UCI News

Renaissance of the Russian guitar

From Russian guitars to classical lute, John Schneiderman plucks his way through musical history.

by Cathy Lawhon, University Communications | April 12, 2010
Renaissance of the Russian guitar
John Schneiderman, director of the guitar & lute performance program at UCI, plays the baroque lute at Gamble Gardens in Palo Alto. An upcoming concert with Oleg Timofeyev will feature music on Russian guitars, and a CD of their work will be released later this year.

Between Pietro Pettoletti and Pete Seeger lie a continent and a century or so. John Schneiderman’s childhood interest and subsequent career in music span it all.

The musician, a renowned virtuoso on plucked instruments and director of UC Irvine’s guitar & lute performance program, got his musical introduction at age 6 when his mother taught him the ukulele. His American folk roots took hold at Pete Seeger concerts he attended with his parents. His interest in the classical guitar was sparked by an Andrés Segovia concert he attended at age 9. Studies with British classical guitarist Frederick Noad and modern pioneer of baroque lute Eugen Dombois were among the experiences that prepared him for his spot onstage 8 p.m. Saturday, April 17, at UCI’s Winifred Smith Hall, where he and Oleg Timofeyev will present “The Czar’s Guitars: Souvenirs of Russia.”

Schneiderman took time out from teaching, rehearsing and performing to discuss his interest in the history and evolution of guitars and music, from the obscure Pettoletti (whose 19th century variations on the Russian national hymn will be included in Saturday’s performance) to Seeger and beyond.

Q: In addition to ukulele lessons, what other influences led you to a career in music?
A: As a Christmas present one year, my father bought my mother a guitar, and she began taking lessons. I would watch her practice and try to play what she was working on. One day, she found me playing a study by Dionisio Aguado that was at the end of her book and realized the wrong person was taking lessons. Pete Seeger prompted my interest in the five-string banjo, so I saved up money from mowing lawns and bought a banjo at a local pawn shop. I always studied classical guitar, and that interest grew tremendously as a teenager.

Q: Now you play period instruments such as 18th-century lutes and guitars. How are they different from instruments crafted today? Do they produce a different sound than modern instruments, or does the musician make the difference?
A: The 18th-century lutes and guitars that I play are period instrument copies. I have a number of guitars from the 19th and early 20th centuries, most of which are in playing condition. They differ from modern classical guitars in size, shape, string length, bracing patterns, etc. They tend to have a more intimate and articulate sound, which helps the music speak. One can play the same music on a modern guitar, just as one can play Bach on a piano instead of a harpsichord. However, I find that the music comes to life more convincingly on the instrument the composers had in mind. This requires the performer to also adapt to the playing technique of these period instruments, which is often quite different than that of modern instruments.

Q: Tell me about the guitars you will play in “The Czar’s Guitars.”
A: We will use one American guitar and three Russian guitars; all have their roots in the Viennese school of guitar building. The American guitar was built by the C.F. Martin & Co. in 1887. Two of the Russian guitars have double necks and additional basses that increase the bass range, and they have longer fingerboards with additional frets to increase the treble range. The other Russian guitar is called a quart guitar, built in Moscow in 1867 by Ivan Krasnoschiokov. If guitars could tell stories, this one would have some interesting tales. My colleague Oleg Timofeyev – the world’s leading scholar and performer on the Russian guitar – found it in a small village. It was in horrible shape. Baling wire was being used for frets, and a large burned board was nailed into one side to cover up what turned out to be a fairly small hole. The guitar was restored and has a wonderful sound.

Q: The concert comprises European music by Russian composers and Russian music by European composers. How do the two differ?
A: Russian composers have always been fascinated with music from central and Western Europe, and European composers have always been fascinated with Russian music. Having a background in folk music, I am particularly fond of Russian classical music, which frequently incorporates folk music. I also have family ties to Russia; my paternal grandfather was from the Ukraine. The centerpiece of our program is “Souvenir de Russie,” a guitar duet by the great Spanish guitarist Fernando Sor. The piece is based on two Russian folk songs. We also include a set of variations on the Russian national hymn by the Italian, Pietro Pettoletti. To represent European music composed by Russians, we include several polkas and a Tyrolean waltz.

Q: What do you hope the audience will take away from this concert?
A: I hope the audience leaves with an appreciation of a rich repertoire and a beautiful instrument that nearly faded out of existence after the Russian revolution. The Russian guitar is that country’s national instrument, just as the five-string banjo is America’s instrument, but many composers and classical musicians were in gulags after the revolution and their music was considered bourgeois. Now the Russian guitar is making a well-deserved comeback. I toured there last spring with a small group of players and got a lot of media attention. Oleg, who is from Moscow, is spearheading the revival. I have one student in the guitar & lute performance program who is switching from Spanish to Russian guitar because of the opportunities that might be available in the future.