Thursday, May 31, 2018

Mandolin Players Facebook Group

I'm the founder of one of the biggest mandolin groups on Facebook for Mandolin Players.  As of this posting (5/31/18), we have over 1,000 members.

I've added two documents to the group's files.  The first one is a database I'm building of Luthiers who specialize in Mandolin repair and restoration.  The second one is a database of Mandolin Teachers. 

If you know of any luthiers or teachers to add to either of these databases, please join the group and include them in the documents.

Thank you!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

66 year old retired Chinese man teaches mandolin!

A 66-year-old former rubbish collector in south China who plays instruments on the street and teaches about 40 students for free has received high praise from netizens, People’s Daily reported on Wednesday.
The man surnamed Wu, originally from Yunnan Province, now spends his time playing mandolin on the street after working as a rubbish collector for over seven years in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Wu has loved music since he was a child, and played bamboo flute for more than 40 years. As he grew older his teeth began falling out, making it hard to continue playing. That's when Wu decided to learn mandolin.
In 2011, he bought a mandolin using some of the money he had saved and went about learning how to play the instrument on his own. Through a period of exploring and learning, he has formed his own unique musical style.
Later, Wu began to play mandolin on the street. His performances attracted a number of pedestrians and more than 40 students who wanted to learn from him.
Wu treats his students equally and teaches them patiently, all free of charge. He describes himself as an ordinary, grassroots person and argues that he's not qualified to charge people money for his time. He also likes to cook for his students and prepare fruit and cookies when they come.
Netizens praised the old man after his story went viral online. "He has a clear mind and is so nice to people," one gushed. "He was definitely very handsome as a young man," another joked.

Monday, May 28, 2018

A bit of Irish fiddle history

Although the fiddle was established in Irish traditional music before the Uilleann Pipes, the references to its predecessors do not date back as far as those of the pipes. Bowed instruments appear in numerous European carvings and illustrations dating from around 900 A.D. However, the interpretation of these carvings is difficult and the names given for the instruments differ and overlap in texts. The term 'fiddle' itself is somewhat general; it was originally the term for a twelfth century instrument, which was constructed of flat boards for the top, back and sides. This original 'fiddle' developed into the litre da braccio, the most significant predecessor of the violin. The term was later adopted for any member of the classical strings family, but has become particularly associated with the violin in the context of traditional music in Europe and America.

The earliest examples of a bowed instrument and of a bow itself date from the eleventh century and were excavated in Dublin in the eighteenth century. The bow is the earliest example of a medieval bow in Europe. According to "The Companion to Irish Traditional Music" ( Vallely 1999, pg 123) The earliest reference to the fiddle in Ireland is from a seventh century account of the Fair of Carman by O'Curry: "Pipes, fiddles, chainmen, Bone-men and tube players ". Also in existence in Ireland was the timpán, a bowed or plucked instrument with three to eight strings. In 1674 Richard Head wrote about Ireland "in every field a fiddle, and the lasses footing it till they were all of a foam ". In John Neal's Dublin shop, there was an advert claiming, "There is fidles to be had". This suggests the abundant availability of fiddles in Ireland. However, these fiddles bore no connection to the modern day fiddle, or violin.

Almost all European countries claim the invention of the violin, but none can seriously challenge the prominence of Italy in its history. The oldest surviving violin dates back to 1564 and was made by Andrea Amati, whose techniques have become the blueprints for all violin makers since. The accepted modern form of the violin, with the exception of the shape of the neck, was confirmed by 1710 thanks largely to Antonio Stradivari. It was in the early eighteenth century too, that the modern design of violin was firmly established throughout Ireland. In terms of its accepted construction, then, the fiddle is the oldest instrument in Irish traditional music. However, whereas the uilleann pipes have remained almost unchanged since its establishment in the tradition, the fiddle has undergone a process of continual development, particularly in the area of string and bow technologies.

Gradually the finger board has become longer to facilitate moving into higher positions for greater range, and the neck has been made narrower to make this movement easier. In 1820 the chinrest was introduced and, later still, was followed by the shoulder rest. These additions permit the player to grip the instrument with the chin, so allowing the hand to move more freely. However, owing to the nature of the melodies and the social context in which the fiddle existed in Irish traditional music, many of these developments were ignored for many years after their introduction: The dance tunes that were played on the fiddle rarely reached above the notes covered in first position (that is the low G to the upper B") therefore the extended fingerboards and chin rest were considered unnecessary. Many players of traditional music today still play without chin and shoulder rests. Also the fiddle required great skill in making, so the peasantry, amongst whom the instrument was popular, did not have the skill to modify their instruments, nor could they afford to buy new ones.

The afore-mentioned John Neal is the first recorded Irish fiddle maker. Along with his brother, William, he began making fiddles in Dublin in the 1720s. However, there is some debate about how the instrument travelled to Ireland. The most common theory is that fiddles, along with reels, were brought into the country by the Ulster-Scots. According to, the fiddle had been an established instrument in Scottish traditional music since the seventeenth century and was thought to have been introduced by the crusaders.

The fiddle was an ideal instrument for traditional Irish music, especially for the dance tunes. It broadened the horizons of traditional music, in terms of ornamentation and melodic variations: there was scope for ornamentation with both the fingers and the bow, and, as the notes were not fixed in pitch, as they were on the whistles and harps, there was a greater melodic range available to the players. " The characteristic features of Irish dance tunes make the fiddle a very suitable instrument. Cuts and rolls are easily executed, triplets can be bowed legato or singly to get the same effects as the pipes. " (Vallely 1999, pg 129) I feel that this statement is slightly controversial in that, as previously stated in the same book, the fiddle existed in traditional Irish music before the pipes. Did the single-bowed triplet mentioned here develop after the introduction of the pipes or was it already in existence? Also previously stated in the same book is the fact that much Irish music was composed on the fiddle. So was the easy execution of triplets and rolls an advantage of the fiddle and a reason for its popularity, or were these techniques developed on the instrument, meaning it's popularity was as a result of something else? One school of thought states that these ornamentation techniques were developed on the tin whistle and then transferred across to the fiddle, but that is unlikely, since the earliest tin-plate whistles appeared in Britain only from 1825 and were even later arriving in Ireland.

Although the wooden fiddle was long established and readily available in Ireland by the 1900s, a new style of fiddle was adopted by the travelling community and the peasantry: the tin fiddle. This was most popular in Donegal as it was very cheap to construct, was quieter than its wooden counterpart and very easy to mend. This was an important factor when one considers that in remote areas such as Donegal, access to those with the expert knowledge and skill needed to repair a timber instrument would have been limited. The properties also made it the perfect instrument for the children and learners in the travelling and peasant communities where houses were small and a loud timber instrument at night amongst large families and close neighbours would have been objectionable. Many of the great travelling fiddlers played these instruments, such as the Dohertys and their in-laws, the McConnells. Indeed Johnny Doherty was one of the most influential fiddlers in Donegal in the last century. He came from a family of tin smiths, whose " skill in working with thin-gauge sheet metal – typically tinplate – in times of high demand for fiddles was recruited for fiddle construction too. A skilled maker could turn out a fiddle body in two hours, to it was fixed either a home-made neck and fingerboard, or more commonly, a discarded neck from a damaged timber fiddle, with F-hole chiselled in the belly. " (Vallely 1999, pg 127)

The tin fiddle was also adopted by sailors and those who emigrated from Ireland as it was able to withstand the horrendous conditions on ships. Many people attribute the dispersion of Irish music in part to this usage of tin fiddles. Some tin fiddles are still produced today in Donegal, but these levels of production do not even come close to matching those of the early twentieth century. Many of the tin fiddles made by the Doherty, McConnell and Irwin families still survive and are held in revere by their owners. Also still in existence is a single brass fiddle, often seen to be the icon of Donegal fiddle tradition, but which was probably popular right across the island.

Similar in construction to the tin fiddle, the Stroh or phono fiddle was used until 1926 in wax cylinder recordings. Invented by Augustus Stroh, this metal fiddle had its own acoustic horn and was designed to provide a sharper sound for recordings. However, as discs overtook the wax cylinder recordings, the production of Stroh fiddles ceased, and today they are a rarity.

Thanks to Patricia Clark with her source "The Companion to Irish Traditional Music"

Some musical instruments you might hear at an Irish session today


Pronounced “bow-rawn,” this is known as the heartbeat of trad music for good reason. This large drum is covered with stretched animal skin and struck with a stick (traditionally made from double-ended knucklebone) to provide our music with a pulsating beat that turns listeners into dancers with ease.

Some speculate that the instrument served a double purpose as a husk sifter and grain tray. We prefer it as a drum. For a taster of what the bodhrán has to offer, re-watch Riverdance for the thousandth time.

Uilleann pipes

These ancient pipes have been mesmerising listeners with their haunting tones since the 5th Century. A popular instrument, the uilleann pipes (meaning “pipes of the elbow” because of their pump-operated bellows) take years to master.

It was two County Louth brothers, William and Charles Taylor, who developed our most modern version after emigrating with the instrument from post-Famine Ireland to the United States.

Today, though, Belfast-man John McSherry is our proudest piper and a true master. To imagine how the Ulster-Scot-influenced pipes sound, think Scottish bagpipes but better!

Celtic Harp

You know an instrument has reached iconic status when it has appeared on a national flag, Euro coins and gets reimagined as a Dublin bridge. The Celtic harp is that very instrument. Variations of the triangular, gut-stringed-instrument have been plucked in Ireland since as long ago as the 10th Century, when nomadic harpists would travel around Ireland performing songs for food or a warm bed.

In 1792, the Belfast Harp Festival saw the best players competing for prizes. And today, the ornate and ancient Brian Boru harp can be viewed in Trinity College in Dublin.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Five Ancient Musical Instruments from Ireland

The Wicklow Pipes, c. 2200-2000 BC

In 2003 a remarkable artefact was recovered during an archaeological excavation carried out by Bernice Molly at Greystones, Co. Wicklow. It consists of six carefully worked wooden pipes, which represent the world’s oldest surviving wooden musical instrument.

They were discovered in a waterlogged trough belonging to an Early Bronze Age burnt mound (c. 2120-2085 BC). Fashioned out of yew wood, the pipes were found lying side by side, in descending order. They ranged in size from 57cm to 29 cm long, although not all were complete. Internally they had been hollowed out, with the resultant internal diameters being approximately 2 cm across. However, there was no evidence for finger holes.

Instead, the ends of some of the pipes had been worked to a stepped taper, suggesting that this end was originally contained within an organic fitting. This may indicate that the pipes formed part of a composite wind instrument, such as an organ fed by a bag, or else a complex pan-pipe like device.

Two Late Bronze Age Horns from Co. Antrim,   900-600 BC

These two Late Bronze Age horns were discovered in bogs located in Drumbest, Co. Antrim and Derrynane, Co. Kerry. Made from bronze they were originally cast in clay moulds. They represent sophisticated pieces of early metal-working and were undoubtedly valuable items, whose deposition in a bog may represent ritual activity.

During the Late Bronze Age there were two main types of horn Ireland. One blown from the end and the other from a side mouthpiece, with both types being illustrated above. In general, the end-blown horns are mainly found in the southwest of the country, while the side-blown horns have a more even distribution.

They appear to have been  popular instruments and to-date over 122 have been discovered in Ireland (Coles 1967, 117). Amazingly, this accounts for over half the total number of Bronze Age horns that have so far been found in Europe and the Middle East (after Wallace 2000, 25).

When the horns were blown they probably made a noise similar to a didgeridoo.

Crotals/Rattles from Dowris, Co. Offaly,         900-600BC

These distinctive bronze balls/pendants formed part of huge Late Bronze Age hoard which was uncovered at  Dowris in Co. Offaly during the mid-19th century. Hollow-cast and pear-shaped they typically contain a loose piece of bronze or stone inside, which rattles when the pendants are shook. This may indicate that they represent a rather simple form of musical instrument.

Known as crotals, from the Latin crotalum, meaning rattle, the pendants are generally about 12 cm long and can weigh up to 270 grams. They have a loop at one end, indicating that they were probably suspended, although they appear to have been too heavy for attachment to normal clothing. A uniquely Irish artefact, crotals are not recorded from outside of the island.

The Loughnashade Trumpet, Co. Armagh,                    c. 100 BC 

The magnificent Loughnashade trumpet is one of the finest surviving horns of the European Iron Age. It was discovered during drainage works at the site of a former lake (Loughnashade) in Co. Armagh. Alongside it were three other horns, which have since been lost, and a collection of human skulls and bones. This array of finds is suggestive of ritual deposition and it is likely that the lake was a site of some importance for the inhabitants of the nearby royal site at Eamhain Macha/Navan Fort.
Dating from circa the  1st century BC, the trumpet measures  1.86 m in length and is made from curved and rivetted sheets of bronze.  The decorative flange at the end  of the instrument is covered in an abstract floral design which is executed in repousse ornamentation. It has been suggested that originally there may have been a second, attached stem-piece that would have lengthened the trumpet and given it an overall S-shaped profile (O’Dwyer 1998).

The original function of the trumpet is uncertain but it may have been used during special ceremonies or possibly even warfare. There are numerous classical accounts which detail how the Gauls and other continental Celtic tribes used similar bronze trumpets as war-horns. For example in c. 60-30 BC the Greek historian, Diodurus Siculus wrote this description,  ‘their trumpets again are of a peculiar barbarian kin, they blow into them and produce a harsh sound which suits the tumult of war’.

The Brian Boru Harp, c. 15th century AD

Also known as the  Trinity Harp, this instrument is one of Ireland’s national symbols. Its image has been used on Irish coinage and state insignia and it it was also the model for the famous Guinness logo. According to to the 18th century antiquarian, Charles Vallancey, the harp was once owned by Brian Boru. However, this is highly unlikely and instead it was probably constructed in the 15th century.

The harp is decorated with intricate carvings and originally contained fittings for twenty nine strings, with an additional 30th fitting added over the course of its life. The person who commissioned the harp is unknown, although it does bear the O’Neill coat of arms, suggesting that this family once owned it.

The "Irish Session"

Some people are under the impression that Irish music sessions are a type of traditional event. However, authorities such as Breandan Breathnach and others agree that Irish music as played traditionally was a solo, unaccompanied musical form. Furthermore, the artistry of the music depends for a large extent on the variation and ornamentation of the basic tune by the performer—subtleties which are necessarily lost when there is more than one performer.

In Cape Breton, which has probably the most conservative tradition in Gaelic music, it was unheard of until quite recently to have more than one fiddler playing at a time. To play while another person was playing would have been considered just as rude as talking while another person was talking.

The only circumstance in which it was common to have more than one person playing at a time was at dances. The lack of affordable PA systems in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made it necessary to have multiple performers so that the music would be audible.

From the reports of some of the early collectors, it appears that many professional musicians avoided performing in the presence of other musicians for fear that their tunes would be stolen. The stock of tunes in a given area may have been quite small, and knowing a tune that others didn't could be a distinct advantage. Many of the old musicians were extremely jealous of each other, and would carry their special tunes to the grave rather than teach them to anyone other than possibly a son or extremely well-loved pupil (with instructions not to perform them during the teacher's lifetime).
Some of the professionals were more generous, however, and some schools of playing can be traced back to particular founders.

While there were of course many talented amateur musicians, traditionally the best musicians were usually professional or at least semi-professional. However, being a professional musician in the early 19th century was a career rather similar to being a professional beggar. They often played for tips at cattle fairs, horse races, etc.

A number of professional musicians in the old style kept going well into the 20th century. For example, Johnny Doherty

and Padraig O'Keeffe

made their livelihood from music without giving concerts until late in their lives, if at all (aside from being taped and played on the radio).

The old harpers were almost all professionals, but they were usually maintained by the old aristocratic families. This form of patronage died out around the middle to late 18th century.
In Scotland professional musicians adopted the modern style of giving concerts, going on tour, etc. around the middle 18th century, just as the old patronage system died out. The musician/beggar lifestyle existed as well—no doubt it depended on your class origins.

Amateurs were much more likely to play in sessions than professionals, lacking the jealousy caused by having to depend on your store of tunes for your bread and butter, and lacking the artistry to perform elegant variations. Since such professional musicians as emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in the 19th century tended to gravitate towards stage performance (since the opportunities for a traditional musical lifestyle and prejudices against lower-class performers appearing on stage were both absent), it may well be that the establishment of the session as the standard venue for the performance of Irish music was an American innovation.

It is certain that the growth of sessions has changed the form of Irish music. The amount of variation of the tunes has decreased radically and the old descriptive pieces of music have almost totally died out.

The lifestyle in which Irish music originated is almost totally gone, and before we become too nostalgic about it we should remember that it was a life of hard physical labor, grinding poverty, poor health and early death. The fact that the music is changing is an indication that it is still alive and has not become a museum piece. This is not the first time that the music has changed in order to adapt to changing social structures, by any means.

Irish bardic poetry on the subject of harps and harpers.

This is a selection of Irish bardic poetry on the subject of harps and harpers. The earliest of these come from a collection of Irish poems which were researched and translated by the great Gaelic scholar Osborn Bergin in the period 1918-1926.

Bergin states:
By Bardic Poetry I mean the writings of poets trained in the Bardic Schools as they existed in Ireland and the Gaelic parts of Scotland down to about the middle of the seventeenth century. In Scotland, indeed, they lingered on till the eighteenth century. At what time they were founded we don't know, for the Bardic order existed in prehistoric times, and their position in society is well established in the earliest tradition. You will understand that the subject is a vast one, but I mean to deal only with a small portion of it—the poetry of the later Bardic schools from about the thirteenth century to the close—that is to say, compositions of the period known as Later Middle Irish and Early Modern Irish."
Osborn Bergin
Irish Bardic PoetryDolmen Press, 1970
p. 3

The language of the poems is a somewhat artificial poetic Gaelic which remained almost unchanged over 500 years, although the spoken language continued to evolve in different areas. Hence, by the end of the period people complained that the poets were difficult to understand. It also means that the poetry can not be identified by region or date on stylistic grounds. Most of the words will be recognizable to the student of modern Irish, although the grammar is different enough that translation requires a specialist in the subject.

The structure of the poems follows a precise formal structure based on one of the traditional syllabic metres. These are very polished works produced by skillful professionals in a very dignified style. The subject matter of the poems as a whole is quite wide, but I have chosen only those connected with harps. No other musical instruments are mentioned, except in one place "liric", which Bergin translates as "lyre". This may be just a synonym for harp.

Poetry was a hereditary occupation, although training at a Bardic College for a period of about seven years was also required. The method of composing was to lie in a darkened room for an extended period of time until the poem was complete. Many have commented that this seems like a relic of some type of divination ceremony going back to pagan times.

Some of the poems:

The Strathspey: Scottish Precursor to the Reel

strathspey (/stræθˈsp/) is a type of dance tune in 4
 time. It is similar to a hornpipe but slower and more stately, and contains many dot-cut 'snaps'. A so-called Scotch snap is a short note before a dotted note, which in traditional playing is generally exaggerated rhythmically for musical expression. An example of a strathspey would be the song "The Bonnie Banks O' Loch Lomond", provided it is sung staccato:
"You'll tak the high road, and I'll tak the low road, and I'll be in Scotland afore ye."
Other examples are Auld Lang Syne (based on Sir Alexander Don's Strathspey) and Coming through the Rye (based on an old strathspey tune called The Miller's Daughter).
Because the strathspey rhythm has four strong beats to the bar, is played quickly (generally ranging from 108 beats per minute, for Highland Dance, up to 160 beats per minute, for step dance), and contains many dot-cut 'snaps', it is a rhythmically tense idiom. Traditionally, a strathspey will be followed by a reel, which is in 2
 with a swung rhythm, as a release of the rhythmic tension created during the strathspey.
It has been hypothesized that strathspeys mimic the rhythms of Scottish Gaelic song.[1][2] Among traditional musicians, strathspeys are occasionally transmitted as canntaireachd, a style of singing in which various syllables stand in for traditional bagpipe ornaments.[3] 

The dance is named after the Strathspey region of Scotland, in Moray and Badenoch and Strathspey. Strathspey refers both to the type of tune and to the type of dance usually done to it (although strathspeys are also frequently danced to pastoral airs played at the same tempo; an example of which would be the dance Autumn in Appin, danced to the tune The Hills of Lorne).[4] The strathspey is one of the dance types in Scottish country dancing. A Scottish country dance will typically consist of equal numbers of strathspeys, jigs and reels. The strathspey step is a slower and more stately version of the skip-change step used for jigs and reels. The strathspey also forms part of the musical format for competing pipe bands. Modern high grade pipe bands are required to play a march, a strathspey and a reel for competition purposes.
The strathspey was originally conceived for the fiddle, using a peculiar bowing technique that would produce its characteristic "scotch-snap" rhythm; many newer strathspeys were written in the 18th and 19th centuries by composers such as William Marshall and James Scott Skinner, who utilised the full range of the fiddle to produce many memorable tunes. Skinner distinguished between dance tunes, which retained the staccato bowing (Laird o Drumblair), and airs which were for listening (Music of Spey). Angus Cumming produced the first collection of strathspeys to be published by a person from Strathspey. More recently, Muriel Johnstone has written some elegant piano strathspeys. These days there are at least four, some would say seven, varieties: the bouncy schottische, the strong strathspey, the song or air strathspey, all three of which can be enjoyed for dancing, and the competition strathspey for the Great Highland Bagpipe, primarily intended as a display of virtuosity. Although band and solo competition bagpiping generally involves a complicated, heavily ornamented setting, traditional pipers often play simpler, more rhythmically driven versions.
In the Irish tradition, strathspeys are largely relegated to the Scottish-influenced traditions of Donegal. Unlike many duple-time tune types in the Irish tradition, strathspeys are articulated with four distinct beats to the bar, rather than two. Unlike their Scottish counterparts, Irish strathspeys are played with a smoother, less-jagged bowing articulation. The Irish repertoire also gravitates to tunes with long passages of triplets.[5]
In the New World, the Cape Breton strathspey differs from its Scottish and Irish cousins in its rhythm patterns.

While the dot-cut snaps are fairly standard in European strathspeys, in the Cape Breton style the dotted note can come before the short note, and the snaps can come at any point in the measure. These changes allow for the rhythmic "lift" needed for the Cape Breton style of Scottish step dancing. The dot-snap variations have been described as more "wild" than in Scottish playing.[6] Cape Breton dot-snaps often follow the same pattern within any given piece of music, and adhere to a local pattern shared among the community of Cape Breton-style players.[7] The same tune can be played in the Scottish and Cape Breton styles, but will sound different.

Irish Piper and Music Historian, Breandan Breathnach

Breandán Breathnach (1 April 1912 – 6 November 1985) was an Irish music collector and Uilleann piper. He is best known for his Ceol Rince na hÉireann (Dance Music of Ireland) series.

From Wikipedia

Recorded in Doolin, 1959.  Some other items from this session were transcribed by Breandan Breathnach for his book Ceol Rince na hÉireann Vol. 2.  The first hornpipe was published about a century ago by Francis Roche, in the key of F.  In the syllabus for one of the early Feis Ceoil it is listed as a required tune for competitors in the fiddle competition, alongside much more prosaic items - Miss McLeod, Connaughtman's Rambles, et al.  In the original setting the 5th bar of the first part contains arpeggios of quavers - cegc' bdgb/acea gbdg.  Seamus or his father adapted the first three notes of each cluster of notes to triplets - 3)ceg c'(pause) 3)bdg b(pause)  etc., to make the tune work on the chanter, as going straight from high C to low B is nigh impossible.  Even so, this is an exceptionally difficult tune on the chanter.  It was also recorded in the late 1920s on a 78 RPM record by Sligo fiddler James Morrison, in the original key of F.

Seeking donations of mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos - any condition, any age, any shape!

If you, or someone you know, has an old mandolin-family instrument in your attic or basement storage that you don't need or want any more, consider donating it to the South Hadley Mandolin Orchestra!

The South Hadley Mandolin Orchestra is a non-profit organization founded in 2012 in South Hadley, Massachusetts by Adam Sweet and his students to perform free concerts for anyone around the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts.

The first live performance was at the South Hadley Town Hall in January 2015 in a combined concert with members of L'Esperance Mandolin Orchestra of Providence, RI.

The orchestra is comprised of students of the Sweet Music Studio's Advanced Mandolin Group class, which meets Mondays from 7-9pm at the studio, and area colleagues.  The class is open to anyone with 5 or more years of playing experience on either bowed-string instruments (violins, violas, cellos) or mandolin-family instruments.  The class studies Classical-era (1700s) and Romantic-era (1800s) music with composers such as J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart, F. Schubert and more.

If you have a mandolin-family instrument you would like to donate, or if you would like to join the orchestra, or just would like to be put on our mailing list, fill out the Contact form on the sidebar, and THANK YOU!

Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 for 2 violas and continuo

Title -- #6in B-flat major for 2 violas de braccio, 2 violas da gamba, violincello + continuo (violone and cembalo)

The last of the Brandenburg Concertos is often considered the oldest, as its instrumentation conjures a 17th century English consort of viols, similar scoring had been used by Bach in his earlier Weimar cantatas, and its structure relies heavily upon both the ancient canon form and the conservative Baroque gesture of a chugging bass of persistent quarter-notes.

A bass viola da gamba
A viola da gamba
Yet, typically, Bach combines a knowing salute to the past with a bold leap into the future, raising the violas, customarily embedded in the continuo accompaniment, to solo status. The unprecedented gesture was triply suitable – the viola was Bach's own favorite orchestral instrument (as he once put it, placing him "in the middle of the harmony"), it was also the instrument played by his patron Prince Leopold, and the Margrave's orchestra was known to have employed two especially accomplished violists.

Scholars assume that Bach only had enough forces at Cöthen for one player per part. Indeed, performances with full string sections, or even large chamber ensembles, no matter how well rehearsed, tend to blur the precisely articulated interplay of buoyant rhythms and swamp the harpsichord, whose bright plucked overtones need to emerge from the depth of the strings. Moreover, the nasal sound of violas da gamba (six-string bass viols held between the legs) and a single violone are needed for bright, transparent middle and bass lines that complement rather than thicken the tone of the featured violas de braccio (hand-held violas comparable to current ones) and solo cello. Similarly, modern substitutions of deeper and more powerful modern instruments, including a double bass, unduly deepen the sonority and fuse the timbres.

In one sense, the work seems a concerto for two violas to display Bach's love of his instrument and its full range of expressive possibilities. Yet, it is their interplay, both with each other and with the cello and continuo, that characterizes each of the three movements, thus exemplifying the claim of Johann Nicolaus Forkel, Bach's first biographer, that Bach considered the essence of a polyphonic composition to be a symbolic tonal discussion among instruments, each presenting arguments and counterpoints, variously talking and lapsing into silence to listen to the others.

Shorn of the violins' customary brilliance, the dark timbre suggests a harbinger of the mystery and somber thoughts of the Romantic era to come. Indeed, Boyd sees the instrumentation as an allegory of progress, as Bach elevates the then-newest member of the string family to prominent status while relegating the older viols to the background. Yet Bach ingeniously creates a compelling and complex aural image of irresistible gaiety that arises out of and is enriched by its seemingly melancholy components.

The sections of the first movement are closely integrated into a continuous flow of vigorous thrust, led by the two violas in tight canon a mere eighth-note apart during each of the six ritornellos, blending into a lively dialogue with the gambas during the five episodes, all over a persistent quarter-note continuo rhythm. The second is a lovely, if somewhat quaint, meditation for violas and cello. The finale is an irresistibly propulsive dance in 12/8 time with astoundingly catchy primary and counter-melodies, in which Bach seems to tease us as the violas constantly begin, abandon and resume canonic imitation. Indeed, while Bach is reputed to lack humor, he manages to play an unintended joke on those of us relegated to listening on record – the violas constantly switch parts but the difference is inaudible and thus imperceptible without the visual clues in a concert. Perhaps out of respect for the limited stamina of his royal soloist, after sitting out the adagio, the gamba parts of the finale are easy accompaniment, leaving all the work to the violas and occasional fits of activity from the cello.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

SHMO: 2018-2019 material including works by Marcello, Mozart and Bach.

After the Porter Phelps concert in July, the South Hadley Mandolin Orchestra will begin working on some new material.

The first is an original composition by Joseph Marcello simply entitled "Concerto for Two Mandolins".  The piece has one movement, and was composed in the key of D major.  The piece was commissioned by the South Hadley Mandolin Orchestra and originally was supposed to include three movements, but the composer decided it would be best with just the one.  We are thrilled to be able to present this original composition by a local composer!

Joseph Andrew Marcello is an author, music journalist and award-winning composer with a deep interest in physical and spiritual well-being. He makes his home on a pine-clad hilltop in western Massachusetts, at the juncture of Vermont and New Hampshire, amidst the flight and flurry of his 13 cockatiels, most of whom he bred and hand-fed right out of the nest. At any given moment throughout the day his shoulders are seldom free of them. He loves long-distance swimming, cycling and animals.


In addition to the Marcello piece, the Orchestra will start working on String Quartet No. 19 by W. A. Mozart "Dissonance".

The String Quartet No. 19 in C Major, K. 465 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, nicknamed "Dissonance" on account of its unusual slow introduction, is perhaps the most famous of his quartets.

It is the last in the set of six quartets composed between 1782 and 1785 that he dedicated to Joseph Haydn. 

According to the catalogue of works Mozart began early the preceding year, the quartet was completed on 14 January, 1785.

As is normal with Mozart's later quartets, it is in four movements:
  • Adagio-Allegro
  • Andante cantabile in F major
  • Menuetto. Allegro. (C major, trio in C minor)
  • Allegro molto
The first movement opens with ominous quiet Cs in the cello, joined successively by the viola (on A♭ moving to a G), the second violin (on E♭), and the first violin (on A), thus creating the "dissonance" itself and narrowly avoiding a greater one. This lack of harmony and fixed key continues throughout the slow introduction before resolving into the bright C major of the Allegro section of the first movement, which is in sonata form.

Mozart goes on to use chromatic and whole tone scales to outline fourths. Arch shaped lines emphasizing fourths in the first violin (C – F – C) and the violoncello (G – C – C' – G') are combined with lines emphasizing fifths in the second violin and viola. Over the barline between the second and third measures of the example, a fourth-suspension can be seen in the second violin's tied C. In another of his string quartets, KV 464, such fourth-suspensions are also very prominent.

The second movement is in sonatina form, i.e., lacking the development section. Alfred Einstein writes of the coda of this movement that "the first violin openly expresses what seemed hidden beneath the conversational play of the subordinate theme".

The third movement is a minuet and trio, with the exuberant mood of the minuet darkening into the C minor of the trio.

The last movement is also in sonata form.


And finally, we will continue working on the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B major for Two Mandolas (originally violas) and continuo.  This is rather a challenging project for us, as all of us have to learn the Alto clef, soloists and continuo together.  

No. 6 in B♭ major, BWV 1051
(from Wikipedia)

Instrumentation: two viole da braccio, two viole da gamba, cello, violone, and harpsichord
Duration: about 16 minutes

The absence of violins is unusual. Viola da braccio means the normal viola, and is used here to distinguish it from the viola da gamba. When the work was written in 1721, the viola da gamba was already an old-fashioned instrument: the strong supposition that one viola da gamba part was taken by his employer, Prince Leopold, also points to a likely reason for the concerto's composition—Leopold wished to join his Kapellmeister playing music. Other theories speculate that, since the viola da braccio was typically played by a lower socioeconomic class (servants, for example), the work sought to upend the musical status quo by giving an important role to a "lesser" instrument. This is supported by the knowledge that Bach wished to end his tenure under Prince Leopold. By upsetting the balance of the musical roles, he would be released from his servitude as Kapellmeister and allowed to seek employment elsewhere.

The two violas start the first movement with a vigorous subject in close canon, and as the movement progresses, the other instruments are gradually drawn into the seemingly uninterrupted steady flow of melodic invention which shows the composer's mastery of polyphony. The two violas da gamba are silent in the second movement, leaving the texture of a trio sonata for two violas and continuo, although the cello has a decorated version of the continuo bass line. In the last movement, the spirit of the gigue underlies everything, as it did in the finale of the fifth concerto.

Les Poules huppées

CRESTED HENS, THE (Les Poules huppées). French, Bourrée à 3 temps (3/8 time). E Dorian. Standard tuning (fiddle). Composed in 1983 by French...