The first time I held a mandolin was at a rehearsal for Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. In the second act, the Don is trying to seduce the maid Zerlina by singing a serenade under her mistress’ window (the canzonetta “Deh, vieni alla finestra”). The conductor asked me to play the mandolin accompaniment to the serenade, while our Don Giovanni mimed strumming a stringless instrument onstage. The mandolin part is often played by one of the violinists because the mandolin and the violin are tuned the same way. I’d never tried an instrument with plucked strings before. Its double courses – two identically tuned strings at each pitch – and its frets were challenging at first, as was learning to hold a pick instead of a bow, but with a little practice I was able to pull it off. I loved it and eventually got a mandolin of my own.
Opera is not the only place you’ll find a mandolin, though. Far from it. Mandolins turn up in all kinds of places – folk musics in a number of parts of the world, bluegrass, rock, jazz, blues, and more. To accommodate many styles, mandolins come in many shapes and sizes in both acoustic and electric forms. Italian folk music tends to be played on a bowlback mandolin that resembles a lute. Bluegrass is usually played on an F-style that looks a little like a tiny electric guitar. American folk is often played on an A-style, which is flat backed like the F-style, but teardrop shaped like the Italian style. They also come in different sizes – there are mandolins tuned like violas, cellos and basses that sometimes play together in a mandolin orchestra. You can see examples of the different styles in this video from Carnegie Hall where Israeli mandolinist Avi Avital takes a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of mandolins.
To celebrate the mandolin, our instrument of the month, I’ve put together a playlist that showcases some of my favorite players and tunes and should give you a taste of the versatility of the instrument.
Image Credit: A “Hauser” mandolin from Germany. Photo by Underpraha. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.