The Gusli

The Gusli is a Russian folk psaltery.

It's plucked, not hammered. In that functional sense, it has more relationship to a harp or zither (or autoharp) than to a hammer dulcimeror cimbalom.

The gusli I'm describing on this page is the 'ringing' (zvonchatye) or 'lap'gusli. There are other larger types with table legs and even keyboards, used in concert/orchestral performances, as seen at left.


Ancient History

The gusli is mentioned in the Russian chronicles. In the epic "The Layof the Host of Igor" it is played by the eleventh-century court bard Boyan (for more information on the "Lay" in English, see Serge. A. Zenkovsky'sMedieval Russia's Epics, Chronicles, and Tales.)

The Glinka museum has apair of authentic Novgorodian guslis of the 13th and 14th centuries in itscollection. (You can see the original image too, if the weblinks are up.) That Novgorod heritage of guslis is enhanced by tales and epic songs about the medieval Novgorod merchant (and gusli player) Sadko.

The Modern Gusli

The gusli became somewhat scarce at the turn of the last century, butthe instrumen t, its music and culture were preserved in time to preventits l oss. The instrument below is of the 'wing-shaped' style, from early in this century. (There is also a 'helmet-shaped' style, shown in the image at the top of this webpage.)

It is a trapezoidal box, about 50mm deep and 850-900mm on the longest side.There are about 15 steel strings. They are secured over the short end on hooks, then spread as they cross the soundboard (and its soundhole). Their vibrating length is determined by a bridge floating out over the soundboard, and then the free ends are wound around tuning pins.

The gusli is most often played upright, with the edge of the long end downon the knees; the left hand (over the tuning pins and bridge) damps the stringsnot in the chord/melody, while the right hand strums or plucks the strings.

The gusli has approached a certain standardization. By World War I Smolenskii had made piccolo, prima, alto, and bass sizes. Since the revival of the 1970s-1980s, the Russians began adding sharping levers to their instruments; the instrument above (a piccolo) has levers.

Why Levers?

The diatonic tuning of the gusli ranges from B below middle C to C# twooctaves above middle C. The keys of A, Bm, C#m, D, E, F#m, and G#m are available. (The tuning was standardized to optimize its use with the Russian balalaika and domra.)

The standard tuning omits many useful keys; for example, there is no Am for playing the popular folk tune Korobushka with balalaikas, or C and G major for accompanying the rozhok. The solution has been to add sharping levers. These are called mekhaniki in Russian.

What are they?

The levers push the string aside and stretch it. They are functionally similar to 'blade levers' on wire-strung harps. The only source which gives a base tuning of a gusli with such levers is Zhuk's book (see below); I've never seen a discussion of their construction.


You can get a closer look at the levers by clicking on the images.

Orchestras and Ensembles with Guslis

The Moscow Gusli Ensemble, pictured at left, is led by Iurii Evtushenko.

The Kupina Ensemble has a wonderful website describing their history and activities.

The Sadko Russian Folk Orchestra and Ballet uses 4 or 5 totalguslis, including at least one piccolo and alto); Paul Phillips says thatthey're a good show on tour.

The Osipov Orchestra featuresLiubov' Murav'eva on lap gusli (pictured).

The ensemble Style of Five features a gusli player, Irina Ershova.

Ilya Temkin, who seems to commute between Moscow and New York, plays a medieval gusli and other instruments. He is the recipient of a 2002 Performing Arts and Literature Award from the CEC International Partners (formerly Citizen Exchange Council). Part of the award is apparently to support the production of "a bi-lingual guide to making and playing the gusli that will remedy the lack of information available about the instrument and increase its popularity... The Gusli Guide will be promoted by the Center for Musical Antiquities in Novgorod."


Brief Russian Bibliography

It's possible you got here from the RussWind home page. Would you want to go back to it for some reason?

Copyright © 2006 L. Robin C. LaPasha.

Updated as of 3/5/2006. Comments and responses to Robin LaPasha