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.