Clara Ross, Mabel Downing and ladies’ guitar and mandolin bands in late Victorian Britain

The first guitar and mandolin bands were founded in Italy in the early 1880s. The fashion soon spread to Britain, initially amongst the aristocracy. Victorian social morals did not permit ‘respectable’ British women to play conventional orchestral music in public, but approved of exclusively female guitar and mandolin bands performing for charitable purposes. In 1886, Lady Mary Hervey and Miss Augusta Hervey formed the first British ladies’ band, which for more than two decades gave regular performances of serious classical music in London’s major concert venues, and was conducted by Europe’s leading mandolin virtuosos: Ferdinando de Cristofaro, Leopoldo Francia, Enrico Marucelli and Edouardo Mezzacapo.

During the 1890s, hundreds of similar ladies’ bands were formed across Britain, mostly by middle-class women. The quality of musicianship varied widely, but some were undoubtedly of a high musical standard. The Clifton ladies’ band, led by Mabel Downing, maintained a considerable reputation in the Bristol area, while Clara Ross’s band was highly regarded by fashionable London society. Clara composed most of her band’s music, and became one of Britain’s most popular composers for mandolin. She subsequently emigrated to the USA where, as Clara Ross-Ricci, she became a noted singing teacher and composer for women’s voices. By the late 1890s, as British society was becoming more liberal, more mixed-gender ensembles appeared, although most bands were still overwhelmingly female. The largest was the Polytechnic Mandoline and Guitar Band, founded in London in 1891, which regularly gave concerts with as many as 200 performers and continued performing into the 1930s.

Here is the link to this fascinating article by Paul Sparks – a curious chapter in the history of plucked instrument ensemble, many of which are still around today.
I am particularly interested to know of the works of Madame Sydney Pratten, whose pieces I have recorded, and of course,the guitar ensemble aspect. (Please see diary for schedule of the National Youth Guitar Ensemble!).
Many thanks to Nigel Warburton for drawing my attention to this article.

The Mandolinquents in the Shed


Mandolinquents Trio

Last year, just before Christmas, we had a shed party which was rather special. Simon Mayor and Hilary James joined me in the shed to play trios. The fourth member of the Mandolinquents, Richard Collins (banjoist and polymath) found himself playing with Joe Brown and we were reduced to a trio.

Here is an excerpt of that gig, complete with colourful clothing!

Some more Mandolinquents with everybody

Chopin Minute Waltz


Buttermere Waltz

Grieg Rigaudon

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Jacob do Bandolim

What do you get if you substitute an ‘M’ for a ‘B’ and an ‘n’ for an ‘m’?
You get a virtuosic Brazilian mandolinist whose day job was a pharmacist (and also a public notary) and who was impeccably dressed for concerts. He also wrote many of the Brazilian hits of all time, aptly named Jacob Pick Bittencourt, whose stage name was Jacob do Bandolim, “Jacob Mandolin”.
In addition to his virtuoso playing, he is famous for his many choro compositions, more than 103 tunes, which range from the lyrical melodies of “Noites Cariocas” (“Carioca Nights”), Receita de Samba and “Dôce de Coco” to the aggressively jazzy “Assanhado”, which is reminiscent of bebop. He also researched and attempted to preserve the older choro tradition, as well as that of other Brazilian music styles.

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Hans Gál – recording project

GalGál was born in 1890 to a Jewish family in a small village just outside Vienna. He was trained at the New Vienna Conservatory where later he taught for some time.
With the support of such important musicians as Wilhelm FurtwänglerRichard Strauss and others, he obtained the directorship of the Mainz Conservatory.

Gál composed in nearly every genre and his operas, which include Der Artz der SobeideDie Heilige Ente andDas Lied der Nacht, were particularly popular during the 1920s.
Although not exactly a household name in the guitar world, he did compose many works which include the mandolin and guitar, some of which are for mandolin orchestra. Continue reading