to enjoy at festive dinners (pir in Russian). And of course, a gusli was the instrument of the traveling musicians and actors called skomorokhs. However, once their music and performances were banned by the Orthodox Church for their iconic “jeer” poems and burnt gusli. (read more about this here).

The instrument of heroes

According to a legend, the first gusli was made by the bogatyrs to make them fun. Once they found a suitable tree and decided to make a musical instrument. Fiction or not, but in the Slavic epic warriors only play on a gusli.

A warrior named Sadko was a very poor guy, who played his gusli on the shore of Lake Ilmen (a lake near Veliky Novgorod in northern Russia). One day the Underwater Tsar heard his music and made him a rich merchant.

Another legend has it that a bogatyr called Dobrynya played a gusli at Duke Vladimir the Great’s parties, entertaining his guests. A warrior named Stavr Godinovich was such a talented guslyar that he was released from a prison to boost the morale of a foreign ambassador.

Some Russian folk scholars speculate that playing a gusli might even be part of a warrior’s education.

Autonomous magical gusli

In the Russian folk epic, gusli – “samogudie”, who can play music themselves, without being human, are often mentioned. They are “turned on” with a simple voice command (“Gusli, play!”) And make everyone dance around them without interruption. In a legend, such a gusli helps free Maria Iskusnitsa (Maria the Artist) from the captivity of the underwater tsar. In another – to make a simple shepherd to marry the daughter of the Tsar, who was conquered by his play.

Of course, we know that fairy tale heroes have a lot of magical gadgets, but some historians still believe that such a gusli could really exist – for example, they could have a mechanism like a music box that played a certain melody. . And today’s voice commands won’t surprise anyone.

Does gusli still exist?

Folk music is very popular in Russia, there are even ensembles composed only of different types of gusli (such as the state orchestra called “Guslyars of Russia”).

Plus, a lot of people still want to learn the traditional game – even for themselves. “Playing a gusli can even be intuitive,” says Sergei Gorchakov, a prominent gusli maker, who has set up a family workshop in the Tver region (watch our video about it). “You just take the instrument in your hands, start plucking the strings and make some lovely sounds. A gusli is tuned in such a way that you cannot miss a note! “

Recently he ran an online marathon for beginners and says over 100 students have completed his course. “You just need to practice the motor skills of the hand and there will be music.”

In his workshop, Sergei’s team not only makes traditional gusli with old technologies, but also with modern techniques – like in the style of Black Metal, which is demanded by musicians.

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