A Brief History of the Mandolin

Based on: “The Classical Mandolin” Paul Sparks, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995 and “The Early Mandolin”

James Tyler & Paul Sparks, Early Music Series 9, Oxford University Press, 1989.



The mandolin is a descendent of a small lute, an instrument common in Renaissance times. Lutes have a bowl-shaped body made from strips of wood, and a neck and head, or pegbox that were separate units glued together. The bridge was glued to the top of the soundboard and strings fixed to it as in today’s guitar.



Baroque mandolin, or mandolino
The name "mandore" first appears in French literature in 1585, and "mandola" in Italian in 1589 to describe a lute-like instrument. The name is probably derived from "mandorla" which is the word for almond in Italian. "Mandolino", a term first encountered in 1634, is the diminutive of mandola, meaning little mandola. Some of the oldest surviving mandolins were made by the famous violin maker Stradivarius in the late 1600s.


Design of the Baroque mandolin
The mandolino, or Baroque mandolin was a part of the lute family. Like other lutes Baroque mandolins were strung with gut and generally plucked with the fingers. The mandolino usually had six courses, or pairs of strings (although some of the earlier models only had four). It was very similar to the soprano lute, except in its tuning, proportions of the body, and shape of the head (which was a scroll shape rather than angled box-shaped unit). Mandolino tuning varied but was most commonly a mixture of 4ths and 3rds (as was the lute), with (from bottom to top): g, b, e', a', d", g". This contrasts with today’s mandolin which is tuned in 5ths like a violin, g, d', a', e". Sometimes it may have been plucked with a quill to make it louder.


Baroque mandolin traditions
To modern ears, Baroque music played on original instruments sounds quiet and delicate. It was played in small chamber music settings rather than large concert halls. Baroque mandolins played along with lutes, harpsichords and harps as well as bowed strings, although these instruments were considerably quieter than their modern counterparts. Orchestras had far fewer players than today. Unlike the lute, the mandolino played mostly a single-line melodies, and as it was usually the highest instrument in pitch, it was prominent above the other instruments.
During Baroque times – around 1600 to 1750 – the mandolino was a relatively common instrument and many composers wrote for it. It was widely known in Italy, France, Germany. With minor adaptations the instrument survived to the present day under the names "mandolino Milanese" or "mandolino Lombardo."


The surviving Baroque repertoire
The best known composer for the Baroque mandolin is Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Vivaldi left us a single and double mandolin concerto. Other less well-known composers whose works have been republished and recorded in recent years include: Johann Adolf Hasse, Giovanni Hoffmann, Giovanni Francesco Guiliani (who wrote several quartets for mandolin with violin and cello).
As baroque mandolin music was written for an instrument with a different tuning from the today's mandolin, when we play these compositions on modern instruments, we cannot get quite the same effects as the composers intended. For instance, we cannot play the chords with the intervals in the same order. And consecutive 3rds are very tiring for the stretched 4th finger and often require quick position shifts for them to be played on different strings (and hear the notes ring together). As Baroque mandolins could be plucked with the fingers, players could play notes together that were not found on adjacent strings.


Neapolitan Mandolin
Vinaccia, Calace and the Neapolitan mandolin

The roundback Neapolitan mandolin owes its fundamental design to the work of the Vinaccia family from Naples from the 1744 onwards. In 1835 Pasquale Vinaccia designed an instrument with a bent (canted) soundboard, deeper bowl (with two broader ribs perpendicular to the soundboard), a raised and extended fingerboard, 17 frets (more like a violin) and a top notes of a'''. The instrument was better suited to carrying the higher tension metal strings, plain steel for the top two courses and copper-wound steel for the bottom two. The metal strings had to be plucked with a strong plectrum and tortoiseshell was used in preference to a feather. It was tuned g, d', a', e" as a violin. With metal strings, the new instrument could be played tremolo to sustain the longer notes. Gradually tremolo, a technique common among street musicians even in Classical times, became accepted by the higher echelons of society.


The next major influence on the design on the mandolin was the Calace family, a dynasty with brothers Nicola and Rafaelle in the late 1800s. Today the family still supplies a substantial part of the European market with high-quality instruments. The improved craftsmanship was responsible for encouraging more widespread acceptance of the mandolin as an instrument for serious study and virtuoso concert performance.
In northern Italy, in Rome, mandolins were redesigned by Luigi Embergher using the mandolino Milanese as the basis. He produced a model with very narrow, curved fretboard. Embergher mandolins are still popular among the best players today.


Composers from the Classical and early Romantic Periods
Due to the design elements introduced by these families, the mandolin was given a new lease on life as its louder volume enabled it to compete in the concert hall. During the “Classical” period (usually taken from 1750 to the death of Beethoven in 1827), mandolin remained popular in rural Italy for serenades and small-scale music-making. Songs such as "Santa Lucia" and "Addio ma bella Napoli" were played with mandolin playing tremolo and accompanying a singer. Other louder instruments, such as bowed strings and pianos (both louder that their Baroque ancestors) dominated the concert halls during these times. Some of the most famous Classical composers, including Mozart, Beethoven and Bizet wrote for mandolin (sometimes as solos in operas), but it was apparently sometimes hard to find players to cover these parts.


"Golden Age" of the mandolin in the late Romantic Period
The mandolin achieved fame and widespread acceptance in Europe at the turn of the century, 1892 to 1918 establishing traditions that last to the present day. Virtuoso performers took the instrument to new heights, composed complicated and emotional pieces for the instrument and left us these and method books to continue their craft today. Among the many names of celebrated mandolinists is Carlo Munier a player and composer from Florence, born in Naples and grandson of Pasquale Vinaccia. He played an Embergher, or Roman mandolin. His “Capricioso Spagnolo” for mandolin and piano is one of the best known virtuoso pieces still played today and his method books are still used. Silvio Ranieri, originally from Rome, spent most of his life in Brussels, Belgium. His playing dominated much of Europe and he also left us with a mandolin method book. Vittorio Monti, originally Italian, lived most of his life in Paris from 1900 onwards and composed his famous Czardas, better known as a violin piece, but originally written for mandolin. Mario Macchiochi, also lived in Paris and left a large volume relatively easy pieces and very tuneful, for mandolin, many with a Spanish influence.

During this time, there were two kinds of quartets based on members of the mandolin family. Each had a 1st and 2nd mandolin. However “Classical” quartets had an octave mandolin and guitar in the bass part. Sometimes the liuto (a large mandolin-like instrument tuned like a cello with an extra high e" string) took the place of the guitar. Romantic quartets generally included a C-mandola and mandocello. Orchestras used more instruments but were based on these combinations.


Flatback Mandolin
Neapolitan mandolin in America

The Neapolitan mandolin came to the U.S. along with the waves of Italian immigration from the late 1870s onwards. European players also toured the U.S. In 1880 a group from Spain called the “Estudiantes espanolas” or Spanish students toured the U.S. and left a lasting impression. Strangely, these players were not playing the mandolin but the Spanish bandurria, a similar instrument, also played tremolo, although it had six courses of gut strings that were tuned differently from the mandolin. The “students” could not read music and played entirely from memory – a situation that was very unusual among professional musicians in those days when reading music was considered a necessity for playing anything but the most simple melodies. They played pieces by Mozart, Beethoven and Spanish and Polish dances, in harmony.
In the 1920s many companies in the U.S were producing fine bowlback instruments built on Neapolitan designs and employing many Italian, Spanish and German immigrants in their construction. Among these are Lyon & Healy from Chicago and The Martin Co. in Nazareth, Pennsylvannia.


Gibson and the flatback mandolin
The Gibson company, in Kalamazoo, Michigan had the most profound influence on the popularization of the mandolin in the U.S. In the 1920s, the company and its most significant designer, Lloyd Loar, produced an instrument with a carved top and single-piece back (rather than ribs) and sides cut from a single piece of wood (rather than bent). A-style models had a round soundhole, F-style models had F-holes as with a violin.
Compared with the best bowlback models of Embergher and Calace, the F-style Gibson mandolin has a larger resonating chamber, longer fingerboard and more wood in its construction. It produces a more guitar-like sound and is ideally suited to stronger, powerful, playing and the chopped chord accompaniments of American bluegrass music. However, it sacrifices the brilliance, sweetness and high harmonics of the Neapolitan instrument. There are several notable Classical players who play Gibsons or Gibson-style instruments with great success today, but many – particularly in Europe – who dislike the American flatbacks for playing the more historic repertoire.

Gibson nicknamed the older Neapolitan-style mandolins "tater-bugs" because their ribs of different colored wood made them resemble the Colorado beetles destroying the crops at that time. Gibsons and other Flatbacks have generally replaced the bowlbacks in the U.S. although bowlbacks are common elsewhere in the world.