The mandolin(/violin)-piano sonata by Michele Bolaffi (1794)


Most of the mandolin-related prints prior to 1850, even those that are not preserved, are known to mandolin scholars through contemporary advertisements. Sometimes items still emerge which have escaped attention so far. The volume I have found and will discuss in this post is by the composer Michele Bolaffi and was printed in Firenze during the last decade of the 18th century. It is preserved in the Royal Danish Library (shelf mark MAlæs-B324 mu 1306.2700).

Mandolin sonatas: mandolin solo sonata with bass versus mandolin and keyboard

Most 18th century mandolin sonatas are written in the fashion of solo sonatas with a bass (usually unfigured). The big bulk of mandolin prints published in Paris are all part of this tradition. We’re not entirely sure how these bass lines were performed. Harpsichord seems the obvious choice, but some evidence suggests that the bass line is sometimes played without figuration, and possibly an octave higher (see for example the plectrum signs on Leone’s bass line of his variations – discussed in the blog post of my discovery of the variations, as well as the remarks on the title page of the Verdone edition of Barbella mandolin triosonatas). Only at the end of the century the first examples emerge which use a fully written out part for keyboard which at least cause less confusion about the originally intended ensemble. Alas, only a few of these were preserved prior to 1850, and even fewer are from the late classical era.

A fine example which has some bearing on the volume by Bolaffi was already discussed by Paul Sparks in The Early Mandolin (Paul Sparks, The Early Mandolin (Early Music Series 9), Oxford, 1989, p. 135, 157, 166, 168-9). It is the Suonata Decimaquarta by Vincenzo Panerai (for “Cimbalo a piano-forte e Mandolino o Violino obbligato”). This rather short sonata was published in Firenze. The date given in The Early Mandolin is only approximate (“ca. 1780”). With a little digging I have retrieved an advertisement for this print from 1790 (See Gazetta Universale, o sieno notizie istorice, politiche, di scienze, arti agricoltura, ec, nr. 67, August 1790, p. 536.).

Dating the piece by Bolaffi is not as straight forward as I have yet to retrieve any advertisement (NB: see update below for the exact date). However, some secondary information helps to narrow down the date a little bit. First of all, the editor Pagani only started printing music around 1789 (I have not found any earlier music though he was a very active printer of literary books prior to music). I haven’t found clear and corroborated details about when Pagani, or at least Anton Giuseppe, might have died (it seems some confusion arises with Giovacchino Pagani who worked together with Anton Giuseppe and continued the business). Based on prints available in library catalogues, it appears that Anton Giuseppe might have lived until 1798.

There are also a few correspondences between Bolaffi and Panerai’s sonatas which help reinforce the dating to 1789-98. Both were engraved by the same person (Giuseppe Poggiali). And though the sonata of Panerai only mentions Rinaldo Bonini as editor or sales point, some other sonatas by Panerai mention Anton Giuseppe Pagani. The dedication is not exactly the same, but there is some similarity. The Panerai print is dedicated to a specific Florentine lady, and the Bolaffi print is dedicated to all Florentine music amateurs ladies . Granted, these are all just secondary sources, but they seem to confirm that the print is from the last decade of the 18th century. Hopefully one day an advertisement will surface which will help to date the print with more accuracy.

UPDATE: Domenica Foti, who is preparing a monograph on Bolaffi, has kindly shared with me a reference to a secondary source which help date the sonata. In Tomo Ventesimo Nono, of the Gazzette Tosane, uscite settimana per settimana, Firenze, 1794 (printed by Giuseppe Pagani) there is an advertisement (N. 30, p. 118):

“Agli Amatori della Musica. Avendo Anton Giuseppe Pagani ottenuta permissione da questo Sig. Michele
Bolaffi già abbastanza noto fra i Dilettanti di Musica, di poter dare alla luce alcuni de’ suoi pezzi di musica
strumentali, e vocali, con diligenza prescelti, e raccolti, e dall’Autore stesso rivisti, e corretti, fa noto lo stesso
Pagani, come ha già incominciato per suo proprio conto questa Edizione con una suonata per Cimbalo a piano
forte, con accompagnamento d’un Mandolino, o Violino: Dedicata alle Sig. Dame Fiorentine Dilettanti di
Musica, che si vende dal medesimo Editore al tenue prezzo di tre paoli, e da suoi Corrispondenti in Livorno
da Francesco Natali, in Pisa dalla Vedova Pollini, in Siena da Onorato Porry, in Lucca da Leonardo Santini, in
Pistoja da Filippo Derisoni, e in Milano da Giuseppe Galeazzi; la perfezione dell’ incisione, l’ottima carta, e più
lo spirito, e la bellezza della musica, potranno assolutamente allettare, e contentare i Sigg. Compratori;
s’invitano dunque con tutto il fervore gl’Intendenti, ed i Genj Armonici ad incoraggiare l’Editore, perchè possa
effettuare la sua idea di pubblicare in progresso altri pezzi dello stesso Autore, lusingandosi che questi
verranno assai graditi, sì per la profondità, che per il buon gusto, e per la novità della Musica.

Michele Bolaffi

Michele Bolaffi (Livorno, 1769 – 1842, dates by David Conway) is a rather unknown composer and not a lot is found in the regular reference works. David Conway published an excellent article on Bolaffi (mainly from the point of view of Jewish music and musicians). To date this is the most extensive source of information on Bolaffi:

It appears Michele Bolaffi was in Firenze in 1793 (composing a cantata for the opening of the new synagogue). This coincides well with our current approximate date and place of his mandolin sonata. He later on wrote and occasionally also published music, both in Italy and abroad (France, Germany, England). As held by Conway, he’s a true example of the globalization of musicians at the turn of the century. I agree but would phrase this slightly differently as there are plenty of examples from the earlier 18th century already. However, from the end of the 18th century onward musicians become more and more independent of direct patronage. Though Bolaffi still held some posts, he also seems to be an example of someone making money outside of service to a patron. In that respect, he is indeed a good example of the way musician became more independent and hence were able to become more globally active.

There is a side to Bolaffi which seems to have been ignored by researchers so far. Bolaffi was active as a translator and poet . For example, in the Mercure Étranger ou Annales de la Littérature Étrangère, vol. 4, Paris, 1815, p. 141-143, there are two sonnets by Bolaffi dedicated to the memory of his then recently deceased wife. These were written at the time when he was preparing his translation to Italian of L’Enriade  (Henriade) by Voltaire (which got published in Paris in 1816). An example of other work as translator is L’Immortalità dell’anima by Jacques Delille and published in 1813 (listed as printed in Venice).

Hence the figure which emerges is quite faceted – someone who is both accomplished in several cultural arts and moved in higher social circles in several countries. His contribution to mandolin history is all the more interesting coming from someone who clearly had an excellent education. This clearly shows in his Suonata Prima.

The sonata

The sonata is a little gem, and the more I studied it, the more I took a liking to it. Though I generally try to refrain from a long and dry musicological analysis of music forms and similar approaches in my blog posts, this time I am too much in awe of Bolaffi’s creativity and had to showcase some of his craftsmanship. I will also try to compare where possible with Panerai’s work as both were printed around the same time by the same printer.

The sonata is written in F major and has two movements: Allegro Moderato (in C metrum) and a Rondo Allegretto (in 2/4 metrum). Panerai also has two movements (Brillante in D major in C metrum and Allegro Scherzo in D major in 3/8). Bolaffi’s piece is quite a bit larger (11 pages of music compared to 4 by Panerai). Hence the sonata form in the first movement by Panerai is quite limited. He does use a proper recapitulation, but there isn’t a lot of room for proper development and the groups and themes are simple and contrasts are limited. Bolaffi’s groups, development and other aspects of the sonata form in the first movement are a lot more interesting. He has a very nice first part of the movement, with proper contrasts between the two groups and a nice flow towards the closing group who reminisces the first group charmingly. The development uses a lot of the typical tricks you might expect in piano sonatas by a good composer at the end of the 18th century. There is only one thing slightly out of the ordinary – the recapitulation is a bit creative. The modulation back to F major happens with a repeat of material from the second group before going back to material from the first group. In my opinion Bolaffi’s tricks work, however, as the music flow is very subtly building towards the end.

The second movement is only a simple rondo, but the thematic material is rather more intricate than in most contemporary rondos. Often, the last movement in a sonata is a rondo, but usually it’s a very simple and light theme. Bolaffi is again a bit more creative and choses a very rhythmical and flourished theme. The theme does portray the typical uplifting character expected of a rondo at this time, but the rhythmic and melodic complexity are higher than usually encountered. The alternatives to the refrain are mainly focused on the dominant key (C major) but have some interesting harmonic movements which show the expertise of Bolaffi. Panerai’s second movement is not a rondo, so comparing them is a bit difficult.

The mandolin is never treated very idiomatically by Bolaffi. However,  there are a few indications which indicate this is originally meant for mandolin and not violin. Though playable on the violin, we’re also missing certain idiomatic figures for the violin. The fact that the music stays very limited on the fingerboard is a first clear giveaway. The composer even avoids going to the third position at the end of the first movement (where it makes sense to go up to have the theme played in the expected octave – but clearly this is avoided to not have the mandolin play in position). I’ve compared this with the treatment of the violin in Bolaffi’s Sei Canzonette del Celebre Poeta Estemporaneo (where the violin is only accompaniment). Here you can find some more violin specific figures, the music reaches the third position and has violin articulation (bows etc). Some figures of the Suonatina Prima are slightly more fitting on the mandolin and/or might sound better (due to chordic playing). Though I am very much aware of the big exchange of repertory and other links between the violin and mandolin in the 18th century (see my paper on that from the symposium at Mainz university – to be published later), the above suggests that the music by Bolaffi was originally intended for the mandolin. The violin seems to be mentioned mainly as a commercial trick. In contrast, Panerai doesn’t refrain from using the third position in his mandolin sonata. But his music also seems originally intended for mandolin rather than violin for the same reason of missing violin idiomatic writing.

Panerai has a tendency to focus on exchanging themes between the mandolin and right hand of the piano. Often this is in a predictable pattern. Bolaffi also exchanges some themes between mandolin and right hand of the piano but he’s less predictable and more original. Though Bolaffi is not a Mozart or Beethoven, he’s certainly a level above Panerai in making the composition more interesting and fun for the musicians as well. The way he switches from one group to another shows he understands how to build up tension and he uses some piano idiomatic techniques very suited to certain transitional passages (for example the switch in bars 17-18 from group 1 to 2 or in the development bars 51-53 to build up to the development of parts of group 1). Bolaffi also shows how to drive the music forward or building up tension, for example by condensing or slowing the rhythm.

All in all, Bolaffi shows his mastery as a composer and of the sonata. His treatment of the mandolin could have been more idiomatic, but as he is clearly aiming at amateurs he could not aim at a technical high level. I can only conclude his piece is very well written within the given context. It’s also unique as it’s one of the few classical mandolin-piano sonatas which survive. No doubt some students and professional musicians will take this up in their repertory as the music is rather charming.


As usual I try to make the music available to the community. Often I have to resort to sharing only editions I create. In this case I can however share a link to the original. Because of my original request for a digital reproduction, the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen now offers this as a free download. (NB: It’s not the first time my reproduction requests made material available and I’m rather pleased when this happens.)

Colour version (3MB):
Black and white version (2MB):

It’s certainly worth considering playing from the originals. However, the landscape layout, bigger paper size, some older layout, omissions and a mistake compelled me to create my usual urtext and modern editions. The urtext editions remains true but put in place corrections. The modern edition has a modern layout and adds a score as well as partbooks. I tried to make the modern edition a playable layout, though you will still require three pages next to each other (but in my experience that should still fit a normal music stand). As always these editions are free. If you would like to show appreciation for my research and the effort I put into the editions, you can contribute via the donate button.

BOLAFFI, Suonata Prima modern-Cimbalo_a_piano-forte.pdf150 KB
BOLAFFI, Suonata Prima modern-Mandolino_o_violino.pdf123 KB
BOLAFFI, Suonata Prima modern.pdf203 KB
BOLAFFI, Suonata Prima urtext-Cimbalo_a_piano-forte.pdf166 KB
BOLAFFI, Suonata Prima urtext-Mandolino_o_violino.pdf126 KB