Friday, December 18, 2015

My Mandolin Christmas Wish

One thing on my Christmas list is to see colleges initiate a mandolin performance major. As far as I know such a major is nonexistent in the United States. The mandolin is too little known and played in classical music, and in other forms of music, and it deserves a greater audience.
People mainly hear mandolin in the 21st century mainly in bluegrass music, but it played a strong role in music of the Baroque period, many composers having written for it, as shown in the book "The Early Mandolin" by James Tyler and Paul Sparks. The mandolin family -- mandolin, mandola, octave mandolin, mandocello and mandobass -- thrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when nearly every city in this country had a mandolin orchestra, playing light classical and popular music of the time. The mandolin family can serve a strong role in classical music, theater music, and other forms of music where it is little appreciated, and besides the mandolin family, this major could include the four-string banjo, whose tuning resembles that of the mandolin.

A characteristic of Baroque music is the flexibility of instruments. Composers wrote works for specific instruments but sometimes added a note something like "... or whatever is at hand." French harpsichord composer Francois Couperin wrote of two works in 1722, "These pieces suit not only the harpsichord, but also the violin, the flute, the oboe, the viol and the bassoon" and "These pieces are indeed suitable for two flutes or oboes, as well as for two violins, two viols, and other instruments of equal pitch; it being understood that those who perform them adapt them to the range of theirs."
Besides music written for the mandolin, a great deal of music for other instruments works well, especially Baroque harpsichord music, recorder pieces, and violin pieces. The harpsichord, being a plucked keyboard instrument, bears a striking similarity in sound to the mandolin family. I like J.S. Bach's two-part inventions and selections from "Anna Magdalena Notebook," both originally composed as practice pieces, the latter for his wife, but now played as bona fide performance music. The mandolin and violin share tuning and fingering, so violin music often translates well to mandolin, although the mandolin has its limitations, such as lack of sustained sound achieved by the violin bow. I also find keys with many sharps and flats, and thus few or no open strings, harder on a fretted instrument. I like the pieces written by the Baroque-era Irish harper Turlough O'Carolan; again, the pieces written for plucked harp work well on mandolin.
What the mandolin does quite well is to serve as both melody and accompaniment instrument. Strumming allows me to play chords so I can switch to accompaniment when playing with another
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melody player, as long as the other instrument is not too loud, but I would not be playing with it in the first place. A co-worker long ago suggested a jam with mandolin, trumpet and guitar, having no concept of the drastic discrepancy in volume between mandolin and trumpet. The former works best in small and medium-size rooms with lively acoustics, whereas the latter is used outdoors and in large orchestras in large concert halls. The mandolin wouldn't stand a chance against a trumpet.
That's what I want for Christmas. A mandolin performance major. That, and about 10 more mandolins.

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