Avi Avital

The mandolin – an all-rounder among instruments

Everything you need to know about the versatile plucked instrument and why it has rightly been chosen as the 2023 instrument of the year.

The mandolin is what sports aficionados might, with the greatest respect, call a versatile midfielder: it rarely scores spectacular goals, almost never forces its way into the limelight as a soloist, and doesn’t really save the day with courageous sliding tackles. However, it is agile in all directions and can be used almost universally, and it thereby forms the solid and secure basis you need to achieve something, be that in music or in sports.

Thanks to this very important quality, the mandolin has had a long and eventful history – and it is also used in a variety of ways in the present (something that won’t come as a surprise to true music lovers). 2023 is the year of the mandolin. The instrument was chosen by the State Music Council of Schleswig-Holstein, which has been responsible for selecting the instrument of the year for the last 15 years. All the other state music councils are following suit and are celebrating the instrument over a period of twelve months, complete with patrons, concerts and workshops – with all the bells and whistles. The Elbphilharmonie is also joining in this celebration of the mandolin. And, as befits a versatile midfielder, the various concerts offer an astonishingly broad spectrum of styles, epochs and genres, from Baroque and bluegrass to a plucking orchestra.

Mandolin Star Chris Thile

A musical must-have

The mandolin belongs to the lute family, one of the oldest of all instrument families. The lute’s history can be traced back 5,000 years and is thought to go back even further. Traditionally built with a round or almond-shaped body, the instrument has a fretted neck that can be straight or kinked. For centuries the instrument was plucked with a plectrum, but another technique has become established in the last thousand years where the fingertips are used.

In the early 17th century, the mandolin joined this family of lute instruments, which can be found all over the world. The smaller cousin was developed in Italy, where it triggered a huge trend that quickly spread to Paris and later to Vienna. If, at that time, you were young and rich, the mandolin was the instrument you would play. Composers wrote works especially for the must-have instrument, but of course the handy and relatively simple instrument was also perfect for playing popular melodies and opera hits.

Mandoline aus dem 18. Jahrhundert
Mandoline aus dem 18. Jahrhundert © Wikimedia Commons

Hiking songs and plucking clubs

The mandolin quickly came to be regarded predominantly as an instrument for amateurs and lovers – a view that has gained broad acceptance since the beginning of the twentieth century. Back then, during the early days of the Wandervogel movement in and around Berlin, the mandolin was discovered as the perfect accompanying instrument for hiking songs because it was so easy to carry. A few years later, in the 1920s and 30s, a number of plucking clubs were established, mainly by women, in which the members would play the mandolin (and related instruments such as the mandola and the cither) together. Even after the war, mandolin orchestras for amateurs remained very popular both in East and West Germany.

Not all mandolins are the same

Despite the numerous plucking orchestras in which people can play even if they can’t necessarily read music, today there is only one university professorship for the mandolin in the world, and that is at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Cologne. Caterina Lichtenberg is the professor there, and her focus is almost exclusively on the European mandolin. This instrument, whose domed, rib-less back connects with the flat cover, is also called the Neapolitan mandolin, in reference to its geographic origins.

As a counterpart to that – and we can draw the boundary here along the same line as the one dividing serious music and popular music – you have the flat mandolin. If you went into a saloon in the USA around the end of the 19th century, it was almost guaranteed that you’d find someone playing the mandolin there. The famous guitar-maker Orville Gibson recognised the (for him, financial) potential here, and developed a design with a flat cover and a flat base, connected with a frame, not unlike the guitar and violin. This design was cheaper to produce and its sound was more aligned with the customs of the time, and the traditional mandolin was increasingly pushed to the side lines.

Orville Gibsons Mandoline, US-Patent 1898
Orville Gibsons Mandoline, US-Patent 1898 © Wikimedia Commons

Mike Marshall, who is performing in the Elbphilharmonie with Caterina Lichtenberg, plays one of these flat mandolins. Together, the pair will pluck their way through the centuries, from the canzone of the ragazzi nobili in 17th-century Florence to the kind of music most closely associated with the mandolin today: bluegrass. What sounds to us like after-work chillout music for tobacco-chewing cowboys emerged in the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky in the late 1930s, with roots in Irish folk as well as in Afro-American dance music and gospel. And the mandolin assumes a key role in every good bluegrass band: it either plays the melody or, in conjunction with the double bass, is responsible for the trademark driving rhythm.

Mike Marshall and Caterina Lichtenberg play Vivaldi

The mandolin in Brazil

What’s far less well-known in this country is that at around the same time that bluegrass emerged, a certain Jacob Pick Bittencourt discovered the bandolim 7,000 kilometres to the south-east. Bandolim is the Portuguese name for the mandolin. Bittencourt made his living as a salesman, insurance broker and police secretary, but his true passion was the mandolin, for which he wrote countless compositions. It is him we have to thank that this instrument came to play such an important role in Brazilian music.

Today, Hamilton de Holanda is one of the most famous mandolin players in música popular brasileira. Together with the South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, he traces the African roots of the Brazilian musical genre choro, which share some similarities with those of bluegrass. As he does so, he takes advantage of the instrument’s unusual construction: while traditional mandolins have four courses, or pairs of strings, his bandolim has five courses, allowing him to play both the melody and the bass lines on one instrument. However, even on de Holanda’s expanded instrument, the tuning is like that of a standard mandolin, namely in fifths, as with a violin.


Tremolo as a trademark

The historic reason for the double courses on the mandolin is very simple: to produce a louder sound. Originally, mandolin players would pluck the courses with a quill or with their fingers. Neither of these options was particularly suitable, and so the use of the plectrum – a small disc made of tortoiseshell, later of horn, and more recently of plastic – became established in the 18th century. However, as with all plucked instruments, a mandolin’s sound quickly dies away. It’s not really possible to produce long, sustained notes on this instrument.

We know that the tremolo – swiftly repeated strumming of the string on the same note – has been used on the mandolin since the 18th century. And the technique has long become established as the instrument’s trademark sound.

Great mandolin virtuoso

That leads us to one of the greatest contemporary mandolin virtuosos, Avi Avital. Born in Israel in 1978, Avital’s mission was to persuade traditional concert audiences to take the mandolin seriously as a classical instrument. He plays the existing Baroque and classical repertoire, but also prepares new arrangements of violin sonatas and includes lots of folk music in his programmes. The man is bursting with musicality. But there is one thing he has never quite mastered: how to hold a plectrum »properly«. His first mandolin teacher in his home city of Be’er-Sheva was actually a violinist, and had developed a unique playing technique, which he then passed on to young Avi. It wasn’t until many years later, as a student in Padua, that Avital was taught the »correct« method by his first real mandolin teacher.

These days his pockets are full of different kinds of plectrums, which he uses in various ways when playing. Everything’s possible and everything’s allowed – after all, the mandolin is endlessly versatile.

Avi Avital at the Elbphilharmonie

Text: Renske Steen; last updated: 15.12.2022
Translation: Seiriol Dafydd

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