Short mandolin history
history is well tied to the Lute history, prince of the plucked instruments
and omnipresent from Medieval age to first years of '800. It's universally recognised
that Lute is one of the primary gifts that Islamic Civility gave to Occident,
from various contacts (commerce, wars, invasions, itinerant shows, etc.) between
those two cultures. The Arabic culture's greatest influence was felt, obviously,
in the borderlines and in the invasion zones, then in Spain and in the South
of Italy, but it penetrated in whole Europe too. Between many kind of instruments
of the Persian - Arabian family of Tanbur, it's possible to find the two major
that had given birth or had influenced the many occidental plucked typologies
: AL'UD (the wooden) and SAZ (musical instrument). The first has the following
features: a round sound box, a short neck, gut strings, tailpiece fixed on the
sound board. The second has a round sound box, a long neck, metal strings fixed
under the lower part of the sound board , a mobile bridge. The peculiarities
of those two kinds will be useful for some remarks that will be made later.
Let's do now a brief description of the lute: a pear shaped sound box with a
bellied bottom, a pierced round rose in the middle of the sound board, a short
and large neck, a 90° peg - box, tailpiece fixed on the sound board.. The
typical instrument has six choir of strings, 5 preferably double and a simple
treble string. From the basic instruments derive many similar types that, changing
dimension and tuning, fill the entire sound spectrum, from the Bass to the Soprano.
The word "Mandolin" is a diminutive of "Mandola", that he
comes from the substantive "Mandora". The name Mandora appears during
the XVI Century and indicates a plucked instrument with a stave shell as the
lute but with shorter dimensions, a pierced rose in the harmonic hole and a
variable number of strings, from 4 to 6, tied to the bridge fixed in the sound
board . It was spread especially in France, Germany and England. The Italian
variant of this instrument was called Mandola. This increase the number of strings,
5 or 6, single or double, tuned by fourth with a third more. The word Mandola
was used for the first time in 1589 in Florence, in the instrumental organic
of the famous Intermediates to the Comedy "La Pellegrina" (the pilgrim)
by G. Bargagli, composed for the wedding of Ferdinand I of Lorena and Cristina
The name Mandolin came out later, used by Antonio Stradivari (1644 ca - 1737) and by Tommaso Motta for his "Armonia Capricciosa" of 1681, a two parts instrumental song collection. This name clearly derives from Mandola, maybe due to shorter size, but also hypothetically due to the confrontation with the XVII Century's huge instruments, such as Tiorba and Chitarrone. The word Mandolin, diminutive of Mandola, seems to indicate, almost in the beginning, a smaller instrument than Mandola. In fact, almost immediately, these two words are interchangeable: Mandola / mandolino were intended to be the same instrument.
Alightly concave pear shaped sound box obtained with the approaching of small laths (staves) glued each other and melon slices shaped; an harmonic hole artistically carved on the board; sickle shaped peg - boxes with side pegs; large and short neck with frets from 7 to 12 obtained by guts ties; 5 0r 6 guts string choirs, single or double, tuned by fourth with a third between fifth and sixth choir, tied to a peg - box stuck to the smooth harmonic plan: the descendance from the lute is very evident. Actually it's preferred to call this kind of mandolin Lombardo, because that geographic specification was rather diffused also in the past centuries. This instrument was particularly developed in middle - northern Italy, created by lute - makers from the area of Lombardy.
At the same time, in 1700 other kinds of mandolins were used. The Bresciano Mandolin is a 4 single guts strings, tied to the bridge fixed on the Harmonic board, tuned for fifth such as violin. It was used by Bartolomeo Bortolazzi, called Bresciano or Cremonese by the author himself. The cremonese specification is raising the huge lute tradition of this city (even if Brescia is worth!), but for me it's preferable to maintain the name of Bortolazzi's birthplace.
The Genovese mandolin is a 6 double strings instruments, tied to the sound box's lower edge and with a mobile bridge, tuned by fourth and third like guitar, but with an upper octave. Strings are brass - made with guts treble. This geographic specification is the only one sure from 1700. It's cited in the hand-written Method ascribed to Francesco Conti, "L'accordo della Mandola è l'istesso della chitarra alla francese, scola del Leutino, o sia Mandolino alla Genovese "(1770 - 80 ca) (tuning of the Mandola is the same way of tuning French Guitar, Leutino's school, or Genovese Mandolin). Unfortunately this method gives us only an illustration of the instrument and the tuning without the playing technique and specific exercises on this instrument.
Only since the middle of XVIII Century on Musical Scene appears an instrument called Neapolitan Mandolin with different features to the ancient Mandola / Mandolin. It has a pear shaped profile, but the sound box is deeper, always with glued laths; the sound hole is oval and simply carved; on the board a tortoiseshell plaque is applied to save it from the plectrum wear; the neck is narrower, divided for fixed frets; the peg - box is lightly inclined "spatula shaped", with rear fixed pegs. It keeps 4 double strings choirs, part made by guts, part by metal, tuned for fifth and tied to the lower part of the instrument, endowed with a mobile bridge. The use of metal strings makes necessary a "breaking" on the sound board, near the bridge, to compensate strings' greatest pressure. This instrument was solicited by a plectrum obtained from the extremity of a bird's plum or from a tortoiseshell.
During 1800, particularly in northern area, was developed a Mandolin called Milanese. It has got 6 single strings, tied to the bridge fixed on the harmonic board, tuned like the Lombardo Mandolin. Strings are made of guts, metal or silk covered by silver or copper wires. Defined first as Milanese by Bortolazzi, it's an instrument that received his definitive characterisation in the second half of 1800. Also in the past there were examples of 6 strings instruments, but they were an exception respect to the double strings ones. It conserves a lot of the lombardo's characteristics, but it adapts to the new musical aesthetics of 1800, that requests instruments with a stronger sonority.
After the description of the principal kinds of mandolin, the different genealogies from the two Arabian prototypes of AL'UD and SAZ become clear. To simplify more, from the first one derives the Renaissance and Baroque lutes' family, successively mandora and then mandola / mandolin; from the second one the Saracen guitar and the Neapolitan mandolin. That simplification may seem excessive but it's necessary to clarify things.
The mandolin musical practice was always tied to an elevate rank. It's inferred from the important Lordships dedicatarious of the press musical editions published by Italian masters in '700. They emigrated in whole Europe and in other continents (Bortolazzi died during the crossing that had to bring him to America) to give private lessons to the Aristocracy, Viennese and Parisian specially. Even during the purgatory period suffered when it was relegated only to popular music's circuit (creating a twisted idea about its origins), mandolin was mainly tied to specialised artisans. For all kinds of mandolin exist a remarkable and interesting original music repertoire by well-known and less-known authors, in the chamber music, symphonic or opera-music. Between the most important authors let's recollect Haendel, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Mozart, Salieri, Hummel, Beethoven, Paisiello, Bizet, Paganini, Verdi, Mahler, Prokofiev, Henze, Chailly and many other.
Between the mandolin maker: Stradivari in Cremona, Vinaccia, Fabbricatore, Filano and Calace in Naples; Ferrari in Rome; Vimercati in Milan, Mozzani in Bologna.
Translation by Lorenzo Mazzolini