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.

The mandolin and guitar pursued almost entirely independent paths during the eighteenth century, but as soon as the latter instrument acquired six single strings, the partnership was immediately forged. Bartolomeo Bortolazzi and his son were performing mandolin and guitar duets by 1803, while Niccolò Paganini composed two works for mandolin and guitar in about 1805-06. In Vienna, the period between 1802 and 1812 saw the publication of numerous works for this new combination (including: a Potpourri, a Notturno, and two sets of variations by Charles Baron d’Aichelbourg; a set of variations by T. de Zucconi; a sonata and three sets of variations by Leonhard von Call; and several works by Bortolazzi). By the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century (as the six single string guitar was increasingly adopted by players across Europe), the guitar was becoming the mandolin’s natural partner.

 Paul’s research concludes with the detailed history of one early mandolin and guitar duo, created by two former singers from the San Carlos opera house in Naples: Sr Volpe (mandolin) and Vincenzo Malgarini (b. Venice 1801 – d. London 1859, guitar). Together, they came to Britain in 1832, and toured provincial towns and cities with considerable success, staging concerts that combined operatic arias with guitar and mandolin duets (including some of their own composition), and also giving music lessons. After 1839, the partnership dissolved, but Malgarini remained in England, and continued to tour and to stage concerts (now as a singer and solo guitarist). Paul traces his professional and family life, his musical successes during the 1840s and early 1850s (including concerts in Brussels under the patronage of the King of Belgium), and his ultimate descent into poverty and suicide in 1859.


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