Gusli (Russian: гу́сли; [ˈɡuslʲɪ]) is the oldest Russian multi-string plucked instrument. Its exact history is unknown. It may have derived from a Byzantine form of the Greek kythare, which in turn derived from the ancient lyre. It has its relatives throughout the world: kantele in Finland, kannel in Estonia, kanklės, or kokle in Lithuania and Latvia. Furthermore, the kanun has been found in Arabic countries, and the autoharp, in the United States. It is also related to such ancient instruments as Chinese gu zheng, which has a thousand-year history, and its Japanese relative koto.
In the times of Kievan Rus', the term Gusli is thought to simply refer to any generic stringed instrument. The root of the term comes from the word to make sound in the wind. The term was eventually associated with the trapezoidal Gusli-psaltyry (which may have originated in Byzantium).
The Gusli is one of the oldest musical instruments that have played an important role in the Russian music culture. The Greek historians Theophylact Simocatta and Theophan were the first to mention the gusli. During the war at the end of the 6th century, the Greeks took Slavonic prisoners and found a musical instrument named the Gusli. This corresponds to what the Arabic authors Al-Masudi and Ibn-Dasta mentioned in the 10th century.
Vertkov states that the first mentions of the Gusli date back to 591 AD to a treatise by the Greek historian Theophylact Simocatta which describes the instrument being used by Slavs from the area of the later Kievan Rus' kingdom.
The gusli are thought to have been the instrument used by the legendary Boyan (a singer of tales) described in the Lay of Igor's campaign.
The instruments were used by the wandering Skomorokh musicians and entertainers. Preserved instruments discovered by archaeologists in various digs have between five and nine strings with one example having twelve strings.
The first notated piece of music for the Gusli was a Ukrainian song "Oi pid Vyshneyu" (Ukrainian: Ой пiд вишнею) which was recorded in St. Petersburg in 1803 by the French composer F. Bualde.
Folk Gusli have from eleven to thirty-six gut or metal strings, tuned diatonically. There were two main forms: helmet-shaped (Shlemovidnye gusli - Russian: Шлемовидные гусли) and wing-shaped (Krylovidnye gusli).
Shlemovidnye gusli (Helmet-shaped gusli; Russian: Шлемовидные гусли) is a variety of Gusli held by the musician on his knees, so that the strings are horizontal, the resonator body under them. He uses his left hand to mute unnecessary strings and thus form chords, while strumming all the strings with his right hand. The instrument was spread in southern and western regions of Kievan Rus'.
Krylovidnye gusli ("wing-shaped gusli"; Russian: Крыловидные гусли) is much smaller, and has more resemblance to Baltic and Scandinavian folk psalteries such as the kankles, kokle, kannel and kantele. They are held much more like modern guitars (although the strings are still muted by the left hand through a special opening in the instrument's body). This modification was more prevalent in northern parts of Russia, especially Novgorod and Pskov.
The Clavichord Gusli ["Claviroobraznie Gusli" | (Russian: Клавирообразные гусли)] is a 19th-century derivative with an iron frame and metal strings tuned chromatically. It stands on a stand or table legs. The instrument has a keyboard. Pressing the keys of the keyboard would raise the dampers on specific strings and allow the player to play glissandi and arpeggios over the range of the strings. This instrument is used primarily in Russian folk instrument orchestras.
A number of Slavic folk music instruments have names which are related to Gusli such as the Czech violin housleand the Balkan one-stringed fiddle gusle. In western Ukraine and Belarus, husli can also refer to a fiddle or even a ducted flute. The violin-like variant of the instrument is also related to the Southern Slavic gusle.
The psaltery variant is related to the zither. It is also related to the Lithuanian kanklės, the Latvian kokle, the Estonian kannel and the Finnish kantele. Together these instruments make up the family known as Baltic psalteries.
A related instrument is the tsymbaly, a hammered dulcimer.
In Ukraine, it is thought that the gusli may have influenced the development of the multi-stringed bandura, which largely replaced it in the nineteenth century.
List of other related instrumentsBandura