The Gusli


In the following, you will find a description of the socalled keyboard gusli – also named mechanical or pedal gusli. Please note that there are other types of the gusli.

Keyboard gusli has a diapason from A in the contra octave to A i the 3rd octave. The tuning is cromatic. Usually, the notes are written in G- and F-clef on two notesystems that are combined with the accolade. Sometimes, the notes are only written in the G-clef on one notesystem.

On the left handside of the instrument, a keyboard mechanism is placed. It consists of 12 pianokeys (7 white keys and 5 black keys, usually written from C to H) and a corresponding number of dampers to cover all the strings. When you press one key – for instance C – the damper will automatically rise over the strings that correspond to the tone in all octaves. By the help of the keyboard, you can strike different chords and harmonies in the length of one octave and arpeggio over the whole diapason. Usually, you use a plectrum in leather to play the gusli. By using a pedal mechanism that lifts all dampers at once, you can play simple tones and melodies by plucking the strings and you can execute a cromatic run.

The notes are written in the register of the first octave between the notes that show the diapason of the chord. These first octave notes are called “definite”. Sometimes, these notes are surrounded by square accolades. A wavy line in front of the notes shows the directions of the hand movement – up or down. A wavy line between the chordnotes shows the direction of the arpeggiotone movement in a down- or upward order that correspond to the length of the chordnotes. The main function of this instrument is to execute the arpeggiochords, that underline the sound of the orchestra.

The history of the Gusli

Gusliens historieThe gusli is one of the oldest musical instruments that have played an important role in the Russian music culture. The Greek historians Theofilact and Theophan were the first to mention the gusli: Under the war in the end of the 6th Century, the Greeks took Slavonic prisoners and found a musical instrument named the gusli. This corresponds to what the Arabic authors Al-Masudi and Ibn-Dasta told in the 10th Century.

In the slavonic publications, you find descriptions of the Russian folkinstrument the gusli in the beginning of the 12th – 13th Century. The instrument is described as an easy 5 stringed box made of wood. These strings were tuned like this: A, C, E, G, A. It was played like this: the strings that were not to be used were muted with the left hand, and a playstick was placed in the right hand. The playstick was used to press the rest of the open strings. The gusli was only used as accompaniment to the song and especially to the travelling scalds who used their songs to tell about the antiquity and to praise the princes and their relations. Little by little, more strings were put on the gusli – 10 then 13 – and the way of playing was changed. You began to use the harp method.

In the 18th Century, guslis standing on legs were built in Saint Peterburg. Later, the number of strings were increased with up to 3-4 octaves with cromatic tuning. The gusli has its zenith in the 18th – 19th Century. The instrument is to be found in many homes and it is used at rehearsals of church choirs. There are several very good performers. The most famous among them were the gusli players Manjkovskij and Trutovskij who was playing at the Royal Court. Furthermore, there are schools for gusli music. In the last part of the 19th Century, the gusli music is replaced by pianoes, and the last gusli virtuoso Vodovozoff died in 1910.

The founder of the Balaika Orchestra, V. Andrejeff, reconstructed the gusli in 1890 and equipped the instrument with a keyboard and a mechanic in order to make it easier to play on. However, he preserved the caracteristics by the gusli. The way of playing and the timbre are the same as in the old instruments and the mechanical gusli – also named the keyboardgusli is a genuine Russian folkinstrument.

Except from a few changes, the Russian gusli has spread to other people – the Kanteles in Finland, the Kuakles in Lithuania, the Gysseles at the Tatars, and the Kannels in Estonia.

(Source: O. Nikitina, Moscow 1960 told in “Balalajka Blade” number 3 publiced by Evgeni Pavlovski, Copenhagen 1964).