Matanya Ophee

[The following tribute to Mr Ophee was written for this website by Oleg Timofeyev]

Throughout his long career in music publishing, Matanya Ophee (1932–2017) was among the most passionate supporters of the Russian seven–string guitar.  His role in the greater guitar world of a scholar, publisher, and public speaker is hard to overestimate, but I would like to focus here exclusively on his contributions to the Russian guitar affairs.  For those who want to remind themselves of his other achievements, here is a useful summary:

One thing never stopped to impress me:  Matanya had an incredible intuition about the quality of music.  He did not always make brilliant commercial choices on what and how things needed to be published, but whenever his attention was captured by this or that composer or composition, there was always something there, it was always of interest.

Once he told me that he first encountered the Russian seven-string guitar music at a private collection in Israel.  Since my memory is no match to Matanya’s, I am not sure now who the collector was, but Matanya remembered it as something remarkably rich.

In the mid-80s (possibly, related to the opening-up known as “Perestroika”) Matanya acquired a huge archive of Russian guitar music from a colleague in Kiev, Ukraine.   In addition to what every accumulation of Russian sheet music tends to have (complete Gutheil scores of Sychra and Vysotsky), it had a great number of early scores, e.g., compositions by the same Sychra and Vysotsky but in the early-19th-century prints of Lenhold, Paez and Stellovsky.  The collection had  a good number of manuscripts, too, including those from Valerian Rusanov’s circles that reflected the latter’s editorial activities.  In short, it was a goldmine, and armed with his sharp intuition, Mr. Ophee began to publish those jewels.

Matanya’s initial publications of the glorious Russian rep were transcriptions for the 6–string guitar, and (as he later acknowledged himself) it was a mistake.  The best of Russian guitar compositions are so closely tied to the DGBdgbd’ tuning that arranging them for any other instrument is pointless.  Nevertheless, Matanya achieved quite a bit with these early publications of his, known as the multi-volume “The Russian Collection.”  First, he made it public that there was a goldmine of high–quality guitar music that no one in the West was aware of, an E. E. Cummings’ “hell of a good universe next door.”  Second, Matanya published one significant facsimile as one of the volumes –– the illustrious “Four Concert Etudes” by Andrey Sychra, that proved to be the best–selling volume of the series and infinitely instructive to anyone who gets serious about the Russian guitar.

Already in the 2000s Matanya changed his strategy and started publishing music for the Russian tuning –– including compositions by Matvei Pavlov–Azancheev, Alexei Agibalov, and even J. S. Bach in his arrangement, to name a few.  He had no illusions for those publications to become bestsellers, but he also knew that this job needed to be done.

For the last 20 years or so, Matanya was giving numerous public presentations and was tirelessly publishing articles on the Russian guitar tradition.  He usually illustrated his live presentations with his own playing, but he also frequently invited friends to help out –– Igor Golger, John Schneiderman, and myself were all involved in these events at various points.

In short, the story of MO and the Russian guitar is the story of love.  Matanya was way too experienced to expect major changes in guitarists’ reception or to count on financial gratification.  But he kept bringing the Russian–guitar-related issues in mainstream-guitar gatherings, and there are plenty of indications that this indeed was fruitful.

On a personal note, I miss Matanya dearly because no matter what crazy idea I had, he was always open to any discussion on the subject of Russian guitar.  True, very quickly he would turn my original interest into the direction of something he was engaged in or intrigued by at the moment, but the discussions were always engaging.

To conclude, let me try to list Matanya’s contributions to the world of the Russian guitar.

  1. He discovered a great deal of Russian guitar composers and their music.  Without “The Russian Collection” a lot of us would have never heard of Alexandrov, Vetrov, Sarenko, Zimmerman, and many others.
  2. It was he who organized a Yeschenko guitar for the brilliant guitarist Leif Christenson, who recorded a stunning LP of Vasily Sarenko.   It is mind–boggling that this recording did not cause a major revolution already in 1985 (!), and the mainstream guitar circles continued to ignore the Russian repertoire.
  3. A guitar scholar of broad spectrum of knowledge, MO was able to connect things that nobody connected before him.  For example, the Soviet scholar Boris Volman in his book “Guitar in Russia” gets very close to understanding the connection between the Russian seven-string and the English “guittar.”  The problem is, he did not know what the latter was.  Matanya had a great scope of knowledge in regard of the repertoire for plucked instruments, but in addition he knew Russian.  Thus, he was destined to connect the dots.
  4. Matanya had great faith in the music of Sergei Orekhov as well as the Russian-Romani guitar tradition.  He published some Orekhov, and was always interested in publishing more –– but this never materialized because he never laid hands on a reliable source of Orekhov’s music.
  5. He kept experimenting with string manufacturers, and for a number of years we were calling those places ordering sets like “that one you designed for Matanya.”
  6. He kept track of every new seven–string player on the horizon, and was always remarkably supportive.  At the same time, he equally supported seasoned veterans like Agibalov.
  7. (Well, there is a need for seven points, so be it…)  I visited Matanya in August 2017, having a strong feeling that that would be the last time I see him.  He was an attentive host, fed my wife and me with the excellent hummus he made.  He liked spicy food, and we took a picture of the particular brand of Indian pickled chilies that he was putting into everything.  Since then we think of him every time we open that jar.   But the main impression from that visit was something else.  He was heavily drugged, and after lunch was rather tired.  He showed me a couple of new 7–string guitars that he recently received.  He comfortably settled in an armchair, and I tried one of them, then the other.  I realized that he was committed to sit there and listen for as long as I had something to play.  I remembered how back in 2006 (or so) John Schneiderman and I visited him and sight–read the whole collection he was publishing.   It was for 2 six-string guitars, and we played every piece –– he just set and listened attentively.  Ladies and gentlemen:  this is a life–time commitment, a lesson for all of us.

Oleg Timofeyev
December, 2018