Guitar/Mandolin "Zupfmusik" magazine 2/2002

German Magazine

The story of the 7-stringed guitar, its documentation and master
The forgotten string

The author of this article is currently working on restoring the works of the brilliant russian guitar composer of the 19th century Michail Wyssotzki (1791-1837), who has fallen undeservedly into oblivion. The reasons for this are listed in the following article. The author used the scientific work of M. Stachowitsch (The story of the 7-stringed guitar) for research, publisher and supplier of the courtyard of his imperial majesty in 1864, St. Petersburg.

The school of the seven-stringed guitar was founded at the end of the 18th century in St. Petersburg by Andrej Sichra. He enjoyed an exquisite musical education, had great talent for playing the harp and was quite familiar with the six-stringed guitar. We have to ask ourselves why he showed interest in the completely unknown seven-stringed guitar and why he dedicated his life to it.

We can assume that Sichra discovered the instrument in Poland where he was born and lived until his migration to the russian capital. Additionally he saw the structure of the 7-stringed guitar as similar to that of a harp (Arpeggio Technique).

The golden Century of the russian seven-stringed guitar began with him. It was he who made the instrument popular and modern among the aristocratic society.

One of Sichras best students was aristocrat S. Axjanow. He had great success as a guitarist and was very famous and popular. Here I would like to quote one of Sichra's devotions to his favourite pupil Axjonow: "My dear friend ! I had the privilege to be your music teacher. Your talent is now crowned by overwhelming success and thanks to your efforts I have grown fond of you. May the practice pieces, which I have dedicated to you, prove that A. Sichra finds his talent and his fame in Axjonow and that honour is in our mutual friendship. In eternal loyalty and love , Andrei Sichra." S. Axjonow often visited his friend, a famous poet, literate and land-owner Cheraskow, whose property with the name Otschkow was in a small town not far from Moskau. On this property lived Michail Wyssotki, the son of the administrator. Axjonow discovered an ample musical talent with the 14 year-old Wyssotzki and taught him to play the guitar.

In 1813 M. Wyssotzki came to Moscow and instantly took his place as the most reputed and popular guitarist. The 'Maestro' gave concerts, taught and wrote excellent pieces. He became a unique Master of improvisation during performances. His improvisation skills were so inimitable and admirable.

His student M. Stachowitsch, author of the 'Story of the 7-stringed guitar', left us a literary portrait and the characteristics of Wyssotzki’s musical exhibit: "Wyssotki was middle-sized rather of taller consent than of smaller. His face was lean, its forehead acutely musically developed. He had a decent and shy manner, in his soul he was good-natured and loyal. He preferred playing in his circle of friends rather than at concerts. With the guitar in his hand, the expression on his face changed and he became a completely different person. Sometimes laughing, occasionally remarkably sternly his face told a story of deep and bold thought. His style featured intensity and balance of the note, simultaneously displaying venture and speed. He could play anything, the best proof of that being his compositions."

Among the admirers of Wyssotzki were the best representatives of russian culture. The great poet A. S. Pushkin also found a liking to his style. The famous poet M. Lermontow even dedicated some of his poems to the musician. M. Solowski, performer of the spanish guitar, who was not only renowned in Russia but also in western Europe belonged too to the group of followers. At this time a world famous composer and virtuoso, the master of the guitar, Fernando Sor was living and performing in Russia. According to historic sources the meeting between the two artists took place in 1823. A concert was organized by the lovers of the guitar at which both performed together. First Sor performed followed by an improvisation by Wyssotzki.

Legend has it that Sor was so shocked at the improvisation that he was to have smashed his guitar. Every legend is an exaggeration, yet the meeting and their mutual admiration certainly took place. The result of their encounter is Wyssotzki’s piece: "Sor Fantasy"

Wyssotzki's experience with classical music is primarily thanks to A. Djubnik. Wyssotzki was well acquainted with Djubnik. Djubnik was a famous pianist and an excellent educationalist. He trained a whole group of talented russian musicians and composers, among them M. Balakirev and S. Rachmaninov. Stachowitsch, Wyssotzki’s own student, remembers in his writings the love which his master had for the works of Bach. In almost all of his variations Wyssotzki embraced a theme at least two-pitched and cultivated all the possible skills of multi-pitch music. Contrasts had a special significance. The pedal point is emphasized by the variations, enabling the short runs on the top string of the guitar to be accompanied by bass or clear chords. Thereby the theme is often executed by a low voice , switching from voice to voice. Variational cycles by Wyssotzki are usually remote (only 4-5 variations), however every variation is a small piece in itself. It is also surprising how Wyssotki developed the different musical expressions by using the major seven chords at different pitches. The diversity of rythmn, especially demonstrative in the slow tempi, astonishes. Thus Wyssotki is by no means inferior to the best composers of classic guitar.

After his death the piano becomes ever more popular in aristocratic society. It displaces the russian classic 7-stringed guitar and with it the ‘golden century’ draws to an end. Slowly the guitar developes into an instrument used by gypsies and singers without musical education as an accompaniment. In the western european countries the seven-stringed guitar remains completely infamous. And so the culture of music lost, together with the 7-stringed guitar, works of an ingenious guitar-composer of the 19th Century M. Wyssotki, a man worthy to claim a place among musicians such as Mauro Guiliani and Fernando Sor. This is the opinion of the author of this article, who has got to know all these works. Many of Wyssotki's pieces remained undiscovered in russian archives for over 200 years. Some of these pieces have been included into the concert's programmes of the author, where he has worked on their conversion to the six-stringed guitar and where he strives to create as good a congruency as possible.

He has released the pieces in the Note-collection of the publisher Wilma Ziegler Munich ISBN M 700189-03-7. The line-up is to be continued.

Special Thanks to Daniel Williamson for his Translation