Copy (49 words)
Britain's first modern mandolin quartet with mandolins of all shapes and sizes, and the superb voice and mandobass(!) of Hilary James. Their infectious fun and off-beat humour influence everything they play, from lively reels to traditional airs, hot swing and ragtime, plus the occasional Chinese or Brazilian tune.
Copy (65 words)
The Mandolinquents feature everything from hot swing and ragtime instrumentals from the mandolin orchestras of the 1930s: Irving Berlin, Mozart, Ravel and Tchaikovsky to lively reels and beautiful traditional Irish airs to Chinese and Brazilian folk tunes. All this played with infectious fun, off-beat humour and stunning virtuosity on mandolin, mandola, mandocello, mandobass and classical guitar, with the occasional burst of song or fiddle.
Extra (113 words)
In the 1930s mandolin orchestras were all the rage - every self-respecting town had one. Today the mandolin is undergoing a revival in folk and indie bands as well as in classical circles, with Captain Corelli's Mandolin adding to the interest. In the USA it ranks alongside pizza and Frank Sinatra as one of Italy's greatest exports, while back in Europe, despite Hitler's attempt to ban it (he considered the tiny instrument a threat to Third Reich!!!) there are now 476 German mandolin orchestras. The UK has been a bit slow on the uptake, but years of confinement to back bedrooms, where legions of enthusiasts have been hiding away, are at an end.
Simon Mayor answers some questions about the mandolin...
What is a mandolin?
A rather well known radio DJ invited me in for interview one day. It would be the usual thing no doubt: play a couple of tunes, talk about the instrument, that sort of stuff. I arrived at the studio in good time and chatted to him before the programme. What sort of questions did he have in mind? "Oh, just general things..." he smiled, waving the air. We went into the studio. "A tune now from Simon Mayor" he announced. A quick musical burst followed and then he let me have it right between the eyes: "Tell me Simon, what is a mandolin?"
Believe it or not, it was the first time anyone had asked me this perfectly reasonable question. Just because I had been nutty about the instrument for years, just because I could tell you what Vivaldi had for dinner on the day he wrote his mandolin concerto* didn't mean that the average listener should know what a mandolin was.
There was a pregnant pause as I gave a mental gasp at the stunningly simple relevance of the question, and mustered what I like to think was an adequate answer. The interview went smoothly after that, but I hope the incident had a beneficial effect, in that I have tried since to assume no prior knowledge of anything.
So what is it? A mandolin is a small, plucked, stringed instrument. Most cultures in the world have an instrument that fits this description, and the mandolin is the Italian variety, a member of the lute family. It is played on the knee like a guitar with a piece of plastic called a plectrum, but it is tuned like a violin. Whereas the violin has four strings, the mandolin has four pairs of strings, each pair tuned in unison.
* Four Seasons pizza with extra anchovies
Why is the mandolin double strung?
A violinist can sustain a note as long as the bow moves across the strings. Once a mandolin string has been plucked the note dies away rapidly. The mandolinist gets round this problem by playing tremolos. On a double strung instrument there are twice as many notes for every stroke of the plectrum, and so a smoother tremolo. Simple!
So tremolo is a bit of a cheat really! It's a way of giving the impression of a long sustained note by actually playing lots of short ones in rapid succession. Mandolinists, however, are skilled at making virtue out of necessity, and tremolo has became the sound the instrument is famous for, used in countless corny Hollywood B-movies by some actorrrrrr on bended knee beneath an open window serenading the object of his heart's desire! Love it or hate it, tremolo is an important weapon in the mandolinist's armoury.
Are there different sorts of mandolin?
Yes, there are two main sorts of mandolin, graced by descriptive titles.
The round-back is of Italian origin. Its body is made from strips of wood, steamed and bent into shape, and the top is 'broken' at the bridge position to allow a more acute angle of the strings, hence a greater downward force and a more efficient transmission of vibrations to the body. Its sound is delicate but penetrating. The round back renders it less than comfortable to play, especially to those blessed with a beer gut. Serious players will sometimes be seen draping chammy leather over it to stop it wobbling about (the instrument, not the gut). The Italian or the softer sounding German style round-back is played by virtually all European classical players, but it is less popular West of the Atlantic.
The flat-back subdivides into those with a genuinely flat back and the more popular carved mandolins. Plucked instruments with tops carved into an arch, like a violin, were not unknown in Europe, but in the early 20th century the Gibson company (famous later for their electric guitars), and in particular their chief designer Lloyd Loar had huge success in popularising a carved top design of mandolin in the USA. In many ways it was a response to the failure of round-back instruments, many of which had been brought over by Italian immigrants, to stand up to the variable climate. The design is very similar to a violin with the top and back carved into a gentle arch and the neck angled back to create pressure on the bridge. Over the years it has proved to be structurally stronger, particularly at the neck to body joint.
While the Italians were fond of covering their more expensive mandolins with acres of mother-of-pearl, Loar experimented more with the shape for cosmetic effect. Some had a simple tear-drop shape like their Italian ancestors, but he designed the now famous F5 model with the body outline swooping gracefully into decorative points and a violin-style scroll not on the headstock, but on the bass shoulder of the instrument. He also borrowed f-holes from violin design which dramatically increased the projection of the instrument and became the choice of most serious players. The F5's protagonists claim the points and scroll add 'weight' to the sound while cynics refer to the scroll as the £1,000 strap button, for such is the premium in value over an 'A' model with its simple tear-drop shape.
F5s are traditionally played by bluegrass musicians. While enjoying the luxury of not having a round back wobbling out of control, they create other difficulties for themselves by slinging the strap over just one hunched shoulder. Style is everything! Love it or hate it, the Gibson F5 is the prestige mandolin to own if your musical diet extends beyond the strictly classical.
And me? Well, when was the last time you heard of a Yorkshireman paying £1,000 for a strap button?
What are the other instruments of the mandolin family?
The (tenor) mandola and mandocello are larger members of the mandolin family tuned respectively like a viola (C, G, D, A ascending) and violoncello (C, G, D, A ascending). In other words, a mandola is a fifth lower than a mandolin, and a mandocello an octave and a fifth. A mandobass is a very rare beast, tuned in fourths like a double bass (E, A, D, G ascending). An octave mandola has no violin family equivalent and is tuned an octave below a mandolin.
Hilary James originally played the double bass but a week before the quartet recorded its first CD fate intervened and she stumbled across the mandobass in a small music shop near Gatwick airport. Designed by an English maker it is, as far as we know, the only one of it's kind in the UK. Unlike the other mandolin instruments it is single strung, the strings being too thick and heavy to be practical in pairs.
How do you choose your programme?
There is a wealth of music written for the mandolin. Unfortunately most of it is by minor composers you've probably never heard of. Of the major composers, Vivaldi wrote two beautiful concertos, both are in the quartet's repertoire. For the rest of the programme we trawl far and wide, arranging a variety of works from not only classical sources but also
British traditional and world music as well as self-penned pieces and twentieth century American ragtime and swing songs. Anything written for the violin family can be easily arranged for mandolins; baroque music works particularly well; and since all four quartet members have long-held passions for traditional music, ideas for arrangements from all corners of the globe are never in short supply.