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Classical Guitar & Unique Mandolins
by Gregg Miner, as part of www.minermusic.com)
Bright, The Holly Berries
Guitar - J. Waller, ca. 1970
Classical guitar is the name bestowed on the common nylon-string Spanish guitar after it reached its pinnacle of design, construction, and tone and then played Carnegie Hall. People figured that if they were going to pay that much to hear this Segovia gentleman play it, it should have a modern new elitist image. And with Segovia tirelessly pioneering his new guitar transcriptions of diverse classical pieces, the modern classical guitar quickly became elevated to the status of one of this century's most important solo recital instruments. Sure, we take it for granted now, with every conservatory, university, and junior college boasting their own Doctor of Classical Guitar -- but this is all thanks to the heroic efforts of Segovia and his disciples.
My parents were very supportive and encouraged me to take up the classical guitar, figuring it was the only way to get me to turn down my amp. I picked out the best-sounding "student-grade" model I could find at the old Chicago Guitar Gallery -- and here it still is! I never did get a professional model because one day I happened across a concert harp and decided to study that instrument -- which necessitated cutting my fingernails, kept short ever since. Though I eventually re-learned to play the steel-string guitar using fingerpicks, the more subtle and demanding classical guitar remains a problem. So, for this selection I played a simple accompaniment with a pick.
I then played the mandolins with a felt pick rather than a normal tortoise-shell pick for a softer tone. And now I'd like to introduce our unusual mandolin quartet:
Starting at the top left, our first instrument is a very unique Italian harp mandolin from around the turn of the century. Like the Knutsen in song #2, it only has the arm extension, not the extra strings of a harp guitar. It has a very strong, "classical"-type tone rather than the "honk" of a bluegrass mandolin.
While so-called "lyre guitars" had been around in Europe since the late 1700s, it wasn't until the 1890s that lyre mandolins like this one were conceived. Like the harp mandolin, the hollow arms, open at the top, were purportedly to enhance the tone, but are mainly decorative. Whereas the harp mandolin has a flat back and top, this one has the traditional "Neapolitan" bowl back, made up of individual curved ribs. Historians who know about such things tell me that Calace was a sort of "Stradivarius" of mandolin building in Italy at the time (and here, I just got it because it looked cool).
The piccolo mandolin is so named because of its size and shape, but would more accurately be termed a "pocket mandolin" since it was probably tuned to normal mandolin pitch (which is already plenty high!). See a true piccolo mandolin here and a pocket mandolin ad here (I was right, after all!).
The term "mandolinetto' may have first been coined
in the Sears, Roebuck & Company
1902 catalog for a
mandolin with the body of a miniature guitar, and is now
generally used when referring to similar instruments by other
manufacturers, such as this Howe-Orme mandolin. This
little-known company has been virtually ignored by nearly all
historians, perhaps because it disrupts long-held conventions on
the history of the mandolin and mandolin orchestras. We're told
that (A) Orville Gibson patented the first modern
"flat-body" mandolin on February 1, 1898, and (B) the
Gibson Company is credited with inventing the mandolin orchestra
concept and producing the first such instruments around 1910. But
at least one company beat then in both areas. Elias Howe
and a Mr. Orme patented their guitar-shaped mandolin on November
14, 1893, and it also had a flat back (Gibson's was
carved and slightly arched) and and arched top (pressed, instead
of carved). Furthermore, they made these mandolins in a
"family" of sizes and tunings corresponding to the
soon-to-be"invented" mandola, octave mandolin, and
mandocello -- all before the turn of the century! They were very
well-made, in several degrees of fanciness, all with the
elaborate inlaid-celluloid "E.H." pickguard. The tone
is average, nowhere near Gibson's, but better than most
bowl-backs. So, what happened to them? No one knows. What the few
historians who know anything about these instruments do
know (and love to tell you about) is that Elias Howe, the
designer of these "mandolinettos," was the famous
inventor of the first sewing machine. However, a quick stroll
over to the encyclopedia reveals that Elias patented his sewing
machine in 1846 and died in 1867, which leaves twenty-six years
until he would patent "his" mandolins. Since said
historians have denied my request for interviews and "cannot
be reached for comment," maybe someone out there can explain
this to me...
03/01/02 UPDATE! The Great Elias Howe Mystery explained!
Plus - more mandolinettos!
Composer Alfred Burt has acquired something of a cult status among Christmas vocal music fans, and "Bright, Bright" is one of my personal favorites. Normally quite brisk, I decided to accentuate the beautiful harmonies with this slower, "Satie-like" arrangement.