Classical Guitar & Unique Mandolins
by Gregg Miner, as part of www.minermusic.com)

Bright, Bright, The Holly Berries
(Music by Alfred Burt, Lyrics by William Hutson)

   

  (Left to right)

Classical Guitar - J. Waller, ca. 1970

Harp Mandolin
-
Monzino & Sons, ca. 1900

Lyre Mandolin
-
Raffaele Calace, 1913

Piccolo Mandolin -
Germany, ca. 1900

Mandolinetto -
Howe-Orme, ca. 1895

03/01/02
 
UPDATE!
The Great Elias Howe Mystery!

 

Disclaimer to Internet readers: 
The following text is a humorous essay written for the layperson. It originally appeared in a companion booklet to my 1995 Christmas Collection CDs. The information, while factual, is presented in a personal, unorthodox manner. No offense is intended toward my fellow musicians or fellow musicologists.

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.

Listen to the instruments!

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