Tuesday 31 May 2022

A forgotten voice from an earlier era: Mr Onion's Serenade - Mandolin Music of the Edwardian Era

Mr Onion's Serenade - Mandolin Music of the Edwardian era: Matt Norman
Mr Onion's Serenade - Mandolin Music of the Edwardian era: Matt Norman
Reviewed 23 May 2022

A delightful disc where mandolin-player Matt Norman recreates the forgotten sound of the Edwardian era with music for the mandolin ensemble

The mandolin was created in Naples in the early eighteenth century and had a large surge in popularity, particularly amongst the French aristocracy, but by the end of the century it had a rapid decline matching that of the aristocracy. But the instrument had a second wind, from the 1880s to the First World War, when there were mandolin orchestras all over Europe, the USA and Japan. A huge amount of music was written for these ensembles, and most was subsequently lost and forgotten.

This charming new disc from mandolin player Matt Norman, Mr Onion's Serenade, revisits much of the forgotten late 19th and early 20th century repertoire for mandolin ensemble with composers such as Angelo Ciglia, Mario Maciocchi, Alfonso Cipollone, Will D Moyer, Raffaele Calace, Giuseppe Sgallari, Emile Grimshaw, Luigi Canora, Samuel Siegel and Ant H Claassens. Many are Italian but there are two Americans and one Englishman, which indicates something of the spread of enthusiasm for the instrument in the Edwardian period.

Bizarrely, the second flourishing of the instrument, in the late nineteenth century, was started by a touring ensemble, none of whom actually played the mandolin.  The Spanish group called Estudiantina Española Fígaro played guitars, violin and bandurrias, but they were so popular both in Europe and the United States that they were rapidly copied.  The mandolin was similar to the bandurria and readily available so groups chose to use this instrument instead.  

Matt Norman has been exploring this repertoire for over a decade. Most of the composers on the disc were mandolin players so the pieces are often technically challenging, yet they are delightful too and not at all negligible. About some of the composers, little is known at all beyond a name on the music (perhaps a pseudonym), so for Angelo Ciglia, Giuseppe Sgallari, and Ant H Claassens we know little beyond their name and the music they wrote. The other composers on the disc left more traces. Mario Maciocchi (1874-1955) was an Italian mandolin player and composer who settled in Paris in 1906. Alfonso Cipollone (1843-1926) was an Italian oomposer and teacher. Will D Moyer published a number of American teaching books for mandolin and ukelele in the 1920s. Raffaele Calace  (1863 – 1934) was an Italian mandolin player, composer, and luthier. Emile Grimshaw (1880-1943) was a noted English banjo player and composer, who created a notable English guitar company with his son. Luigi Canora (1888-1973) was a prolific dance-music composer writing for the Italian-American community in New York. Samuel Siegel (1875-1948) was an American mandolin virtuoso and composer, and he was labeled "America's Greatest Mandoline Virtuoso" and "The King of the Mandolin" in the May 1900 Banjo World.

Having rooted around in the archives for repertoire, lockdown provided Norman with the time to develop the project. For each track, he plays up to seven instrumental lines using two mandolins, a five-course mandola which has a lower range, a tenor banjo and a bass banjo, and on Lancashire Clogs by Emile Grimshaw, Norman sings as well. Lovely stuff.

Of the music on the disc, Norman says, "The music of this time is certainly not currently fashionable and much of it is not of the greatest quality, however there are exceptional pieces that stand out.  With this recording I am trying to show a cross-section of the repertoire, highlighting more virtuosic pieces and those that stand out as fine compositions."

Throughout, the technical standard of performance is excellent and there is little sense of the stiffness that can come from a single instrumentalist multi-tracking. Norman's choice of repertoire is delightful, full of good tunes and guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Who knew that a mandolin could be so engaging, and this is very much a forgotten voice from an earlier era.

Mr Onion's Serenade - Mandolin Music of the Edwardian era: Matt Norman

Mr Onion's Serenade - Mandolin Music of the Edwardian era
Matt Norman (mandolin, mandola, tenor banjo, bass banjo)
Mastering by Mike Nicholls of The White House record studio

Available direct from Matt Norman

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