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Balalaika

From Academic Kids

The balalaika (балала́йка) is a stringed instrument of Russian origin, with a characteristic triangular body and 3 strings (or sometimes 6, in pairs).

Contents

Structure and technique

The modern balalaika is found in six sizes:

  • piccolo (rare)
  • prima
  • secunda
  • alto
  • bass
  • contrabass

The most common solo instrument is the prima, tuned E-E-A (the two lower strings being tuned to the same pitch).

The piccolo, prima, and secunda balalaikas are ideally strung with gut (or, today, usually nylon) strings on the lower pegs and a wire string on the top peg.

An important part of balalaika technique is the use of the left-hand thumb to fret notes on the bottom string, particularly on the prima, where it is used to form chords. The index finger is used to sound notes on the prima, while a plectrum is used on the larger sizes. One can play the prima with a plectrum, but it is considered rather heterodox to do so.

Due to the gigantic size of the contrabass' strings, it is not uncommon for the plectrum to be made of a leather shoe or boot heel.

History

The origins of the balalaika are not precisely known, but most likely it was imported into Russia by the Mongols from Central Asia, from whence several kinds of fretted long-necked chordophones stem, including the Persian sitar, the Uzbek and Uyghur dutar, and the Turkish saz.

Early representations of the balalaika show it with anywhere from two to six strings, which would be consistent with the nature of the Central Asian instruments described above. Similarly, frets on earlier balalaikas were made of animal gut and tied to the neck so that they could be moved around by the player at will (as is the case with the modern saz, which allows for the microtonal playing distinctive to Turkish and Central Asian music).

Eventually, the balalaika evolved into a triangular instrument with a neck substantially shorter than its Asian counterparts. It was popular as a village instrument for centuries, particularly with the skomorokhs, sort of free-lance musical jesters whose tunes ridiculed the Tsar, the Russian Orthodox Church, and Russian society in general.

A popular notion is that the three sides and strings of the balalaika are supposed to represent the Holy Trinity. This idea, while whimsical, is quite difficult to reconcile when one is confronted with the fact that at various times in Russian history, the playing of the balalaika was banned because of its use by the skomorokhi, who were generally highly irritating to both Church and State.

In the late 19th century, a Russian nobleman, Vassily Vassilievich Andreyev, embarked on a project to standardize the balalaika for orchestral use. Andreyev, with the assistance of luthiers, developed the multiple balalaika sizes and tunings in use today. He arranged many traditional Russian folk songs and melodies for the orchestra and also composed many tunes of his own.

Andreyev simultaneously revived two other long-lost Russian instruments:

  • the domra, a three-stringed long-necked melody instrument with a melon-shaped body, which he developed in prima, alto, tenor, and bass sizes;
  • the gusli, an autoharp chorded with piano-type keys.

Rise of the Balalaika Orchestra

Another Balalaika
Enlarge
Another Balalaika

The end result of Andreyev's labours was the development of a strong orchestral tradition in Czarist Russia, and, later, the Soviet Union. The balalaika orchestra in its full form -- balalaikas, domras, gusli, bayan, and several types of percussion instruments -- has a distinctive sound: strangely familiar to the ear, yet decidedly not entirely Western.

Not surprisingly, the concept of the balalaika orchestra was adopted wholeheartedly by the Soviet government as something distinctively Soviet (i.e., Russian). Enormous amounts of energy and time were devoted by the Soviet government to foster conservatory study of the balalaika, from which highly skilled ensemble groups such as the Osipov State Balalaika Orchestra emerged.

Regrettably de-emphasized in the Soviet-encouraged rise of the professional orchestra was the vibrant folk tradition from whence the balalaika stemmed. However, a cabaret style of playing remained, and the balalaika was also played by some Russian Gypsies. The cabaret/gypsy tradition was brought over to the United States by Russian immigrants in the early 20th Century. One notable U.S. cabaret-style player was New York's Sasha Polinoff.

In addition, some Russian Orthodox churches in larger U.S. cities sponsored smaller balalaika orchestras where village-style and Andreyev-style playing coexisted side by side.

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