The gusli – Russia’s oldest musical instrument

Centuries after its creation, the crystal voice of Russia’s gusli still strikes a chord with music lovers. Tune in for more on the instrument’s history.

“The gusli is considered to be a symbol of Russia’s musical culture,” gusli player Pavel Lukoyanov told RT. “It used to play a major part in every Russian’s life – its sound was loved by both the peasants and the nobility. Tsar Ivan the Terrible had a special band of gusli players at court, and so did Empress Catherine the Great.”

The first descriptions of the gusli appeared as early as the fifth century. The origin of the name remains unknown, although the word “gusli” is thought to have meant a bunch of strings.

The gusli is usually compared to a harp, only unlike the harp, the instrument is held more like a modern guitar. In ancient times, the gusli was especially popular among strolling musicians who sang songs and told tales to its tune. There are several types of gusli, with a varying number of strings.

“The small one is typically used by children learning to play – it has 12 strings,” musical instrument maker Dmitry Aleksandrov told RT. “And the biggest gusli, the one used in concerts, has 61 strings. Making these instruments is a very creative job – although some old tricks and routines are used, new lacquers and new techniques appear all the time.Things are always developing.”

It takes Dmitry from one week to one month to make a gusli, depending on its size. After the instrument’s body is made, it is covered with up to 20 layers of lacquer to become smooth and shiny; then the strings are anchored. For each gusli, at least seven different types of wood are used.

“What you see here is a layer of redwood, underneath it there’s a layer of maple, and for the edges I usually use walnut or ebony,” Aleksandrov told RT. “The instrument’s top part is made of fir tree. And this border is decorated with rosewood and mother-of-pearl.”

The number of Dmitry’s customers is growing. All but forgotten in Soviet times, this folk instrument is making a comeback. More and more musicians, like Pavel, fall in love with its crystal sound. Pavel regularly performs at home and abroad; he gives gusli-playing classes as well – a big hit with budding troubadours.

“I initially studied to play the piano,” gusli player Pavel Lukoyanov told RT. “But then I heard the sound of the gusli and knew I had to learn to play it. And it’s fairly easy to master – maybe that’s why it was so popular, and children like it so much. Unlike with the piano or violin, anyone can do it.”

For more things Russian, head to RT’s Russiapedia.

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