One of the most distinctive sounds in Italy is the tremolo melody of the mandolin. What makes it sound very Italian is the type of picking called tremolo. One of the keys to the popularity of the mandolin was Queen Margarita of Italy, who reigned in the late 19th century. The Pizza Margarita was named for her. The Queen was a patron of the arts and she sponsored painters, writers, musicians and founded cultural institutions. And she played the mandolin, which inspired a lot of women to take up the instrument.
Lucia Colosi played the mandolin. There is a photo of her playing her mandolin and another photo, taken years later, with her daughter, Mary, holding a mandolin. Her son, Angelo Colosi, also played the mandolin. Angelo owned at least three mandolins. One of them was inherited by my mother and has been handed down to me.
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 helping customers, they played. The profession kept the musicians’ hands better protected than working as laborers, and with barber shops closing early enough in the day, it allowed the musicians to gather in the piazza and play into the night. In the opera, The Barber of Seville, the barber played the mandolin.
Italian women formed mandolin orchestras and played throughout Europe. As Italians immigrated to the United States, the orchestras came with them and the mandolin became very popular. In 1900, a company called Lyon & Healy boasted that ‘At any time you can find in our factory upwards of 10,000 mandolins in various stages of construction’. From the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs, mandolins proliferated across the South. Attempting to beat the competition, the Gibson company sent field reps across America to encourage sales of mandolins, and to establish mandolin orchestras.
There are various kinds of mandolins used in Italy; they bear the names of cities or regions such as the “Roman”, the “Lombard”, the “Genovese”, and the “Neapolitan” mandolin. They sometimes differ in size, shape, number of strings and tuning. The traditional Neapolitan mandolin is tear-shaped with a bowl back and a uniquely cut and shaped sounding board. It has eight strings paired into the four violin tunings of g, d’, a’, and e’. The strings are played with the plectrum to produce the rapid and characteristic tremolo sound as the plectrum moves rapidly over unison strings. Originating in Naples, the 8-string bowl-back style was the one that found its way to the United States in the 1800s.
The mandolin was among the first recorded instruments on Edison cylinders. Mandolin ensembles toured the vaudeville circuit, and mandolin orchestras formed in schools and colleges. Among the performers to spur interest in the mandolin was Giuseppe Pettine (1876-1966), an Italian immigrant whose family settled in Rhode Island. He was known as a child prodigy in his native country before his arrival in America.
A short documentary called The Mandolin – Serenade of Italy tells the story of the Italian Mandolin. You can watch the documentary by clicking on it in the sidebar on the right side of this page, you can also find a video clip of Maestro Antonio Calsolaro and his sister Linda playing Funiculi Funicula. Also included in the sidebar is a wonderful clip of Sulle falde dell’Etna (On the Slopes of Etna) by the Italian Old-time Trio. The Trio specializes in traditional Italian dance music composed during the late 19th and early 20th century for mandolin, bass and guitar. The Trio is comprised of three professional musicians from Rome, and have performed widely in Italy and abroad. On the Slopes of Etna was composed by Giovanni Gioviale, who was a famous Italian mandolin player during the beginning of the 20th century.