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Thread: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

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    Timothy Tim Logan's Avatar
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    Default The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    Not a musicologist; not a trained musician; just a guy who is crazy about classical
    mandolin. I was looking at Beethoven piano and mandolin duets hoping there was something in there that just possibly I could struggle through as my spouse Nancy plays the piano (she's the expert LOL). That's when I started wondering about why sometimes people say the mandolin isn't a "legitimate" classical instrument. Why is that? Thanks.

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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    I don’t ever recall hearing the Mandolin isn’t legit. Vivaldi, Mozart, & old Ludwig wrote for some form of the Mandolin. Good enough for me.
    As for the Beethoven pieces, start with the C minor sonatina. It’s a pretty little tune. It’s not an extremely difficult melody line, sections repeat, & it’s played at a slow tempo. It would be great duet with your wife on piano. Pull it out at family gatherings & show off with some Beethoven.
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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    I am curious about exactly who says that and what they mean. Also eager to see what kinds of replies you get to this, as I will be talking about it in my presentation at the Classical Mandolin Society Convention. Although I came to the mandolin world late in life, I am a semi-retired music professor and still involved in research. And some of that research involves the way people categorize music. Along with knowledge about music history, it involves neurobiology, linguistics, and cognitive processes. Rigid definitions might work in print or on a test in an old school music appreciation course, but they are a misunderstanding of how the human mind works how we use language to describe things.
    A musicologist might say “classical” refers to the 18th Century First Viennese School, pretty much Haydn, Mozart and their contemporaries. That is the most narrow definition, and nobody including classically trained musicians uses it that way in everyday conversation. By the way, Mozart uses the mandolin in Don Giovanni. But “legitimate?” That’s a word used by people who, in this case, probably aren’t going to listen to your side of the argument. They own the definition, they know what’s in and what’s not, and they can prove it. They are also wrong.
    We form categories based on our experience, and yes, that experience might include learning a rigid definition of a term like “classical.” Nevertheless we refer to Bach, Tchaikovsky, and Philip Glass as classical; most people think anything with an orchestra is classical. If you are in a music history class, you might be expected to call those composers Baroque, Romantic, and Contemporary Minimalist. But a recording by a master sitar player who earned an advanced degree at a Classical Karnatic Academy gets labeled “world music” because… why? It’s not European?

    There is a tradition of serious, artfully constructed music for the mandolin, even though it is typically associated with bluegrass and folk styles. As I said, humans form categories based on experience and most people’s experience with the mandolin is bluegrass, folk, or swing. And a lot of classical mandolin artists play and record music originally written for the violin or cello. Maybe that’s why some people say it is not a legitimate classical instrument. I hope some scholarly mandolinists will offer more specific information on the body of classical music for mandolin (or in my case mandocello). I see that already--thank you Joe B.
    I imagine there might be replies in this thread by people who disagree with me … but their opinions are not legitimate. (<-- joke!).

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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    I think the prejudice comes from those not very conversant with classical music who don't see the mandolin in the orchestral videos they watch.
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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    Well I don't know the definition of "classical music" but I do know it when I hear it. <----another joke .
    Or as one famous mandolinner said "that ain't no part of nothin'". <---- and he was serious!
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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    Jim -
    Thank you for responding. I cannot tell you where I've heard the thought expressed or necessarily if I ever actually heard the word "legitimate" used in this context. I was trying to reflect the impression I have long had that many folks in the classical music world (perhaps I could also say the "orchestra" world) think of the mandolin as a folk instrument or an odd duck. Perhaps I can give one example of how I got that impression. I had a friend at one time who was a baroque violinist (ie used a baroque bow etc). He looked at the mandolin as a quirky, folksy kind of instrument that was not used for "serious" music. To be clear, I know that is absolute rubbish. I was just sort of curious as to what on earth gives that impression to some people. I think Eugene may be correct in that since people don't see them in orchestras or rarely as a solo instrument on major symphony calendars, they don't think of it as a classical instrument. In addition, like my friend, the truth was he knew very little about mandolins. Most friends, when they hear I like to study classical mandolin, ask "what IS a mandolin?". On the other hand they would never ask"what is a violin?". My original post was probably poorly worded. Maybe I should have said orchestra instead of classical - and the answer is just as Eugene says!

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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    I suspect you are right that folks may not consider the mandolin a classical instrument because they don't know what they are and they haven't seen one. Until my violin teacher told me about five years ago that I might like the mandolin, after having told her that I would like an instrument that was more guitar-like, but tuned like my violins. Until she mentioned it, I had never touched a mandolin, had no idea they were tuned the same, or that this instrument had eight strings. But, now the mandolin is my primary instrument and I play it every day. Along with rock, pop, funk, country, folk and some jazz, I also like to play classical music. Now, for me, I play along with recordings as I usually only have an audience of one, and he is me. I prefer playing the melodies, and when playing along with classical music, I might be following the violins, a clarinet, a flute, or trumpets. I don't care. I play for pleasure. The mandolin really works very well with all my favorite genres, What a great instrument! And, what a classic it is!
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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    I've never heard anyone say the mandolin isn't a legitimate classical instrument, but I do recall reading an entry on the mandolin in an old music reference book that described it as a folk instrument that was easy to play.

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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    Once upon a time, back in the way long ago before times, when I had just been gifted a mandolin (1968), I had to figure out what it was and what to do with it all on my own. It was new to me, unlike anything I'd encountered before. Growing up in New England - not a hotbed of bluegrass activity - no one else knew what it was either. Fortunately my folks had a copy of The Oxford Companion To Music on the bookshelf. The entry on the mandolin was rather dismissive - in retrospect, not surprising, as at this time this tome was dedicated to classical music almost exclusively; it's as if "music" meant "classical music." If I recall correctly, it led with "a minor instrument of limited usefulness" and mentioned the two Vivaldi concerti and I think also the Beethoven piece. The most useful piece of information gleaned from this minuscule entry - it really was just a paragraph - was that it was tuned like a violin. That was a big help. I got a violin pitch pipe and never looked back.
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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    "The Tradition" - the institution of Western Classical music - has long been dogmatic about such things (not unlike orthodoxy in other traditional forms of music). Plucked, fretted instruments have not been an integral part of Western symphonic tradition; the same dynamics were present for guitar until Segovia committed his life to bringing it into acceptance. It seems that a certain amount of repertoire written for the instrument is necessary in order to attain the pedigree. I'm only guessing, but it may be that they are deemed superfluous, if not undesirable, unless writing for specific effect.

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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    But that's all convention eh. I like this Bartok - that's why I like "early music" it let's us play all the funky old stuff like lutes, harpsichords, weird horns..


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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    Eugene, I'd be interested in knowing the context of these comments.

    Although mandolins are not common in symphony orchestras, Mahler and Respighi used them. Mozart tossed one in an opera score, and Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Hummel—and as you mentioned, Beethoven—all wrote for the eight-stringer, just to name a few. Italy and France both had strong mandolin traditions, and the turn-of-the-century mandolin orchestras were extremely popular in the US.

    There are some hellacious contemporary classical mandolinists—Lichtenberg, Avital, Aonzo, Evan Marshall, the late Alison Stephens—and some excellent new music is being written for the instrument. Jennifer Higdon recently wrote a mandolin concerto, for Avi Avital if my memory serves me correctly.

    Anyone who claims the mandolin isn't a legitimate classical instrument is uneducated on the topic.

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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    In my earlier post I referred to a post by Eugene. That was a mistake - I was referring to this post by JeffD:

    "I think the prejudice comes from those not very conversant with classical music who don't see the mandolin in the orchestral videos they watch."

    I think JeffD has made a reasonable generalization regarding those not very conversant with classical music.

    That's probably enough said.

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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    A clear message emerging from this thread: those of us lucky enough to know need to promote the image of the mandolin as a serious instrument with a history of artful and beautiful music. That takes nothing away from the great pickers at bluegrass festivals, any more than country fiddlin' suffers from great classical violinists. I have seen more and more players associated with folk and bluegrass traditions throwing in a few Bach selections. At the university and public school levels music educators are expanding the range of "what's appropriate" for school ensembles to play and sing: not just the European Western Classical canon. That can work both ways, but I have seen closed minds on each side: "That's not bluegrass!" can be just as limiting as the dismissive classical violinist. And yes, many of my university colleagues had no idea there were mandolin orchestras. My research into the way people categorize music convinced me that being exposed to a wider range of examples will lead to less narrow vision. A great fiddle tune or reel in the midst of a classical concert, a Calace or Bach piece at a bluegrass festival; it won't always be well received, but that's why it's needed.

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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Imhoff View Post
    ... many of my university colleagues had no idea there were mandolin orchestras.
    Dang! I was going to point that out. Also, a great many people have no idea how popular mandolin orchestras and mandolins in general were in the late 19th century and early 20th century.


    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Imhoff View Post
    A great fiddle tune or reel in the midst of a classical concert, a Calace or Bach piece at a bluegrass festival; it won't always be well received.
    I'll agree with the former, but not the latter example. A fiddler launching into a quote from a classical piece generally gets a big "Wow!" and applause from the audience. It's like they appreciate the performer has some serious chops in order to do that. I would suggest avoiding doing a whole piece but a brief excursion usually gets approval and more from all but the most orthodox of traditionalists.
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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    I think Tim has picked up on an aspect of the history of orchestras that definitely ends up with the mandolin firmly planted in the category of 'other'. What we think and believe from our modern perspective is almost irrelevant to the attitude that prevailed until recently.
    The life of the earlier musicians was a precarious one with the idea of a career being only associated with posts of tenure of coveted positions under wealthy patrons. Prior to the advent of large orchestras it was pretty precarious. As with any craft there was (is) a pecking order with much jealousy & insecurity. If you got your way inside, then you did your darndest to make sure no one else was going to squeeze you out. The classical composers were in a bit of an arms race to impress & bigger halls with bigger orchestras meant a bigger impression. I can understand why the players of the newer louder violins would see anything with less horsepower as a lesser instrument. This is the world that considered any mixing of instruments as a broken consort. The uniformity was broken by the introduction of instruments outside the norm.

    Take the writing of mandolin into DonGiovanni, it is not included to show the highbrow nature and skill of the subject, it is done to show the lusty lothario serenading like a peasant. It's a shorthand for quick access to the trope of the troubadour pursuing the damsel.

    The writing of Mozart was for a piece for education & entertainment of a dilettante and so can be dismissed by those on the inside of the classical orchestral set.
    The fact that the mandolin had an earlier life as a favourite of the wealthy elites of pre-revolutionary times, (post revolution it wouldn't do to be seen affecting the airs of what was considered an effete gentry) possibly only served to underscore its being viewed as a plaything of the salon, even being seen as a lady's instrument. I'm sure we know what the attitude towards ladies being in an orchestra was in the classical music era. Vivaldi was writing for the young women of the orphan/finishing school. So yes in the world of he orchestra we now have a situation where the instrument has to fight for legitimacy within art music.

    This is why Calace's life's work was driven by a passion to elevate it beyond it's reputation as a peasant instrument with echoes of the serenading galante.
    The 20th century brought some brave attempts by more modern composers to incorporate it into their work, but it's still an outsider instrument to most of that world, hence the lack of visibility. How many mainstream higher education establishments outside Germany teach their aspiring composers about mandolin technique or even how to write for these outsider instruments? as a result of this blind spot it becomes a self sustaining want within the orchestral sounds and textures we are exposed to as audiences, and most never get to hear the possibilities of a fully complimentary orchestra of many tones and textures.

    I don't think our instrument family is there yet by a long shot, but it is catching up on it's lost centuries waiting in the wings.
    Eoin



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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    Hi Eoin -
    Very well said and a great little bit of informative "time travel" writing! You described a good frame of reference to answer my original post. Thanks for posting Eoin.

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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    "I don't think our instrument family is there yet by a long shot, but it is catching up on it's lost centuries waiting in the wings. "
    [Beanzy]
    As I said in my first post, I look(ed) forward to seeing what kind of replies. And yes, good point about the context of Don Giovanni's street-serenade; I've sung that Deh vienni alla finestra canzonetta, "Come to the window..." and it's a light tune meant to seduce (I think) an unnamed maid. And a lot of sites list it as accompanied by guitar, so I am not certain of the original score. Still, it is Mozart!
    I certainly agree that we aren't there yet. But I am working with at some university faculty and public school orchestra leaders who are both promoting and researching the mandolin as a "serious" instrument in the U.S., alongside the bowed family. I know a number of players who are working to bridge the gap and raise awareness. Segovia did it for the guitar, Casals did it for the solo cello, and as stated already there are a number of brilliant players gaining attention. Let's keep at it.
    jim

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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    To take this just a bit further - why do you thing groups like The Dutch Chamber Orchestra and people like Alex Timmerman and Caterina Lichtenburg have had such huge success (not to mention so MANY phenomenal European and Middle Eastern artists) in Europe but, as far as I know, there is not an equivalent group as popular in the US and fewer Americans known for their expertise strictly on classical mandolin family. We seem to take the honors though for incredible multi-genre artists like Chris Thile and Mike Marshall. I could be wrong or vastly ignorant though LOL!

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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    Not at all "vastly wrong," but not entirely right. The Modern Mandolin Quartet's recording of the Dworak "American" String Quartet won a Grammy and is absolutely stunning. I once spoke with Chris Aquavela at a Mando camp when the Thile Bach Sonatas came out. He told me the Europeans thought he played them "like a country fiddle tune." I am a Bach scholar, doctoral graduate of the Oregon Bach Festival under Helmut Rilling. I think the Euro's are typically provincial and arrogant on that--I love Thile's Bach and hear very musical and stylistic things that have nothing to do with country fiddling. (And hey, Eurocentrics, what's wrong with country fiddling anyway?). Americans will have to fight that "it's not classical because it's not European" bias, and we are in the field of music education.
    It all comes down to more exposure, open minds, and--never forget--kids in schools and their teachers.
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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    Hi Jim - Well this is totally off topic, but your comments and background "force" me to take advantage of your presence LOL. Again, I'm just a simple guy who loves all music and have a love affair with classical mandolin. I'm the guy in the audience who just goes by how his heart sings (or not) as he reacts to what he hears. I don't know how to "critique", I just react by feel. Sooooo......here's my off topic question. My heart, my emotions my mind - they just sing when I hear EITHER Chris Thile or Sebastiaan de Grebber play Bach. They blow my mind and they touch my heart BUT to me they express Bach totally differently...different tones, different expression, different instruments. In the same vein when I heard Catarina's Bach Cello suite on a 1920's Gibson mandola with a quill, I had NO doubt that it was, for me, the finest expression of the suite on a mandolin family instrument I had ever heard. So this is me, an average Joe, who in the great scheme of things only knows what he likes based how the music "sings to his heart". But you are a highly trained musician and educator, a Bach scholar. Question 1: how would Bach have wanted his listeners to react to his music? Were his listeners always aristocrats? Did the"common folk" ever hear his music? What motivated him to write....an aristocratic listener with money, the common man, or just the sheer power of his genius wherever it lead him? 2) As a trained musicologist and musician, what happens when you listen to Bach performed so differently by the three artists I mentioned? Do you shift into a technical analysis of technique etc and some concept of how Bach is "supposed" to be performed - or do you listen with your heart and then use your training to put that impact into words to hopefully help others? I hope my questions don't confuse or seem too personal, but seldom do I meet someone who can actually ask such questions! Again, off topic, but thank you.

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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    Tim, if you'll take an answer to some small part of this from someone not named Jim:

    In Bach's day, what motivated him to write was first and foremost the need to support a huge family. He worked as an organist. He was employed by various churches, where he had to come up with new music for services each week, related to the liturgical calendar. He wrote more than 300 cantatas, sacred and secular, not all of which survive. He also had positions as kapellmeister (basically a music director) for various princes, dukes, counts—whoever had the means to hire someone to keep the music coming. His six Brandenburg concertos, often considered the pinnacle of Baroque composition, seem to have been written as a job application, presented to the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt. Spoiler: the margrave did not offer Bach a position. Bach was no saint. He famously pulled a knife on a bassoonist who started a scuffle after Bach referred to him as a "nanny-goat" during a rehearsal.

    Contrary to what we want to believe, Bach, who died in 1750, did not immediately enter the pantheon of immortal composers. His music was all but forgotten until Felix Mendelssohn (1809–47) produced some performances of it. The beloved cello suites were pretty much unknown until the teenaged Pablo Casals (1876–1973) stumbled on an edition of them and began performing them in the early 20th century.

    All this is a long way of saying that it's hard to define a "correct" interpretation of Bach. There isn't an unbroken line of performance traditions from then until now. Musicologists can make some well-educated guesses, but plenty is uncertain. Most of the movements of the Bach sonatas are dance forms: gigues, courantes, bourrées, allemandes, all dances. Is playing them "like a country fiddler," who generally plays for . . . wait for it . . . dances, necessarily a bad thing?

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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    There are a couple recent recordings of Bach on Mandolin that I’m familiar with, the solo Bach by Thile & Bach duets, Mandolin & Mando-Cello, with Catarina/Marshal. I’m not saying who I think is “better” or more “authentic”, but I listen to the Catarina/Marshal more than the Thile. First, I enjoy hearing the interplay of the 2 instruments on the Bach more than the solo. I do love the Loar F5, but here I prefer the sound of Catarina’s Mandolin more than the F5. Going back to the Euro vs American discussion, the duo is a European on a bowl & an American on arch top (I believe Marshal’s Cello is an arch top). So it’s hard to pigeonhole.

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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    Great ideas in this thread!

    I have a Master's in Music theory and Composition, UNO 1985. In the academic music world - of that time - if an instrument was not a regular member of the orchestra, a piano, harpsichord or organ, it was "not a classical instrument" per se.

    Even the classical guitar dept. was not considered as much a part of things as the symphony musicians. Players of the "classical" sax and such were also outliers.

    Recorders, mandolins, lutes, etc. were used only when some score called for them.

    And you should have heard the reasons why I was not allowed to compose for electric guitar. I guess this was not around yet:



    BTW, I think that the European orchestra missed out on not having plucked strings to go with each section of bowed string. Along with the violins, violas, cellos and basses, there should be the mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos and mandobasses.

    The modern Chinese orchestra has successfully mixed plucked strings such as pipa and liuqin with Western bowed strings.

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    Default Re: The "legitimate classical instrument" thing..

    Dedicated repertoire (not arrangements) by "legit" composers like Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Hummel, Bizet, Mahler, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, etc. ad infinitum seem to provide evidence for legitimacy.

    It's hard to argue that the music by specialist composers like Munier, Calace, Kuwahara, Gladd, etc. isn't "classical" (whatever that might mean).

    Etc.

    Finally, enjoy whatever you enjoy for no better reason than that you enjoy.

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