About the Mandolin
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.
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.