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The Harp Guitar of Boris Perott

A Combined
Harp Guitar of the Month

Harp Guitar Player of the Month

by Gregg Miner, January, 2014

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From Boris Perott – A Life with the Guitar (Chanterelle, 2012) 

 

The uninitiated might well be asking “So who is Boris Perott, and why are we interested in him, or his century-plus-old harp guitar…?”

Well, any time we locate a surviving harp guitar with any provenance or “pedigree,” it’s always cause for celebration, don’t you think? 

As far as the specifics of the instrument: 1) It’s got some interesting historical features, 2) Neither the owner nor I knew who made it (but found out), and 3) It has a small, but key, role in the sporadic “war between the harp guitar and the 6-string guitar”…


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And Dr. Boris Perott?  Readers may possibly recall that Perott has been on Harpguitars.net in the Historical Players Encyclopedia, and also as part of the remarkable “Mystery Maccaferri” story (a cropped image of the one at left of Perott with his distinctive Russian instrument has been on the site from the beginning in the Iconography section).

This new copy with inscription comes courtesy of Maggie A. Gorelik (via her son Stephen) and is inscribed: "To my young and talented pupil George Gorelik from a strict teacher, Dr. Perott, 1950".

Perott (1882-1958) was and remains a notable figure in the classical guitar world, though seems not to have had much of a lasting reputation.  As I see it, within the classical guitar community he has two “claims to fame” – one significant, the other perhaps overrated.  

As for the latter, I refer to Perott’s status as “Julian Bream’s first guitar teacher.”  True enough.  However, after eleven months, young Bream stopped his lessons, most specifically because of Perott’s adherence to the old-fashioned (“old Italian school”) technique of resting the little finger on the soundboard.  Nor has Bream ever said anything else particularly positive about the man (more on this later).


Of more significance was Perott’s founding (with help) of London’s Philharmonic Society of Guitarists (PSG) in 1929, which certainly did much to elevate the classical guitar in England.  In the recent book Boris Perott – A Life with the Guitar (Chanterelle, 2012), Belgium author Jan de Kloe writes "What made his name into music history is his creation of the first guitar society in the United Kingdom and the activities that came with and resulted from that society….thus from the society’s beginning he became pivotal in the development of the classical guitar in the British Isles."

A Russian (born in St. Petersburg) with one foot in the medical profession and one in the guitar community, Perott relocated to Britain in 1920, and it was there that he founded the PSG, remaining its president for the next 25 years. For those interested in the details of Perott’s life and career, you must certainly read Jan de Kloe’s recently completed, exhaustively-researched book on Perott. Of more interest to harp guitar researchers is a brief but fascinating account in Stuart Button’s book, Julian Bream: The Foundations of a Musical Career. Another treasure trove of material – letters to and from Dr. Perott and the president of the American Guitar Society, Vahdah Olcott Bickford – also resides now online at the searchable International Guitar Research Archive (IGRA) at California State University of Northridge.

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Early members of the PSG in 1929
From Boris Perott – A Life with the Guitar (Chanterelle, 2012)


 
 

Of course, my Harpguitars.net article is meant to celebrate and investigate Perott’s third “claim to fame” – one that classical guitarists typically have little interest in – which is of course that he preferred the harp guitar.  Which brings me to the email I received in October, 2011, with the dramatically-worded subject line:

I have Dr. Boris Perott's Russian Harp Guitar.”

At the time, it took me a moment to place the name “Perott” (the “Dr.” threw me) and of course the writer’s name was new to me: Stephen Gorelik, who works as a Biomedical Engineering Technologist in Vancouver, B.C.  Over the next several weeks, Stephen shared everything he knew or was learning about the instrument in the possession of his mother.  Jan de Kloe, and also Russian guitar (and harp guitar) expert Oleg Timofeyev, were very helpful to Stephen, and I’m indebted to these gentlemen as well.

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Stephen Gorelik, with Perott's original harp guitar

The instrument was left to the Mrs. Gorelik by her husband George (right), who at one time Perott considered his “second most promising student”  (his first of course being a very young Julian Bream).  This letter of September 07, 1951 – one of many fascinating letters Perott sent to Ms. Bickford, available by searching the IGRA Archives – includes mention of students Bream and Gorelik.  The pertinent excerpt reads:

“I have one outstanding pupil, Gorelik, who filled an empty place left by Julian. Gorelik might be not so brilliant as Julian, but at any rate, he will develop into the first class concert guitarist. His age is only 23 and he is working very hard. We are playing every day practically with him duets, not difficult ones, in order to teach him to read music without hesitation. He is not too much devoted to Spanish modern music, but he likes Fortea's style and ‘old maestros’ like Mertz, Sor, Aguado, Coste etc. His tone is very powerful and delicate at the same time. His first debut of which you will read in our next issue was very successful.”


George Gorelik playing the harp guitar several years ago. He passed away in December, 2012, after a long battle with Alzheimers.

Another interesting document – supplied by Stephen Gorelik from his mother's documents – is this one written by his father and a fellow pupil, outlining some of the teachings and philosophy of their mentor.   At right is the photo mentioned in the document, which includes young Julian Bream to the left of Perott and George directly behind Perott.  George wrote the names of all on the back as well.

In de Kloe’s book, we finally learn how George came into possession of Perott’s original instrument – the Russian harp guitar that he was infamously associated with.  Eventually George arranged to purchase it, making payments on it in Perott’s final years.

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We can see that George took good care of it; perhaps he was appreciative of “guitars with extra basses” like his teacher (George must have been enamored of it, even though he likely played only standard 6-string guitar).  In the image at left (kindly shared by Jan de Kloe), George appears to be not alone in his appreciation of the instrument (or Perott’s performance on it).

 
 

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The wappen (shield)-shaped instrument is in remarkable condition for one believed to have been built in 1877 and eventually played for five decades by Perott.  In fact, it looks little different now from how it appears in this 1905 photo of a dashing young Perott in Russia (courtesy again of the Gorelik family).  We can note a couple obvious features: It was originally built for Russian guitar tuning, that is, 7 strings on the neck (tuned to an open G chord), and 4 floating basses (typically C-E-F-A, to fill in the notes around the neck’s low D & G [7th & 6th] strings).

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However, it is known that Perott preferred to concentrate solely on standard 6-string neck tuning, and in every photo, including the 1905 image, we see that he strung his Russian-built harp guitar with only six strings on the neck.  Curiously, the current bridge only has pins for 10 strings, not 11, as it should have had when built (to match the original 4 + 7 tuners and stringing).  Too bad Perott is covering up the bridge in the 1905 photo!  

After some time, Peter Gorelik was able to inspect and get decent photos of the underside of the bridge...and found that it appears to be all original and with only ten string holes (below).  I brainstormed this conundrum with kontragitarre aficionado Benoît Meulle-Stef, and we came up with a couple possible scenarios.  The simplest answer would be that this was originally a 4 + 6, 10-string instrument, and that someone changed the neck before Perott acquired it (he bought it a couple decades after it was built).  Perhaps the original broke and was replaced with something convenient – in this case, a 7-string neck.  A less convincing scenario is one in which the maker intended on building a 10-string instrument (I show one below, by the same maker), but ran out of tuners.  In other words, he didn't have the matching 3-plate for the main neck's bass side.  Seems unlikely?  Well, consider that the tuners used are still not correct.  Ben noticed that the 4-on-a-plate tuners used for the neck's low strings do not follow standard Russian 7-string guitar practice.  Every other (typical) Russian 7-string utilizes a tuner set wherein the outer rollers (top and bottom) of each side are in line, as in this example.  The half-set on Perott's harp guitar instead looks like the same set used for the bass neck's 4 subs.  

It seems we are left with a mystery, no matter what!  Ben also noted that the headstock originally had an ornament (Cyrillic script?) affixed (in the 1905 photo).  Today, we can see small nail holes and an outline (roughly figure 8-shaped) from where this was removed.

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The "shield" body shape was not remotely unusual at this time – neither in Leipzig nor its “sister city” St. Petersburg, where this one was built – but might certainly have appeared strange to the guitarists of London in the 1930s!  This is where Perott settled, and where he co-founded the PSG in 1929.  Proof of the unfamiliarity with such an instrument (or perhaps any harp guitar, for that matter) in London is seen in that country’s BMG (Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar) Magazine in the July, 1931 issue, where Alexis Chess (A. Chesnakov, a co-founder of the PSG) answers curious readers about Perott’s “peculiar-looking guitar.” NOTE 1

The 1931 article at left (kindly shared by Jan de Kloe) finally identified the maker of Perott’s instrument as Paserbsky (Frantz S.).  Jan at first told the owner that he thought it was around 120 years old (or c. 1890).

In the Stuart Button book, the guitar is identified slightly differently: “This guitar was made in 1860 by Franz Passierbski, a violin, guitar and balalaika maker of St. Petersburg. It was originally obtained for Perott by his teacher, Vassilj Lebedev (1867-1907). The instrument is unique and still survives today.”

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I have no idea where Button got the information, but de Kloe finally learned the true date, which he reveals in his book as 1877 (from personal correspondence between Perott and Gorelik).  If true, that makes it (as of this writing) 136 years old!  It was thus bought secondhand by Perott, with his teacher, Lebedev (another Russian harp guitar player, in our encyclopedia here), likely recommending or obtaining it for his student.

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Jan further translated the existing inscription: “The text on the guitar mentions that Perott is a stud(ent of) Nar. V. Meditzinskiy Academy.  ‘Nar’ stands for ‘narodny’ meaning ‘national’, ‘V’ stands for Voyenno meaning Military. Perott was a student at the Military Medical Institute where he studied to be a doctor (from 1902-1908). This academy still exists today.”

About a year ago, both Jan de Kloe and Oleg Timofeyev were able to visit Stephen Gorelik and the Paserbsky.  Jan (pictured) says that Oleg (a true harp guitar player) "managed very well, thanks probably to his exposure with comparable instruments."

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Another interesting feature is what I call the “pinky rail.”  Perott was of the “older” classical guitar tradition that played with the little finger resting on the soundboard (this was one of the criticisms that would be brought against him by Bream supporters), so I immediately realized that this was a handy finger rest installed to allow the hand to easily move from playing near the fingerboard to near the bridge (compare this to the shorter finger rest that Coste installed on his instruments).

I was originally of the opinion that this must have been added by Perott after obtaining his secondhand instrument, as I’d never seen another specimen or catalog image with this feature.  But then someone sent me an image of another Russian harp guitar with the same exact pinky rail, and I’ve since seen others, including a second Paserbsky in the collection of Ivan Bariev (at right).  Note on this one the "cut-out" of the finger rail to match the soundhole.  This original Paserbsky has 3 sub-basses and 6 strings on the neck (both 6 and 7 string necks were simultaneously offered in St. Petersburg, and even in some German catalogs).

It seems that this was apparently a somewhat more common option than I had initially thought! (de Kloe’s book mentions “the typical little bar…”; I’ve found this feature occurring on perhaps ten percent of the several dozen Russian guitars I’ve now seen).

Interestingly, Perott’s teacher, Lebedev (who also played on 6-string necks) has the rail on each of his two known harp guitars (at right). NOTE 2


I hinted at the start that this very instrument instigated some controversy in the world of London’s guitar society – and Button’s book goes into this in detail, one of the most telling records we have concerning the periodic “war” between harp guitars and “normal” guitars.  Perott has been described by more than one fellow guitarist (somewhat disparagingly) as “old school.”  Not unpredictably then, he also advocated extra bass strings, although it is not clear if he actually tried to push this agenda among his students or Society members (I sense not). NOTE 3

No, it was actually Henry Bream – Julian’s father and amateur plectrum guitarist – who became defender of the harp guitar, though unfortunately in a rather inexperienced and heavy-handed fashion.  Naïve and embarrassing, in fact, when one reads his many letters to Wlifred Appleby, then the Society’s Journal editor - and vehement despiser of extra strings (detailed in Button’s book).

After a chance encounter with this very harp guitar at the home of Dr. Perott, Henry Bream fell in love with its tone and possibilities.  He first divided the membership of the PSG by surprising the group with his finished letterhead for the Journal, which prominently featured the distinctive harp guitar in the center.  About half the group was seriously ticked off, as they didn’t think it represented their forward-thinking serious “classical guitar” efforts.

Then things got really ugly when Henry bought his young prodigy son – horrors – a Maccaferri harp guitar!  Young Bream actually used this for one of his early debuts, though didn’t use any of the sub-basses.  Appleby – and many of the other members – thought it a “monstrosity.”  My take away from the narrative is that Perott didn’t seem to care one way or the other if Julian played the Maccaferri – after all, to him this was normal – and probably wouldn’t have pressed the matter.  But he still wasn’t fairing much better politically, as the supporters of the prodigy Julian – which now included everyone – debated over whether he should be resting his little finger on the soundboard like his old-fashioned teacher Perott.

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Though every single reference to Perott I find seems to prioritize his celebrity as “Julian Bream’s first teacher,” Bream himself would say many years later: “I had lessons with him after a little while, for a year. He was an interesting man. He was quite old. He couldn’t play anymore. But he was once in his youth quite a good guitarist. But he played in the old Italian school, which is quite contrary to what the modern Tarrega would be. And I found that the particular right hand technique (i.e. resting the little finger – GM) wasn’t very useful for me. Particularly for playing more Spanish and modern pieces. So after a year, I discontinued and from then on, I was virtually learning on my own.”

Not to continue to dish on Perott, but I also seem to find contrary views on the importance and place of the PSG among those involved in the story of the classical guitar.  Button calls it a “society without direction, an obscure movement, shrouded in mystery.”  He then quotes A. P. Sharpe, editor of the popular music BMG journal, who wrote in his own magazine, “Many readers of BMG must have often wondered just what the Philharmonic Society of Guitarists is and did.”  And Button, again: “Sharpe’s comment reflected the PSG’s indolence, a society that promised so much yet accomplished so little…”  Ouch. NOTE 4

Well, they tried.  And a few even tried to retain and include the “forgotten” harp guitar as a legitimate classical instrument within their noble society.  Perott clearly wasn’t shy or embarrassed about it.  I’m thrilled that his original Russian wappen-shaped harp guitar made such waves in England and still survives after 136 years – playable, yet! – as testament to Perott’s own strong-willed legacy.


Gorelik family: I hope you treasure and preserve your heirloom instrument.

And Mr. Bream: ya could’a been a harp guitarist!

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From Boris Perott – A Life with the Guitar (Chanterelle, 2012) 


NOTE 1: In the same column, it’s interesting to see how Chesnakov describes attending a London Maccaferri concert, listing the program, Maccaferri’s steel thumbpick, and the guitar’s internal resonator…sadly, no mention is made of extra strings, and it’s possible – since this is mid-1931 – that Maccaferri was perhaps playing one of his new Selmer prototype 6-strings.

NOTE 2: As for the left image of Lebedev - it is very rare to see a virtuoso guitar soloist of the Viennese or Russian schools with 9 sub-basses; typically 2-4, occasionally 5, would be it.  Interestingly, the instrument on the right apparently survives, owned by Matanya Ophee.  On the photos, one can just make out what appear to be repairs to the soundboard that would presumably match where the little finger rail was originally attached (Richard Brune or Gary Southwell could surely confirm this).

NOTE 3:  I remain mystified by the fact that the BMG editor would publicly insult the PSG, even as Perott was in the midst of his extensive decade-long series on “famous guitarists” for the BMG (much of De Kloe’s valuable biography consists of correcting Perott’s many errors in these articles).   Button makes his views clear, de Kloe is more kind.

NOTE 4: In his book, Jan de Kloe entirely avoids the subject of floating strings, though we’re treated to a few (and only a few) from Perott, himself.  In his 64-article BMG “Famous Guitarist” series, Perott manages to slip in here and there references to players who used guitars with floating strings (harp guitars).  He wisely refrains from soapboxing, but is not afraid to say things like: “Other great virtuosi of the guitar, including…(names 11 total)…proved, without a shadow of a doubt, that the additional strings facilitate technique and improve the tone of the instrument considerably.”  And elsewhere, “Practically all Russian, and many German, virtuosi used instruments strung with the additional strings.” And, again: “But there is no doubt that additional strings augment the volume of tone and richness of the chords.”  Curiously, while mentioning Schenck’s and then Mozzani’s hollow-arm harp guitars, Perott first maintains that they were unsuccessful due to their size, “which necessitated a new technique which players were loth (sic) to acquire.”  He continues with the opinion that, with microphones available (apparently, Perott was a fan of miking the classical guitar), there was no reason for Mozzani’s experiments, implying that his old Paserbsky was better.   But in a subsequent article just three months later, he praises Maccaferri’s similar guitars, “especially one with a double neck” –  perhaps specifically due to the resonators, or perhaps because Maccaferri was a friend?

 

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