Monday, May 23, 2016

Music from the nifty (17)50s

A musician recently asked me why I don’t play bluegrass music. It’s a common thought from observers who see the string instruments I play, which are used in bluegrass — fiddle, mandolin and guitar, among others — and the music I play can sound like bluegrass to untrained ears, but it’s certainly not bluegrass. I play Celtic music, the grandparent of bluegrass, and the reason I play it rather than bluegrass is simple. The music and the instruments chose me.
I grew up listening to traditional music, and in my teens I began to listen to bluegrass, which is not traditional because it was invented in the 20th century and the composers of most of its repertoire are known to us. I eventually worked my way backward to the older music of the British Isles and knew I had found my musical home. It was an instinctive love of the music, its structure, its cultural background and its instrumentation. It’s a music that makes me glow inside, that speaks to my soul in a way no other music does. I love to play blues guitar just for fun, for example, but I have no plans or desire to perform it. Celtic music, especially of the 18th century, drives me to practice and study as no other style of music ever has.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The 18th-century Mandolin

The Neapolitan Mandolin enjoyed great popularity in the 18th century. A Neapolitan distinct style of music developed in the early 1700s, a lighter and more melodic sound.
Naples had a long association with plectrum instruments, dating back to at least the 15th century, when Arabian wire-strung long lutes of the bouzouki type were introduced, modified with characteristics of lute building. Metal-strung guitars were often strummed for song and dance.
Credit for development of the mandolin is often given to the Vinaccia family; several other luthiers were also making mandolins. The earliest surviving mandolin is a tenor, a mandola, circa 1744, made by Gaetano Vinaccia. The earliest surviving mandolin was made in 1753. The mandolin was popular in Naples prior to that date at every level of society.
The mandolin was not taken seriously in Naples and was considered an instrument of the common street musician. A school of players and composers grew up in Naples but was never accepted into the conservatories. The most important center of mandolin activity in the second half of the 18th century was Paris, where the mandolin enjoyed great popularity.
The major players and composers:
Pietro Denis, a prolific composer and arranger who wrote a three-volume method, published in  Paris in 1768, 1769, and 1773. His method teaches violinists how to transfer their technique to the mandolin and to accompany songs.
Giovanni Fouchetti (Jean Fouqet) came to Paris in 1769 from Lyon and published his method in 1771 in Paris. He wrote for both the mandolin and mandolino, a similar instrument tuned in fourths.
Giovanni Battista Gervasio was a touring virtuoso and composer active in the 1760s who published several works in Paris and London, but the bulk of his very large output is in manuscript collections, including the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (the national library of France).
Signor Leoni, or Leoné, of Naples (records show no firm knowledge of his Christian name) first performed in Paris in 1760. He was maître de mandoline in the household of the Duc de Chartres in the 1760s. Much of his music was published in Paris, including “Méthode Raisonnée Pour passer du Violon à la Mandoline,” 1768, (going from the violin to the mandolin), the most detailed and important of all 18th-c mandolin tutors.

These notes were taken from “The Early Mandolin” by James Tyler and Paul Sparks, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

More About The Music

The music I play is a Baroque-Celtic hybrid. It’s a style played in Scotland in the mid-1700s called Scottish Drawing Room Music, a mix of traditional Celtic dance music and Baroque arrangements.
It helps to know that in the 18th century traditional and classical music were close cousins. Many musicians played both styles, and Baroque music was not far removed from its dance roots, evidenced by the wealth of suites that were collections of movements in varying dance forms. Drawing Room Music often took a Scottish dance melody and arranged it in sets of variations patterned after those Baroque suites. Variations were written as melodic and rhythmic variants of the original tune, the former introducing more complicated musical phrases, the latter similar phrases in different dance forms.
I also play fife and bagpipe marches on string instruments, and I play Scottish and Irish jigs, reels, and hornpipes. I especially love the slow, hauntingly beautiful airs that constitute a large part of the Celtic repertoire and the tunes of Turlough O’Carolan, an 18th-century Irish harper whose tunes, like Scottish Drawing Room Music, blended Baroque and traditional elements. Finally, I have written tunes in the style of 18th-century Scottish music.
This was the music popular in the British Isles and colonial America in the 1700s, and through my music I recreate a bit of the feel of an evening of music in colonial times.

Music Card

A rough draft of my music card.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The source of "The Rampant Mandolin"

Whence came the name Rampant Mandolin?
I began playing traditional Celtic music in 1989 and, within about a year, after acquiring my mandola, developed the idea of a Celtic mandolin consort consisting of mandolin, mandola, and octave mandolin, similar to the orchestral string quartet but playing Celtic music. Many modern Celtic bands use bigger mandolins, variously called cittern, bouzouki, or octave mandolin, and a few use mandolins, but rarely do those instruments stand out front as the featured instruments. Most often they are nearly lost in the mix, drowned out by fiddle, whistle, flute, and pipes, which are louder and have more sustain, or they play a supporting role, providing chordal or arpeggio accompaniment.
Wanting to bring the mandolin to the fore in Celtic music, I took my music name from the Scottish royal standard, the Rampant Lion, rampant being a heraldric term referring to an animal standing on one hind leg with one foreleg raised above the other and the head in profile. It’s an aggressive pose, and the name Rampant Mandolin implies that I mean to make the mandolin a strong voice in my music, standing out front, not supporting other instruments or lost in the mix. The word mandolin even contains the word lion — you can anagram “mandolin” to “damn lion.”

Monday, May 2, 2016

My Colonial Music Program

John Whitacre’s Music of the Colonies
I present a program of historical Celtic music from the 18th century. I play tunes that were popular in England, Scotland, Ireland, and the British colonies in the 1700s, explaining people and events associated with those tunes, the different types of tunes and their uses, and instruments played at the time. This program combines my love of early American history and music, and I draw the music from republications and reprints of books from the 18th century. I play a Baroque-Celtic style of music, using Baroque classical technique and traditional Celtic styles to recreate the Scottish Drawing Room style of the middle 18th century.