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© ErN 123, Jeff Matthews  entry Mar 2006

The Neapolitan Mandolin

mandolin imageThere are some musical instruments that it really sounds weird to say that you play them. (And, no, I don't intend to retract one iota of that convoluted syntax; it fits right in.)

Take the tuba. Please. A man who plays the tuba is so embarrassed about it, that he will stammer out a euphemism: "I play... low brass... know...the...
tuba...". A woman who plays the tuba won't even whisper the word. She'll usually say, "What!? Why they told me that this was a harp! Oh, those heartless bastards!"

"I play ophicleide" will stop any conversation —and then empty the room quickly since many people confuse ophicleide with the zoological term for whatever the thing was that burst out of that guy's chest in Alien.

It's not so much that the word "mandolin" sounds strange. After all, it just means "small mandola" and who could find fault with that? (If you can't wait, go to the bottom of the page.) It's just that the instrument has sort of disappeared from our general musical consciousness.

The mandolin is part of the large "lute family" of plucked string instruments. There are various kinds of mandolins in use in Italy; they bear the names of cities or regions: the "Roman", the "Lombard", the "Genovese", and the "Neapolitan" mandolin. They may differ in size, shape, number of strings and tuning. The traditional Neapolitan mandolin (photo) is tear-shaped with a bowl back and a uniquely cut and shaped front (sounding board); it has eight strings paired into the four violin tunings of g, d', a', and e'. The strings are played with a plectrum, producing the rapid and characteristic tremolo sound as the plectrum moves rapidly over two unison strings. In that configuration, the Neapolitan mandolin has been manufactured widely in Naples since the mid-1700s.

In spite of the modern vision of the mandolin as a quaint vehicle for older, traditional popular music such as the Canzone Napoletana, the instrument has a classical history, as well. If you decide to study mandolin at the Naples Conservatory, here is what you have to play in order to pass your final exam—before they give you that piece of paper and you hit the bricks to look for gigs:

(Abridged, from the conservatory catalog):

"Play one concerto for mandolin and orchestra (in piano reduction). Candidate may choose from the following: A. Vivaldi, Concerto in C major; F. Lecce, Concerto in G major; J.N. Kummel, Concerto in G major; G. Hoffmann, Concerto in D major; R. Calace; second concerto in A  minor (1st & 2nd movements);

"Play a composition for unaccompanied mandolin. The candidate may choose from the following: (here, ten choices from the 19th and 20th century repertoire);

"Play one composition accompanied by piano, harpsichord, or guitar, chosen from among the following: (here, 11 choices, including Beethoven's Adagio in E-flat major for mandolin and harpsichord.);

"Play one piece of medium difficulty with one hour of preparation;

"Play the mandolin orchestral parts chosen by the exam commission from among the following: (Here, four choices, including Mozart's Don Giovanni);

"Sightread a piece presented by the exam commission;

"Pass an oral exam on the history of the instrument and knowledge of the repertoire."

That is an awful lot to do if you are going to wind up as the stereotypical mandolin player who wanders from restaurant to restaurant with a guitar-playing buddy to play for tips. Yet, you can study the mandolin; you can even learn how to restore old instruments and make new ones. (You would then be a "luthier"—like Stradivarius. He made mandolins, too. If you wanted to call yourself Martin Luthier, think of all the swell jobs you could get repairing instruments for banjo-beating Baptists!) There is also a Neapolitan Mandolin Academy, which aims to combat the degraded stereotype of the instrument, preserve the historical repertoire and even get some new music composed, as well.

O.K.  Mandola comes from the Greek word pandura, a plucked instrument supposedly invented by Pan. He was embarrassed to say "I play the Panpipes."

(The image at the top was borrowed from a delightful website:

I will cheerlessly delete it upon request.)

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