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.

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