This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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The Mandolin Club

17 July 2021


People love to share their enthusiasm.
Whether it's for tennis, chess, stamp collecting,
photography, bird watching, or even blogging,
people enjoy the company of others
who take pleasure in the same activity.
When these aficionados organize a club or society,
it brings a larger membership into a structured association
that expands on that shared passion.
In other words,
the more, the merrier.


For many musicians,
both professional and amateur,
the love of their instrument
leads them to find other devotees
to form clubs dedicated to that instrument.

With more players
there is more musical potential.
As more voices means
more possibilities for a larger sound,
for a dynamic range beyond
the individual instrument.

Some instrumentalists have no trouble assembling a like-minded ensemble.
 String instruments like violins, violas, cellos, and double basses
are designed to constitute a homogeneous sound. 
But saxophones and trombones also come in a wide range of sizes
adaptable to a variety of musical forms.

But once upon a time,
connoisseurs of the plucky Italian relative of the violin
decided they needed a club
to promote their favorite instrument,
the Mandolin.

Since these enthusiasts were German
they needed a postcard photo of their group
as a souvenir of their concerts.
Today I feature three of these music clubs.

My first example of this German enthusiasm for the mandolin is a postcard of 16 men on a small outdoor stage. According to a placard at the feet of their director, they are the Con-Fuoco Mandolin Club. The Italian phrase Con Fuoco is a common musical term which means "With Fire". The mandolinists are all dressed in a similar costume, with white trousers, a quasi-sailor's blouse, and a soft cap which was probably their idea of a Venetian gondolier's uniform. However the curl of their mustaches are not so much Italianate as Prussian. 
The typical soprano mandolin has eight strings tuned in pairs like a violin, though the fingerboard has frets. The other members of this instrument family include an alto, tenor, and baritone mandolins which are scattered around the Con Fuoco mandolin club.

The card has a postmark of 16 July 1909 from Berlin. The publisher is Verglag von W. Schmidt of Schöneberg, which was then a small city, now a district, located southwest of Berlin's city center. By coincidence, Schöneberg is the birthplace of the German-American singer and actress, Marlene Dietrich(1901–1992), who learned to play the violin as a young girl. So it's not impossible that one of the men in the Con-Fuoco Mandolin Club might have been her teacher.

* * *

My second postcard is of the Mandolinen Club „Nordische Klänge”"Nordic Sounds". The card was never posted but the caption adds that it was established in 1906, though the style of printing suggests the photo dates from around 1910-14. It's a serious group of 29 players, dressed in white trousers and lightly striped shirts with stiff collars and long ties. Each man also has a sash tied around their waist, which I interpret as the group's effort to  look Italian, perhaps more Milan than Venice. But they are mostly German, I think, as the postcard was published in Berlin by Photographie Adolf Neumann, Gerichtstr. 84.
Among the mandolins are several that are larger than the standard violin-length instrument, and more akin to a viola or cello string length. There are two regular guitars and two unusual harp-mandolins with extended necks for extra bass strings. Standing on either side are two players with what look like double basses. The left one has a typical double bass arched top and bridge for the strings, but the left one is more guitar-like with a flat top, curved bouts, and a single round soundhole. This is a rare contrabass mandolin. The group's photo is also interesting that like many Germanic music ensembles of this era, they felt a need to display a collection of percussion instruments with a tambourine, small metal glockenspiel, a triangle, and a castanet clapper. That suggests there was dancing.

* * *
My third postcard is the „Sempre Avanti” Mandolinen Club. With 19 gentlemen dressed in more formal suits, it's not surprising that this serious bunch had a competitive Italian name that means "Always Ahead". They are posed in a photographer's studio in three ranks that includes a few larger mandolins and four guitars. The player seated on the left has a Viennese harp-guitar with extra strings called a Schrammel guitar or contraguitar. On the floor in front is a large animal skin.

The back has two postmarks that are not entirely clear, but might be from Berlin. On the front is a handwritten date of 24.3.06 with Greetings from the Brewery Wektoria(?). If the „Sempre Avanti” mandolinists were from Berlin or anywhere in north Germany, I feel sure they were well acquainted with the fellows in the „Nordische Klänge” and Con Fuoco mandolin clubs. Like brass bands, they may have competed  in contests for best regional orchestra which would lead to shiny medals and prize cups.

As with nearly all of my photos and postcards of forgotten musicians, it is impossible to know what repertoire these groups performed. After more than a century, printed musical programs are the rarest of ephemera and were very infrequently reported in newspapers. Since the mandolin is associated with Italy, I expect these mandolin clubs played arrangements of Italian opera tunes or popular songs. It seems likely that performances included singing too, though we can't know if it was in German or Italian.

But these mandolin clubs were not unique to Germany. I've seen photographs of similar string ensembles for American, French, Russian, and British musicians, but postcards of these music clubs were a particular German fad. Besides mandolin orchestras, there were bands for multiple banjos, ukuleles, zithers, and balalaikas. There was a lot of strumming and picking in the early 20th century.

Fortunately mandolin clubs survive into our century,
and surprisingly one of the places
with the most mandolin enthusiasts is Japan.
Here is the Arte Mandolinistica Kyoto from 2018
performing the Queen classic
Bohemian Rhapsody

I can't resist including a brilliant arrangement of
John Williams' STAR WARS Main Theme
played by Mandolin Orchestra "ARTE TOKYO"

And because in a few weeks
the world's attention will be focused
on the Tokyo Olympic Games,
here is a rendition of John William's Olympic Fanfare
played in 2019 by the Arte Tokyo Mandolin Orchestra.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday,
a club for bloggers who love old photographs.


Wendy said...

I was hoping to hear some mandolin "with fire" and I think I did! Bohemian Rhapsody was my favorite because it featured the mandolin more prominently.
(No fair double-dipping into next week's Marlene Dietrich prompt!)

Barbara Rogers said...

I was intrigued by the mustaches (is that the correct plural?) which many of the Mandolin players sported in the different clubs...but especially the first! I must wonder if they were Germans thinking that made them look Italian, or just Germans liking to have that look on their own. No matter, they are pretty wild on some of the gentlemen!

Molly's Canopy said...

The facial hair on the early photos caught my eye immediately. The performers may have been German or Norwegian, but some of the mustaches seem to resemble the style sported by my maternal Italian great-grandfather Peter di Lorenzo and his brother Antonio during the early 1900s. The sashes, however, don’t seem to fit as well — some of the performers looking stiff and uncomfortable in them. And thanks as always for the videos. So great to hear the mandolin used for contemporary music — especially the Star Wars theme.

smkelly8 said...

The more the merrier indeed. It's hard to sustain a large group nowadays. People tend to splinter off. Kudos to the Japanese mandolin players. I enjoyed the Olympic fanfare given that the games open this week.

La Nightingail said...

The German postcards and the info about them was neat, but the videos are GREAT! What musicianship! Amazing sound. Thanks so much for finding them and sharing!!! :))

kathy said...

You did a great job of matching the weird "facial hair" in the prompt photo as well as the instruments. I really enjoyed the videos at the end - who would have thought of a mandolin orchestra playing Bohemian Rhapsody. So good and made me smile.


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