On The Essence of the Russian 7-string Guitar

[Oleg Timofeyev here discusses the subtleties of interpreting a Russian 7-string score. A video at the foot of the page will help illustrate his comments. And a score is available for study.]

On the Essence of the Russian Seven-String Guitar
(As illustrated by a simple piece by Andrey Sychra, 1773–1850) 

by Oleg V. Timofeyev 


About 20 years ago, my very first recording started with this simple tune by Sychra, “As from Beyond a Forest.” At the time of the recording (1998) I didn’t have a photocopy of Sychra’s print, and had to make do with a Soviet edition.  Still, at times I was able to guess, how exactly the Soviet publishers butchered the original ideas on articulation that are so distinctive of Sychra’s writing.  Once I got ahold of the copies of the original, I could truly appreciate the elegance and wit that this short piece contains.  And now I will try to communicate it to you, dear Reader –– just make sure you armed with a guitar tuned DGBdgbd’. 

Download the score here: Sychra _As from Beyond the Forest_

Here is the theme and four variations. A couple of words on the theme itself. First, it is not a well-known Russian folksong, and it is safe to say that it was not very popular even at the time of Sychra. The chromatic notes and the double dominant in m. 6 suggest that the song is either a stylized, newly–composed song “in Russian style,” or a very free adaptation of a genuine folksong. On the other hand, the modulation into the relative major in mm. 3–4 seem to be very typical for many Ukrainian songs. Then, a practical question for a performer, who doesn’t know how the text continues, is:  should it be a relatively upbeat albeit melancholy song, or should one try to give it an epic if not tragic feel? Unfortunately, the lack of tempo indication and the lack of any other settings of this tune by anybody makes this question hard to answer. My personal intuition goes for slightly melancholy but not too slow. 

Now, about the essence of the Russian guitar playing, at least at the beginning of the 19th century: one needs to realize that at that time the art of seven-string guitar playing was very different from today’s crisply-articulated performance on the “Spanish” guitar.  The most important part of the technique was the legato feel that was reached through the left-hand legato, or slides (glissandi), or harp–like effects.  You simply won’t find fast passages in this music that would call for the familiar i-m or m–i articulation, this technique was not known or cultivated. 



Now let us examine the theme and every variation of this short cycle. It is clear that the passages in 8th-notes in the parallel 6ths in the Theme itself should be articulated in the right hand. All of the 16th notes, however, are connected either by the usual LH legato or by the harp–effect (that we will occasionally refer to as campanella). For example, m. 5, third 16th note is produced by stopping the 2nd string on the 5th fret. At the time we pluck it by RH fingers, we can still hold the 1st finger on the F# and then let the E and the open D overlap. Thus, all four 16th notes (the first half of m. 5) will have that legato feel, either with the help of the left-hand legato, or the campanella. The same applies to the last 2 notes of m. 7, the D and the 

C#. In m. 6, the fact that the first F# is taken on the 7th fret of the second string also helps connecting this note with the preceding “pick–up” of A and G. Of interest is the grace note in m. 4 –– although there is no special notation for it, this must be a version of glissando. True, it could have been meant to be performed on adjacent strings (1st and 2nd), but in cases like this Sychra and his peers didn’t use slurs. 

[Var. 1]

Now let’s discuss Var. I. The first historian of the Russian guitar, Mikhail Stakhovich, in his 1854 essay “History of the Seven-String Guitar” writes that Sychra was opposed to long left–hand legatos typical for his student Semion Aksionov and the “Muscovite School.” I guess, if some brave soul makes statistical analysis, we may find out the “truth.”  Since no one attempted it yet, we may try to imagine, what this “truth” would be.  Something like:  Vysotsky’s high average of notes under one slur is X, and Sychra’s is Y, and X > Y.   If someone discovers pretty much this, I would not be too surprised.  But for now let’s congratulate Sychra on a rather long legato –– 4 notes in m. 12.  At the beginning of the 13th measure and at the end of the 15th we have the typical combination of the usual left-hand legato with the harp–effects. It is clear, that for Sychra the legato feel is more important than “crispiness.” For example, the second beat of m. 15 is not emphasized since the open D is also produced by the left–hand legato. Such a treatment of strong beats is very typical for Russian guitar composers, especially for Vysotsky. 

[Var. 2]

The second variation follows the same logic. In general, “As from Beyond the Forest” is not an ambitious virtuoso piece such as Sychra’s “In the Valley” (also in B minor, but on 3 finger–breaking pages), but a part of a monthly publication,  a journal designed for amateurs.  This is why we don’t find too much contrast between the individual variations, and in every variation we can hear the theme.   In m. 19, Sychra uses the sign for the left–hand thumb for the first time, although the use of thumb was likely intended in m. 15 as well.  But here the thumb technique is particularly important for Sychra, because the use of a “strategic barré” as we use it today was totally avoided by Russian guitarists. That is to say, the barring was known to Russian guitarists and was often used, but in most cases, for the sole purpose to get exactly that major chord. To put the index finger across a fret in order to do something else with the other fingers –– if this happened at all, it was highly unusual. 

We also should turn our attention to iconography –– whenever we see a guitarist in early-19th-century Russian paintings, they are sitting back comfortably, and the guitar itself is nicely tilted back.  In such a position it is by far easier to play with a left–hand thumb, then to reach for the same note in a barred chord.  

An excellent illustration of typical Russian seven-string fabric can be found in mm. 19–21: some legato, some playing on adjacent strings, at times –– an arpeggio. In m. 23 it is completely unambiguous that the shift from A# to C# is happening via a glissando –– Sychra provides left–hand fingers and frets, and there are no other options. 

[Var. 3]

Variation III is very pretty, with triplets. Again, the same story:  at times legato, at times arpeggio, at times right–hand legato (harp-like).  Of interest is m. 30: a powerful 4-note legato, then an E on the 2nd  string and D apparently on the first, then C# (possibly) on the third –– in other words, we have the usual combination, a sense of legato either in the left hand, or in the right one. It’s very likely that the last note of this variation is a harmonic, but it’s not marked as such. (The notation for natural harmonics is usually a wavy line, with frets indicated by Arabic numerals.  The Russian guitarists were among the first to broadly use the artificial harmonics, which Semion Aksionov patented (!) in 1819.  Interestingly, the technique he describes calls for touching the string with your right–hand index finger, and plucking it with your thumb! I use it all the time, and it actually has some advantages over the “conventional” technique. ) 

[Var. 4]

And finally, the last variation is beautiful, virtuosic, but not very difficult. [ATTENTION: I marked m. 36 one bar too late, it is actually m. 37]
In m. 35, the slurred notes F#, F natural, and F# again are a typical gesture for Baroque, it could’ve been repeated several times with changing notes in the melody. This is not Sychra’s invention. But the downbeats of the “real” m. 36, 38, and also the second beat of m. 39 are obscured by the left–hand legato. In m. 39 we find a legato sign for 6 notes, also of interest, isn’t it? An finally, a wonderful and typical for this composer passage at the very end –– Sychra really worked hard marking frets and fingers for us. I dare project that, although it appears differently, the first legato involves only two notes, B and C#, and D is to be played on open string. Sychra has such passages very often. This is what happens: while the open D still sounds, the left hand moves into 6th position. E on the 3d string, F# on the 2nd, and G# on the first –– what a nice piece of harp music. And the rest is legato (it is not marked exactly in the score, the slur should apply only to the last two notes of the penultimate measure). 

On a different topic, if this is among the first pieces for the Russian guitar you experienced, you should know that Russian songs with variations constitute arguably the largest part of the instrument’s heritage. This makes many Russian guitarists and musicologists think very little of our instrument: what is there, just a bunch of uneventful, predictable variations? 

But of course, it takes a good musician to make music. In the Germanic school of musical thinking, it is always the form that is of great importance. However, the beauty of the Russian guitar music lies on the surface, how exactly elegantly the textures come and go.  

In Russian variations sets, of great interest are the superposition of the non-Western tunes and various quasi-Western figurations that a Russian guitarist had at his disposal.   For example, did you notice that this tune doesn’t conform to the AABB structure as it doesn’t have a double bar in the middle!   If you have played F. Sor’s Souvenir de Russie (Op. 63), you have already encountered a couple of genuine Russian folksongs.  But here is an interesting realization, folks:  Sor really tried to squeeze them into a Procrustean AABB bed, where they didn’t belong.  The themes themselves are very different from the Western ones, and perhaps I will write more about their structure some other time. 

But to conclude: how do you finish a piece like this? In their ambitious variation sets, Aksionov, Sychra, Vysotsky had virtuosic conclusions for finale. But here, the best way is probably to repeat the theme again.  Good luck! 


[Edit by Rob MacKillop: In measure 6, the last chord is spelled E# G# C#, which is what I play in the video. Oleg later showed me a better scan of the original, which clearly shows the top note as being B. Too late for this performance, but I will play it with a B from now on.]