Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Can anyone help me identify this instrument?  It sure looks like a mandolin, but in his book on instrumentation and orchestration, Hector Berlioz mentions that mandolins haven't been played for a long time and that musicians struggle when the mandolin is called for in Don Giovanni.  There is reference to it being played in rural Italy.  So, what exactly is going on in this cover?  Best I can tell is that it's from 1852.   Thanks!          Elaine

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Amusing tidbits, indeed, Strumelia !  I wonder if my local bike club knows about the 1880's bike clubs having banjo, mando and guitar clubs in their membership ! I may have to start a new club.  ;o}

And a 700 piece mando orchestra !!  Wonder what that would sound like..   Thanks for the reference..

Strumelia said:

Some interesting and amusing tidbits about mandolins and banjos of the 1880s here especially on pages 46-48.

Yes 1852 seems to be the only date find-able online for this sheet music example.

This publisher was located in London, and as such there would have been many more mandolins in England/Europe than in America back in 1852.  Doubtless there were far more Italian mandolins knocking about London at that time than there were banjos- maybe the English artist paid to come up with the cover illustration just used a mandolin because it was handy and familiar?  The costumes created by the artist have a vague "wandering minstrel" /Gypsy/Pierrot flavor to them.  I suspect artistic license and convenience had a lot to do with the insertion of an Italian mandolin on the cover of an English publication of an American song with lyrics prominently featuring a BANJO.   (...Oh I come from Verona with a mandolin on my knee!)   ;)  The main feature of the cover art would likely have been to simply depict (happy) black slaves enjoying music.

Prior to the 1890s or so almost all mandolins in America had been imported from Italy.

The little 8 stringed instrument in the sheet music pic is a very typical little Italian bowl-back mandolin (I had an 1880s one once, and I still have a later c1915 flat-backed American-made mandolin).  It's not a cittern.  Mandolins are petite with about 35 cm scales, near that of violins.  Citterns are larger instruments of 50+ cm scale...between an octave mandolin and a mandola. 

Here is a comparison picture of 2 german citterns together with a mandolin (in the middle). Scale is pretty much the same. The cittern on the left even has a pic-guard above the bridge just like the one on the sheet music cover.


Mark, that's a (relatively modern) Gibson mandolin- scale length of around 35 cm (almost 14").  The two citterns in the photo have scale lengths of 40 and 43 cm (a little less than 16 and 17"). The two citterns pictured are 2 and 3 inches longer in length than the Gibson in between them.

The bowl-backed Italian (also called Neopolitan) mandolins of the 1800s had a much smaller bodies and a round staved back. They virtually all had tortoise-shell pick guards and had typical shorter scale lengths ranging around 28-34 cm (11-13").  (Standard violins are a little less than 13")

Look at the tiny size and the body proportions of the sheet music cover instrument depiction.  Notice how close the instrument sides are to the soundhole- the body is not at all wide.  The soundbox volume comes from the fact that it has a deep bowlback.  It's completely in keeping with both the size and the time period of 1800s Italian bowl backed mandolins.  Here are examples of very fancy antique Italian mandolins, the one on the sheet music cover being somewhat less fancy: http://www.music-treasures.com/mandolin.htm

I'm not arguing that it is a cittern, only that citterns came in various sizes and body shapes.

The flat mandolin patten is from 1904.

Mark, understood, citterns do come in various shapes and sizes.  I've never seen one as small as an antique Italian bowlback/stave-backed mandolin though.


Interestingly enough, I found this image today.  The site suggests it's an 1860s stereocard

The peg head in particular strongly resembles a Baroque or Neoplolitan mandolin. http://www.mandolinserenade.com/hist.html

I have a reference book with the same picture as the above web site. "An Illustrated History and Directory of Acoustic Guitars" Dr. James Westbrook, Southwater, London, 2015. page 32.

This instrument was one of the first to have steel strings.

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