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From Baroque to Bluegrass, a Globe-Trotting Instrument

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Black and white photograph of uniformed students at the Hampton Institute playing mandolins, guitars, banjos, and a cello.
[Hampton Institute, Hampton, Va., ca. 1898 – 11 students in uniform playing guitars, banjos, mandolins, and cello]. Photographic print by Frances Benjamin Johnson, [1899 or 1900].
During the past few years, a humble but seemingly ubiquitous instrument has captured my attention and imagination, beckoning me to unravel its mysteries. It sings out in rock anthems such as Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore,” and John Hiatt’s “Cry Love.” In more recent years it lent its scintillating, crystalline tones to the soundtrack of Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) in a charming arrangement of Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata for Violin and Lute in C Major, RV 82 (1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer also featured Vivaldi’s works for this instrument). Its piercing timbre has played a starring role in the storied string bands of country and bluegrass music. It is favored in folk music of diverse regions of the world, and it has even forayed into jazz. Which instrument is it? The mandolin! The more I’ve taken note of the mandolin music around me, the more I realized how little I knew about this instrument whose appeal has traversed genres, geography, and time to be heard where you may least expect it. Let’s explore some of this versatile instrument’s extensive travels with offerings from the NLS Music Section’s collection.

The mandolin is believed to descend from two short-necked lute instruments, the gittern of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance-era mandore. The earliest surviving music written specifically for mandolin is found in anonymous 17th-century manuscripts from Florence, Rome, and Bologna, containing dance and other popular music associated with the royal courts of those cities. However, historical records also indicate that the mandolin was used in large and small ensembles as early as the mid-16th century and was used in cantatas, chamber music, oratorios, and operas by the close of the 17th century. During the early 18th century, composers wrote sonatas, concertos, and partitas that featured the mandolin, and it was also used for obbligato and color in operas and oratorios by composers including Vivaldi and Handel.

In the 1740s, the Vinaccia family of Naples developed a new style of mandolin that was tuned in 5ths like a violin, making it readily accessible to learners. Owing in part to Italian mandolinists who toured to give concerts and lessons between 1750-1810, the new mandolin became popular throughout Europe. More than 1,000 mandolin duets, sonatas, trios, and quartets date to this period. As its popularity grew, the mandolin serenade became a beloved trope in numerous operas, for example the canzonetta “Deh, vieni alla finestra,” which Don Giovanni sings in an effort to seduce Donna Elvira’s maid in Mozart’s 1787 opera. The mandolin subsequently fell out of fashion in the first half of the 19th century. Although the instrument was hardly heard in concert halls and opera houses during this time, it remained popular in southern Italy, where street singers used it to accompany themselves. Indeed, as Paul Sparks notes in Grove Music Online, “The popularity of the mandolin has generally been underestimated by scholars because most performances have taken place outside the musical mainstream.”

The next chapter in the mandolin’s journey, including its arrival in the United States, is what has most fascinated me about this instrument’s story. How did this European instrument go from Italian opera serenades to Bill Monroe’s bluegrass? As noted above, the mandolin remained prominent in popular and folk music in Italy in the 19th century. By the 1880s most Italian towns boasted at least one mandolin orchestra, which played concerts of operatic transcriptions, waltzes, and romances. Queen Margherita’s patronage of a Florentine mandolin ensemble in 1881 did much to promote the instrument’s prestige and fashionability among Italy’s middle and upper classes.

In the United States, up until 1880 the mandolin was heard only in Italian immigrant communities. In January of that year, a Madrid-based ensemble called Estudiantina Española Figaro (also known as the Spanish Students), embarked on a tour of North America during which they dazzled audiences, received rave reviews, and played to sold-out theaters. Newspapers mistakenly reported that the group played mandolins (rather than their actual bandurrias and guitars), which opened the door for Carlo Curti to debut his own mandolin ensemble composed of Italian immigrants under the name “the Spanish Students” in New York City that same year. This group, too, went on to enjoy great success. In 1887 the Boston Ideals, a popular banjo and guitar quintet, added mandolins to their ensemble and popular American music to their repertoire. In the early 1890s, the mandolin surpassed the banjo in popularity among amateur musicians in the U.S. By the late 1890s mandolin clubs were forming across the country, and by the turn of the century formal mandolin orchestras had become popular. The “mandolin craze” was in full swing.

Indeed, Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” of 1902 is subtitled “A Rag Time Two Step dedicated to James Brown and His Mandolin Club” (BRM27108). The composition can be said to evoke the plucking and tremolos of a mandolin. The piece’s publisher John Stark & Son also issued an arrangement of the piece for two mandolins and guitar, and the first commercial recording of the piece was done in 1928 by a mandolin-guitar duo. In the early 1900s, a virtuosic brand of solo mandolin playing called “duo-style” developed, which combined chords, bass lines, and melodic lines with strums, tremolo, and cross-picking. The mandolin became the centerpiece of the Banjo, Mandolin, Guitar (BMG) movement, which from about 1880-1950 brought together instrument manufacturers, music publishers, professional performers, teachers, and amateur players to promote these instruments for solo and ensemble use.

The mandolin craze in the U.S. was on the wane by the early 1920s, and the instruments that people had previously used in mandolin clubs and orchestras began to appear in other settings. During that decade, the mandolin could be heard on the radio and on records in string bands and mandolin-guitar duos of the emerging genre that the record labels dubbed “hillbilly music” (also known as old-time country music). In the late 1920s mandolinist Bill Monroe developed a distinctive style that featured in his arrangements of gospel, folk, and original songs. In the 1940s the style of Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys was emulated by countless performers and bands, giving birth to a new genre. Subsequently, mandolin masters Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart have championed the instrument in bluegrass and country music. In the realm of jazz, David Grisman used the mandolin in fusions of bluegrass and jazz, and Ornette Coleman was among the first free-jazz musicians to experiment with the instrument, composing Notes Talking for unaccompanied mandolin in 1986.

The NLS Music Section offers the following items in braille and audio formats so that you can enjoy exploring the many moods of the mandolin. To borrow any materials mentioned in this post, you may access BARD or contact the Music Section by phone at 1-800-424-8567, option 2, or e-mail [email protected].

Learn to Play the Mandolin

Brown, Bill. Intro to the Mandolin for the Visually Impaired (DBM02821)

Brown, Bill, 1959. Mandolin Basic Chords (DBM03790). Cartridge only.

Chord Chart for Mandolin: Braille Chord Diagrams (BRM36078)

Götze, Walter. Die Mandolinenstunde: Spielbuch mit Lehranweisungen. In German contracted braille. (BRM21752)

Sokolow, Fred. Fretboard Roadmaps Mandolin: The Essential Patterns That All the Pros Know and Use (BRM36826)

Mandolin Serenade in Opera

“Deh, vieni alla finestra” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (BRM24936 or BRM23491)

Traditional Irish Folk Music

Bickford, Mark. Irish Dance Tunes for Mandolin. Cartridge only. (DBM01275)

Jazz Mandolin

Statman, Andy. Jazz Mandolin (DBM02196)

The Mandolin in Country Music

Poplin Family. The Poplin Family of Sumter, South Carolina (DBM03980)

Seeger, Mike. Old Time Country Music (DBM03995)

Bluegrass Mandolin

Bush, Sam. Bluegrass Mandolin. “Sam Bush starts you off with some easy tunes, covering essentials such as how to hold the instrument, correct pick technique and the secret of unlocking the ‘power’ in your right arm. He introduces increasingly more complex pieces, along with improvisational techniques for creating exciting solos.” (DBM02192)

Country Gentlemen. Country Songs, Old and New: The Country Gentlemen. “Here are the classic Country Gents in their first album-length release, produced by Mike Seeger in a Washington D.C. studio toward the end of 1959 (the exact date is lost), as their music was solidifying into the sound that would bring them enduring fame for the next several decades. Seeger had already introduced bluegrass to Folkways records via two albums of informally recorded music which had sold well enough to persuade Moses Asch that more was in order. And made to that order were these young savvy urban musicians who were just beginning to blend several elements of popular music into the traditional bluegrass mix in a successful effort to develop their own style.” (DBM04061)

Davis, Brad. Improvising Bluegrass Mandolin. “For the advanced musician who plays by ear; note names are not given. Standard licks and how to use them to improvise, jam, and create original breaks are presented by Brad Davis. Examples are played two or three times at different speeds and with different licks to show various styles.” Cartridge only. (DBM01277)

Huckabee, Dan. Bluegrass Mandolin: The Right Way Is the Easy Way. In this course Dan Huckabee plays each song at full speed followed by a slow detailed lesson taught one phrase at a time. Some of the tunes included are “Gold Rush,” “Big Mon,” “Sugarfoot Rag,” and “John Hard.” Cartridge only. (DBM01281)

Kramer, Paul. Designing Mandolin Solos for Bluegrass Songs. Paul Kramer discusses how to play background for singers and how to embellish the solo part when the mandolin plays it. Songs include “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky,” “Little Cabin on the Hill,” and others. Cartridge only. (DBM01220)

Smithsonian Folkways. Bill Monroe. “Known as ‘The Father of Bluegrass,’ Bill Monroe shaped this American musical form. Hear interviews and rare live recordings from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. (DBM04002)

Additional Selections That Feature Mandolin

Brown, Bill. “Maggie May (Guitar).” Bill Brown teaches the twelve string and six string guitar parts to “Maggie May” in the style of Rod Stewart without the use of music notation. Includes three versions of the backing tracks. Beginner level. Cartridge only. (DBM03788)

Hornsby, Bruce. Mandolin Rain. Included in Popular Music Lead Sheet no. 71. Melody, words, and chord symbols. (BRM32211)

Mahler, Gustav. Das Lied von der Erde. Vocal score for tenor and contralto. Accompaniment not included. Line by line format. The final movement employs the mandolin to evoke the singer’s lute (BRM23983)

R.E.M. Losing My Religion. Included in Popular Music Lead Sheet no. 72. Melody, words, and chord symbols. (BRM32212)

Stewart, Rod. “Maggie May.” For voice and piano. Chord symbols included. Line by line and bar over bar formats (BRM22124)

TalkingTabs. I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow. Audio instruction for learning this song on guitar by ear. As performed in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Cartridge only. (DBM03081)

More from the Library of Congress

Mandolin Recordings from the National Jukebox

Listen to recordings of the following mandolin virtuosos from the turn-of-the-century “mandolin craze”:

Bluegrass Music Essay (The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America)

Learn more about star mandolinist Samuel Siegel

The Marty Stuart Collection at the Library of Congress

Rehearsal of the Estudiantina de San Pio; Civic Center Plaza Ethnic Dance Festival, Chicago, Illinois

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