The record which introduced our ears to the balalaika was, as it was for many Americans, the soundtrack to Doctor Zhivago. That epic tale of romance amidst the Russian revolution was directed by an Englishman, filmed in Spain and scored by a Frenchman, was a substantial success in the United States. Record collectors are certainly familiar with its soundtrack, which is one of the most ubiquitous of LPs.
The balalaika is an instrument with a long history in Russia, and its varieties run the range of pitches. They all have a three-cornered frame (note that the picture on this LP shows a flute in front of a balailaka, because the other side of the album contains a piece for orchestra and flute).
The composer of today’s music, Sergei Vasilenko, passed away the year before Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was smuggled out of the Soviet Union, but he may have enjoyed the soundtrack to the film based on that novel. His 1929 Concerto for Balalaika and Orchestra drew from his deep love of his country’s folk music and also his interest in the unique instrumentations of folk music from around the world.
A half century earlier, violinist Vasily Andreyev heard a Russian peasant playing a balalaika and had the instrument copied. His popular performances of traditional folk tunes on the instrument, soon followed by others of varied sizes, established the balalaika as it came to be known. Its tender, lyrical sound was likely still a novelty when Vasilenko’s Concerto debuted.
So far as we can tell the balalaika didn’t become a standard instrument in any musical tradition. Duke Ellington is seen playing one in a photograph inside his memoirs, Music is my Mistress, but if this 1971 jam session in the U.S.S.R. was recorded we’ve never found a copy of the album. Until researching this post, we didn’t know it was a balalaika distinct sonority which always caught our ears in two tracks on Jethro Tull’s second album, Stand Up. But certainly it is “Lara’s Theme,” heard throughout Doctor Zhivago, which is the most famous appearance of this instrument.