Mandolin Orchestras

1880 – Estudiantina Figaro and the Mandolin Orchestra

In Spain, Bandurria ensembles had gained popularity. They were essentially traditional players performing new and old bandurria and guitar arrangements in an ensemble setting. They were upbeat, loud and entertaining. The genre became known in Europe as ‘Estudiantina Figaro.’ An American Opera impresario by the name Henry Abbey heard one of these groups and convinced them to come to New York. In America ‘Estudiantina Figaro’, as a style, became known as ‘Spanish Students.’

In January of 1880 Henry Abbey’s new musical group performed a vaudeville revue called ‘Humpty Dumpty.’ It was an immediate success. Bandurrias were traditional Spanish bowl-back folk instruments with 12 strings. They were not well known in America and not readily available.

Abbey’s Humpty Dumpty

One of the early audience members, however, was an accomplished Italian mandolin and violin player by the name of Carlo Curti (also spelled Carlos Curti). He could see the commercial possibilities of this popular new music form. He reckoned that the American public couldn’t tell the difference between mandolins and bandurrias.

Mandolins and mandolin players were all over New York in the form of Italian immigrants. After all, the ubiquitous mandolin and violin were tuned the same (unlike the foreign bandurria) and very familiar to an eager public seeking new musical outlets.

Carlo Curti hastily assembled a fake ‘Spanish Students’ group (all Italians) and lined up performances all over New York to capitalize on the popularity of ‘Estudiantina Figaro’. The fraud worked like a charm. Carlo Curti’s mandolin and guitar ensemble became wildly successful. It was the birth of the mandolin orchestra, which was both a craze and a movement.

Nine years later, a former ‘Curti Spanish Student’ Salvatore Pietro Factutar moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and established himself as a performer and mandolin teacher. His introduction of this style and the mandolin orchestra concept to the Milwaukee community has endured. Milwaukee still has an active mandolin orchestra today.

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ⓒ 2008, Leonard Wyeth