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We get acquainted with the fate of the Russian self-taught musician, whom all of Europe applauded, and examine the tiny harmonics on which he played.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the most popular accordion players in Russia was Pyotr Nevsky. Throughout his life, he never learned notes, but this did not prevent him from teaching others to play and even inventing his own harmonica. Most of all, Nevsky loved to play on tiny harmonics – the so-called turtles. Miniature instruments are now kept in the Alfred Mirek Harmonica Museum.

The story of the emergence of the funniest musical instrument and the story of the life of a musician who contributed to its popularization are in a joint article by and the Mosgortur agency.

First harmonics

The first harmonica was created by the Czech master František Kiršnik, who lived in Russia in the 18th century. The instrument was tabletop, and you could play it like a piano, only sitting. The invention immediately aroused great interest among musicians, especially in Europe, where it was soon improved upon. The first hand harmonica was released in Germany in 1822, and eight years later they met in Russia.

The production of Russian-made harmonics began in the same 1830 in Tula. Local gunsmiths created the musical instrument. At first, they copied imported products out of interest, but with the growing popularity of accordions among the people, they began to make them for sale.

The first factories for the production of harmonics appeared in Tula in the 1840s. Improving the instruments from a technical point of view, the craftsmen stopped copying foreign samples and began to create original instruments. They turned the slats over with the other side to the valves, which is why the sound began to appear during the compression of the bellows, and not stretching, as it was before. Such musical instruments were called “Russian harmonica”, or “Tula harmonica-seven-valve”, and the technique formed the basis of all harmonics produced in Russia.

Over time, harmonics began to be produced in other places, everywhere in their own way. For example, in Cherepovets they invented very small harmonics – five to seven centimeters high. The right keyboard had up to seven mini-harmonics, while the left had none at all. At first they were called “lilliputians” or “hummingbirds”, later the name “turtles” stuck. There are two versions of the origin of the funny name. According to one of them, the harmonicas were named in honor of their hometown, according to the other – due to their appearance: during the game they hid in the musician’s palms, as if in a shell.

The “turtles” were glorified by the outstanding Russian virtuoso accordionist Pyotr Nevsky, who performed to the accompaniment of such harmonics and even improved them.

From shoemakers to musicians

Pyotr Eliseevich Emelyanov (Nevsky is his pseudonym) was born in 1849 in St. Petersburg in the family of a shoemaker. Like his father, at first he was a shoemaker, but by the age of 20 he decided to leave the craft and take up music. In his free time from work, he mastered playing the Tula seven-valve without outside help, copying the melodies he liked by ear.

Nevsky performed wherever the opportunity presented itself. The meeting with the Yurovs, a very popular circus troupe at that time, became fateful for him. The founder of the collective Dmitry Yurov, who perfectly mastered the Tula seven-valve harmonica, helped the talented self-taught person to become a great artist.

The repertoire of the accordion player Nevsky was extensive: he performed Russian folk songs, performed with humorous musical numbers, potpourri, later some classical works and compositions of his own composition were added. After several years of joint performances with the circus troupe, Pyotr Nevsky began to perform independently.

Nevsky was very artistic. Performing a serious Russian repertoire, he put on a lordly embroidered caftan and a chic fur hat or a bright Russian shirt, and for comic and topical ditties at Nevsky, a barefoot outfit was in store.

The accordionist was loved not only among the people. In May 1896, Nevsky was invited to the coronation of Nicholas II as a guest of honor. In December of the same year, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his creative activity, the emperor presented him with a gold watch with the image of the state emblem.

The artist toured a lot, and not only in Russia. Nevsky became the first accordion player to go on a solo tour abroad. Full houses were accompanied everywhere, but he made the greatest impression on the public in France. There he was awarded the title of honorary member of the Paris Lyric Musical Society.

Having learned about the invention of the gramophone, Nevsky immediately went to Germany and was the first of the accordion players to record a disc. He was also the first accordion player to perform with a symphony orchestra: in the fall of 1909 – in Kislovodsk, and in 1912 – in Yessentuki (foreign accordionists began performing with orchestras much later).

Classic on the “turtle”

Nevsky played the Russian seven-valve harmonica and turtles. He especially loved the latter for their sonority, and they delighted the audience. On a tiny harmonica, he performed both simple ditties and works by Richard Wagner, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Mikhail Glinka.

The accordion player ordered whole series of improved small harmonics. Unlike the first samples, they were more complex, had a greater range and a full chromatic gamut. The number of valves of the Turtles made by order of Nevsky has increased. On the right side there were from five to ten keys, and on the left – from three to eight.

Such harmonics have come to be called “Neva turtles” or “Nevsky turtles”. At the end of the 19th and the first quarter of the 20th century, they were very popular among pop accordionists and circus musicians.

Self-study book of Nevsky

The artist’s popularity prompted a desire to master the harmonica among many of his compatriots. To help them, Nevsky published an author’s self-instruction manual. Even those who did not know musical notation could learn from it – Nevsky came up with a “digital” method of teaching to play the Tula seven-valve.

The recording of the melody in the tutorial looked like this: there were no musical lines, only rectangles in which the author placed the numbers denoting the keys. A thin line under the number denoted the elongation of the bellows, and the thick line denoted its compression. However, in order to learn a melody from Nevsky’s self-instruction manual, one had to have a very good ear for music, since the textbook did not contain any designation of rhythm or duration of notes. Later, the artist slightly improved the technique – he introduced the designation of rhythm and pauses.

How complicated the method was can be judged by the description compiled by the author himself: “A large number becomes a small number: if it is placed at the top, it means that the harmony must be pulled up [to unclench the fur], if it is placed at the bottom, then downward [squeeze fur]. If the large number has a small number 2, then you need to pull up three times. Then after each time you need to take your finger slowly or quickly, depending on which student is playing a song, boring or funny … If not one number is put in one cell, but several, this means that you need to play more quickly. And if a small dash is added to the side of the first number, it means that it is necessary to stop for some time, depending on the nature of the play. “

Despite some obvious drawbacks, Nevsky’s self-instruction book was in great demand. Later, with the advent of the two-row harmonica, the artist’s system was improved. However, due to the pile-up of numbers, it became obvious that it was easier to use notes. Nevertheless, for a long time, numbers were printed in textbooks in parallel with notes, and some echoes of the Nevsky system are still found today, for example, in a tutorial on playing the Saratov accordion, fur compression is denoted by a dash, and in a manual on a lame harmonica, you can find numbers under the notes.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is a translation. Apologies should the grammar and or sentence structure not be perfect.

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