Mozart used the mandolin in his opera Don Giovanni. So did composers like Igor Stravinsky and Giuseppe Verdi. And it was the first instrument learned by the great violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini. But the mandolin has never been used much in the world of classical music. Today, it is mostly heard in country and folk music, and occasionally in popular music as well.
Although instruments resembling the modern mandolin can be seen in pictures from 15th century Italy, the mandolin as we know it – which is also known as the Neapolitan mandolin – first appeared in Italy around 1650. Like another popular instrument of the period, the lute, it had a rounded, pear-shaped body, but was much smaller, with only four pairs of strings, and was tuned like a violin. And, unlike the lute, its strings were made of metal and it was always played with a pick.
During this period, other types of mandolins appeared, with different numbers and types of strings and different tunings. Other sizes appeared too including the tenor mandola and bass mandolone – later, a mandocello was developed as well. Some types, like the Milanese, were even meant to be played with the fingers.
The earliest known compositions for the mandolin date from around 1700, and throughout the 18th century many pieces were written for it, not only solos but also concertos and chamber music. (Antonio Vivaldi, for example, wrote not only several concertos for mandolin but one for two of them as well.)
In America, interest in the mandolin boomed after Italian Carlo Curti brought an ensemble called Spanish Students to New York in the late 19th century, where they played at the Waldorf Astoria. Mandolin-playing clubs and orchestras sprang up all over the country as a result, some of which are still active today, and companies such as Gibson and Larson began producing large quantities of instruments. Because of its limited repertoire and tone, the mandolin will probably never be a regular part of a symphony orchestra. But it will probably always have a place in some type of popular music.