A Sampling of Christmas Mandolin Music 

​In the search for recordings of instrumental Christmas music with mandolin, one has to discern what is unique about the plethora of renditions of the most familiar, over-played traditional carols. Also, depending on one’s preference, what makes one rendition better than the other. 

Two recordings of mandolin and guitar duos feature most of the same repertoire but have distinctive styles. One, “Italian Christmas” by the Natale Italian Mandolin Duo, released in 2014, is an album of 18 songs, only four the tracks Italian, the rest the usual Christmas fare (Deck the Halls, Good King Wenceslaus, et al.)  Nevertheless, it is good, crisp and simply arranged, in the Neapolitan mandolin playing style. Another, “A Mandolin Christmas” by Karen Mal (mandolin) and Will Taylor (guitar), encompasses contemporary folk and acoustic with some very light jazz guitar. For solo mandolin, and no other instrumentation, “A Mandolin for Christmas” by Evan J. Marshall, all the traditional Christmas repertoire played in the Neapolitan mandolin style.

A country acoustic offering is “Evergreen; Mandolin Music for Christmas” by Butch Baldassari. The traditional Christmas repertoire, once again, but with acoustic guitar, dobro, and fiddle. Baldassari has previously performed and recorded with the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble, who released their own Christmas album, “Gifts,” in 1996.

An Italian Renaissance offering is “Mandolins for Christmas” by Ugo Orlandi, Alessandro Bono, and Quintetto A Plettro, et al. The album features compositions of minor Italian composers from the 17th to 20th century, as well as non-seasonal music.  The album also features “Planxty O’Carolan; Irish Suite for Flute, Percussion and Mandolin Orchestra.” The suite is in seven movements, and in spite of the title, not all of it is by O’Carolan (the movements include adaptations of Irish Washerwoman Jig and Down by the Sally Gardens).  The final track is a cleverly arranged medley of the familiar holiday favorites, including “Silent Night” and “White Christmas.” (1)

These and other albums can be found on Spotify (if you type in Christmas mandolin in the search engine) and YouTube. 

Merry Christmas, and happy listening. 
(1) David Vernier, classicstoday.com


Watch “Jota – Enrique Granados” on YouTube

H.F. Odell arranged Enrique Granados’ “Twelve Dances for Piano” for mandolin orchestra. This is Dance #6 -Jota, as performed by the Louisville Mandolin Orchestra in 2006.

H.F. Odell, Boston Mandolin Pioneer 

Photo credit: http://www.mandoisland.de

Herbert Forrest Odell (1872-1926) was prodigious not only as a mandolinist and teacher, but also as a composer, arranger, and publisher. The son of Ira H. Odell,  musician, conductor, and instrument maker, H.F. Odell originally studied violin, piano, organ and voice. He discovered the mandolin in 1893, and two years later traveled to Paris to study with mandolin virtuoso Jean Pietrapertosa. (1) He returned to Boston to teach mandolin and play with the Boston Opera Company orchestra. He later formed the 60-piece Langham Orchestra, which was renamed the Odell Orchestra. (2)

Odell’s compositions include pieces for mandolin, guitar, banjo and mandolin orchestra, as well as ragtime piano songs and comic operas. (3)  Three of his orchestral compositions, “Laughing Eyes,” “Gallantry,” and “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice,” appear on the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble’s 1998 recording, “All the Rage: Mandolin Ensemble Music from 1897-1924.” Odell also arranged other composers’ music for mandolin orchestra. He adapted Enrique Granados’ “12 Dances for Piano” for mandolin orchestra.

Odell began a music publishing company in 1905, which operated out of 165 Tremont Street in Boston, Massachusetts.  He also started a music trade journal, Crescendo, which was published from 1905 to 1925, when it was bought up by Vega.  His books include, “The Mandolin Orchestra” (1913), a guide for forming, managing, and playing in a mandolin orchestra, and the Odell Method for the Mandolin, Volume 1-4. The Odell method is still used to this day in Japan. (4)

Photo credit: http://www.musicaneo.com 

H.F. Odell, having never married, lived with his parents almost his entire life.  He was outlived by both of them when he died in a nursing facility in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1926. (5)

(1) Noonan, Jeffrey. “The Guitar in America: Victorian Era to Jazz Age.” Scarecrow Press, 2008.

(2) composers-classical-music.com

(3) Noonan 

(4) http://www.musicaneo.com

(5) composers-classical-music.com


How the “second wave” of mandolin popularity kicked off at the 1878 Paris Exposition.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Prior to the arrival of the Estudiantina Figaro ensemble to the United States in 1880 (1), another estudiantina ensemble had two high profile engagements in Paris, France in 1878. France was celebrating its economic recovery after the recession brought on by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and the mood of the time was playful and extravagant. A group of 64 university students from Madrid, simply known then as the Estudiantina Espanola, first arrived in Paris in March of that year for the Paris Carnival.  Dressed in robes similar to the ancient sophists of Salmanca (2), the estudiantes played traditional Spanish folk music and dances on guitars, violins, bandurrias, flutes, and tambourines. The estudiantes performed at the Tulieres Gardens before an estimated 56,000 people. They returned two months later, in the midst of a European tour, to perform at the Paris Exposition. (3)
The exposition was a colossal event in terms of grandeur and then-groundbreaking technological advances. The head of the Statue of Liberty was on display, and Thomas Edison gave his demonstration of the phonograph and his reworking of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, amongst the many dazzling displays of architecture built for the event (the Trocadero Palace among them) and other demonstrations and artistic displays. Visitors from around the world attended the exposition, and during its seven-month run an estimated 13 million people passed through. The estudiantes performed early in the exposition’s run, and it could be assured that their audience exceeded that of their Carnival engagement. Nevertheless, they were a sensation with people of all nationalities. The Paris press at the time frequently misidentified the bandurria as a mandolin (4), yet it apparently stuck. The bandurria resembled a mandolin in all ways, but had a wider body. Following the estudiantes success at the Paris Exposition, many more estudiantina ensembles would form and go on tour throughout Europe and the United States. There would also be Italian versions of estudiantinas with the correctly identified Neapolitan mandolin. It was concurrent with the large wave of immigration where migrating musicians earned their living giving lessons on mandolin and guitar.(5)

With a gathering of more sixty musicians on one stage, most of them playing plucked stringed instruments, it had the appearance of being like an orchestra, but with non-traditional orchestral instruments.  Therefore, with the wave of ordinary people learning to play mandolins, guitars, and banjos, it made sense to create orchestras that became a tradition of its own. Whereas the concept of the mandolin orchestra was born at the 1878 Paris Exposition, it’s sadly ironical to note that one of the items on display there, Edison’s phonograph, would be one of the causes of the decline in learning to play an instrument once it became commercially available. 
(1) “A History of Mandolins in America,” Springfield Mandolin Orchestra, December 1, 2016

(2) Martin Sarraga, Felix O., “Cronica del viaje de la Estudiantina Espanola al Carnaval de Paris d 1878 segun la prensa de la epoca.” 2016, TVNAE MVNDI, Articulos de investigacion, Vol. 2

(3) Martin Sarraga, Felix O.

(4) Plastino, Goffredo and Joseph Sciorra, editors, “Neapolitan Postcards:  The Canzone Napoletana as Transitional Subject.” 2016, Scarecrow Press

(5) Plastino, Goffredo and Joseph Sciorra, editors. 

Mandolin orchestras on college campus’; Amherst, Smith, and Mount Holyoke Colleges 

Mount Holyoke College Glee, Banjo, and Mandolin Clubs (Photo credit: http://www.mtholyoke.edu)

Mandolin orchestras during the golden era (1880s to 1920s) were especially a part of college life. Playing in a mandolin orchestra was a social activity, not a serious study of music, and the groups were student-run.  Most of the colleges also had banjo clubs and glee clubs, and the three clubs would make joint concert appearances at least once a semester. The two all-women colleges of the Pioneer Valley, Smith and Mount Holyoke, and the predominantly male Amherst College were among the colleges that regularly gave glee, banjo, and mandolin group concerts. Mount Holyoke’s Mandolin Club was still in existence as late as 1922 (1), and the Smith club remained until 1923 when the glee club ceased to be student-run (2).

Life at a women’s college was restrictive in the 19th century. When they weren’t attending classes, women’s off-time activities were confined to “prayer, contemplation, and manual labor” (3). The “frivolity” of playing music wasn’t encouraged, let alone permitted. While upper-class women were encouraged to take up an instrument, it was intended for private pleasure and not to perform in public.  By the 1890s, Mount Holyoke and Smith lifted those restrictions, and women pursued social activities their male counterparts enjoyed in their collegiate life. The Smith College Mandolin Club was formed in the fall of 1894 under the leadership of Mabel Tucker (class of 1897), and made its debut the following February “at a Southwick House play” and played “six other affairs that year.” (4).  After the group expanded to include seven mandolins, five guitars, and two violins, Maude Carpenter (class of 1896) took over as leader of the Smith Mandolin Club after Miss Tucker left Smith (5).  Each year, the Smith Glee, Banjo, and Mandolin clubs had a concert day in March, and in 1901 they gave a concert at The Academy of Music (6).

The Mount Holyoke College Mandolin Club was formed in 1899, according to the 1913 edition of The Mount Holyoke journal. The college’s glee and banjo clubs were already established earlier that decade.  The three groups performed mid-winter concerts on campus and at promenades and commencement exercises. 

The women’s glee, banjo and mandolin clubs “only occasionally toured and rarely ventured beyond their communities,” and the tours were intended to “recruit and better alumni relations.” (Karen Linn)  The women’s groups at Smith and Mount Holyoke, therefore, may not have had the opportunity like the all-male Amherst College Glee, Banjo, and Mandolin clubs to perform at Carnegie Hall, which they did in April 1897 (8).

The time approximate of the disbanding of the instrument clubs, the early 1920s, was around the same time the rest of the mandolin orchestra craze waned.  The cultural shift of the time rendered group mandolin playing too archaic and sedate for the new generation of college students, as they roared into the 20th century and enjoyed the technical advances of recorded music amongst other modern pleasures.

1. Llamarada (Mount Holyoke College Yearbook), 1922

2. Smith College

3. Karen Linn, “That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture,” 1994, University of Illinois Press

4. The Smith College Monthly, October 1895

5. Ibid

6. The Smith College Monthly, 1901, month unknown 

7. Karen Linn, “That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture,” 1994, University of Illinois Press

8. Carnegie Hall (www.carnegiehall.org)

Smith College Mandolin Club (Photo credit: http://www.smith.edu)

A Mandolin Orchestra’s Labor Roots


MINNESOTA HISTORICAL SOCIETY: Albert Bellson with his music students in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul.

Former students said Bellson was formal and meticulous. He gave the Rondo girls lessons on mandolin, mandola, mandocello, guitar and bass guitar.

Italian immigrant Albert Bellson was considered Minnesota’s master mandolin player and teacher in the 1920s and ’30s, an era when big string orchestras were all the rage.

Despite his lofty stature, Bellson took time every week to walk from his downtown St. Paul instrument shop and music school to the Rondo neighborhood. That’s where he coached, cajoled and conducted a group of mostly African-American girls known as Taylor’s Musical Strings.

Former students said Bellson was quite formal, always wearing a suit and tie and taking meticulous care of his nails. He’d head over to Rondo to give the girls private lessons on mandolin, mandola, mandocello, guitar and bass guitar.

Today, mandolins are known mostly for adding the plinky sound to bluegrass music. Back then, they were classical instruments and more.

The girls’ “repertoire included J.S. Bach, Stephen Foster songs, Sousa marches, gospel tunes, and, when their elders were not listening, the blues,” according to Amy Shaw, an expert from St. Catherine University, who wrote a definitive story on the mandolin mania in Minnesota History magazine in 2001 under her married name, Amy Kreitzer (tinyurl.com/MNmandolins).

One of Bellson’s pupils, a young mandocellist named Evelyn Fairbanks, remembered how his style swung from subtle to animated — sometimes within seconds.

“He raised both hands chest-high with his elbows sticking out,” Fairbanks wrote in her 1990 book, “The Days of Rondo.”

“He looked at each of us, one at a time, to make sure he had our attention. Then he made the slightest movement with his baton and we started to play. …

“With his hands, his head, his winged arms, his facial expressions, and sometimes his entire body, he made us play the song the way he felt it should be played,” she recalled. “When he led us in one of Sousa’s marches, he created an entire parade for us to play for. And when we played the lullaby ‘Mighty Like a Rose,’ it seemed he almost fell asleep before we tiptoed to the final measure.”

Born Alfonso Balassone in 1897 near Salerno, he learned to play by the light of olive-oil lamps as a child in Italy. When his parents emigrated in 1906 to Rock Falls, Ill., they changed their name to Bellson. By 11, Albert was already teaching. Before he was 16, Bellson was serving as an agent from the instrument making Gibson Co. and had joined the American Guild of Banjoists, Mandolinists, and Guitarists — a group of string musicians, publishers and manufacturers that promoted fretted instruments.

Giuseppe Pettine, a world-renowned mandolin virtuoso in Rhode Island, called Bellson his “most talented pupil” during his three years of study out East. Moving to St. Paul in 1920, he opened his Bellson School of Music in the Schiffmann Building on St. Peter and Sixth streets.

Along with lessons, he sold everything from Hawaiian guitars to ukuleles, accordions to tenor banjos. His school and shop would bounce around different downtown St. Paul locations over the years.

On stage, Bellson began to blossom as a classical mandolin soloist. He toured nationally in 1921 with his company’s sextet, the Original Gibsonians.

A reviewer in Salt Lake City called him “one of America’s premier artists.” And he wowed crowds at Guild conventions from Los Angeles to Toledo. He somehow found time to direct mandolin orchestras from 1925 into the ’40s. He married Vergel Vanzora, and she joined his nationally prominent quartet as a mandola player.

When he wasn’t playing Italian classical arrangements, Bellson was strumming banjos and ukuleles with his Bellson Hawaiian Serenaders. But by the late 1940s, mandolin orchestras began to fizzle out amid competition from recorded music and movies. Tastes changed, but a couple of his students still remember the mandolin maestro.

Scott Mateo Davies, a globe-trotting musician from Minneapolis, remembers first auditioning as an 11-year-old for Bellson. “He accepted me but only if I agreed to practice a minimum of two hours a day,” Davies said via e-mail from his current home in Guatemala. “As a sports-minded kid, this was a tough one, and my mother talked me out of it.”

In his mid-20s, Davies returned and studied under Bellson for a few months before the master’s death in 1977, at 80.

Until the end, Bellson wore a suit and tie and Davies always called him “Mr. Bellson.”

“I used to come early and stand outside his studio, listening to his practice,” Davies said. “He played slowly, very slowly, paying attention to how he shaped each note and each phrase. He made me play every piece at, minimum, half tempo and only gradually took it up to speed. A favorite saying of his was: ‘There is always time for the music.’

“I miss the man,” Davies said. “I greatly value my time with him, now more than ever.”

Another former pupil, Jeffrey Wachter, took lessons from Bellson in the 1970s — just like his grandfather did in the 1930s.

“He was a gifted musician, composer, teacher and arranger,” said Wachter, who cherishes a bootleg cassette tape of one of Bellson’s records.

“He was a sweet guy and very encouraging to a struggling mandolin student,” Wachter recalled. After his 90-minute lessons, which often went overtime, the student and teacher would chat about music and faith. This was decades after Bellson’s peak of popularity in the 1930s.

“When I met him, those days were well in the past and largely forgotten by most folks,” Wachter said. His approach to teaching mandolin was very classically minded and although my interest at the time was in bluegrass and folk, he forced me to learn to read music and for that I am grateful.”

Maybe because of his immigrant childhood, Bellson was never a snob when it came to teaching music. Whether it was the girls in Rondo, or an amateur such as Wachter, Bellson treated all of his students with respect.

“My mandolin playing was very cringe-worthy — and still is,” Wachter said. “But he was always gracious.”

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.

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