‘A fascinatingly-detailed account of how a love affair with the mandolin became a love affair with Italy as well. It shows the lengths to which an excellent musician will go to become an even better one.’

Louis de Bernières, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

The mandolin lesson
A journey of self-discovery in Italy

Extract Introduction and Il preludio


What is the mandolin? Why learn the mandolin? And most importantly, is this journey for me?

The mandolin is a small half-pear-shaped stringed instrument, which is held a bit like a guitar and plucked with a piece of plastic called a plectrum. A bit simple, perhaps even a bit crude as an explanation, but I have to come up with something that makes sense when I am asked this ubiquitous question. Usually I am asked at unguarded, relaxed moments — you know the kind of thing — when I am having dinner with friends but there are some new people to meet. The new people ask me what I do and I say I am a mandolinist. Eyes glaze over. The new people say, “Oh, that’s interesting. What is a mandolin?”

That’s when it starts; my attempt to give a cool, succinct explanation. Sometimes I try the,“Oh, it’s like a lute, only much smaller,” routine. Sometimes it works but sometimes it doesn’t, because these new people don’t seem to know what a lute is either. (I was thinking Shakespeare and thought it might have made a connection!)

Really, it is all very strange, because the mandolin as we know it seems to connect to so many different genres of music and so many different cultures. Mandolins come in all shapes and sizes — some have flat backs — and most countries in the world have a plucked stringed instrument, a close or distant relative, which has a role in traditional music. Think the bouzouki from Greece, the balalaika from Russia, the bandurria from Spain, the ruan from China and the charango from South America — the list is just endless. At the same time, the mandolin appears in jazz, folk, pop and rock music just as easily as it does in the opera, ballet and other types of classical music.

Not only that, the mandolin seems to have a history which extends back through the entire timeline of civilisation, to the very beginning when man scraped out the tasty contents of the gourd and used the shell, stretching over it another waste product — gut — to make strings and, in turn, a kind of early mandolin.

So the answer to ‘why learn the mandolin?’ isn’t just because I love its sound. Although I do love its sound, which is at times sparkly, effervescent, and at times, evocative and illusive. After all, how can eight pinging cheese-wires make such soulful, stirring music? But the answer also has to do with the oneness of the instrument — the way it can connect to so many people at so many levels.

And that brings me to my last question — is this journey for me? Or what I really meant is — is this journey for you? Well, I don’t expect everyone to learn the mandolin or even music. (Although the incredibly inspiring project El Sistema, which provides free instruments and free lessons for all children in Venezuela, does bear testament to the life-enhancing power of music for everyone). However, I have read and I do believe that feelings are the language of the soul. I also believe that music is a way of expressing those feelings and that it can communicate whether it is understood or not. In other words, you don’t have to play an instrument or have any particular musical knowledge to fully enjoy music. You are already fluent in the language. That’s right. Just in case you think I have made a typing error, I shall repeat it. You are already fluent in the language of music. If you are watching a film, for instance, you know immediately the mood of what is happening or about to happen by listening to the music. You know when it’s tragic and you know when it is ecstatically happy, and you know all the emotions of the spectrum in between.

The thing is that this journey of mine and, if you read my book, the journey you will take, isn’t really about learning the mandolin or learning about music. Yes, the mandolin is my thing. It gives me that fantastic rush of pleasure endorphins just as sport, sex or dark chocolate, does for other people. (Actually I love dark chocolate but I’m not much good at sport and as for sex — well, that’s too much information). You, on the other hand, probably want to do something completely different from me. Climb a mountain, a sponsored bike ride across India, improve your skiing, learn to paint or cook, learn a new skill or revisit an old skill, travel somewhere unheard of — I can’t begin to list the infinite possibilities. Whatever it is though, learning something new, honing a forgotten skill, a sponsored challenge, a grand project, a little project — the process of achieving a goal or many little goals helps us to have insights about ourselves and others. Yes, my journey is set in the beautiful land of Italy, but it could have been set anywhere. My story is not just about music or about Italy — they just combine to become a delightful coat-hanger upon which to hang the garment that is the story. The theme of my book is timeless and universal. It is about a journey that we are all on, a journey to find out about ourselves and to reconnect with who we are. In this sense, the mandolin lesson is not just for mandolin lovers like me — the mandolin lesson is for everyone.

(As a precaution, I’ve included a small glossary at the end for those of you who might find the odd technical term a bit confusing!)


il preludio

I look at the train ticket in my hand with awe and reverence, as if it is a Roman artefact belonging to the British Museum, which through some miracle I have been allowed to handle and inspect closely. On the orange ticket is printed ‘from LONDON to PADOVA’ under the title ‘Outward’ on the left-hand side. The destinations are reversed under the title of ‘Return’on the right- hand side. At the bottom of the ticket, it states that the journey will be via ‘SEALINK OR HOVERSPEED — FRENCH PORTS — PARIS / LILLE — BASEL / DELLE /VALLORBE /VERRIERES — ISELLE / CHIASSO — MILANO’. Normally, my train tickets are for the tube and printed with destinations such as Oxford Circus or Bond Street.

It seems quite incredible to me that I am about to depart from Victoria Station, London, on such a long and international train journey. It is October 1994 and the Channel Tunnel is not yet a reality. Until now, British people have been acutely aware of their island status. In order to go abroad, it is necessary to cross the sea, historically by ship and recently more frequently by air. Despite the cultural differences within our United Kingdom, it is still difficult for us to understand how people separated by language, governments and hugely contrasted cultures, are able to cross land borders, easily and quickly, in order to visit friends and relatives, go to work, undertake shopping or do many other routine activities.

Even more incredible is the fact that I am not leaving this island for a once-in-a-lifetime holiday trip or a great railway journey. I am travelling almost a thousand miles to Padua, Italy, with a special purpose: to study the mandolin. However, unlike young music students in their early twenties, I am unable to stay there for a year or two when I arrive. I have to maintain the life I already have in England, with its family and work commitments, and this means I will return almost immediately. I will spend twenty-four hours travelling on various trains (including a quick sea crossing of the English Channel).

It is now almost a quarter to nine in the morning and when I arrive at this time tomorrow morning in Padua, I will spend the entire day at the Music Conservatoire. At five o’clock in the afternoon, I shall have a few hours to wander around the nearby streets and to eat a meal in a restaurant. At about half past eight in the evening, I will catch the Venice-Paris overnight train from Padua Station to start my homeward-bound journey. After another twenty-four hours, I will arrive home in London. The whole expedition takes three days and two nights — the nights being spent in the train. I leave on Wednesday morning and arrive home early on Friday evening.

In essence, I am planning to embark upon a course of music study that will entail me attending a mandolin lesson, approximately once a month, in a foreign country. I am going to commute from England to Italy for a year, or maybe two years.

I look around at the other travellers and I notice a party of Japanese people. The young girls, small and elegantly dressed, contrast with the huge moulded plastic suitcases they wheel along the platform. I carry a small, navy blue canvas bag, which I am about to test for its potential. It is supposed to be strong and yet small and well designed to carry papers, a spare shirt and other overnight things. Instead of papers, I have my music in the large pocket section. In addition, I carry the mandolin in its case and a small handbag which, like the canvas bag, has a shoulder strap. I intend to travel as light as possible.

As I board the train and choose a shabby, worn, blue plaid seat next to the window I settle down to think. I am looking forward to thinking time on my journeys. The train bumbles slowly through Kent, sometimes described as the garden of England. The rhythmic movement of the train is disturbed unexpectedly from time to time by a jolting movement. Despite these unexpected movements and the consequential fierce noises of jarring metal, I still myself and begin to reflect on my work. I wonder exactly how all this began.

It begins with a telephone call while I am cooking pasta for the evening meal.

Just as the telephone rings, I notice that the water seems to be bubbling a little too fast for my liking.

A man’s voice speaks with a strange accent that I don’t recognise. I am immediately suspicious and my head races with all kinds of ideas. Is he crazy? Drunk? A serious enquiry from abroad about my playing? Or perhaps someone I know very well playing a trick on me?

Eventually, after some difficult moments, I understand, at least I think I understand, what he is saying. He is Ugo Orlandi (the distinguished Italian mandolinist), and he is staying in Dublin whilst undertaking a concert with an orchestra called I Solisti Veneti. The day after tomorrow he is returning to Italy via a connecting flight at Heathrow Airport. He wants to meet me at the airport to have a chat and to receive, if possible, a copy of an essay I had written on the mandolin. (He knows about me and my essay from a visit he made to a mandolin factory in Naples. I had left a copy of my essay with the owner of the factory, because it concerned music written by his grandfather, Raffaele Calace).

After I put the phone down, I return to my dinner preparations but it is difficult to focus on what I am supposed to be doing. My head is in a spin. Being a classical musician means that I belong to, what some people believe to be, a small and elite group within society. Within this category of classical musician, I belong to another very tiny group, which is almost an extinct species — the professional mandolinist! I don’t like being thought of as part of an elite group, but I dislike even more being nearly extinct! Orlandi’s work had for some time been an inspiration to me through his recording of the beautiful Paisiello mandolin concerto, which I absolutely adore. It seems unbelievable that he had just phoned and asked to meet me.

Four days before Christmas 1989, I find myself waiting at the airport for Maestro Ugo Orlandi. I have been wondering what he will look like. I am suffering from pre-Christmas stress and my mind is fragmented as I mentally try to catalogue various lists of jobs that still need doing in the ever decreasing time available. Periodically I bring my attention back to the people arriving and I realise that it will be easy to recognise Ugo since he will be carrying a mandolin case. However, when the musicians of the orchestra appear, it isn’t clear at first who is carrying a mandolin case. Somehow Ugo notices me first, probably because I am looking intently for someone. He is tall, with an olive complexion, dark receding hair and a beard. He has a wicked grin and twinkling brown eyes. I have the impression that he is a little older than me. Maybe it is his greater height and broad shoulders or maybe he exudes an aura of expertise. Anyway, the mandolin case is swung over his shoulder like a pregnant tennis racket carried by a Wimbledon champion. I have never seen a mandolin case like this before.

We spend an hour together talking about the mandolin and musical life in England and Italy. I give him a copy of my essay as requested. He is encouraging and interested in my research into mandolin music, and I feel hopeful that it is the beginning of a mutually helpful working relationship.

For the second time in its 400-year-old history, the mandolin is undergoing something of a revival. The term mandola was first used in Florence in 1589. Mandolino, the Italian for mandolin, Ugo tells me, is the diminutive of mandola, just as violino, violin, is the diminutive of viola. In other words, the present-day mandolin is a small mandola. The Italians worked from the biggest instrument downwards when they chose words of description, rather than the other way around. I imagine that we shall be able to swap all sorts of useful bits of information as we each explore the libraries of Europe in search of forgotten manuscripts.

Ugo introduces me to another mandolinist, Dorina Frati. She played with Ugo in Dublin. Together, they were soloists in a performance of Vivaldi’s double mandolin concerto.

Before we part, Ugo pulls a large, glossy white sheet of folded paper out of his bag and hands it to me. I read the words at the top of the sheet. ‘Programma del corso straordinario di Mandolino’: Programme of the Extraordinary Mandolin Course. Straordinario might be better translated as special, in which case the heading would be ‘Programme of the Special Mandolin Course’. Either way, it acknowledges the unusualness of this course of study. The four-sided prospectus laid out the requirements for the seven-year course, the scales and repertoire to be studied during each of the years, as well as a list of pieces from which a choice could be made for the two diploma exams. So many beautiful Italian names, some well-known to me and others unknown. Gervasio, Eterardi, Barbella, Conforto, the list was endless — all like dishes on a menu. Each name beautiful in itself for its musical sound and representing some great treasure to be cherished by the ear and sensed by the body. So often people are disparaging about the mandolin because they think it has little or no repertoire. The prospectus was an affirmation of exactly the opposite. I feel a great surge of excitement about the whole idea of the course and I think that if I had my life again, how fantastic it would be to be able to attend a course specifically designed for my instrument.

Between Christmas and the New Year, I receive a second surprise phone call, this time from the Royal Opera House asking me to attend a rehearsal the following day for Verdi’s opera Otello. It is a stunning and much publicised production starring big names — Placido Domingo, Katia Ricciarelli and the legendary conductor Carlos Kleiber. I am contracted for two rehearsals and three performances. OK, yes I know this definitely sounds a bit elitist, but although I may have privately fantasised about such a possibility, all the odds were heavily stacked against me, and it is the proverbial ‘dream come true’ experience. I am at once exhilarated and utterly amazed — there has been a big shake-up in the mandolin world to make this break possible for me. The lives of the mandolinists usually booked have taken them in different directions. I am so grateful for the opportunity it gives me to extend into a new area of professional activity. Until now, most of my work has been as a soloist, giving recitals around the country.

At the first rehearsal, I meet another mandolinist, Sue Mossop. Although mandolin courses do not exist here — they are not advertised in any prospectus — Sue managed to break new ground by becoming the exception. She was accepted as a student at Trinity College of Music and she was able to continue her mandolin studies with her previous teacher. Whilst she was able to study harmony, history of music and other shared components of her music course with her contemporaries, it must have been strange being the only mandolinist — sometimes special, sometimes isolated.

The rehearsal takes place in the Crush Bar, famously so-called because of the crush to get a drink in the interval. It exudes richness: deep red and gold, and glittering chandelier light. I am part of the off-stage band, which includes four mandolins, two guitars and an oboe. Apparently, when Giuseppe Verdi wrote the opera, he had in mind a small mandolin band. When it was first produced at La Scala, Milan, in 1887, just over one hundred years ago, the band comprised of six mandolins and mandolas with four guitars. They walked around the stage whilst playing. We sit hidden, between the wings, and are conducted by an assistant conductor who is kept in contact with the orchestra pit by means of headphones and a small television monitor.

The Maestro, Carlos Kleiber, takes the rehearsal himself instead of sending along an assistant. I have a healthy respect for the Maestro, knowing that some great names are difficult to work with. However, the rehearsal goes easily and at the conclusion, the Maestro compliments us on our good playing and asks if we were part of a mandolin orchestra. We tell him that we are not.

It is still January and I receive a letter from Ugo introducing himself and saying everything he told me during the phone call before Christmas. I realise that he had tried to prepare in advance for our meeting. The letter is headed Brescia, 29th October 1989.

I had also written a letter to Ugo, which I had handed to him personally at our first meeting. I was unhappy about my essay since it had become a bit of a disaster, and I wasn’t confident that my Italian language skills were up to explaining the technical details. The essay — really a thesis of sorts — had been for a research diploma, which was not awarded to me and at the same time was discontinued as an exam.

I didn’t really want to give Ugo a copy of my thesis because I felt it was somehow negated since it failed the exam, not to mention an exam which didn’t exist anymore. More than anything, though, I think it showed my driving desire to find out more about music for the mandolin — music that you can’t find in any shop. I just wanted to find music that I could play on the instrument whose sound I loved so much. This is the reason I found myself turning music detective and becoming interested in the libraries and museums that might harbour secret supplies of mandolin music. Sadly, as far as the essay/thesis was concerned, without any research skills I found it hard to present my argument in an academic manner. All I had wanted to do was to raise the profile of the mandolin; to share with others this small, fragile, yet enchanting and passionate instrument.

In the meantime, I enrolled on another course — a Master’s degree in which I was able to specialise in the performance of mandolin music and to pursue my research into its repertoire. The course has helped me to develop the research skills I so desperately needed and I am now about halfway through this part-time study.

It is July and I receive another surprise phone call from Ugo. At about five o’clock in the afternoon, and after a gap of about six months, Ugo is explaining that he is in London to play in a concert this evening and could I come? He was playing at the Mansion House as part of the City of London Festival. Once again, my head is in a spin. I can’t miss this opportunity, but I have to get a ticket and find a babysitter for my five-year-old son.

Within an hour, I am driving to the concert having arranged for a neighbour to look after my son and having booked the last ticket, a return, by telephone. I am not used to arranging my life at such short notice, but to be fair, Ugo had said that he had written to me. Another letter had obviously gone astray. Is the Italian postal service really so relaxed?

The concert consists of a number of concertos with various soloists. The playing is the most elegant that I have heard for a long time. The magnificent Baroque surroundings of the Mansion House provide a good acoustic and an ambience that is evocative of the period of the music. I am particularly enraptured with the Vivaldi double mandolin concerto, played by Ugo and his pupil, Dorina.

Afterwards, I dine with Ugo and Dorina at their hotel in Bloomsbury and we talk about mandolin music until midnight. The Masterclass, a term used in Italy to mean a music course, begins tomorrow in Venice. There is to be another one at the end of August in Brescia. I didn’t find out this information previously because of the letter going astray. I am unable to leave for Venice immediately because of my domestic commitments and the Brescia dates clash with other family commitments. I also know I shall have difficulty in finding someone to look after my son since everyone will be away on holiday in August. It is impossible and I shall just have to wait patiently until next year. Dorina very kindly invites me to stay with her.

A few weeks later and another unanticipated event occurs when my mother phones and offers to look after my son. It means that suddenly I am free to attend the course in Brescia.

The Brescia course is a real turning point because although until now I have had a great desire to improve my playing, I hadn’t understood precisely what I was searching for. Ugo spends time explaining posture to me. He has a different right-hand technique from mine, which, he explains, is considered more modern than the way in which I have been taught. My technique allows greater freedom for the Romantic tremolo, but his technique is more secure for greater control, security and speed in Baroque music. My wrist is arched and my forearm is just slightly touching the edge of the instrument’s body. His wrist is straight and his forearm is in contact with the strings behind the bridge. My mandolin sits on my lap with the fingerboard at a forty-five degree angle to the floor. His mandolin is parallel to the floor. I feel dismayed that I have such fundamental changes to make.

At the same time, being my first solo trip to Italy — I had once visited Finland by myself for a concerto engagement — it is a heady experience. Although I have made several visits to Italy, before they were always essentially holidays, even though these holidays often included some experience connected with the mandolin. Naturally these visits were also always with other people. This time my visit is only for the purpose of improving my mandolin playing skills. I am completely on my own, which is both exciting and, at times, frightening.

The room we play in is a modern white attic room, which overlooks red tiled roofs and potted plants. The floor of the room interests me because it has the appearance of a large Lego base: hundreds of small raised circles made of a synthetic material, perhaps a type of plastic or rubber. Around the walls are enlarged photographs of Ugo and other local musicians with their instruments.

Every morning, we start at half past nine and play for two hours; the first hour being technique, exercises and explanations. The second hour is real music, which we usually play together and then individually. The playing is punctuated by advice from the Maestro. Then follows an hour of discussion about mandolin history. How many music lovers know that Scott Joplin’s rags were intended for a mandolin orchestra? After a two-hour lunch break, there is another two hours of music-making: chamber music, mostly suonato a prima vista, played at first sight, or in other words, sight-reading. One afternoon we play music by Telemann, written originally for four violins, but serving the mandolin well because of the similar tuning and fingering. It is most enjoyable music, radiant and energising.

I am always animated when hearing new sounds; sounds I hadn’t known were possible on the mandolin. Exquisite decorations; jewels crafted not in precious metals and stones, but in notes. Vibrations which are received by the ear and somehow have the power to move our souls. The neatest tremolo, the quietest pianissimo, the shimmer of a passage of notes played with the utmost rapidity and articulated with the greatest precision. These and many more resonate deep within me.

I return home to London and I spend hours agonising over the difference in posture and right-hand technique. I know that interpretation, the expression and shape given to music, is of the utmost importance in performance. Musicians are not merely machines churning out vast quantities of notes; their vocation and their artistry is to place these notes in time and space, so as to sculpt the sound and communicate with the listener. At the same time, I am aware that in order to achieve such eloquence, it is necessary to have an appropriate technique. It is like trying to write poetry with a limited vocabulary. In such a case, I should improve my linguistic skills. With the mandolin, I should also try to improve my technical skills — and yet changing such a fundamental aspect of my playing, whilst still trying to honour playing commitments, seemed an impossible task.

In the autumn, I perform in a concert at Waltham Abbey: I am soloist in Vivaldi’s mandolin concerto. I wear a turquoise green dress enriched with a gold thread design. It contrasts sharply with the stark stone structure of the abbey’s interior. Internally, I am in conflict about the two approaches to right-hand technique. On the one hand the glimpsed brilliance of my new sound is encouraging, whilst on the other hand the difficulties of making physical adjustments to posture are dispiriting.

It is Good Friday and I have just put my shoes on to go to church, when I hear a knock at the door. I wonder, who could possibly be at the door?

I open the door to investigate.

“Hello, I am Giovanna Berizzi,” she said, “a pupil of Ugo Orlandi.”

I see a slim young lady with long blonde hair.

“He gave me your address,” she continued, “but not your telephone number, so I took a chance in coming to visit you.”

We immediately start to chat and find that we have so many interesting things to talk about that our conversation extends over many hours, punctuated only by coffee and homemade hot cross buns.

Giovanna tells me that she is studying English at the University of Brescia and is spending six months in England as part of a special exchange with the University of York.

I tell her about my life: teaching the violin, playing the mandolin, passing my Master’s degree, being mother to a seven-year-old boy who has just started life as a cathedral chorister.

I abandon all ideas of church, feeling somehow that this is an auspicious meeting: the start of a friendship that might lead me back to Italy and mandolin lessons.

Giovanna has returned to Italy and sends me a letter thanking me for my hospitality and being anxious to repay the kindness in some way. (She and her fellow student stayed with me briefly before returning home). I had asked for information about the National (Italian Mandolin) Conference, which I understand to be at Busto Arsizio. I have absolutely no idea where Busto Arsizio is, but I quickly discover that it is north-west of Milan. I have read about the conference in a magazine called Plectrum, a quarterly newsletter published by the Italian Mandolin Federation. The magazine mysteriously arrived by post. Giovanna explains in her letter that she had enquired about the conference and Ugo had said that the location changed every year. He couldn’t tell me anything about it yet, but Giovanna would let me know where and when it was as soon as possible.

Giovanna also has news of a concert in Germany that she is taking part in. The concert is to be given by the Orchestra di Mandolini e Chitarre ‘Citta di Brescia’, the City of Brescia Mandolin and Guitar Orchestra, of which she is a member. Sometimes, the orchestra is more simply known as Orchestra a Plettro ‘Citta di Brescia’, The City of Brescia Plectrum Orchestra. I first became acquainted with this orchestra when I was invited to a rehearsal as part of the mandolin course I attended in Brescia. In addition, Giovanna tells me that she will be attending a mandolin course at Salo, on Lake Garda. She says that it would be the same course as the one I attended at Brescia three years previously.

July and a postcard arrives from Giovanna. It was postmarked Heidelberg, Germany. It says that she is there with all the other members of the orchestra, but she has stopped to write my postcard and now she is lost!

September and Giovanna writes again, telling me her news about the mandolin course she attended in Salo. She tells me that it was most interesting and that she met a violinist from Ferrara who was studying mandolin on the course. Apparently, he and I met at the Brescia course. His name is Sergio Zigiotti and he asked Giovanna to say hello to me. I can’t remember him clearly. There is still no news about the conference, although Giovanna reassures me that I would be welcome to stay with her and her parents at their home.

Halfway through October and a postcard showing an atmospheric photograph of Venice at sunset arrives. Giovanna, as promised, is writing with details of the conference, which she now attractively describes as a mandolin festival. It is to be in Venice on the 30th and 31st of October. Her mandolin orchestra is to play there on both days and she hopes to see me there. I am dismayed that after months of asking for information I have less than two weeks’ notice to arrange the trip. Needless to say, it is impossible. I arrange to stay with Giovanna for a week in November instead. At least I can visit Ugo and the orchestra and have some contact with the mandolin world in Italy, even if I am unable to take advantage of the structured events, the concerts and discussions of the conference.

Here I am in Brescia, perhaps by mistake or by default, perhaps by design.

I spend two of five days visiting Ugo in his new house situated in a small village called Monticelli Brusati, which lies to the north-west of Brescia and is very close to Lake Iseo. The houses in Ugo’s road are all modern and constructed mostly with basements, instead of second floors. There are shutters at all the windows with rows of terracotta pots filled with pelargoniums and herbs. All around are vineyards and one neighbour has filled his slightly extended garden full of vines, under which small dark brown chickens run freely.

Giovanna accompanies me on both of the visits. I take my newly acquired Embergher mandolin to show Ugo on the first visit. Luigi Embergher was responsible for evolving a concert mandolin which was, and still is, considered by many to be the Stradivarius of the mandolin world. I already have an instrument made by Embergher’s pupil Pasquale Pecoraro, but my new Embergher is a superior instrument. However, Embergher died in 1943 and my instrument is dated 1957, which is a mystery. There is not the same tradition of fakes and forgery in the mandolin world as there has been in the violin world. The most likely explanation is that when Embergher’s most favoured apprentice, Domenico Cerrone, inherited the instrument making business in 1938, the instrument labels continued to bear Embergher’s name.

Ugo admires my new instrument and suggests that I have some adjustments made to the bridge to ensure the instrument is in perfect working order. I don’t have anyone at home who I know would be willing to undertake the work. Most luthiers just don’t have the experience of mandolins and are reticent to experiment with something unknown to them. Ugo has a solution. He sends me to Filippo Fasser, liutaio, luthier, who has a workshop in the historical centre of Brescia. Giovanna kindly takes the instrument to Filippo on Wednesday morning and I collect it on Thursday evening. It feels quite strange and wonderful to me. Here I am in a foreign country taking my instrument to be repaired and it is as if, for a brief moment, I am really living here, and yet I know that I live somewhere else.

My first visit to Ugo’s house is also a memorable occasion on account of the spaghetti alla carbonara, which Ugo makes for lunch. He shows me, step by step, how to prepare the dish. First he fries some cubed bacon called pancetta. He then adds chopped garlic and a surprise ingredient, fresh sage from his garden. He takes about six of the sage leaves, tears them up and sprinkles them into the frying pan. Finally he adds the cooked spaghetti, beaten eggs and grated parmigiano, Parmesan cheese. It is delicious. We follow it with a salad of fresh green leaves from the garden and homemade salami, made by Ugo’s father-in-law. Ugo’s wife, Marina Ferrari — also an accomplished mandolinist and music teacher — is at home today and shares the meal with us.

After my second visit to his house, Ugo proposes a pizza lunch en route to the airport. I am very grateful for a lift all the way back to the airport, since I have noticed that even the small suitcase I have brought is a nuisance on trains and buses. It would be all right if I didn’t have to contend with an awkward shaped mandolin case without a strap!

During the car journey, Ugo randomly asks: “Yes, but what are you going to do with your mandolin playing?”

I tell him about my plans for researching repertoire and giving concerts of the music I have discovered, but he doesn’t mean that. I say that I don’t really understand the question. I have a Master’s degree in performance and that is really as far as I can take my playing in terms of studying. Yes, I know that I have done a lot of the practical work by myself — I am mostly self-taught — but I have achieved something very important and significant for the mandolin. I have taken the playing as far as I can academically. The only other thing I could do now would be to write a thesis for a PhD, but that would be purely academic.

Ugo has a different idea. He thinks I should join the diploma course at Padua in order to continue my studies. I am stunned. It is a ridiculous idea. Never, even in my wildest dreams, would it be possible. For a start, I live and work in England and the course is in Italy. I ask for details. He says I could visit once a month for a year or maybe two years. It would only be the mandolin lesson. I wouldn’t have to study history, harmony etc., because I have already studied those for my violin diploma, which I had gained in England.

It was possible, he said. It would be easy — but I am not convinced that we were discussing reality. I am a mother with a small child, albeit at choir school, who I am responsible for. There are violin pupils, with their exams, to consider and my concerts to think about.

On my return home, I am filled with conflicting emotions. I like the idea of being able to study the mandolin further and in one way I find the idea of the structured course attractive. On the other hand, the idea of any more formalised study is daunting. The idea of more exams, especially practical exams, would be a challenge, which seems at this moment too difficult to contemplate. I have done such a lot of studying for the Master’s degree and I am quite exhausted from it. I also thought that the Master’s degree would be the end of formalised study. Even if my family agreed to support me in this crazy plan, I would still have the problem of funding the project.

I also notice on my return, apparently quite by chance, an advert in The Times. Under the section marked ‘scholarships’ is an advert placed by a Trust inviting applications for research in Venice and the territories once subject to it. The areas of interest included music and culture. Padua was at one time part of the Venetian Republic. The Venetian composer, Antonio Vivaldi, had bestowed the mandolin repertoire with a number of important works, including the much admired solo mandolin concerto. Today, an important part of Italian culture is being preserved, renovated and developed, in the shape of the Italian school of mandolin playing. This cultural phenomenon is happening within the old Venetian Republic. Even the other important centre of mandolin renaissance and development, Brescia, had been part of the Republic during the fifteenth century. There are it seems numerous connections between the Italian school of mandolin playing and Venice. It also seems an excellent project to investigate the performance practice and cultural traditions, which are so alive in Padua, and to make them known in England. I obtain and complete an application form.

It is the beginning of the year and a brown envelope arrives containing a pale lavender envelope and a letter, both of which have been roughly torn into a total of about six pieces. The accompanying photo-copied letter from the Italian Post Office informs me casually that my letter has been damaged by their sorting machine. They send me their ‘distinguished salutations’. My letter has been eaten by their machine and looks like, and is indeed, a puzzle. I place the pieces together, and with the odd word or letter missing due to the ragged edges, I am able to make out the contents. Giovanna says that Claudio Scimone (principal of the conservatoire at Padua and conductor of I Solisti Veneti) has sent a letter of reference on my behalf to the Trust. I only hope that the letter was in better condition than the one I have just received.

Somehow, despite other overlapping letters, Giovanna and I manage to arrange for me to make another trip during the spring. My plan is to fly to Verona and spend the first night in a hotel in Padua. I shall spend the following day at the Conservatorio, the conservatoire, and then travel by train to Brescia where I shall spend the rest of the week. At the last minute, I learn, by letter, that a one-day masterclass in which some German mandolinists are taking part is to take place at the Conservatorio on the day of my visit. Giovanna also requests that I bring for her a number of English novels. She needs them for her course at the university and they are more expensive to purchase in Italy than they are in England. I only have five books to buy, including a personal favourite of mine, Jane Austen’s Emma, but it is amazing how such a small quantity of books can be so bulky and heavy to carry.

I stay the first night at the Hotel Corso in the Corso del Popolo, which is the main road leading from the station into the centre of Padua. After breakfast, I ask for directions to the Conservatorio. I had received conflicting information about its location. I have two addresses for the music college. A phone call to Ugo confirms that the correct address is in Via Eremitani. The other address is an annex. My map doesn’t show Via Eremitani, but the hotel receptionist says that it is an easy walk of five to ten minutes. It is straight until I meet a junction where a road forks off to the left. The road to the left is Via Eremitani. It is obvious really because set back to the left at the beginning of the road is the Chiesa degli Eremitani, the Hermit’s Church, and next to it is the Nuovo Museo Civico, the New Civic Museum. I leave my suitcase, heavy with books, at the hotel reception so that I am unencumbered and I arrange to collect it as I return past the hotel on my way to the station.

In my music bag, I have some music — a concerto by Nicola Conforto. I am so pleased. The music has the appearance of printed music that you can buy from a music shop, although it is not possible to buy this music from a shop. I have made this edition of music myself by inputting information into a computer using a special programme for writing music. I have recently acquired a CD on which Ugo has recorded this among a number of other Italian mandolin concertos. Like me, Ugo had requested the microfilm from the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. He had written it out by hand, being frustrated by technology and finding the simplest methods best. I have a vision of making all the Baroque concertos, available at present only in manuscript, accessible to anybody who desires to play them. After discussing the intricacies of plectrum strokes, whether to use a down or an up stroke and so on, I present Ugo with a copy of my edition. He reciprocates, unexpectedly, by presenting me with a copy of Cinque Sonate, Five Sonatas, for mandolin by Domenico Scarlatti, published in Italy, with revision by himself. Inside the cover is a handwritten dedication:


‘a Frances Taylor, la speranza mandolinistica inglese! Ugo Orlandi. Marzo ‘94.’

The writing is a little difficult to make out, especially the final letters of the phrase ‘la speranza mandolinistica’, so I am unsure of the exact significance. I don’t know whether I am the English mandolin’s hope or a hopeful English mandolinist! Nevertheless, my new music is the result of some interesting scholarship which had uncovered new evidence pointing to the conclusion that five Scarlatti sonatas, previously thought to be for keyboard, were probably meant for mandolin. I am absolutely delighted with the new repertoire.

The Germans take most of the day to materialise. Eventually, they arrive by car in the late afternoon. Giovanna has studied German as well as English, and is enlisted to translate their talk about the German school of mandolin playing. However, they seem to prefer talking in English, which leads somehow to me becoming involved in the clarification of a discussion on the differences between the German and Italian schools of playing. The delay in the day’s proceedings means that suddenly I find myself as one of a group of about six people, trying to walk and run intermittently, as fast as possible, towards the station. I have to collect the heavy suitcase and am grateful when one of the boys in our group chivalrously offers to take it for me. He wheels the case along on its small plastic wheels at breakneck speed and I can see that it will never recover from the experience. The spare space in the suitcase, released by the books, is put to good use on the homeward journey. Giovanna’s mother thoughtfully gives me a beautifully boxed, traditional Easter cake, called colomba, because, as its name suggests, it is in the shape of a dove.

A family holiday to Umbria during April, in which we travel to Florence by train from London, fuels the idea that it might be possible to travel to Italy by train. The following month I receive a letter from the Trust telling me that regretfully they are unable to grant my request for funds to pursue research in Venice. They had so many excellent applications to consider, and the advisory board was faced with a difficult task in making its selections. I do understand their position and it is a polite letter wishing me well for the future. I am already making applications to a number of other charitable trusts. Nevertheless, it is disappointing and the future is uncertain.

Much confusion follows surrounding the bureaucracy to enter the course. I decide to proceed with my application for the course, despite the uncertainty, and I write to Giovanna asking what the procedure is. A hasty reply explains that I must urgently copy an attached sample letter, naturally written in Italian, filling in my personal details and send it immediately to the Conservatorio. Seemingly, I have missed filling in the correct form, which was due at the end of April. This letter is to ask for special permission to be accepted onto the course, even though I have not filled in the correct form, because of my special circumstances — these circumstances being that I was waiting to hear about funding for my travel expenses. The fact that they are not forthcoming is not addressed. The whole language and structure of the letter is legalistic and archaic, using phrases such as ‘I the undersigned’.

I send a number of letters and faxes to Ugo since I understand from Giovanna’s letter that he might still be able to obtain the form for admission to the Conservatorio. I receive a short letter from Giovanna saying that Ugo is surprised that I haven’t had any communication from the Conservatorio. The brief note also tells me that my audition for admittance to the course is on the 13th and 14th of October. I then receive, finally, a letter from the Conservatorio stating that the esame di ammisione, the admission exam, is at eleven o’clock in the morning on Friday the 14th October. I have already booked my train ticket, but a phone call to Ugo confirms that Thursday the 13th is fine.