The Czar's Guitars
The Russian seven-string guitar, an instrument that differs significantly from the Spanish guitar in construction, tuning, and technique, became popular in Russia late in the eighteenth century. The members of the famous "Mighty Handful" -- Mussorgsky , Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, etc. --were not even born yet, the West was completely unaware of Russian classical music, Glinka's two operas were not written yet-but Russian guitarists were already writing virtuosic and original music for the Russian guitar. That music for a long time seemed to have been doomed never to be heard outside of Russia. By the end of the 20th century, the fascinating and rich art of the Russian guitar tradition was neglected even in Russia. After the rise in popularity of the Spanish guitar, following the 1926 Russian tour of the famous guitarist Andres Segovia, fewer and fewer people in Russia still played the national variety of the instrument.
Starting in the 1990s, Iowa-City-based guitarist and musicologist Oleg Timofeyev began researching and reviving this tradition. For the first time, this beautiful music was introduced to Western audiences, as Oleg Timofeyev began to organize and perform recitals nationally and internationally, write journal articles, and record CD albums. Supported by several grants, he traveled back to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Smolensk, and Yaroslavl to dig in dusty archives and private collections, locating original printed editions and manuscripts from the first half of the 19th century. Among Timofeyev's archival discoveries are two manuscript collections with music for two guitars, which date from 1856 and 1858. As was customary for guitar duets at the time, they call for the combination of a small guitar (kvart-guitara) with one of normal size. This combination allows for music of great melodic range and resonant sonority.
The next question was: where to find a second guitarist who would be willing to explore this intriguing, yet rather different repertoire on an unfamiliar instrument? On one of his tours, Timofeyev was lucky to meet the well-known Californian lutenist and guitarist John Schneiderman, whose virtuosic playing on the Baroque lute and 19th-century guitar he had been admiring for a while. As it turned out, Schneiderman also had some Russian ancestry, and was quite interested in engaging a project with Russian music. Oleg gladly equipped him with two Russian guitars from his collection and a pile of photocopies, and thus began John's journey into the world of the Russian guitar.
In the fall of 2003, the two met to design a program for their first album. Their choice fell on the nineteenth-century transcriptions of the works by Mikhail Glinka, whose bicentennial year was coming up in 2004. The 1856 and 1858 guitar part books are associated with the St. Petersburg guitarist Vladimir Morkov (or Morkoff), who knew Glinka personally and made a number of expert arrangements of the composer's symphonic and operatic works for two guitars. Although better known than the Russian guitar tradition, M. Glinka's beautiful music is still too rarely heard in the US.