As a musician – a mandolinist and violinist (fiddler) – I find it strange how one can live on a street for over seven years without meeting a neighbour who lives about 100 yards away, a talented professional violinist who, to my great delight, is keen to learn the mandolin and who has acquired a couple of rather splendid looking old Italian instruments, albeit not in playing condition. Being English, we were both waiting seven years to be introduced, but now the ceremonial formalities have been undertaken we’ve been making up for lost time by playing some fiddle tunes together and she’s threatened me with Mozart next time we meet.
On the mandolin front I had to break the bad news to her that the majority of old Italian mandolins in the UK were made for the tourist trade and are pretty nasty instruments suitable for wall decoration and little else. However, I’m a player and not a historian, so I volunteered to check out the makers’ names with my friend Paul Sparks, international authority on the subject, author of two mighty tomes for Oxford University Press, and as I was reminded the other night over a beer and a pizza, infectiously enthusiastic for his subject. I had suspected that one of these mandolins, the more modestly appointed, was a good instrument. Paul confirmed my suspicions. Although not the most highly prized round-backs, the mandolins of Umberto Ceccherini are very well respected, and definitely worth restoring. Fortunately for my neighbour this particular instrument needed little work and is currently in the very capable hands of our local maker and repairer Mick Johnson.
Interestingly, it has a second soundboard, a ‘tone producer’ suspended just a couple of millimetres below the top, and visible through the sound hole. It’s a feature I have rarely come across, although for a brief period many years ago I played an old Radiotone mandolin which had one. The Americans refer to this device as a Virzi, after the brothers who patented the idea in the USA in the 1920s and offered them as a retro-fit to violins and mandolins, but the occurrence in my neighbour’s Ceccherini, which predates the Virzi patent by around twenty years, indicates the idea was already prevalent in Italy.
Players have always been unconvinced, and my old Radiotone certainly wasn’t a great mandolin. Many have had them removed, ironically to improve the sound, and to my knowledge no luthier is currently using the idea. Nevertheless, the Ceccherini remains a significant piece of musical history and should, and I’m sure will, be kept in its original state. I have every hope it will emerge from Mick Johnson’s workshop sounding sweet and inspire my neighbour to become as good a mandolinist as she is a violinist.
As a postscript I should add that the other mandolin, an ornate sea of pearl and tortoiseshell (I think there may be some wood in there too), with exquisitely fluted ribs, is also to be restored despite the fact that the maker, Carlo Rinaldi, is of little repute. This will be a significantly more time consuming and expensive job, risky too in case it doesn’t sound great, but the good news is that two musical instruments will be played again, and that is exactly why they were made.