A Musical Delight: A History of the Mandolin

Can you imagine a musician fiddling his mandolin on top of the roof? This is the awesome opening of Fiddler on the Roof; the Tony Award winning musical that won the hearts of people all over the world because it showcases the indomitable human spirit. Yes, the man on top of the roof was magically weaving music from his mandolin! Getting to know this musical delight would make an interesting study.

The mandolin is a stringed musical instrument with a hollow wooden body, a neck with a flat and fretted fingerboard, a nut, a floating bridge and a tailpiece or pinblock at the edge of the face to which metal strings are attached. A mandolin is either strummed or plucked in a trill.

History of Mandolin

Even before the 14th century, earlier type of this stringed instrument was already played around Europe. The mandola, is credited as the progenitor of the mandolin; it has a string and ornamental with angular designs. The mandola has two pairs of double courses metal strings which are synchronized in unison rather than by a rhythmic group of eight lines. Its scale length is normally 42 cm or 16.5 inches. History claimed that this instrument is closely associated with the mandore, mandole, pandurina, bandurina, and the quinterne or chiterna which abound during the 16th century of Germany.

Known as a musical instrument of chord, mandolina varies according to time and place but its foremost design is the Neapolitan mandolina which has four sensible doubled- tapers similar to a violin. As differentiated from a violin, the mandolina’s chords are pressed with a plectrum. It has also a concave or flat sounding box.

Mandolin sounds are used to play Indian music for it is classical and gives no pitch sound. Mandolin is used to produce minstrels, renaissance or folk music. Country, bluegrass and old-time music are basically played using the mandolin. It has replaced the use of violin which is considered more expensive and is the favorite by traveling musical groups. Its sounds are comparable to the banjo but have less twang and the music takes on different variations. Hip-Hop music favors the mandolin for its rhythmic tones. Mandolin is a favorite choice for it is easy to play and economical.

 The original mandolin, with its almond-shaped body unfolded in the 15th century from the lute. During the 17th -18th centuries, this became popular in Italy but Naples is credited for creating the deep-bowled mandolin which became a favorite in the 19th century. Later, the smaller type known as Mandolina made its appearance.

The 20th century saw the rise in popularity of the mandolin for celtic, bluegrass, jazz and classical styles. Much of the development of the mandolin from Neapolitan bowl back to the flat back style is due to the work of Orville Gibson (1856 - 1918) and Lloyd Loar, the chief designer for the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co Ltd.

Origin of the Mandolin

Between 15,000 – 8,000 B.C., there were cave paintings of the first string instruments from which the mandolin is probably derived. It had all of its features for it could be bent, strummed or picked. In these early devices, the strings were longer and gave only one kind of melody. It is from them that families of instruments developed into the type that it is today. These instruments had longer strings with only a single melody line. Other strings were added with different tensions so one string could take over where others left off. Lutes were the earliest instruments to be bowed and plucked using multiple strings and could be played with chords.

There are two basic types of the Mandolin: the bowl back or Neapolitan mandolin and flatback style by Orville Gibson. Flatback and mandolas are presently the most popular style and are being produced by manufacturers all over the world. The simplest have a flat soundboard and fretboard while the most costly have slightly curved fretboard and soundboard.

The bowl design is pear shaped with carved-built ribs and top-angled. Woods used in the ribs are from cypress, maple or sycamore; while the upper part is made from spruce. Ebony or palisander makes up the bridge while spruce comprises the neck; an ebony veneer is added to make materials more durable. There are 14 to 27 frets set on the fingerboard based to equal temperament and added frets above.

New developments took place as frets and double strings were added resulting to the appearance of the first genuine version of the lute in the 13th century. This started the intertwined history of the Lute and the Mandolin.

The Mandolin Emerges

In the 14th century, there appeared in Arabic countries, a device similar to the mandolin called the mandora which is a diminutive pear-shaped stringed instrument belonging to the lute family. It acquired its name from the former rebec models of the 16th century.

Carved from one piece of wood, the original body and neck of the mandora was shaped like a sickle with a pegbox and lateral tuning pegs. There are four or five strings fastened to the end of the instrument which are strummed with a plectrum. With the heightened influenced of the lute, the mandora by the 17th century had 8 to 12 strings in double courses.

The mandolino, also called Baroque mandolin, is a tiny mandola with six strings which is tuned g b e' a’d g and played with a quill (pen made of bird’s feather), wooden plectrum or just the fingers. This device was developed in the 18th century Naples.

It is in Naples, Italy that the Neapolitan mandolins evolved from the mandore which is a soprano lute, during the early seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It has a bowl-back with 4 course paired metal strings. In the U.S., this type of mandolin is called tater bag because it is similar to the potato bug.

There are two types of mandolin: the Roman and the Neapolitan with most of the professional stringed players opting for the Roman-made mandolins. Roman mandolins were created by the Vinaccia family beginning from the 1700s onwards as a continuation of their mandolinos. The Calace family starting 1863 continued the tradition in Naples. There are several families perpetuating its creation such as Luigi Embergher from 1856 - 1943, the Ferrari family from 1716 – onwards and De Santi family from 1834 - 1916 in Rome. However, the evolution of the mandolin to its present form is credited to the Vinaccia family.

Today, the popularity of the mandolin has not abated and it has become an important musical string instrument. With the rebirth of country music, the mandolin made a come. In the field of rock and roll, mandolin has been persistently the favorite. Mandolin is really a musical delight to all music lovers.