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Gusli: Where? And When?

Pic. 1 — Main parts of gusli layout

Gusli: Where? And When? There's a talk about instruments, existed many years ago in Baltic Region. Nowadays this territory is shared by the several countries. They are Northern Belarus, Latvia, Western Russia, Finland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Northeastern Poland. Echo of the tradition could be met in other countries of Europe. The instruments we are talking about at least have in common several elements of construction. They are fan-shaped string position, metal rod for holding the strings from the one side and wooden or metal (in the late tradition) pegs forming the straight peg line from the other one. Also they have hollow resonator under the strings, parallel to the fan of strings. This resonator having a length higher than the strings have, should be situated under the strings for the full-length of the strings. All the various types of gusli can have their own differences, but they should have all the parts that I've just mentioned as a rule. Pic. 1.

I'm sure that the history of Slavic gusli, Finnish kantele, Estonian kannel, Latvian kokle, Lithuanian kankles and many other similar instruments — have one source somewhen in the past. But when? Who knows. Nobody can be certain in proving anything about it. In the late XIXth — early XXth century there were a lot of hypotheses formed by various researchers. But nobody can prove any until now. There were conjectures that instrument of such a type could be brought from China, where stringed instrument Gu Qin was known more than four thousand years ago. Some people thought that Romans brought lyre-shaped instruments during the colonization. Somebody refers to Byzantium. But there were a lot of versions of the native origins of the instrument by the territorial and national references. For example Finnish people refer to their national epos Kalevala, where Väinämöinen was the first who made kantele and played kantele. Belarusan and Russian scientists of the XXth century alleged that gusli is a bit modernized music bow, very primitive and have the native origin for sure wherever they even appear. Many men many minds.

Let us set aside these abstract talks. It is better to view through gusli types and try to form the whole picture of the gusli history that is known well. Who knows, maybe we can make some conjectures on the base of it? Let us start from the earliest type of any known gusli in Baltic Region — lyre-shaped gusli, also known as gusli with a playing window.

Lyre-shaped gusli. Is it a lyre or gusli?

At the very beginning, there are few words with facts known about the instrument and why I'm calling in question could we say that instruments of this type are gusli at all?

Where? And When? Archaeologists are finding these instruments in ground layers of XI—XIII centuries. All archaeological finds, that are known to me, are from three cities. They are Gdansk (Poland), Opole (Poland) and Novgorod (Russia). What these places have in common? All these cities are situated on major water trade routes. Gdansk is on the Baltic Sea shore, Opole is on Oder river, Novgorod is on Volkhov river.

Pic. 2.a — Lyre-shaped gusli from Novgorod's excavations, XIII century

Pic. 2.b — Nothern ancient lyre-shaped instrument

By its construction. Firstly it seems that this instrument is quite according to the definition of gusli. It has a fan of strings, a peg line, a metal rod and a resonator. But if we look closely we will find some discrepancy.
1) The rod designed to be held between two bails which are made in the form of utitsa, in Russian meaning "duckling". This is a transitional form of a rod area string holding between archaic lyre-shaped instruments, where the rod is held by the leather belts, and later types of gusli, where the rod is held in place between two holes in the sides of a notch (like as it can be found in Finnish kantele, where it is called the ponsi — pic. 1).
2) The peg line is on-the-mitre to the string holding rod, thus the strings become shorter and shorter from the lower strings to the higher ones, in contrast to archaic lyre-shaped instruments, where the length of the strings is constant as a rule. Usually the peg line of the lyre-shaped gusli is not straight, but arching a bit. It is more according to helm-shaped gusli then to the later ones (wing-shaped and kantele types). Maybe this connection is occurring because of the same period of existence.
3) The fan-shaped layout of strings is exactly according to typical layout for gusli, thus the strings is not parallel, but the distance between any adjacent strings, being rather short in the rod area, is becoming longer near the peg line.
4) The body and resonator. The body is hollow, covered with a sounding board from the side of the strings. But the resonator doesn't come up to the peg line. There's a playing window area between the resonator and the peg line. Sometimes this area reaches the size of one third of the length of the longest string. This element of construction is typical for lyres but not for gusli. But in contrast to lyre-shaped instruments, where the peg line area and the body of the instrument are often made from different parts of wood, the body of lyre-shaped gusli is always made from a single plank.

The summary and hypotheses. There is a hypothesis coming to mind that lyre-shaped gusli is a heir of the Northern lyre-shaped instruments (similar to the instrument from the pic. 2.b). It is easy to trace this evolution. Little by little the lyre style playing technique, when a musician holds the instrument in vertical position, are giving place to a gusli style one, when a musician holds the instrument in horizontal position on his knees leaning it to his body. You may see from archeological finds, than a window becomes smaller and smaller. Since the late XIIIth century a window plays an ornamental role. And soon, in XIV century, we see that lyre-shaped gusli disappears completely. The new type of gusli comes up to take their place. There are wing-shaped gusli, that where widespread till the middle XXth century.

So is it at last gusli or lyre? It's rather obvious to me that this instrument is a transitional form between lyre and gusli. By its construction it is both a lyre and a gusli. Russian researcher Vladimir Povetkin suggests a gusli style playing techniques even when you are holding the instrument vertically. While we are suggesting this instrument as a part of Slavic culture, we absolutely have no right to call it a lyre by its repertoire and playing techniques. So let us call it gusli, but always with a reference to its lyre nature. So always call it by its full name — a lyre-shaped gusli.

Helm-shaped gusli.

Pic. 3.a — Helm-shaped gusli with an incurved base.

Pic. 3.b — Helm-shaped gusli with a straight base.

Where? And When? Supposedly the temporal limits are from the XIIth century till the XXth century. Territorial limits — the whole Eastern Europe (everywhere where was the influence of Byzantium).

Archeological finds. There are some Russian archeological finds of the fragments of some helm-shaped gusli. There are 1) a ledge with a glue traces, where the string holding rod once where glued (Nerevsky excavations, 1958, the late XIVth century); 2) a  corner part of a hollow body (Troitsky excavations, 1995, the XIVth century); 3) some pieces of a curved string holding rod (Troitsky excavations, 1996, the middle XIVth century). Unfortunally, these almost insignificant parts could reveal too few elements of a puzzle that is called helm-shaped gusli.

Old images. Thus far the main source of the information about the instrument are pictures and engravings in old books, wall-paintings in churches and other images (for example there is a bronze belt set — Pskov, 1985, the XVth century). Most gusli images in old literature sources to an accuracy of a certain degree are images of helm-shaped gusli. There is a well-known D-bloomer (a large initial capital) in Novgorodian ritual book represents a David the king playing helm-shaped gusli (the XIVth century). There is a D-bloomer in the Gospel manuscript of Orsha (Belarus). That bloomer is absolutely resembling to Novgorodian one. The researchers date the Gospel manuscript of Orsha back to the XIIth—XIIIth centuries and compare it by the parchment features with the Gospel manuscript of Turov (that was composed even earlier). That is ruling out the hypothesis of the Novgorodian origin of the Belarusan bloomer. Helm-shaped gusli is also depicted on the pages of Chronicle of Radzivils (the late XVth century).

As a rule helm-shaped gusli has an incurved base (pic. 3.a) on all the images of the XIVth—XVth centuries. The instruments with a straight base (pic. 3.b) start to prevail only in ethnographic period (the XVIIIth—XIXth centuries). And only in ethnographic period the number of strings becomes much greater (then approximately ten strings in early variants).

The summary. With the information I have, it could be said that the golden age of helm-shaped gusli was at the XIVth—XVth centuries. But the variations of the instrument could be found even in the XXth century in Russia. There's an additional special research needed to say anything more about this type of the instrument. Unfortunally this instrument is very rare described in the literature sources.

Baltic Psalteries with no "wing" or "window". Kantele.

Pic. 4 — Baltic Psalteries without a "wing" or "window": Finnish kantele (above), Latvian kokle (below) etc.

Where? And When? These instruments appeared from the time, when the presence of a playing window came to an end. And this type of Baltic Psalteries is one of the most popular till nowadays. The instruments of this type were widespread through Finland and Karelia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania.

The features of the construction. This instrument had appeared as a separate branch of gusli from that time, when the instrument starts to be placed on the knees of a musician horizontally while playing. A playing window started to become smaller and smaller and soon it disappeared at all, because there were no need to made any playing window when a musician plays in horizontal position. A peg line formed a straight line. And the number of strings increased a bit (up to about 12 strings), moving the pegs of higher strings closer to the string holding rod. But still the 5-stringed instruments could be found much often then the others. A metal rod was placed between the sides of the ponsi and became almost the only variant of string holding mechanism.

Baltic Psalteries with a wing also known as wing-shaped gusli.

Pic. 5 — Wing-shaped gusli.

Where? And When? This variant of the Baltic Psaltery was widespread in ethnographic period (in XVIII—XX centuries) in Latgalia Region (the Eastern Latvia and the Northern Belarus), in Novgorod Region and in Pskov Region (the territory of modern Russia). As well as Baltic Psalteries of kantele type took the place of lyre-shaped instruments in Finland, the wing-shaped gusli do the same on the Slavic side of the Baltic Region.

The features of the construction. This instrument has an otkrylok, in Russian meaning "stub-wing", but Latvians and Belarusans call it "wing". Wing is a thin part of a body that juts out over the peg line. A wing is an additional area for sound reflecting, an additional area for resonance. That's why a wing-shaped gusli is much louder then a traditional kantele for example, that has no wing. A wings could be made in various styles, forms and sizes. Even if the area is jutting out over the peg line for 1-2 centimeters only, even then it may be called a wing, because it were made to do its main function: to support the left hand of the musician.

So while a Finn in folk tradition plays kantele for himself, placing the instrument on his knees aiming the sound to his ears, in Slavic tradition a musician holds gusli on-the-mitre to his knees aiming the sound outside, playing as loud as it can to accompany for dances. The gusli player leads the melody part with his left hand while strumming on the strings sonorously with his right hand up-and-down. To avoid the left hand getting tired a musician searches where to put the left hand to rest. With a wing on his instrument a musician could hold his left hand resting while playing all the time.

Gusli of the XIXth—XXth centuries. Modernization.

This is a very hard period for gusli. The tradition could survive it almost nowhere. The first stroke at the gusli tradition was in the XIXth century. With the development of manufactories it became affordable to buy or to order a professional musical instrument from a manufactory or professional makers team. Zithers congested a folk music. Folk music widened its range, assimilated the new keys and modulations. It was no way to play the new repertoire at the old traditional Baltic Psalteries. A lot of folk makers started to imitate manufactory instruments. And the era of modernization had begun.

The suddenly appeared multiformity of modernizations in construction, dimensions, forms, number of strings, a chorus arranging of strings, — looks like an explosion for the modern researcher, an explosion, that smashes the folk tradition to pieces.

And don't forget the devastating wars of the XIXth—XXth centuries. The history is keeping in memory the complete extermination of the whole regions, what made their ethnography be gone forever. It's awful — it's just a half of a century passed, but the prewar traditions of the North Vicebsk region, that was cleaned-up by Latvian SS-men, are quite indistinct for us as well as it could be the traditions of any Scythians or Sarmatians.

The last stroke at the gusli tradition was the politics of Russian Empire (and Soviet Union afterwards), of the streamlining and the unification of the folk culture. The results of the ethnographic expeditions were filtered according to ideology... Every Soviet Republic was to have the only main folk instrument, and there was almost no attention to the other instruments...

But the gusli tradition survived. The Center of Folklore and Ethnographic of Saint-Petersburg with A. Mekhnetsov found the old men in Pskov and Novgorod regions that played gusli in their childhood before the war. Those men got the instruments from the researchers and suddenly noticed that their fingers never forget how to play. There were many tunes recorded from them, the unique techniques of playing were collected.

As for modernized gusli, the researchers choose one of these two ways. The first one is to say, that all the modernized gusli exemplars, starting with any insignificant element modernized, are zithers. They even do not examine such instruments at all. Many of researchers do so, but I think that this is the wrong way. The second way is better. I think that, if the instrument is used or could be used as a gusli (in the case of small modernizations), it could be examined as a gusli. Let us call such exemplars zither-shaped or modernized gusli. But there's another side of a coin. Many of researchers examine some utterly zither-shaped modernized constructional elements of late gusli (XIX—XX) as centuries-old for gusli. For example metal pins, bridges, body made of several parts of wood. All these things are typical for zithers. These are modernizations for gusli already. But the instrument could be still called "gusli" even if it has these things if the researcher think that this is still gusli. Even if it has more typical for zither elements such as chorus arranging of strings, several pin-lines etc it could be called "gusli" if it is a part of a gusli culture. But I think that proper border should be fixed. If we examine an instrument with a fingerboard, or with a button mechanism, or with a chord arranging of strings without a fan arranging, we should call it zither and absolutely forget about any gusli similarity.

The typical example is a modernized gusli of the XIXth century very popular among the Russian gentry and intelligentsia, that is called table-shaped gusli.

That is not the end of the story. At the late XXth century there is a new round of the history of gusli. It called the reconstruction and the rebirth of old forgotten traditions. This round lasts till nowadays. And on the present day folklore party a guslar with a lyre-shaped gusli, and a guslar with a helm-shaped gusli, or with a kantele or with a wing-shaped gusli or with a modernized one — could meet each other and arrange a jam-session that could be a playing music session, a dancing session and a drinking session at the same time.

Alieś Čumakoŭ. Minsk. 2008.


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