Dating back 400 years, the mandolin is related to the lute – an early plucked string instrument that used to accompany songs, often sad ones.
An example of the lute, related to the mandolin
Dowland: Lord Strange’s March, P. 65
Nigel North, lute. Naxos 8.557586
In the 20th century, there was a new burst of interest in the mandolin. This was helped by the author Louis de Bernières when he wrote a best-selling novel called Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – about an Italian soldier who takes his mandolin everywhere he goes.
The mandolin makes a delicate plinking sound. It used to be plucked with a quill – a feather from an ostrich or a hen. Now it’s plucked with a plectrum. It has frets, like the guitar, but the strings are in pairs, tuned to the same note.
The word ‘mandolin’ is related to the Italian word for ‘almond’ – ‘mandorla’. The mandolin is shaped like an almond!
The mandolin has been used in folk music and jazz, and features in some classical pieces: Vivaldi wrote a concerto for two mandolins! Mahler used it in his Symphony No. 7. The radical 20th-century French composer Pierre Boulez put it in his big vocal piece Pli selon pli, where he enjoys experimenting with different kinds of sounds.
Just as there are electric guitars, there are also electric mandolins.
To play it
- You hold it diagonally across your body, like the guitar.
- The idea is to tickle the plectrum backwards and forwards very fast over each note, to make a tremolo (‘trembling’) kind of sound.
- The fingers of your left hand press the strings in between the frets for different notes.
Do You Know?
See if you can answer the questions below!
● The mandolin gets its name from the Italian word for which nut?
● The mandolin is played in a similar way to which instrument?
● What was the name of the novel by Louis de Bernières that helped to revive interest in the mandolin?
● The mandolin makes an appearance in which opera by Mozart?
● The mandolin is related to which early instrument?
Play More Music!
Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Don Giovanni: Act II, Scene 3. Canzonetta: ‘Deh, vieni alla finestra’ (‘Oh, come to the window’)
It’s very unusual to have a mandolin in an opera. So this aria – or ‘Canzonetta’ (Italian song) – is famous for having one! The badly behaved Don Giovanni is disguised as a servant, and he is outside the window of a woman he is trying to impress. So he sings to her, ‘Oh, come to the window…’ Can you hear his mandolin, tinkling in the background?
Performers: Bo Skovhus, Don Giovanni (baritone); Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Michael Halász
Taken from Naxos 8.660080-82
Raffaele Calace (1863–1934)
Danza dei nani (‘Dance of the Elves’), Op. 43
Raffaele Calace came from Naples, Italy, and he was an amazing mandolin player. He was born into a family of mandolin and guitar makers, so as a little boy he would have become familiar with the instrument. As a player he took the mandolin to new levels of technique – experimenting and playing more difficult things than anybody had before. This fun ‘Dance of the Elves’ needs some really nimble playing!
Performers: Alison Stephens, mandolin; Steven Devine, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.570434
Avner Dorman (b.1975)
There’s an edgier mood for the mandolin here, in a more modern piece from the American composer Avner Dorman. He loves including different styles of music in his pieces, and here in his Mandolin Concerto from 2006 there is a contrast between still, almost silent, sections and sudden, violent outbursts. The exciting middle movement (track 2) is full of rhythm and energy, and is influenced by Middle Eastern music. The mandolin’s tremolo (‘trembling’) at the start of it gives way to a repeated bass note, like a heartbeat. There’s never a dull moment from Dorman!
Performers: Avi Avital, mandolin; Metropolis Ensemble; Andrew Cyr
Taken from Naxos 8.559620