The Origins of the Guitar and Mandolin Duet

Paul Sparks is researching the origins of the mandolin and guitar duet. For centuries, these two instruments have formed a natural pairing, and it’s not hard to see why. They produce a roughly similar volume of sound, their combined range is equivalent to an early fortepiano, and the guitar’s harmonic potential and bass register makes it the ideal partner for the mandolin’s plectrum tremolo technique (which can sustain a melody effectively on double strings). Most compositions for mandolin also involve the guitar, and the two instruments are regularly combined into plucked string orchestras. Due to their portability, the pairing has historically been a central part of alfresco music making, especially in Italy, an association celebrated in such paintings as Wilhelm Martstrand’s “October Festival Evening outside the Walls of Rome” (1839), and in compositions by Verdi, Mahler, and Schoenberg.

Marstrand 1839

 As the history of both instruments (in their earliest forms) can be traced back to the sixteenth century, it might be expected that the pairing would also date from that time. Yet Paul’s research (conducted not just through printed and manuscript music, but also through method books, paintings, and the letters and diaries of travellers to the south of Europe) suggests that the mandolin and guitar were seldom, if ever, used together in duets until the start of the nineteenth century. During the C18, mandolinists favoured a harpsichord, cello, viol, or second mandolin to accompany their instrument when playing indoors, while street mandolinists in Italy were commonly partnered by a colascione or a violin, not by a guitar. The lack of a full bass register on the five-course guitar seems to have rendered it unsuitable, together with its comparative lack of volume when plucked with the fingers. For example, the C18 mandolin produced sufficient volume for opera composers such as Mozart, Grétry, and Paisiello to use it as an obbligato instrument, whereas the C18 guitar was never given in this role.

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The guittar in Holland

Jelma van Amersfoort is researching the use and the repertoire of the 18th century cittern in Holland. While its British counterpart, the English guittar, technically a six course wire-strung cittern, has received some welcome attention from scholars and performers in recent decades, its continental cousins have so far remained somewhat neglected. Wire-strung, finger played guittars appear to have been a far more European phenomenon than previously thought, with distinct but connected repertoires in France, the Low Countries, Italy and German-speaking nations. In the Netherlands, the ‘cistre’ or ‘Guitarre Angloise’, as it was called, proves to have had a small but surprisingly significant presence in Dutch culture: it appears in art and literature, was played in concerts, and had a number of compositions written for it.

RP-T-1890-A-2332(R)

Two ladies making music. Charles Edward Hodges, Den Haag 1806. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

 Though the instrument was mainly associated in Holland with domestic music making by the upper classes, there are also records of it being played in the music room of Felix Meritis in Amsterdam and other public concert venues. English instruments and probably also instruments from Northern France were imported into Holland, but local luthiers also made them: various instruments by Johann Swartz and by Holland’s most famous violin maker, Johannes Cuypers, survive in museums and private collections.

In the 1770s the Amsterdam choirmaster David Leonardus van Dijk published four beautiful books of music for the instrument, filled with arrangements from very recent operas, guitar solos and guitar accompanied songs in French, Italian and English. These works appear to be all Van Dijk’s compositions and arrangements, influenced in style by contemporary cittern music from France and Britain, but never exact copies of works by others. The books reveal an internationalism that is somewhat reminiscent of Nicolas Vallet’s Secret des Muses for the lute 150 years earlier, with its comparable assimilation of international styles and themes for a favourite plucked instrument. The books also form a musical microcosm of some Dutch Enlightenment values: domesticity, openness to foreign influences and curiosity about the world.