In the 17th Century, a certain kind of chearful people called “Skomorohi” lived in Russia. They were performers who performed around the country at fairs, weddings etc. They were performing dressed as animals, sorcerers, witches etc. The favourite instrument of these people was the domra. The performers were very popular among ordinary people but they were a thorn in the flesh of the clergy and the authorities. The clergy thought that this kind of performing was of the evil and the authorities wanted apparently to enlarge the control of the population. As the people participating in these performing troups did not have a stationary place to live and as they were outlaws (very often), the authorities decided to put a stop to their show. The Skomorohies had to move to other places in the country – away from the big cities. The instrument makers living in more populated areas lost their customers and had to quit making instruments. Then people had to build them themselves. Because of this, the shape of many of the music instruments were simplified and they were given other names.
The popular domra was more and more often made with a triangular body instead of the usual round body as it made the creation more easy. The triangular domra was given the name balalaika. There are several opinions on how this name occured, but the most possible is, that the Mongolian word “bala” and the Russian word “balakatj” mean to chat. In the same way that we say, that the violin is singing, it is said that the balalaika is “talking”. The playing method was changed too. You played the domra with a stick made of wood or with a fether from a bird. On the balalaika, you started to play with your fingers. In this way, the Asiatic domra was changed into the Russian balalaika.
The first time you hear about the “balalaika” is in the 18th Century and from the same period of time, you do not hear about the domra anymore. This proves that the balalaika took the place of the domra in the musical life of the Russian people.
We know a lot more about these old balalaikas than about the domras. In the 18th Century, there are both triangular and round balalaikas. Usually, they have two strings, rarely three. In the 19th Century, it was only the triangular shaped balalaika that existed. The round ones are very rare. Usually, they are now with three strings and are equipped with five flexible bands. The strings are made of gut. The balalaikas were tuned in different ways at that time: In quarter, in fifth and in thirds.
Despite its’ primitivity, the balalaika was already very popular then, and there were several excellent virtuousoes playing this instrument. For instance the famous violinist Handosjkin playing with the balalaika, and the court violinist playing at the Court of Ekaterina 2nd was known for his virtuous play on the balalaika. (He died in 1847 -100 years old). In the 1850’s, Radivilov the balalaika virtuouso was the favourite of the Moscowites. Radivilov gave concerts on balalaikas with 1 string and even 3 and 4 strings.
Later, the balalaika becomes popular among the nobility and the upperclass, and you hear about balalaika virtuousoes such as Lavroff (opera singer at the Saint Peterburg Opera), landowner Paskin and others. In the 1880’s V. Andrejeff begins to give concerts, at first solo and later with Balajkaensemble.
This brief overview of the historical development of the balalaika can very well be finished with Tjakovsky’s famous words: “What beauties, these balalaikas, what an amazing effect they can give. Their clang colour is without equal.
Vassily Vassilievich Andreyev
Andreyev got the nickname “Father of the balalaika”.
(Sources: P.Sokoloff, Mosow 1962 and A.Novoselskij, Moscow 1931 told in “Balalaika Blade” no.3 published by Evgeni Pavlovski, Copenhagen 1964).
Vassily Vassilievich Andreyev Vasilky Andreyev owned by Vasily Andreyev