by David Brown
Around the turn of the century the mandolin orchestra was one of the most popular musical ensembles particularly among amateur performers in urban areas. Although mandolins were already a popular instrument in America the late 1800's saw a meteoric rise in public appeal of this bowl-back Italian import. Colleges formed mandolin societies, clubs devoted to the instrument sprang up in residential neighborhoods, and until WW1 the mandolin was quite in fashion. These were based on the earlier banjo clubs, and indeed the mandolin had long eclipsed the banjo in popularity. In fact, the instrument that finally ended the mandolin craze was the new tenor banjo, itself a banjo crossed with the metal strings, plectrum, and 5ths tuning of the mandolin.
Mandolin orchestras played arrangements of light classics, overtures, dance music, and some original works for mandolins. The players read regular musical notation, and a high standard of technique was developed. Instruments eventually were developed that matched this growth in technical skill, but oddly enough the best of them, the Gibson F series and the Lyon and Healy "own make" mandolins, were developed in the 20's as the mandolin was giving way rapidly to the banjo and guitar.
The standard mandolin corresponds to the violin in tuning, GDAE, and likewise the other members of the mandolin family follow their bowed counterparts. The viola is comparable to the mandola, tuned CGDA, and the cello has the mandocello as its plectrum equivalent. By 1911 there even was a mandobass!
Like the cello the mandocello is tuned CGDA an octave below the viola/mandola, and along with the rare mandobass and the guitar provided the bass in the mandolin orchestra. Obviously, the mandocello is much larger than a mandolin, and some differences in left hand technique are required, similar to the differences in violin and cello. Rather than use the violin/mandolin hand spacing which can have whole steps between successive left hand finger, the guitar-based hand position is used which is chromatic between fingers, and requires somewhat more position shifting. As one plays up the neck the notes become close enough together to use mandolin fingerings again.
We offer a fine mandocello, handmade by German craftsmen, with case. It has a spruce top and flamed maple back and sides; the back is partially arched with straight sides incorporating features of the bowl back mandolin and the flatback. There is also an inlaid wooden pickguard with a simple but elegant floral design. These are rich sounding instruments with great projection that a professional would be pleased to perform with.
The modern 5 course Irish bouzoukis or citterns can play mandocello parts when tuned to the CGDAE tuning, which is both mandocello and octave mandolin tuning combined. We have several instruments that can be tuned this way, and they offer the advantage of playing octave mandolin parts or being tuned DGDAD or DGDAE for Irish style playing.