This article is a transcript of our podcast that can be found on our http://essenceofitaly.net/ podcast page.
Carolyn: What could be more Italian than sound of a mandolin? Close your eyes and you’re floating on a gondola in Venice, or walking the narrow streets of Naples as the sun sets. Where did the mandolin come from, and how did it become the signature sound of Italy?
Here to answer these questions is the award winning musician, composer and arranger John T. LaBarbera. John has been playing traditional Italian music for over 30 years. He has recorded numerous CDs & composed many film soundtracks. His theater credits include several off-Broadway productions, including Souls of Naples with John Turturro, and his Italian Music & Theater Company, I Giullari di Piazza.
John has just completed a book called Traditional Southern Italian Mandolin & Fiddle Tunes, published by Mel Bay. Complete with a CD, this book is a rare treasure for music lovers. It not only explains the origins and development of the mandolin, but contains an archive of just some of the traditional Southern Italian music John has archived. Many of these pieces were taught only by ear from generation to generation, but never in written form. John T. LaBarbara is the first one to have preserved these pieces in writing for the mandolin.
It’s believed that the Italian mandolin descended from an Arabic instrument called the uod. The uod is a stringed instrument with a rounded back. It was brought to Europe in the 10th century and over the centuries that followed, Europe molded the uod in its own way. The uod developed into the lute and, in Elizabethan times, became a court instrument. Schools of lute music opened throughout Europe, but most notably in Naples and Venice.
In Naples during the 1700’s, the mandolin had a renaissance of its own. Master craftsman like Vinaccia and Calace refined the instrument’s woodworking with an almond-shaped body & a bowled back made from curved strips of wood. They also switched from using traditional gut strings to metal strings. These innovations made the mandolin more durable, louder and increasingly popular. It was well on its way to becoming the unmistakable music of Italy.
John: The mandolin really has that neapolitan sound, that Italian sound. What makes it sound very Italian, also, is this type of picking called tremolo.
Carolyn: In Italy, there was a long tradition of musicians earning their living as barbers. They brought their mandolins, violins & guitars into the barber shops and when they weren’t shaving customers, they played. It was a good idea since the profession kept the musicians’ hands better protected than working as laborers. Also, barber shops closed early enough to allow the musicians to gather in the piazza and play into the night.
John: Barbers were known to play mandolin, guitar and violin. Remember the Barber of Seville?
John :Well, he played mandolin. I have a photo that was my friend’s grandfather & he was a barber & he played the mandolin & I have a beautiful photo from 1910 or 1904 of these guys standing there, playing mandolin in their barber suits.
Carolyn: Another key to the mandolin’s popularity was Queen Margarita of Italy, who reigned in the late 19th century. If she sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because the Pizza Margarita was named for her. The Queen was a patron of the arts. She sponsored painters, writers, musicians and founded cultural institutions. She also played the mandolin.
John: Because of that, then a lot of women were very inspired, she was very influential. She inspired a lot of women to take up the mandolin.
Carolyn: From this influence, Italian women formed mandolin orchestras and they played throughout Europe. As Italians immigrated to the United States, the orchestras came with them.
John: I could show you photos of women playing mandolins, in elegant dress, like turn of the century, Victorian era. The mandolin was also very popular up until the 1920’s. I still once in a while meet somebody who says, oh my grandmother played that, or I remember my mother had a mandolin.
Carolyn: What about the mandolin you’re holding right now?
John: This instrument I acquired around 1980, right after I came back from Italy. I had a guitar student, she knew that I play the mandolin, and she had an instrument that was her grandmother’s and she said that I’d like you to have it because nobody plays it.
Carolyn: Wow. So she just gave it to you?
John: She gave me this mandolin. The mandolin is from around 1900, late 1890’s-1900, and was made by the Martin guitar company. They also made mandolins.
Carolyn: Although the mandolin made its journey from the Arab world to the United States, its sound is indelibly associated with Italy. Maybe it’s because Italy loved the mandolin the most.
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