The mandolin has been around for quite some time.
Indeed! The mandolin began to gain popularity in
seventeenth-century Italy and comes from different
plucked-string instruments that were already around in
Europe during the Renaissance. But the word mandolino
first appears in the Medici court in the beginning of the
eighteenth century. At first, we had many types of instruments all named the ‘mandolin.’ The mandolin in Venice
was different in shape and tuning from the mandolin
in Naples. What was common to all was that they were
plucked-string instruments. What we know today as the
mandolin is the Neapolitan mandolin, which is to say eight
strings — or, more accurately, four pairs of strings with each
pair playing the same note, tuned like the violin, in fifths:
E–A–D–G. Metal strings played with a plastic pick.
yet while the mandolino came from Italy, the instrument
remains at home in many cultures’ folk traditions.
There is a good reason for that: if you look back at almost
In the strictly classical realm, there’s not much repertoire
every ancient culture in the world, there is a plucked-
string instrument that may look or sound like a mandolin
that plays a main role in that culture. In Russia it would
be the balalaika, in Greece it would be the bouzuki, the
tambura in the Balkans, the bandurria in Spain, the oud
in Muslim and Arab music, the pipa in Chinese, the koto
in Japanese music, the tar in Persian music, the banjo
in American music, the charango in South American
music and so on and so on. And that’s why the mandolin,
as a Western modern instrument, has a bit of this
ancient-culture quality. When I play Russian music on
the mandolin it dialogues with the balalaika because the
sound is similar, and therefore it sounds Russian. When I
play Italian music, it sounds very Italian.
Not at all. Unfortunately, the great composers — Bach,
for example —never wrote one single note for mandolin.
That’s tragic. People tend to think that’s because the
mandolin wasn’t so popular. But I think it’s because
the mandolin was very popular, so popular that it was
considered more an amateur instrument than a classical or
orchestral one. Therefore, composers didn’t relate to it as a
Like the guitar today, it’s by far the most popular instrument: if you combine the popularity of classical guitar with
that of the guitar you take on a school trip or to play with
friends around the campfire, it’s far more popular than
the violin or piano. But that’s the reason why it’s far more
connected with popular music than with high-art music.
That said, you’re still ‘classically trained’ in mandolin. What
exactly does that mean?
When I was a kid in Israel I went to the local conservatory — it was something to do after school when you are
eight. I started to study the mandolin and only found out
as an adult that my teacher had been a violin teacher, so
he had really educated me and my class to play classical
pieces, especially those written for violin. And that was my
introduction to classical repertoire.
A vi Avital was born in Be’er Sheva in southern Israel, where he began his mandolin studies at an early age
and joined a mandolin youth orchestra.
Avital went on to study at the Jerusalem
Academy of Music and then the Cesare
Pollini Conservatory of Music in Padua, Italy.
Approachable and unfussy, Avital spoke to
Listen at the New York City music-and-arts