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A Brief Look Into the History of the Mandolin

"the mandolin is alive and well and is quite possibly enjoying its brightest day in the sun to date"


I think that one of the reasons why have chosen to devote my time and energy to the mandolin and love it so dearly it is that it is an instrument with a seemingly endless capacity to surprise people. Surprise people not only with what it is capable of musically but also with the history of the instrument itself.


I do hesitate to identify the mandolin as completely odd or unconventional. It has managed to burrow its way into the public consciousness without many even realizing that it is there. Many readers will be familiar with one or more of Vivaldi’s mandolin concerti or even Mozart’s Don Giovanni serenading the maid with Deh vieni alla finestra’. What many may not immediately list are works by Hummel, Beethoven, Verdi, Prokofiev, Mahler, Shostakovitch and Schönberg that feature the mandolin.


Throughout history the mandolin has enjoyed a relatively small, yet devoted, core collection of performers and admirers. Besides this constant attention, the mandolin’s history is also dotted with periods of popularity one could almost describe as crazes.


One of the first identifiable periods of fashion for the mandolin within the world of Western classical music came in the latter half of the Eighteenth-century and the early part of the Nineteenth. Largely inspired by Italian musicians touring Western Europe, there was a boom in the music written for and performed on the mandolin. France was a particular center for mandolin activity, where it became popular with the aristocracy. Some of the earliest published mandolin tutors came from Paris during this time. This period also produced over 85 volumes of original mandolin music by composers such as Pietro Denis and Giovanni Fouchetti. Meanwhile, in Prague, Mozart was working on Don Giovanni and Beethoven produced his four works for mandolin and piano.


The mandolin’s popularity declined as the Nineteenth century progressed and orchestras grew in size. The instrument had a relatively subdued public profile until the latter part of the Nineteenth century. However, in Italy it continued to be a popular instrument, with several virtuoso players maintaining its status within serious classical music. It was around the turn of the twentieth century that the boom of Italian immigration, coupled with an increased number of virtuosic players touring areas of Western Europe as well as the United States, South America and Japan, that the mandolin reappeared in the public eye. Out of this wave of immigration and touring, virtuoso Italian players managed to revive public interest in the mandolin.


It is possible to name a handful of the many skilled performers/composers that had a significant impact on the instrument’s popularity at this time. In Britain, Benedetto Persichini and later, Mario de Pietro would leave a legacy of mandolin performance that continues to this day. Another performer who has left an enduring tradition in his wake was Silvio Ranieri, who settled in Belgium in 1901. Ranieri is shining example of an individual who not only demonstrated what the mandolin was capable of through his performances but also through his compositions, notably his concerto in D major. It was also during this period that Raffaele Calace left an indelible mark on the history of the mandolin. His work as an instrument maker, composer and touring performer was, and continues to be, highly influential. His compositions range between light, folk inspired pieces to two serious and interesting concerti for mandolin and piano. It could be argued that out of any of the individuals involved with promoting the mandolin during this period, Calace may have had the largest influence of any.


As the twentieth century progressed into the twenty-first, the mandolin has managed to branch out in several directions. Austrian and German composers such as Norbert Spröngl and Konrad Wölki have contributed to the instrument's development, writing music that combines aspects of early performance technique and twentieth century harmonic ideas. Their influence, as well that of others from the area that followed have spawned what can possibly be described as an entirely new school of mandolin performance unique unto itself.


As things stand today, there are several identifiable areas where one can find mandolin activity around the globe. Players and composers continue to develop both performance practices as well as compositional material. Active professional performers as well as composers can be found in Japan, Australia, North and South America, Israel, Russia and almost all corners of Europe. To list every individual currently involved in promoting the mandolin would be nearly impossible, suffice it to say that the instrument is alive and well and is quite possibly enjoying its brightest day in the sun to date.


Travis Finch


Travis Finch is currently in his third year of Bmus studies, mandolin performance, at Trinity College of Music.


For more information on the history of the mandolin, see The Classical Mandolin by Paul Sparks and also The Early Mandolin by James Tyler and Paul Sparks.


q.v. The Mandolin at Trinity College of Music


Picture: Tiepolo Woman with a Mandolin; The Detroit Institute of Arts