The Enchanting Mandolin
My mandolin and pick
Love is a mandolin in the moonlight ~
On a patio lit by candlelight, starlight, and moonlight sits a figure cradling a stringed instrument shaped like a gourd. He plays a progression of tremulous notes that vibrate in the air of the warm summer night like the call of a love bird to its mate. The longing in its voice is palpable. The music of the mandolin is made for the moonlight.
No matter where you may be, there is a place for the music of the mandolin. The instrument has a part in the history of many lands. It is such a versatile instrument because it can be played in a variety of musical styles. In this hub, I weave together early historical background about the instrument, its place in American history, its cross-cultural value, and the types of music it is most used for today.
What is a mandolin?
A mandolin is a stringed instrument in the lute family, fashioned in the shape of a gourd. This shape has since been refined to look more like a pear, with abundant variations. Those variations include fancy flourishes such as latticed wooden rosettes, or inlaid abalone, pearl, etc. A person who makes mandolins is known as a luthier. When the instrument was first invented in Italy, gourds were carved and set with strings to create the mandolin. It has a thick, resonant body and a fretted neck, with pegs to adjust the pitch created by each of its 8 strings. There are 4 sets of two strings, with each set producing an identical pitch that is a fifth apart from the sets that are above and below it. The musician may use a pick to make a rich sound by alternating the vibration of each string of a set with a series of up-down motions, to create the classic tremolo effect. A softer sound is created by a softer, slower motion, or by plucking the strings with bare fingers.
What does a mandolin sound like?
The notes made by a mandolin when its strings are plucked or strummed range from deeply sonorous low notes worthy of a cello, to higher pitches that are close in range to a fiddle or violin. There are many instruments in the lute family that are a variation of the mandolin in shape and character, and played for their unique resonance in a small chamber group, orchestra, or folk band. For example, a mandola has a lower, or deeper, range than the mandolin. The bazouki has its roots in Greece and is often used in Middle Eastern folk music.
The mandolin can make the type of sound you intend, whether solo or with accompaniment. Lively fiddle tunes are often played as harmonic accompaniment to the fiddles themselves. Folk ballads, dances, and lullabies, even Christmas carols, sound beautiful on the mandolin. The classical, nylon-stringed guitar is another instrument played as accompaniment to the mandolin, as is the mountain dulcimer and banjo. Antonio VIvaldi's Mandolin Concerto is one example of classical music that has been composed especially for the mandolin.
"Greensleeves/What Child is This?" on the Mandolin"
A Cross-Cultural Instrument
Though the mandolin has its origins in Italy, music from other lands sound equally compelling when played on it. Below is a description of several types of dances that are fun to learn and have accompanied by a mandolin.
Italian - Tarantella
The (Sicilian) Tarantella is a classic Italian tune created to accompany the dance that mimics the feverish movement of a victim of a tarantula bite. When this piece is played on the mandolin, the musician who plays it is giving a deep bow to its cultural origins.
Irish/Celtic - ballads and jigs (The Rakes of Mallow)
Since the dawn of the 20th century, Irish/Celtic dance music has been played well using a mandolin. The sound of the instrument is very dramatic and contributes to the festive air of each piece played for happy occasions. The quick pace at which a mandolin is played by a skillful musician lends itself to traditional Irish dance, and makes the heart race just to hear it. The Rakes of Mallow is one example of such a dance tune. Others include Star of the County Down and The Ballad of St. Anne's Reel.
Spanish - Recuerdos de la Alhambra
"Recuerdos" is a lilting melody written by Francisco Tarrega in 1896, as a dedication to the grand architectural character of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Spanish love songs were composed with the mandolin in mind. The melodious notes produced by the master musician on a mandolin caress the heart and add an extra glow to the face of everyone in the hall.
Links to Luthiers and other mandolin madness ~
- Mandolin Cafe
All about mandolins, including a message board, classifieds, music, chords, news, builders, workshops and more.
- Guild of American Luthiers homepage - string instrument making information
A visually appealing site that offers information about the work of luthiers and the instruments they artfully and lovingly create.
- JuneApple.mov - YouTube
A lively tune on video; produced at Benington College, VT.
- Bluegrass Mandolin Home Page
This site carries the Bluegrass Mandolin website online and for downloading.
Let the Feast Begin - A Short History of the Mandolin
Medieval Court Musicians
In Medieval times, a stringed instrument shaped like a mandolin was named a lute. The lute was played by court musicians, thespians, and those who wrote psalms. When King David was a boy, he played a lute to cheer up King Saul.
No celebration is complete without dancing, and the mandolin brings a unique sound to dance to, particularly with a partner. American Bluegrass, Cajun and Zydeco music feature the mandolin when played live at festivals and jams. The mandolin has also been recently included in arrangements of jazz classics, too.
Singing "Happy Birthday" to a friend or family member is not complete without the sound of the mandolin. Its notes are cheerful and welcome the combination of many voices singing to the "guest of honor." I have been playing the familiar Birthday Song to my daughter for the past 6 years.
Mandolins may be played softly, without a pick. I manage to play quietly with a pick as I sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and All Through the Night to my daughter after I tuck her in, with a finale of an instrumental Lullabye by Johannes Brahms.
What merrier way to sing to the newborn Savior than with the mandolin? Deck the Halls and Good King Wenceslas are two of my favorites. I also play an Italian carol called Tu Scendi dalle Stelle . One year, I accompanied a friend with my mandolin when she sang the song at a concert.
The mandolin has gained popularity in the 21st century. It can make you happy or sad, it definitely makes the feet want to dance when rhythmic chords are played on it near or far. Let it live a full life for many more decades....centuries....millennia. Viva la mandolin!
How do I love thee...?
Have you developed a greater appreciation or affection for the mandolin because of this hub?
© 2010 Karen Szklany Gault