Anonymous, Sinfonia

The discovery I enjoyed most – at the very least in musical sense – was an anonymous mandolin concerto from the mid-18th century.

It is preserved in Stockholm in the Musik- och Teaterbiblioteket under the siglum O-R. In the old catalogue it was listed as a lute / oboe concerto which explains why it has stayed under the radar for so long.


Alas, the provenance of this piece is an unsolved puzzle. We can only make an educated guess until some further hard facts are retrieved.

Stylistically and from the writing we can assume a date no earlier than the 1730s and no later than the 1770s but in my personal opinion this piece is probably dating from the 1750s.

We also have no sure regional provenance of the manuscript. The musical style and annotations are Italian but that on its own is of course not certain proof. The style has a certain “baroque” and northern Italian flavour to it and does not not compare well to the later concertos for Neapolitan mandolin.

There is no clear acquisition history from the library.


All three movements have the following parts written as a score:

–          Mandolino

–          V.V. (Violins 1 & 2)

–          [no description, bass clef, without figuration]

1/ Allgo.

Fol. 1r-8r: Allegro in 2 (2/4) in G major.

There are lots of articulation signs. The mandolin usually stays mute during tutti but sometimes the mandolin has a unison with the first (and/or second) violin. Lots of appoggiatura signs, dynamical signs. Tutti or solo sections are sometimes written specifically.

Sotto voce is called for in one occasion (broken chords in mandolin solo).
In one place there is a unison section for the whole score as a transition passage.
The score mentions a Da Capo though it is unclear whether this would be a full repeat; more likely what is meant is a repeat of the first tutti and / or first solo passage.

2/ Cantabile e Gustoso

Fol. 8v-11v: Cantabile e Gustoso in C barré in g minor

Listed sotto voce for the violins at the beginning of the movement, which is logical as the piece is meant as a contrast to the other movements.
Especially striking are the diminished melodic phrases which emphasize the tragic and dramatic character of this piece.

This second movement contains some of the most clear idiomatic writing for the mandolin part found in the whole concerto.

3/ Allo. Gustoso (Balletto)

Fol. 12r-18v: Allo. Gustoso (Balletto) in 3/8 in G major

The third movement is again in a lively character. The mandolin solo plays unison from the start.

Especially noteworthy are the passages where the mandolin part does not reach the bottom g whilst playing unison with the violins. Also some unison parts are slightly different in the mandolin part when the violins use the open a’ string. All of this might be interesting material to consider when identifying the type of mandolin this piece was written for.


I am quite proud of this find – it was partly triggered by the last edition of the internation symposium on mandolin history in Germany. I always thought this piece was already found by other researchers but clearly that was not the case when I discussed it with my peers last year. I hence was quite keen to get a reproduction when I got home from the symposium.

The main reason why it has stayed under the radar for long is that the piece was listed as “flute concerto”. Indeed, when looking at the title there seems to be some confusion over the principal instrument to be used. It apparently at first reads “oboe”, which was crossed out and replaced by someone else to become “traverso” (flute) and that’s how it was long listed in the catalogue.

However, if you take a look at the instrumentation assigned next to the score it reads “mandolino”. This of course is not enough to make any assumptions but looking at the music in the mandolin part we clearly see some writing which is idiomatic for plucked string instruments rather that wind instruments. Some parts of the music are also rather lower than optimal for flute and oboe. Though no notes are actually out of the possible range of either oboe or flute, it seems somewhat uncomfortable. It may of course have been performed or arranged to be performed on either of those instruments; or the concerto may also have been an arrangement of a concerto originally for flute or oboe. In fact it doesn’t really matter too much – as the source preserved the music in a form idiomatic for mandolin so we can only assume this to be the best instrument to perform the music.

The mandolin type this concerto was written for is somewhat of a riddle. There are no real chords though there is of course some idiomatic writing in terms of “chord-like” writing such as arpeggios. It’s next to impossible to make out whether these are most suited for plectrum or finger style played instrument as there are no clear markings, but I would see these arpeggios as more favourably for a plectrum-played instrument.

The passages where the unison makes the mandolin part slightly easier than the violin part are puzzling. Perhaps it was technically too challenging for the player, or perhaps the tuning got in the way of things?

In terms of range the instrument seems to have a certain lack in the lower region. No notes go below middle c (C4). In some cases the mandolin actually goes an octave higher when in unison with the violin part(s) when these go below middle C. This is certainly encouraging the view that the concerto was written for a 5-course baroque instrument like the Milanese mandolin, or possible the Genovese instrument.

A second hint that might hold a clue about the type of mandolin used is found in the writing itself – often the beginning of a melodic passage start with open strings corresponding with the Genovese or Milanese instruments. It’s not real proof but can certainly be taken aboard.

More weight is added to the scale when looking at the actual passages of more idiomatic plucked string instrumental writing. Trying to play these on Neapolitan, Milanese or Genovese tuning easily points out that the piece is somewhat difficult on a Neapolitan but not all that difficult to play on a Milanese or Genovese mandolin. Especially some grips with fifths point this out, rather uncommon on the Neapolitan mandolin in the middle of an arpeggio except when a barré is possible. Fifths are quite common on instruments tuned in fourths as that will allow for easy fingering.

Though there is no way to assign the instrument with certainty, I would hence suggest this concerto was not written for the Neapolitan type of mandolin. It’s even less certain to assign it to either the Milanese or Genovese type after that, but I would suggest that the Genovese holds a couple of cards over the Milanese in the lower string arpeggios. As we have so little knowledge of the Genovese instrument I’m rather cautious to put this forward but it seems something worth considering. I’m really looking forward to receive further feedback and start some interesting discussions with my peers on the upcoming edition of the symposium. 😉

Certainly noteworthy is that today’s audiences received the concerto rather enthusiastically. It shouldn’t be seen as a concerto where the soloist has to excel in vrituoso playing – and reminds more of the concerti grossi and further origins of the genre where alternating ensembles helped create musical structure.

Lastly let me link you to some Youtube recording of a performance of this piece (students of the conservatory mandolin class of Gerda Abts and myself as the soloist). Though performing the orchestral parts on bowed rather plucked strings and with a full basso continuo will make a difference, this will give a good impression of the music.