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.

I have also listened to a lot of classical music over the years and have played in orchestras, but I drifted away from orchestral violin when Celtic fiddling took over my playing. I like the mandolin in traditional and country music, but in college I found a vinyl record of Vivaldi mandolin concerti at the North Canton Library and discovered the tip of the iceberg of classical mandolin music. It’s something I’ve been exploring lately, leading me back to an interest in classical music but with a very narrow focus, the Baroque mandolin music of the 18th century. When I played for Canton’s First Friday earlier this month, the theme was “Nifty ’50s,” but they failed to specify what century, and the 1750s is the ’50s I consider nifty.
I play a mandolin built for Celtic music, a hybrid of the mandolin and the cittern of the 18th century. It is pear shaped with a flat back, whereas the original mandolin, the Neapolitan, is more almond shaped with a rounded back.
The Neapolitan (from Naples, Italy) mandolin enjoyed great popularity in the 18th century. Credit for development of the mandolin is often given to the Vinaccia family, and the earliest surviving mandolin is a tenor, a mandola, circa 1744, made by Gaetano Vinaccia, so I am glad to know historical precedent exists for my mandola, also a modern hybrid. The earliest surviving mandolin was made in 1753.
The mandolin was not taken seriously in Naples and was considered an instrument of the common street musician, so players and composers who grew up in Naples went to France, where the most important center of mandolin activity in the second half of the 18th century was Paris. The major players and composers were Pietro Denis, Giovanni Fouchetti (Jean Fouqet), Giovanni Battista Gervasio, and Signor Leoni, or Leoné. (Records show no firm knowledge of his Christian name.) It was common for artists (and other people?) to adapt their names to the country where they lived and worked or to adopt Latinate versions of their names. Christopher Columbus is the Latin equivalent of Christoforo Colombo, who was from Italy (his Spanish name was Cristobal Colon), and Italian violin master Antonio Stradivari’s name is often called Antonius Stradivarius.
So as I practice the sonatas of Gervasio, a concerto by Domenico Caudioso and exercises from the method book by Denis I’m considering adopting my own name to accompany the music. Perhaps I’ll became Giovanni. Or Iohannius Whitacrius. That sounds good with “The Scriptorium.”

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