Guide to Classical Mandolin & Early Music

With this article we will go into details of the history of the use of mandolin in both early music and all the way up to the classical period. First we must define these time periods. Early music is classified as and includes medieval, Renaissance and early baroque, spanning nearly a millennium. Medieval music is anything written 500-1400 A.D. The Renaissance period runs 1400-1600 and the Baroque period includes 1600-1760 A.D. For the sake of this article we will look at European early music, which spans 1250-1750. During this 500 years many new instruments were created, one of which being the mandolin.

There is not a lot written on the early mandolin music for a number of reasons. First of all, the mandolin was not really developed until the 16th century. Its lineage can be traced all the way back to cave paintings from 13 000 B.C. that depict a single-stringed instrument played with a bow. As time went on, slowly new instruments were invented with more strings, each string playing a single note, eventually becoming harps and lyres. The bow harp had more strings, leading to the development of chords. Eventually the bow harp was straightened out and became the lute.

These early stringed instruments were easy to carry on the person. Portability was crucial to the lifestyles back then. From the 13th century onward, one sees the lute depicted in both paintings and sculpture, giving one an idea of the modifications made to the instrument over the century, including the number of strings. By the 14th century one sees the introduction of doubled strings.

In the 16th century, there appeared a teardrop-shaped lute, called the mandore. This version of the lute was then redesigned by the Italians, creating the Baroque mandolin. It was smaller and plucked with the fingers. In the later half of the 1700s, the mandolin was used by men courting potential mates, as well as street musicians and in the concert hall.

Some composers did write for the mandolin, but it was not typically featured as it was perceived as a folk instrument. There was not really room for a mandolin in the orchestra. Composers who wrote for the mandolin include Vivaldi, Beethoven and Mozart. The mandolin was developed in the 18h century in Italy, deriving from the mandolino.

In the middle of the 18th century, Neopolitan composers such as Majo and Barbella, a violinist, as well as mandolinists such as Gervasio wrote sonatas, duets and concertos for the mandolin. During this time, Italian mandolinists travelled Europe to perform and train students.

Vivaldi wrote concertos for the mandolin. A concerto is a piece of music written for a solo instrument or one that is accompanied by an orchestra. His orchestral compositions were unique in the instruments featured as the head: for example, the mandolin! Who else was writing for the mandolin at the time? Not many. Vivaldi’s mandolin concertos included:

– four-chord mandolin, string bass in C major

– two 5-chord mandolinos, string bass in G major

– two mandolins, two violino intromba, 2 recorders, salmo, theorbo, cello, string bass in C major

The mandolin was quite big in France, as well, and their mandolin developed from the Baroque mandore. There is some philosophy involved in classical mandolin history: particularly that of Rousseau, who was also a musician and influenced the French revolution. This genre was called opera-comique, which mixed both song and spoken word, so as to tell the stories of the peasant and middle class in a simple but noble way of the aristocracy. In fact this style was loaded politically and in it, you could sense the foretelling of the French Revolution.

After the Revolution in France, the mandolin lost popularity, but was widely played in Italy and Germany.

Beethoven was an avid player of the mandolin and wrote four small pieces for it in 1796. Both Vivaldi and Beethoven wrote their music on a mandolin strung with harpsichord wire.

Around 1800, Viennese composer Giovanni Hoffmann wrote chamber music pieces that employ the mandolin, violin, viola and cello, as well as a concerto for mandolin and chamber orchestra. It features a mandolin and alto duet very indicative of the classical era.

For most of the 1800s after this, the mandolin rather disappeared from popularity and was only really popular in Italy until the Paris World Fair of 1890.

The mandolin’s classical golden era ranged 1890-1920 after the Paris World Fair where there played a mandolin orchestra. For the next thirty years, the mandolin remained a very popular instrument that was taken up as a suitable pastime for gentlepeople. In fact many of the pieces written specifically for mandolin were written to please the aristocratic patrons who played mandolin themselves.

The mandolin of course was not developed until the 18th century, but its predecessor the soprano lute was used in the Middle Ages and through the Baroque era.

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