Caterina Lichtenberg & Mike Marshall

»The mandolin is experiencing a renaissance right now«

Mandolinists Caterina Lichtenberg and Mike Marshall on J. S. Bach and bluegrass – and why the two can be wonderfully combined in concert.

They are both highly sought-after mandolinists, but come from two completely different worlds: Caterina Lichtenberg and Mike Marshall. As a classical mandolinist, Lichtenberg holds the world's only professorship for this instrument at the Cologne University of Music and is at home in the Baroque; Marshall grew up in Florida, his artistic background lies in the US-American way of playing the mandolin, in bluegrass. On May 28, 2023, the two, who are also a couple in their private lives, will bring their musical worlds together in concert.

Interview with Caterina Lichtenberg und Mike Marshall

2023 is the »Year of the Mandolin«. You will have several mandolins of different types with you. Which ones exactly?

Mike Marshall: I have my Gibson mandolin with me, an American-style instrument with a flat back, arched top and f-holes, which is the traditional bluegrass instrument. Then a mandola, also from the Gibson company, which is tuned like a viola. And finally, the mandoloncello, which is about the size of a guitar and is tuned like the cello. So the mandolin family is similar to the violin family in many ways.

Caterina Lichtenberg: I play as my main instrument the classical Neapolitan mandolin, which is not flat but has a belly. For Beethoven's works, I use an original 18th century instrument, a vinaccia mandolin with gut strings played with a feather – a very different sound.

Caterina Lichtenberg / Mike Marshall
The mandolin collection of Mike Marshall and Caterina Lichtenberg © Claudia Kempf

With mandolins, are there also these legendary, very expensive original instruments, as with violins?

Lichtenberg: My Vinaccia instrument dates from a similar period as the Stradivarius violins - but they don't trade as expensively. The high-quality modern Neapolitan mandolins are in high demand; you have to wait years to get one, but even they are still affordable. Unlike some mandolins in America ...

Marshall: My instrument is actually something like the »holy grail« of Gibson mandolins. In the early 20th century, the Gibson company first built instruments with f-holes. Lloyd Loar, the acoustic engineer, signed the first 150 pieces. Those who own such an instrument in America guard it like a treasure.

In the Elbphilharmonie you also play a piece by a mandolin maker, Raffaele Calace (Duetti op. 97). A man of many talents?

Lichtenberg: Oh, yes! He was a contemporary of Giacomo Puccini, in a sense the »Puccini of the mandolin.« He built his own instruments, which are still considered to be of very high quality, and he was also a composer and wrote beautiful music, such as his solo preludes and his concertos for mandolin. In addition, he was also a pedagogue and wrote a six-volume method that is still used today. He gave concerts with the mandolin and, among other things, played in Japan in the early 20th century, which was a big deal at the time. And he was the father of five children. Today, his grandchildren continue his business and still make mandolins.

Marshall: In the history of the mandolin there have always been periods when the instrument was very popular, when a lot of research and composition was done. Calace represents the height of the romantic Neapolitan era. Before and after that, the mandolin was in a sleepy period. And I think now we're in this real renaissance again, with lots of interesting things going on and very high level of technique. So it’s great that the Elbphilharmonie is having these concerts and showcasing some of the wide variety of styles.


»When I came to America and saw all these cool people playing this groovy music – on the mandolin! – it was a whole new world for me.«

Caterina Lichtenberg

Your program alternates between Bach, Beethoven, Mozart on the one hand and bluegrass and original compositions on the other. What do you like about this combination?

Marshall: It's actually our personal story. When Caterina and I met in 2007, we came from completely different worlds geographically and musically: Caterina from Germany and the baroque, classical European tradition, me from the U.S. and the American way of playing mandolin, i.e. bluegrass. It was our goal from the beginning to bring these worlds together. Learning from each other was always part of our relationship.
Lichtenberg: Back when I met Mike at the mandolin symposium he was co-chairing with David Grisman, I thought, »Oh, my God, what is this?« My brother studied jazz, and I really liked jazz and other musical styles. But the mandolin scene was purely classical to me until then. So when I came to America and saw all these cool people playing this groovy music – on the mandolin! – it was a whole new world for me. Mike Marshall, Hamilton de Holanda, Chris Thile, all in one place, at this festival. I had never seen anything like that in my life. I was positively shocked! We want to cross these strict boundaries in our concerts, to show our two worlds. Hearing a work by Mozart alternating with bluegrass - it's like eating a good meal, where you can experience different courses with different flavors. And applied to music, it can open your ears to new things.

They also play Brazilian music: Caterina Lichtenberg & Mike Marshall »Nao me Toques«.

»Learning from each other was always part of our relationship«

Mike Marshall

You dedicated an entire album to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach in 2015. Is that a shared passion of yours?

Marshall: Yes! Bach is our absolute favorite composer for both of us, as he is for many musicians. And so we started exploring his music as a duo. The Bach works we play in the concert (Duetto Nr. 2 F-Dur BWV 803 and Duetto Nr. 3 G-Dur BWV 804) are originally written for organ or harpsichord, with Caterina taking the notes for the right hand and me for the left, on mandoloncello. They are mostly contrapuntal compositions without clustered chord progressions. And so we can play the works without major changes.

Mike Marshall plays the famous Prélude from Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 - on the mandoloncello.

In Hamburg you will play four original works by Beethoven for mandolin (Four Pieces for Mandolin and Harpsichord WoO 43 & 44). This may be new for some people that Beethoven wrote music for mandolin. What was the status of the instrument in his time?

Lichtenberg: The middle of the 18th century was the golden age of the mandolin. It was very popular first in Italy and then in Paris and Lyon, but with the French Revolution there was a big break. Then around 1800 the mandolin reappeared in the Viennese cultural area. Here many beautiful compositions were written; by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Ludwig van Beethoven and many others. Beethoven wrote his works for mandolin in Prague in 1796, after meeting the Comtesse Josephine von Clary-Aldringen (later Clamm-Gallas) in a salon. Beethoven was 26, she was 19 and already engaged at that time. The two certainly played together as a duo, and perhaps he also had an eye on her. These mandolin works were later discovered in the Clam-Gallas family archive, along with textbooks and many other works. The musical legacy shows that Josephine was a very good musician - and that the mandolin had a certain status in the musical life of that time.

In the concert you will also play own compositions: »Cat Got the Mouse«, »Big Man from Syracuse«, ... do these titles have a specific meaning?

Marshall: I wrote »Cat Got the Mouse« after the birth of our second daughter. »Cat« refers to Caterina, and the mouse refers to our »Mäuschen«, as Caterina liked to call the baby. More importantly, what I was trying to do was to incorporate some of these techniques that Catarina uses that come from the early classical methods. For example, cross-picking, a very advanced way of playing two, three and four strings in repetitive motions to create a harp-like effect. I embedded these 18th century techniques into my own American musical language.

»Big Man from Syracuse« is a song I wrote for a banjo player friend from Syracuse, New York. Again, it was an attempt to transfer new techniques, banjo techniques, to the mandolin. And again, my musical roots can be heard, it almost sounds like an American fiddle tune or a banjo song. We are what we eat ...

Interview: François Kremer, last updated: 20.5.2023

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