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The modern mandolin is an eight-stringed instrument in the lute family, although it first emerged during the 1600s and 1700s. With this article we delve into the very ancient history of this instrument, up to the modern day use.
Cave paintings from around 13 000 BC indicate a single-stringed instrument played by a bow. From here, stringed instruments developed, with each string playing a single note, and new strings adding new notes to the instrument. This evolved into intruments such as harps and lyres. More strings gave way to the development of chords, such as the bow harp. As time went on, the bow harp was straightened out, a bridge added to lift the strings, and this resulted in the lute.
These are all fairly small instruments that can be easily transported or carried on the person. The Moors first introduced the lute to Spain (then Andalusia), but Muslim and Byzantine musicians also brought the lute from Arabia to Sicily. The lute can be seen in the royal palace Cappella Palatina ceiling paintings, as per Norman King Roger II of Sicily, 1140. His grandson the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II continued bringing Moorish musicians into his court and by the 14th century, the lute had been widespread and used across Italy. It also made its way into German-speaking lands.
Europe and the Middle Ages
From the 13th century forward, the lute is depicted in pictures and sculpture. From these visual depictions we can see how the shape of the lute developed, as well as other innovations such as number of strings. In the 14th century we can see the introduction of doubled strings, a feature that mandolins are now associated with. The mandore, a French teardrop-shaped lute, appeared in the 16th century. The Italians redesigned this version of the lute, creating the mandolino/Baroque mandolin, smaller and played with fingers, and the strings were made of animal intestines (called catgut).
Renaissance and Innovation
Into the 18th century, strings are now made of metal. This information is gathered form stories and literature describing musicians/players who travelled through Europe. A major maker of stringed instruments were the Vinaccias of Italy. In addition to mandolins they made violins, guitars, and cellos: their names remain on labels inside antique instruments that survived through today. The shapes and materials used have changed significantly: from mandolinos (small mandolins) with flat soundboards and gut strings all the way to mandolins with bent soundboards using steel or bronze strings.
The advent of the metal-string mandolin was the next step in going from mandolino to mandolin. This began in the 1740s and only three strings were brass; the other one was made of gut. The use of the instrument grew in popularity over the next 60 years, into the 1810s, by courting men, street musicians and musical concert hall performers.
Fall and Rise of Mandolin Popularity
After 1815, the mandolin’s popularity began to fall: fewer virtuosos were studying or playing this instrument and it became a folk instrument.
Throughout the 1800s, Pascale Vinaccia remodeled the mandolin by extending the fretboard to 17 frets and introduced stronger wire strings. The stronger strings involved strengthening the mandolin body and deepening the bowl to make for deeper tonal resonance.
It then saw a resurgence of popularity after the Paris Exposition of 1878, thanks to a group of Spanish musicians who dressed in historic clothing and played flutes, violins and bandurria. The group was highly popular and the public mistook the bandurria for a mandolin, and thus its popularity soared as people were reminded of the instrument.
During the 1880s and 90s, a group of Italian mandolinists travelled Europe and America teaching the mandolin. Thousands of people were taking up the instrument as a society pastime. Entire orchestras were formed around the world featuring guitars, double basses, zithers and of course, mandolins. This period of time is known to enthusiasts as the Golden Age of the mandolin.
1900s – Modern Day
However, after World War I, its popularity declined once more, as jazz became popular music and the mandolin was simply not suited for that style of music, as it is a quieter instrument and works better in folklore or medieval sounds. Additionally, fewer people were learning musical instruments as they had new technologies to play with, such as automobiles or outdoor sports.
Even though the popularity declined, this means fewer people were learning the instrument, but so many had already learned and dedicated their studies to developing their mandolin skills. New models of mandolin were introduced in the 20th century including a carved-top or arched-top mandolin, electric mandolin and resonator mandolin, all to be used in Celtic, rock n roll, bluegrass and classical music. These new models of mandolin helped the modern player write new styles of music.
To this day, the mandolin is a staple of worldwide folk music, as well as Bluegrass, Baroque, and worldwide classical. It is often used in Afghan popular music, and has even been used in punk-folk by the Dropkick Murphys.