About the Mandolin

Playing Classical Mandolin

What is classical mandolin?

Mandolin Orchestras

What is a mandolin orchestra?

Orchestras of the Past

View old orchestra photos.

Playing Classical Mandolin

The mandolin is the high soprano voice of the mandolin family of instruments. The family includes the mandola, octave mandolin, mandocello, and mandobass.

The mandolin evolved from the lute in Italy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and has a long and rich history. It became a popular instrument among European aristocracy in the eighteenth century. Many celebrated composers, such as Beethoven, Hummel, Mozart, and Vivaldi, wrote original works for the mandolin.

The late nineteenth century to early twentieth century is known as the “golden era” of mandolin. This era gave us great mandolin virtuosi and composers such as Raffaele Calace, Carlo Munier, Giuseppe Pettine, Sam Siegel, Valentine Abt, and many others too numerous to list. A vast body of musical literature for mandolin solo and ensemble was created in this era and is still played to this day. During the mandolin craze, almost every town in America offered a mandolin orchestra.

In the USA, it was near the turn of the twentieth century that mandolins started to morph from the traditional bowl-back shape (still common in many parts of Europe) to the flat-back and arch-top shapes that many North Americans are familiar with today. Orville Gibson and later the Gibson Company invented and produced the familiar arch-top “A” and “F” models that now dominate the American mandolin market.

As musical tastes shifted in America, classical mandolin fell into great decline during the twentieth century. Most mandolin orchestras disbanded and mandolin became known largely as a folk and bluegrass instrument.

In 1986 the Classical Mandolin Society of America was formed by Norman Levine to help preserve and revive the classical mandolin tradition. Since the formation of the CMSA, many mandolin orchestras and ensembles have started throughout the U.S. The CMSA has helped mandolinists interested in the classical tradition connect with each other and share music, ideas, and support. The CMSA has also been instrumental in bringing world-renowned mandolin virtuosi to the U.S. to perform and teach.

 

Mandolin Orchestras

A mandolin orchestra is an ensemble of plucked string instruments similar in structure to the string sections of a symphony orchestra. There are sections for first and second mandolins, mandolas, mandocelli, classical guitars, and basses (originally mandobasses but now more likely to be double basses).

Most mandolin orchestras are community-based and are supported by a core of professional musicians and teachers with a passion for plucked string instruments and music. These groups are found in nearly all major cities in the western world, as well as Japan, Korea, and South America. Mandolin orchestras were very popular in the early 20th Century and every city and town and many schools had one.

Who were they? Known and Unknown Mandolin Ensemble Photos From The Past

Editor’s Note: This is something Dave Betts has wanted to do for a long time… post pictures of “unknown” mandolin groups (or “known” ones… it’s fun to recapture the local history of our favorite instrument). We’ll try to use the power of the Internet to see if we can’t collectively identify some of them.

If you have run across any similar pictures, send a scanned copy of the photo along with a description to info@classicalmandolinsociety.org.

Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra

Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra

This photo is of the Bonne Amie Musical Circle (now the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra), the oldest fretted-instrument music organization in the United States, in 1908.

(received 4-2016)

Nell Wilson Pond

Nell Wilson Pond

This picture picture was taken in Orange, Texas around 1900. My grandmother was a talented musician who played piano, gave voice lessons as well as playing violin and mandolin. She was a featured performer at the Orange  Opera House, provided piano accompaniment to the Silent Movies, and played at the local Baptist Church. As I was growing up, she taught me to play violin and piano and her influence gave me my love for music.

At least four of these young ladies are related to me. My grandmother Nell Wilson Pond is on the front row at the right. Next to her is her cousin, Stella Wilson Pond. Lela Pond is front row left. On the back row, second from the left is Lillie Pond, Lela’s twin sister. Unfortunately, I have not been able to identify the other girls.

Lloyd Pond

(received 3/2016)

Ada Foster and Band

Ada Foster and Band

These photos were owned by my great grandmother Ada Foster.

Editor’s note: “Every one a Gibson!”, including the mighty Style “U” harp guitar!

Bronwyn O’Brien

(received 05/2014)

Ada Foster and Band

Ada Foster and Band

These photos were owned by my great grandmother Ada Foster.

Editor’s note: “Every one a Gibson!”, including the mighty Style “U” harp guitar!

Bronwyn O’Brien

(received 05/2014)

A Vermont Mandolin Orchestra?

A Vermont Mandolin Orchestra?

I found this picture behind another picture. It was being used for its cardboard! The picture that was in front of it was a portrait of my 3rd great grandfather who was a civil war veteran. I know of no one in my family who was in a group like this. My dad who is 87 says his Dad played banjo. We don’t think he would be in this group.

This picture (or at least the one on the top) originated in Vermont. My family is from the Woodstock and Bridgewater, Vermont area. I have to wonder if this is a college musical group. Perhaps Dartmouth or UVA?

There is nothing written on the back or front. The photograph is glued to the cardboard. I have always loved this photograph and have it displayed in my home even though I don’t know any of the people. It measures a little over 10 inches by 13 inches. I hope someone can identify who these handsome gents might be. If not, it will be nice if a few more people get to see it.

Lisa Sutter

(received 03/2013)

Santa Lucia Mandolin & Guitar Club

Santa Lucia Mandolin & Guitar Club

The caption says: Kurt Whippler, Founder and Director #3393-2

In the picture margin: America’s Exposition, San Diego, California, May 29 – Nov. 11th, 1935
John Sirigo, Official Photographer

The picture was taken from the Organ Pavilion, which is still there to see.

Hokon Flogstead
San Diego, CA

(received 11/2012)

A Worker’s Union Mandolin Orchestra

A Worker’s Union Mandolin Orchestra

This photo is from a union newspaper in Chicago. I believe it was the ILGWU or Amalgamated Clothing Workers, but I’m not sure. The woman sitting lower right is my aunt, Edith Katzman, and I still have that mandolin. I played for a short time but never got very good.

The text above the English is not Hebrew or Yiddish: it is actually a transliteration of the English using Hebrew characters. (The union had a very high percentage of Jewish immigrants).

Jay Shefsky
Chicago, IL

(received 5/2012)

Unidentified Group

Unidentified Group

Editor: This photo is an eBay purchase. The seller called it a “vintage 1940’s photograph – mandolin orchestra – mandola, mandocello, mandolon”

(received 4/2012)

Clifford-Essex Bass Mandolin (Mandobass)

Clifford-Essex Bass Mandolin (Mandobass)

This is a rare Clifford-Essex Bass Mandolin (mandobass).

In 1965, I was playing upright bass with a folk group called “The County Set”. I went to John Alvey Turner’s shop with the banjo player to buy some banjo strings. While we were there we started chatting and Max told me about a Bass Mandolin built by Clifford Essex. I was immediately interested because I thought it would be great to use with the group. It wasn’t at the shop so I arranged to meet him where it was stored. If my memory serves me correctly it was stored in a small brick room underneath the Peabody buildings in Hammersmith. As soon as I saw it I was hooked and bought it. It was and still is a beautiful instrument. It was in an old canvas case which had seen better days, the leather straps were disintegrating but at least it had kept the dust off the instrument.

It needed new strings and Max told me the place to get them was Goddard’s Piano Ironmongers who I think were in Tottenham Court Road. Max told me what gauge I would need (which now I can’t remember), I ordered them and soon had a set of beautiful copper round wound strings. To be honest I think they were actually piano strings. It wasn’t the easiest of instruments to play as Max explained that normally a large leather hand plectrum was used and I didn’t have one. But I found my way round it and really loved the sound of it. Starting in November 1966 we had a three month gig on the Holland America Line cruise ship the “Rotterdam”. I took the Bass Mandolin with me and we cruised the Carribean and did a couple of gigs in New York. Shortly after our return to the U.K. I left the group and have played the instrument very little since. There wasn’t and still isn’t a lot of call for a bass mandolin player!!! Consequently the copper strings are still on it. Max told me that the instrument was the one used by “Troy and his Mandoliers” who played at the Savoy Hotel in London and also toured England. At the time I purchased it there was a photo of “Troy and his Mandoliers” on the wall in the the shop. I asked Max if there was a chance I could purchase that as well, but he wouldn’t part with it.

Robert Hay-Smith
(received 9/2011)

Dayton Mandolin Orchestra

Dayton Mandolin Orchestra

This is the original Dayton Mandolin Orchestra, circa 1910.

Charles B. Rauch, the first Dayton Mandolin Orchestra director, also owned and operated the Dayton Instrument Co. where he made Dayton mandolins. His shop is gone now and we know very little about him after he moved west. (DMO member) Phil Case is as close as you can get to an expert on Charlie and his instruments. Phil says Charles did not write the blurb at the bottom of the photo, rather it is typical of the Gibson marketing department.

I have a 1906 A-3 just like the one the young woman second from the right in the first row appears to be holding. I recently have stopped playing it as I’ve found my husband’s 1914 F-2 easier to play. I favor the sound of the pre-20’s Gibsons and Michael, lucky for me, does too!

Kathryn Hitchcock
Dayton Mandolin Orchestra

(received 10/2009)

Boy Holding a Mandolin

Boy Holding a Mandolin

Carte de visite of an unknown boy holding a mandolin. Note the studio was in Milwaukee. Any of you Milwaukee folks recognize him?

(received 7/2009)

St. Mary’s Academy Mandolin Group

St. Mary’s Academy Mandolin Group

Guitars, mandolins and the occasional banjo were popular with music students at St. Mary’s Academy (Portland, OR) in 1893. (Photo from the online version of The OregonianOregon Live. A big THANKS to Michael Tognetti for spotting it!)

(received 4/2009)

Unidentified Group

Unidentified Group

This picture was given to Dave Betts by Antonina Nigrelli as a Christmas present (2008). Do you know anyone in this picture?

(received 12/2008)

Ivers Mandolin Orchestra

Ivers Mandolin Orchestra

This picture was take in 1921, probably in Adams, Massachusetts, and shows my great-grandfather Joseph Ivers (center), great-grandmother Mary Ivers (center holding the Gibson F-4), and several other relatives including my grandfather, and several great-aunts. One of my great-aunts says they called themselves “The Gibsonians,” which I think many other groups at the time called themselves as well. I have also heard reference over the years to the this group as the “Ivers Mandolin Orchestra.” I’m told they performed at a variety of venues and functions in Western Massachusetts. Some of these instruments are still owned and played by my father. For example I believe the F-4 in this picture is the same mandolin my father Robert Ivers plays when he performs with a group called the Summer Strummers at the Chautauqua Institute each summer.

James Ivers
North Miami, FL

(received 10/2008)

Toledo Mandolin Group

Toledo Mandolin Group

Photo taken on Vance Street in Toledo, OH, 1907

The mandolin player is Mr. Dobek, the uke player’s identity is unknown (Editor: I believe it’s actually a classical guitar.). Four of the others are my uncles on my mom’s side of the family. The rest are their buddies from the neighborhood. My mom’s older siblings were not born in Toledo but migrated here with my grandparents in 1905. They were born in Manistee, Michigan. It’s quite possible that all the men on this photo were born in Manistee, for many Polish people migrated to Toledo, Chicago, South Bend because these towns were coming into their industrial heyday. The timber industry in Michigan was on the wane due to the lack of reforestation.

That oak spindle-back chair in the photo is still in the family. Our daughter and son-in-law have it who live in Wisconsin.

Daniel F. Drzewiecki
Toledo, OH

(received 7/2007)