Early in Ernest La Prade’s Alice in Orchestralia (which I discussed in Part Two of this series), the title character is welcomed to Fiddladelphia, home of the stringed instruments, by the Bass Viol. In promising to introduce Alice to the other members of the orchestra, the Bass Viol offhandedly remarks:
The others don’t live in Fiddladelphia, except a few of the lower-class stringed instruments, such as the guitars and mandolins and those pesky ukuleles, who hang about the outskirts of the village. By rights they ought not to be here at all; they’re not members of the orchestra. But it seems impossible to keep out the undesirable elements, even in Orchestralia.
(Previously, Alice finds the Bass Viol locked inside a case by “those naughty Ukulele boys” who are “always up to mischief,” so the antipathy is obviously mutual.)
One might assume this is another skirmish in the never-ending war between classical and popular music, the snooty Bass Viol playing into the stereotype of the uptight classical musician, while the “lower-class” ukes and guitars just want to live it up, “Roll Over, Beethoven”-style. At the time of Alice’s writing in 1925, however, the jazz age was just getting underway, and rock and roll was decades in the future. Although there were some associations with “cheap” popular music such as ragtime and the songs of Tin Pan Alley, guitars, banjos, and mandolins had a solid presence in middle-class music making before World War I, and much of the repertoire for these instruments would strike even the following generation as quaint. No, the undesirable element the Bass Viol hoped to escape wasn’t so much one of rebellion, but of amateurism.
Looking back to the mid-sixteenth century Renaissance, bowed and plucked string instruments were on nearly equal footing. Instrumental music as a whole was not as developed as vocal music, and it was common for parts to be played by whatever instruments were on hand. This was the “consort system,” a consort being a family of like instruments in different sizes and registers; a single consort, say a matched group of viols or recorders, could perform a multi-part work, or members of different families could be played together as a “mixed” or “broken” consort. Along with the bowed viols were lutes, theorbos, and citterns, which were plucked with the fingers.
The lute, in particular, enjoyed great popularity as both a solo instrument and as accompaniment for voices; the first instruction book on playing a musical instrument was written for beginning lute players. Queen Elizabeth I played the lute and included a lutenist as a member of her court. John Dowland, who desired the position but never attained it (probably for political reasons), left a substantial body of lute songs and instrumentals. This musical activity primarily took place in homes; although music was used in the theater, at church, and for dancing, the public concert of music for its own sake was a later innovation.
Venere Lute Quartet
After this high water mark of acceptance, plucked strings gradually split from the mainstream, following a parallel tradition. The bowed strings gained momentum as the viols were superseded by the violin family; great makers such as Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari contributed to the design and made instruments that are still played and treasured today (although many of these makers also made lutes and mandolins). The string orchestra as we know it came together in the mid-seventeenth century, both in Italy and in France at the court of Louis XIV. Composers Arcangelo Corelli and Jean-Baptiste Lully are both credited with the innovation of bowing string ensembles in unison (perhaps a case of independent invention), a key to the rich, pure sound and unified phrasing of the orchestra that is taken for granted today.
The plucked strings were largely left out of this development, except for special uses: the mandolin continued to be a popular solo instrument in Italy, and (for example) there are a number of concerti by Vivaldi for the instrument, but it has never been a regular member of the orchestra. The lute hung on as a continuo (chording) instrument in the Baroque period for a while, but was eventually replaced by the harpsichord, and fell into almost complete disuse until the “early music” revival of the early twentieth century that also brought the harpsichord back into currency. The guitar, originally Spanish, became a nearly universal popular instrument in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but within the classical tradition it filled the niche of the earlier lute, playing solo or accompaniment roles but rarely joining the orchestra. Other plucked string instruments were relegated to folk use, and there they have largely stayed.
Jumping ahead to nineteenth-century America, the growing wealth and education of the middle class, along with the increased production of material goods thanks to the Industrial Revolution, led to the cultivation of an amateur music-making culture comparable to the one that had existed in Elizabethan England. A piano came to be seen as an essential article of furniture, and in those pre-radio and –television days it was common for families to while away an evening singing or playing. Sheet music publishers supplied a steady stream of novel but not-too-hard compositions in anticipation of the pop music cycles of the twentieth century. Outside of the home, choirs and bands were as much civic organizations as musical ones, and were variously sponsored by churches, schools, businesses, and even prisons.
This atmosphere of low-level but pervasive music making, supported as it was by social expectations and commercial interests (primarily but not only publishers and instrument manufacturers), was fertile ground for all kinds of musical fads to spring up and fade away. One trend was the adaptation of the banjo (adapted from the African banja or banjar,) which had been popularized by minstrel shows as early as the 1840s but which continued to evolve throughout the century, adding the characteristic metal hoop and frets as late as the 1880s. Banjo clubs became a popular outlet, and instrument makers obliged by creating different-sized instruments to play a full range of parts, consort-style. (As a group, these were sometimes referred to as “plectral” ensembles, as all the associated instruments were played with a plectrum, or pick.)
I wish this video were longer; it is obviously from a later period than the 1880s and ‘90s, but it features a good look at a bass banjo with (kangaroo?) gut strings. When I saw a bass banjo at Miles’ Musical Museum in Eureka Springs, Arkansas*, it was strung with wound piano strings, but it was a newer instrument and undoubtedly had a steel rod to reinforce it against the tension of the strings, which wasn’t the case before the turn of the twentieth century; the instrument here appears to be all wood. The fact that the bandleader feels the need to introduce the bass banjo (and the bemused expressions of his bandmates) indicates that even at the height of the banjo craze the bass member of the family was a rarity at best. (A number of different banjo groups, some with mixed instrumentation, can be seen here.)
The popularity of the banjo as a parlor instrument dimmed in the US, not to be revived until jazz brought it back in a louder, snappier form. Overlapping and superseding the banjo fad was the popularity of the mandolin, first sparked by the American tour of the Estudiantina Figaro in 1880, a group of “Spanish students” who may not have played the mandolin at all, but rather the bandurria, a Spanish instrument similar to the mandolin. Historically, the mandolin had a teardrop-shaped body with a round back, like an egg sliced in half (much like the lute, to which the original mandolin is closely related); the bandurria was more pear-shaped, with a flat back. Both instruments, however, were strung with double courses and played with a fast tremolo, so the style was immediately recognizable, particularly to Italian-Americans who were among the first to follow the Spanish students’ lead in organizing their own mandolin groups. (There was already some basis for an ensemble of different sized mandolins in Italy: Norman Del Mar in his Anatomy of the Orchestra mentions an Italian mandolin orchestra arrangement of a Cimarosa overture in his possession, p. 484. The American mandolin orchestras took off in their own direction, however.)
Orville Gibson undoubtedly had the most influence on the development of the mandolin in America: a violin-maker, he applied the principles of his profession to a new design with a flat back and carved top, lengthening the scale and adding a cutaway to make the high positions more accessible; he also added the ornamental curl and art nouveau curves that are his design’s most distinctive features. Gibson’s F-4 “Florentine” instrument was both visually striking and projected more loudly than his competition’s, a feature that was actually toned down with gut and wound silk strings. At the time, the ideal mandolin sound was light and “fairy-like;” in a situation parallel to the banjo’s use in jazz, it wasn’t until the rise of bluegrass that a brassy, projecting sound was considered desirable. But Gibson’s design could supply it.
Gibson also understood the power of advertising, and sold his instruments’ capacity to bring people together as much as their musical qualities. Building on the consort principle that had proven successful for band instruments and (to a lesser degree) banjos, he and other makers expanded the mandolin family, adapting the tenor mandola (which had previously existed but wasn’t common) and developing a “mando-cello” and “mando-bass.” With these four instruments, the mandolin consort could match the bowed string orchestra as its plucked equivalent; with the addition of a guitar or harp, and a few carefully chosen woodwinds, it had the potential to be a real orchestra unto itself.
The potential to rival the traditional orchestra, advocated by some**, was undercut by instrument makers’ insistence that learning to play was easy and painless. A point frequently made in advertisements was the difficulty of playing the bowed (and fretless) orchestral strings: “While the violin pupil is struggling to grasp but one phase of his studies—accurate intonation—the student of the fretted instrument is able to enjoy his instrument in both solo and ensemble playing,” claimed Gibson’s 1921 catalog.
Large groups of mandolins or other plucked strings weren’t limited to the middlebrow approach described here, of course: in the classical realm, Australian composer Percy Grainger wrote for “guitar bands” in his idiosyncratic search for unusual sounds and textures, including a band of forty mandolins and guitars in his accompaniment for the Faeroe Island Dancing Ballad “Father and Daughter***,” along with more traditional instrumentation. Bandleader James Reese Europe, a key figure in the transition from ragtime to jazz, is reported to have taken numerous mandolins and banjos with him as part of the “Hell Fighters” Band when he led the regimental band of the 369th Infantry in World War I. The ranks of plucked strings were partly there for volume in those days before electrical amplification made it possible for a single guitarist to comp for an entire band. Once jazz and swing replaced ragtime and parlor tunes in popularity, gigantic plectral ensembles became strictly the domain of folk festivals; witness the Russian balalaika orchestras that were an official part of Soviet musical culture.
Karl Alex Smyser Banjo Band ca. 1931, from Bluegrass Today. (Follow the link for audio recordings!) Note the mando-bass on the right.
Ultimately, the mandolin orchestra gave way to jazz and other kinds of popular music after World War I, although a few groups soldiered on (such as the Smyser band shown above), and of course the mandolin itself became an essential voice in the developing bluegrass style. A few mandolin orchestras stayed active (a list of active groups can be found here) as far afield as Australia, Japan, and Germany, and the last decade has seen a resurgence in large plectral ensembles; the ukulele is the most visible of the currently popular plucked strings, but a quick YouTube search (how I wish it had been that simple back when I first learned about this music!) turns up numerous performances ranging from the traditional “light classic” approach, to jazz, to covers of contemporary pop songs. Fortunately, both scholarship and popular music have played a role in rescuing this fascinating instrumental genre from obscurity.
* Sadly, this institution is no more; it was truly a magical place.
** For example, William Place, Jr., in his 1917 book The Organization, Direction, and Maintenance of the Mandolin Orchestra, commenting on the practice of bolstering plucked groups with bowed instruments, wrote, “We have a complete string quintet of our own mandolin family, and there is no reason why we should be obliged to ask for outside assistance.”
*** Described and excerpted in Cecil Forsyth, Orchestration, pp. 481-485.