A Contrabass Balalaika

4 • A Contrabass Balalaika

North America, early 20th century
177 cm high; oak, silver-plated copper, steel strings

One of Russia’s most popular folk instruments, the balalaika was originally thought to be a peasant’s instrument; its first known mention dates from a log-book belonging to a Moscow Kremlin guard in 1688 who recorded his actions to stop two drunk commoners from playing the instrument late at night. However, it wasn’t long before it held much grander stages: Peter the Great employed a number of them for a grand orchestral procession in 1715.

Andre de Salzmann 'Drunken Russians in the Snow'
Russians playing ‘air balalaika’ after having had their instruments confiscated by Moscow Kremlin guards in 1688 (artist’s impression, Alexandre de Salzmann ‘Drunken Russians in the Snow’)

Early versions were strung with gut strings and had a relatively soft sound, all of which changed in the 1880s when Vasily Andreyev undertook to perfect Russian folk musical instruments. Andreyev notes first seeing a balalaika being played by a peasant in the street, he copied and then transformed it into a far more creative instrument, creating six sizes ranging from piccolo to contrabass and eventually fitting it with metal strings.

The result was a sensation. Partly because of its ease to play but mainly because Andreyev toured Russia with entire orchestras of balalaikas, handing instruments out along his travels. These shows became legendary and very soon he was a celebrity: thousands followed his every step, balalaika compositions boomed and before long he was dazzling audiences in London, Paris and Berlin.

Its popularity has endured – Andreyev’s orchestra still performs under the name The Andreyev Station Russian Orchestra, and similar ensembles have been replicated in England and America. They found many new aficionados as a result of the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack to the 1965 film Dr Zhivago, largely conducted on a balalaika.

This example was found in North America, perhaps a relic of one of Andreyev’s grand tours, which reached the country in 1910. It does not have the sharp angles common to most balalaikas and could very possibly be a transition instrument from another Russian folk instrument – the round-bodied domra, which Andreyev was simultaneously researching, all traces of which disappeared after orders in 1648 from the Tsar forbidding instrumental music.

Awarded first prize for a folk object at Masterpiece art fair in 2015, it comes with a certificate.

Vasily Andreyev (1861–1918)
Vasily Andreyev (1861–1918)