Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 ErN 123, entry Mar 2006, #2 added August 2022

he Neapolitan Mandolin      and     The Queen's Mandolin

mandolin imageThere are some musical instruments that it really sounds weird to say that you play them. (I don't intend to retract one iota of that convoluted syntax; it fits right in.)

Take the tuba. Please. A man who plays the tuba is so embarrassed about it, that he will stammer out a euphemism: "I play... low brass... know...the...
tuba...". A woman who plays the tuba won't even whisper the word. She'll usually say, "What!? Why they told me that this was a harp! Oh, those heartless bastards!"

"I play ophicleide" will stop any conversation —and then empty the room quickly since many people confuse ophicleide with the zoological term for whatever the thing was that burst out of that guy's chest in Alien.

It's not so much that the word "mandolin" sounds strange. After all, it just means "small mandola" and who could find fault with that? (If you can't wait, go to the bottom of the entry.) It's just that the instrument has sort of disappeared from our general musical consciousness.

The mandolin is part of the large "lute family" of plucked string instruments. There are various kinds of mandolins in use in Italy; they bear the names of cities or regions: the "Roman", the "Lombard", the "Genovese", and the "Neapolitan" mandolin. They may differ in size, shape, number of strings and tuning. The traditional Neapolitan mandolin (photo) is tear-shaped with a bowl back and a uniquely cut and shaped front (sounding board); it has eight strings paired into the four violin tunings of g, d', a', and e'. The strings are played with a plectrum, producing the rapid and characteristic tremolo sound as the plectrum moves rapidly over two unison strings. In that configuration, the Neapolitan mandolin has been manufactured widely in Naples since the mid-1700s.

In spite of the modern vision of the mandolin as a quaint vehicle for older, traditional popular music such as the Canzone Napoletana, the instrument has a classical history, as well. If you decide to study mandolin at the Naples Conservatory, here is what you have to play in order to pass your final exam—before they give you that piece of paper and you hit the bricks to look for gigs:

(Abridged, from the conservatory catalog):

"Play one concerto for mandolin and orchestra (in piano reduction). Candidate may choose from the following: A. Vivaldi, Concerto in C major; F. Lecce, Concerto in G major; J.N. Kummel, Concerto in G major; G. Hoffmann, Concerto in D major; R. Calace; second concerto in A  minor (1st & 2nd movements);

"Play a composition for unaccompanied mandolin. The candidate may choose from the following: (here, ten choices from the 19th and 20th century repertoire);

"Play one composition accompanied by piano, harpsichord, or guitar, chosen from among the following: (here, 11 choices, including Beethoven's Adagio in E-flat major for mandolin and harpsichord.);

"Play one piece of medium difficulty with one hour of preparation;

"Play the mandolin orchestral parts chosen by the exam commission from among the following: (Here, four choices, including Mozart's Don Giovanni);

"Sightread a piece presented by the exam commission;

"Pass an oral exam on the history of the instrument and knowledge of the repertoire."

That is an awful lot to do if you are going to wind up as the stereotypical mandolin player who wanders from restaurant to restaurant with a guitar-playing buddy to play for tips. Yet, you can study the mandolin; you can even learn how to restore old instruments and make new ones. (You would then be a "luthier"—like Stradivarius. He made mandolins, too. If you wanted to call yourself Martin Luthier, think of all the swell jobs you could get repairing instruments for banjo-beating Baptists!) There is also a Neapolitan Mandolin Academy, which aims to combat the degraded stereotype of the instrument, and to preserve the historical repertoire and even get some new music composed.

O.K.  Mandola comes from the Greek word pandura, a plucked instrument supposedly invented by Pan. He was embarrassed to say "I play the Panpipes."

2. August 2022
                                                The Queen's Mandolin

If you bellyached that The King's Speech lacked action, you are not too swift. Wait until you see the movie they
make out of The Queen's Mandolin.

Just as the King dropped into the Salone Margherita when he was in town, you can bet there is one person who never dropped in: the person for whom the place was named: Queen Margherita Maria Teresa Giovanna of Savoy (November 1851 – January 1926) (image). You may know that the famous Pizza Margherita was named for her and that she didn't have to go out to get it. The  queen orders, you deliver. Even for mandolin lessons. The queen studied mandolin with three instructors and we don'tknow  if she liked one more than another: the three were Belisario Mattera, a mandolin virtuoso who was the first mandolinist to give instruction on his instrument (in 1873) to the queen. People heard that she was studying the instrument and for a few years nobility and aristocracy of the new nation (the united Kingdom of Italy) followed the example of their sovereign, and the mandolin enjoyed great favor among the wealthy classes. She was the Queen consort of the Kingdom of Italy during her husband's reign (1878–1900, the year of his death). For 10 or 15 years in the  late 1800s, Mattera published method books for the instrument, even a book of material he had composed "expressly for Her Highness...etc. etc." He did all right. Giuseppe Belenghi was her second instructor. He was a virtuoso violin-cellist and mandolinist. He, too, got the call and brought lessons right to the queen. Constantino Bertucci was the third instructor. Again,  we don't know if she liked one, two, or all of them. Maybe she just liked to mess with the staff. I bet she called them all in and said,
"Have a seat on the floor, your Lownesses. You all know what might happen to you if you spread the word what a rotten mandolin player I am? You wouldn't want an accident to happen to all 30 of your fingers, would you? That's nice. Oh, you know what Ju-Jitsu is? I study that, too. I'm much better at that than I am on the mandolin. I will personally snap you three little squirts in half like dry twigs. After I break your fingers. Have a nice day."                        
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