Concerto for Mandolin and Orchestra

We have collected enough unconventional concerti to finally give them their own category. You can click the li’l link underneath this post’s title and scroll down to find works such as William Russo’s Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra and Johann Georg Albrechtsberger’s Concerto for Jew’s Harp, Mandora and Orchestra.

Believe it or not, when Mozart composed for the our familiar friend the clarinet, it was in its modern incarnation a fairly novel instrument to be given such serious treatment. Within a hundred years it was a standard part of the orchestra. Albrechtsberger’s concerto for the jew’s harp (actually one of at least a half dozen he composed) may not have had the same uplifting effect on the popularity of its solo instrument, but this is not necessarily so for other stringed instruments. To this end we offer today Johann Hoffmann’s Concerto for Mandolin and Orchestra in D Major, written around the same time the clarinet was earning its seat in the pit.

We do not know as much about Hoffmann, a figure so shadowy in German music that his first name is uncertain. He was a mandolin virtuoso, and he may have taken an Italian name, Giovanni, to expand his audience. We know him today primarily because of his two concerti, which are more than mere vehicles for the mandolin and express the influence of Haydn and Mozart.

The challenge in composing a concerto for an instrument such as the mandolin is that it cannot produce sustained notes. The liner notes to this 1978 Turnabout recording point out that Hoffmann is clever in his approach to this problem, in particular in the second andante con variazioni movement of this concerto where the orchestra is assigned the melody and the solo instrument performs arpeggios, producing the chords in rising and falling succession.

Just as the clarinet has a long history before it found its modern form, the mandolin has been our musical companion for millennia. A painting in France’s Trois-Frères Cave, dating to about 12,000 BC, depicts a single stringed instrument from which the lute evolved. These early lutes could have been contemporaneous with the single-reed instruments of India which gave rise to the clarinet.

Historians trace the mandolin as we know it to the eighteenth century, and a family of luthiers, the Vinaccia of Naples. In this early period it was not marked as a “folk instrument” and found a home in the works of great composers, notably Vivaldi whose concerti were certainly widely heard. Beethoven composed four pieces for the mandolin in his middle period, and it also makes an appearance in two of the great operas: Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Verdi’s Otello. Still, today in the United States the mandolin is mostly heard as a folk instrument.

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