T he mandolin as we know it came into existence in 17th and 18th century Italy. At that time, there were various instruments all called mandolin, but they looked and sounded slightly different and they had different tunings. For example, the mandolin in Venice, which Vivaldi wrote his concerto for, had five or six double gut strings and was quite a different instrument from the Neapolitan mandolin, which is the mandolin we all know today.

Avi Avital. Photo © Jean-Baptiste Millot / DG 

We could count the famous composers who wrote for mandolin literally on one hand. Vivaldi wrote a total of four pieces (and just to illustrate, for the bassoon he wrote 36!) Mozart used the mandolin only in Don Giovannifor the Don’s famous serenade, which indicates the social context of the mandolin at this time. Beethoven wrote four little sonatas for a young maiden that he was in love with. So the mandolin was popular as a salon instrument, but not as a classical concert instrument, and because it was an amateur instrument, major composers didn’t write for it. That meant the technique didn’t develop...

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