The mandolin is a plucked string instrument which
developed from earlier instruments in the late Renaissance - in
particular the mandora. It continued to develop in various forms
and sizes in different countries and from different makers. If you have
a spare three hours ask a friendly mandolin player about the styles of
mandolin out there. As these pages concern themselves with classical
music we will restrict ourselves mainly with those that have found their
way into that field, such as those shown to the right.
The mandolin became popular for street and light
entertainment in Italy and still remains an almost obligatory instrument
for Neapolitan song. Further north it was regarded as the sort of
discreet parlour instrument which a young lady of quality could play in
a seated position without having to indulge in the unseemly and sweaty
practice of bowing required by an instrument such as a violin.
A common form of the mandolin was at the same pitch and
tuned in the same manner as the violin which meant that simple violin
music could transfer straight to the mandolin. However a mandolin, which
is usually played with a plectrum, has very little 'sustain' and
each note dies away very quickly which would seem to make it unsuitable
for flowing 'singing' melodies. This problem is solved by tremolando - a
repetition of the one note for as long as required as the plectrum is
moved backwards and forwards rapidly across the strings. If there was
just a single string (as on most guitars) per course then the sound
would stop each time the plectrum came in contact with the string and
not restart until the plucking action had finished. Thus if you listened
to the sound in slow motion it be something like "pling - dull
thud - silence - pling - dull thud - silence - pling' etc. Not a
particularly pleasing sound. However, as the mandolin usually has two
strings per course (at least in the lower and middle registers) than one
string continues to ring while the other is in contact with the
plectrum. Much more satisfactory.
In fact it is this tremolando that people most
immediately associate with the mandolin. When you hear you are wafted
off to that night in the moonlight with the warm Mediterranean breezes,
the romantic music drifting across the water, the soft breath on your
neck, the increased heart rate, the smooth silk being . . . Sorry, we
got carried away, but that's what the mandolin can do.
Because of its association, the mandolin was sometimes
introduced in opera to denote a street performer or courtly serenader.
Probably the best known example is the serenade "Deh vieni alla
finestra" from Mozart's
Don Giovanni. It finds its
way into Baroque music with some notable concertos by
Vivaldi. The mandolin became
a popular salon instrument in Vienna and
Beethoven wrote several
works for mandolin and piano. (Special mention should perhaps be made of
Fauré's song Mandoline.
In this setting of Verlaine's poem, Fauré' uses a piano accompaniment in
the style of a mandolin.) By the twentieth century, certain
composers found that the sharp attack and quick decay of the mandolin
could be a positive asset for certain styles of spiky avant-garde music
and it is used in this way by Schoenberg and
Berg. Later composers stretched
the instrument further. For instance George Crumb in his
Ancient Voices of Children has the two strings in each course tuned
a quarter-tone apart to eerie effect.
In film music, the mandolin is quickly called into play
to evoke an atmosphere of Italian 'doce vita'. However it takes a
composer like Nino Rota to take the use of mandolin past the
evocation of mere local colour. A good example can be found in his
orchestration of the waltz from The Godfather.
Copyright © 1995 -
Some forthcoming Australian concerts and performances featuring
Selected mandolin sheet music:
Scott Joplin: Ragtime Solos And Duets (20 Scott Joplin
Favorites) Composed by Scott Joplin (1868-1917), arranged by
Jerry Silverman. C instrument duet songbook for C instrument
duet (flute, recorder, oboe, violin, mandolin, harmonica). With
duet notation and chord names. 62 pages. Published by G.
Schirmer, Inc. (HL.50462620)
See more info...
Easiest Mandolin Book By William Bay. For mandolin.
Songbook. Easiest. All styles. Level: Beginning. Book. Size
8.75x11.75. 32 pages. Published by Mel Bay Publications, Inc.
See more info...
Celtic Mandolin Encyclopedia By Robert Bancalari. For
Mandolin. Solos. Encyclopedia. Celtic/Irish. Level:
Beginning-Intermediate. Book. Size 8.75x11.75. 144 pages.
Published by Mel Bay Publications, Inc. (98197)
See more info...