[UPDATE: Interview with Oleg added to foot of page.]
You won’t travel far into this world of the Russian Guitar before you discover the name of Oleg Timofeyev. I don’t think there is anyone alive who knows more about its history and repertoire. He gained his PhD in 1999, with a thesis entitled, The Golden Age of the Russian Guitar: Repertoire, Performance Practice, and Social Function of the Russian Seven-String Guitar Music, 1800-1850.
Oleg created and directs the Russian Guitar Festival in his current home town of Iowa, USA, for which there is a dedicated page HERE.
Not only is Oleg an academic and festival director, he is also one of the foremost performers on the instrument – see Videos and Recordings below.
Together with John Schneiderman, Oleg Timofeyev has recorded brilliant albums of duets and chamber music.
Here is a complete list (so far – November 24, 2018) of recordings by Oleg Timofeyev featuring a Russian guitar (the lad has been busy!)
“Souvenirs of Russia,” The Czarʼs Guitars (with John Schneiderman), Dorian 92112 (2010)
“Mikhail Vysotsky and the Gypsies of Moscow,” Talisman, Profil PH10027, 2009 (Artistic Director, guitar)
“Ispaniada: Spanish Music by Russian Composers,” The Timofeyev Ensemble, (Artistic Director, Russian guitar), Profil PH08073 (2008)
“Shavlego: Guitar Music by Georgian Composers,” (solo guitar recording on 6- and 7-string guitars), Profil PH07072 (2007)
“Rhapsody Judaica,” The Timofeyev Ensemble, (Artistic Director and guitar), Marquis Classics 81349 (2006)
“Music by Mikhail Glinka,” The Czarʼs Guitars (with John Schneiderman), Profil PHO7008. (2006)
“Tribute to Stesha: The Russian-Gypsy Diva,” Talisman (Artistic Director, Russian guitar) Naxos World 76065-2 (2005)
“Acrobatic Dance: Music by Matvei Pavlov-Azancheev, 1888-1963.” Haenssler Classics 98.458 (solo recording on Russian seven-string guitar)
“Music of Russian Princesses from the Court of Catherine the Great,”Talisman, (Artistic Director, guitar) Dorian Recordings, DOR-93244
“The Golden Age of the Russian Guitar, Vol II,” (solo recording on Russian seven-string guitar), Dorian Recordings, DOR-93203 (2000)
“The Golden Age of the Russian Guitar,” (solo recording on Russian seven-string guitar), Dorian Recordings, DOR-93170 (1999)
Oleg Timofeyev Interview
by Rob MacKillop, 1st December, 2018
RM Oleg, we met once in Michaelstein, Germany, at a conference for historical guitars, and roomed next door to each other. I heard this beautiful music coming through the wall, and after introducing myself, you introduced me to the Russian Guitar. That was over a quarter of a century ago, during which time you have devoted yourself to the instrument. Can you tell me what you think the current state of interest in the 19th-century Russian 7-string guitar is now, compared to when we met?
ОТ Rob, I fondly recall our first meeting, it was actually more recent than you remember (2001), though you and I had communicated by email for a few years before that. But for all practical purposes, that meeting in Germany was centuries ago, in a totally different era, I quite agree. Already in the late 90s I was giving lecture-recitals around the US, coast to coast, offering insights on the Russian guitar within the context of the 19th-century culture, Pushkin, Tolstoy, etc. Back then I was so lonely in this pursuit that I kept questioning my path: is this music good enough? Is it original enough? Am I good enough? Etc., etc. For me, the main difference now is that I am no longer torturing myself with such doubts. Nor am I alone. There are quite a few excellent players who play the Russian guitar –– John Schneiderman in the States, Mårten Falk and Stefan Wester in Sweden, Marko Erdevicki in Norway, Maxim Lysov in Germany, and now, of course, you, Rob MacKillop. Most of these great players were somehow inspired by my work, received some music or even instruments from me, and/or are among the regular visitors to our Iowan festival. Of great value is the fact that I am playing with the Russian-Romani (“Gypsy”) virtuoso Vadim Kolpakov, who grew up in the oral tradition of seven-string guitar playing, learning the secrets of the Gypsy guitar from his uncle Alexander Kolpakov, a legendary player and composer.
At the same time, it would be wishful thinking to say that the situation at large changed much in the last 20 years. My original claim to fame was to view the Russian guitar culture as “early music.” In that I was a total pioneer –– take an antique instrument from the 1820s, a manuscript of Sychra or his peers, a treatise on performance practice, and how would your show be different from performances of lute music from the time of Dowland? But early music circles are a lot more receptive to experiments than the community of contemporary guitarists who are for the most part extremely conservative in their definition of “guitar music.” In the ideal world, my discoveries should be of interest to any guitar department in any country, but I often encounter a combination of ignorance and hostility. I find it very encouraging, when a great 6-stringer (like, for example, an excellent American virtuoso Matt Palmer) approaches me for this or that piece that they heard on one of my recordings. Indeed, why not make it viral? But when I suggest to a classical guitarist “how about trying a DGBdgbd’ tuning just for fun–– I will even lend you a guitar and give you a truckload of music,” nobody seem to have enough curiosity, courage, or simply time. The time to explore the unknown is indeed precious –– while everybody has plenty of time to play the same handful of predictable pieces. And similarly, it’s hard to be invited to a guitar festival: I have better chances with early music and ethnic (world music) festivals.
So, to answer your question, the world remains about the same. Between the years 2008 and 2016 John Schneiderman and I were engaged in a monumental recording projects, a box set of 7 CDs. These seven made some splash and were noticed even by guitarists. But as I keep telling my colleagues, even this grand collection is only the tip of the iceberg. There is still lots and lots of work, enough for us all. And in that ideal world there should be a “Russian Guitar Program” in some college or university on this Planet, where I would be more than happy to teach.
RM Thanks for straightening out the timeline for me. During that time, you must also have had a few period guitars pass through your hands. Can you tell us which one is your favourite, and why?
OT When I started studying Russian guitar, I was essentially a lute player. So, my own interest in the instruments went along the lines: the earlier, the better. Here is an example of a remarkable early-19th-century anonymous guitar. Its elegant outline is almost like that of Baroque guitar, its crowned fingerboard is almost like that of the English guitar (cittern).
It is extremely pleasant to handle such a beauty. But then I realized that for the concert work I prefer guitars from a later period, i.e., ca. 1900. This may be a matter of taste, but Russian builders of the early 20th century –– mainly, Mikhail Eroshkin and Robert Arkhuzen –– copied the guitars of the Viennese school. For example, my main axe, a 1912 Eroshkin has a body almost identical to the famous Scherzer in Matanya Ophee’s collection.
More often than not, these later guitars were equipped with additional basses, usually 4–5. And here is an interesting dilemma: do we really want to play such an instrument, a harp guitar? I don’t have a general answer for such a question, but personally I choose to use all 12 strings of my guitar. It simplifies things a bit for the left–hand thumb, and at times you can come up with interesting spacings –– e.g., the chord is up the neck, but the low bass is an open C or E. The disadvantages are many: it is hard to articulate on the open strings, so they tend to ring longer. Also, they often hum in recording sessions, even when you don’t touch them.
RM What is your latest project?
OT There are so many, I barely can sort them out temporally. I think it’s the one with John Schneiderman, an Homage to Morkov. Vladimir Morkov was a student of Sychra and a guitarist, composer, and music historian. In the Russian context, you may add the word “amateur” before every one of his qualifications, but at that time it technically applied to everybody, even to Mikhail Glinka. Morkov wrote some preludes, variation sets, and exercises, but the territory where he by far surpassed his contemporaries (even Sychra!) was musical arrangements. His arrangement of Glinka’s Kamarinksaia for me (honestly) is much more enjoyable to listen to than the orchestral original:
But this piece John and I recorded already twice, in 2010, and in 2016. This time we looked at some other arrangements that mainly come from manuscript books that I was able to locate during my research in Moscow. They are part books –– one for full–sized guitar, the other for the so–called Kvartgitara (Quart–Guitar) tuned a forth higher. Most of the pieces (and there are more than 250 in the two sets, one from 1856 and one from 1858) are Morkov’s arrangements. All of them are enjoyable, but some are just true masterpieces, just like his Kamarinskaia arrangement.
RM For students of the Russian guitar, which of the various surviving Methods do you suggest for a) a complete beginner to any guitar, wishing to play the 19th-century Russian guitar repertoire, and b) an already reasonably-accomplished guitarist coming to the Russian school for the first time?
OT Well, the ideal Method hasn’t been written yet. In addition to Vysotsky’s, Sychra’s (posthumous), Morkov’s and Soloviov’s there are several Soviet methods that can be more helpful in getting one oriented on the fingerboard. But that is a type of thing that everyone can do anyway, without a book. And the Soviet methods (by Sazonov and Vavilov) won’t give you insights into specifically Russian seven-string textures and techniques. For this, Sychra’s method has several very important pages at the beginning. There he shows typical passages and ornaments on adjacent strings, something that is used all over his compositions. These pages should be copied and put on one’s wall.
The other priceless introduction to the aesthetics of the 19th-century Russian guitarists lies in Sychra’s 4 “Concert Etudes” –– this is the commercial title from Matanya Ophee’s publication, Sychra’s title is much more modest. His 1817 publication was called “Practical Rules of Playing the Seven-String Guitar in Four Long Exercises.” I think, he never thought of these piece as “concert anything.” Still, they are amazing –– they cover every texture, every passage, every possible key. If you can play all four –– you can play anything. I strongly encourage everybody interested in the repertoire to plough through all four of them. The fingers of both hands are neatly given, it’s really the best method for our instrument!
RM Can you explain the differences between the St Petersburg and Moscow schools?
OT This dichotomy goes back to 1854 brochure by Mikhail Stakhovich, a student of Vysotsky. His teacher (Vysotsky) probably never left Moscow, and was associated with all of the things typical for the old capital –– folksongs, merchants, and, of course, Gypsies. Sychra left Moscow already ca. 1811, and most of his activities were associated with the “Northern Capital,” including his St. Petersburg Journal for the guitar that “As from beyond the forest” comes from. A former harpist, Sychra was obsessed with articulation – but not the same type of articulation that today’s 6-stringers would be interested in. Neither of these two gurus promoted rapid i-m or m-i passages. Instead, both Sychra (St. Petersburg) and Vysotsky (Moscow) advocated some clever combination of harp–effects and left–hand legato. The difference between their schools, then, lies in the following: a) repertoire –– Vysotsky was mainly writing variations on Russian folksongs, Sychra –– mainly arrangements of keyboard, orchestral, or vocal works by Russian and Western composers; b) the degree to which the left hand is involved in terms of long legatos, slides (also notated with slurs), and –– supposedly –– vibrato (there is no marking for it) –– Vysotsky went overboard; c) the presence and absence of right–hand fingerings –– Vysotsky and his students pretty much did not notate them at all. This attention to the right–hand fingering earned Sychra the reputation that he valued the right hand more than the left one, but to say “Moscow = left hand” and “St. Petersburg = right hand” would be a major simplification. Easy to remember, though.
RM What are the differences between the classical and gypsy schools?
OT This is a long story to tell. First of all, I am trying to limit the word “Gypsy” only to music, not to people who should be call Roma or Romani people. But if I use the word “Gypsy” in relationship to a human, I always capitalize the “G,” since we are talking about an ethnic group. Interestingly, the Roma appeared in Russia EXACTLY at same time as the Russian guitar started gaining popularity. Thus they picked up the new instrument that was popular, quickly learned it, and developed their own style:
This style art is for the most part lost, as the Russian Roma of today mainly play the “normal,” 6–string guitars. Alexander and Vadim Kolpakov are two major exceptions. Another excellent Romani seven-stringer –- Fedor Kondenko who lives in Moscow –– is a rare case among the Roma since he uses staff notation and can actually write his compositions down. I studied with him for a couple of years, and as a result of this period we published this book:
In a nutshell: the main distinctive feature of the Russian-Gypsy guitar is a more aggressive, explosive sound production. The music often requires a more articulated rhythm, and therefore there is a tendency to use stopped strings, even when the open ones are available. It is an improvisatory art, and I encourage everyone to buy our book to get oriented in this style.
RM I have noticed you work with a singer. Can you tell us about that experience? Had she sung in Russian before? And can you tell us about the quality of the guitar-song repertoire from the 19th century in Russia?
OT Yes, I am working with Anna Bineta Diouf:
Our first recording is called “L’histoire de la romance russe,” and consists of Russian art songs from the first half of the 19th century. Bineta was born in Germany, but her father is from Senegal, and like many Africans he studied in USSR, in Leningrad. Perhaps it was his influence that Bineta loved Russian folk music from childhood, sang in a Russian folk choir in Düsseldorf, and basically speaks and sings in Russian without a trace of an accent. But her other important quality is that she is a seasoned champion of early music, and therefore a perfect partner in discovering new territories.
The “guitar-song repertoire”… If we take it completely literally, I only know a handful of individual editions and a substantial manuscript by Sychra, in which he set the songs for voice and guitar. Some of Sychra’s choices are really beautiful, but once you start working with a singer, almost inevitably you need to change keys around. Sychra’s MS calls for a very high, girlish soprano –– not only I don’t work with one like that, but I also believe that low voices are more suitable for Russian music. And so, once you begin transcribing Sychra’s arrangements, you also look around and find out that there is much more Russian music you can play! The three Alexanders –– Aliabiev, Varlamov, and Guriliov –– wrote a lot of solo songs with piano accompaniment, clearly having the Russian guitar in mind. Some of these songs I didn’t even need to transcribe, could read straight from the piano score. The other thing that I exercised in my project with Bineta was making long instrumental interludes –– variations on the verse or on the chorus.
I think it’s crucial to make your own arrangements, to vary the accompaniment texture, to improvise –– otherwise the best Russian songs may appear boring.
RM There is a magnificent performance of yours on YouTube of a Theme and Polonaise by Ignaz von Held. I believe he was Czech. What was the relationship he had – if any – with Russia, and why was he so influential?
OT I am glad you asked. It can be speculated that Held was the inventor of the Russian seven-string guitar, but there is no real proof. It certainly was created among the Czech and Polish musicians, and Held was one of them. Held was NOT of aristocratic birth, and called himself “von Held” for no particular reason. He was an officer of Polish army, participated in the Polish uprising, and was imprisoned by Catherine the Great. But when she died (1795), Paul I who hated his mother released all the prisoners of war. So, Ignaz found himself in Moscow without means to existence, and that’s where music came handy. He was described as a beautiful tenor who accompanies himself on an English guitar. Soon he published the first method for the Russian guitar, for the purpose of better sales titled: “Method for the English guitar with six or seven metal strings, or for the Spanish guitar with six or seven gut strings.” I am quoting from memory, but what is clear from this title is rather important: for Held the “nationality” of a guitar was a matter of shape and string material. He didn’t discuss the tuning, and clearly, he was not even aware of the normal, 6 string tuning of the Spanish guitar. BTW, at that time most Russian publications for the Western guitar were for a 5-string instrument.
Von Held’s Method (ca. 1800) contains some agreeable pieces, but the emergence of the specifically Russian style was yet to come. He also published songs and piano music. In our Box Set we have recorded his three surviving songs for voice, piano and guitar.
RM I have started reading your 600-page doctoral thesis, currently round about page 75! It’s such a magnificent overview of the Golden Age of the Russian Guitar, hugely informative. Is there the remotest chance it might one day be published?
OT Thank you, Rob, for your encouragement. Of course, you are the ideal reader for this, and everybody who asked me to give them a copy were also interested readers. The publishers, though, are concerned with sales and warned me that I can’t go at such length in music analysis. In fact, it sounded like this: “Your 2nd chapter is all about social context and such –– can you write more along these lines?” This confused me in my early post-dissertation years, and then I got so much into recording, performing, various ensembles, that never could concentrate enough to write it. It’s been almost 20 years now, I forgot some of my brilliant arguments of 1996-99, but I have discovered so much more new material that in a way I am glad that I am planning to sit down and write only now.
RM Many Methods survive from the 19th century. Do any of them weigh in on the nails/no-nails debate? I’m a no-nails player myself.
OT Yes, and I started on the Russian guitar as a no–nailer, but then I realized that personally, I make a better sound with nails –– on my guitars of the time. By now I have really nice guitars with very “focused” sound, but I also play with Romani (“Gypsy”) musicians, with some contemporary musicians –– there is no way back. No, I have never seen a mention of nails which probably means the same as with the lutenists: even back then some people played with, some without. We have to do what we find most agreeable.
RM How is the International Annual Russian Guitar Seminar And Festival doing these days? It has been running for twelve years. Are there enough artists to sustain it for another twelve? I hope so!
OT IARGUS (Int’l Annual Russian Guitar Seminar and Festival) is doing well. We keep attracting interesting players, and every seven-stringer in order to become a world–wide authority has to visit our festival, since there isn’t any other. Our budget is not growing as fast as our ambitions do, and what is even sadder –– we cannot generate more audience. Iowa City is a small town, in May (and that’s the usual month for the festival) all the students and many professors are gone. So, a usual IARGUS is an intimate experience of the musicians among themselves. But this is also our strength –– we learn from each other, exchange ideas, create ad hoc ensembles. Overall, it’s full of energy and has no plans to collapse. Our next edition –– IARGUS 2019 –– is happening May 15–19, 2019. The topic is going to be SCANDINAVIA, and we have a lot of tricks up our collective sleeve in addition to the usual suspects from Sweden and Norway.
RM I wish I could be there! Anyway, thank you for answering my questions, but also thank you for your evangelical work over the years for the cause of the Russian Guitar! I look forward to hearing your Morkov recording.