Giovanni Hoffman is one of the mystery men of music. Grove Dictionary includes no entry for him, nor does Baker’s Biographical Dictionary or the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music. Even his name is enigmatic. An obviously Italian given name is coupled to a Germanic family name, perhaps indicating that he, like many musicians of the eighteenth century, moved to Italy at some point and changed his name, hoping to find potential patrons for whom “music” meant “Italian music.”
Howard Kadis, a Bay Area mandolinist who has performed with the San Francisco Symphony, has unearthed a few snippets of information from liner notes for various recordings. “He was by birth Milanese,” says one of these annotations. But Kadis also adds that Gerber’s Dictionary of Musicians, published in 1812 or 1814, lists Giovanni Hoffman as “an obscure contemporary musician, likely from Vienna, and a virtuoso on the mandolin.” Kadis has also discovered a reference from a musical lexicon by one Hermann Mendell: “Hoffman was a virtuoso on the mandolin and wrote various compositions for mandolin and assorted accompaniments published in Vienna about 1799. Not much remains of his work except a concerto for mandolin and orchestra and various works for mandolin and strings, along with three sonatas for unfigured bass.”
“That era, late Mozart/early Beethoven, was rife with mandolinists,” Kadis points out. “A lot of Italian musicians of that time, guitarists and mandolinists, moved to Vienna. Hummel wrote for the mandolin, so did Mozart and Beethoven.” Could Hoffman have been an Italian who moved to Vienna and adopted a German surname?
A member of the lute family, the mandolin seems to have appeared in Naples around the middle of the seventeenth. The origin of the term “mandolin,” suggests Grove, is somewhat obscure. “It is not entirely clear whether the name derivers primarily from the word ‘mandola’ or from the widespread use of ‘man’ (or variants such as ‘ban,’ ‘pan,’ ‘tan,’ etc.) as the first syllable in names of lute instruments from the East and West.”
The original Neapolitan mandolin quickly became popular in Italy, and as the instrument traveled north, variations began to appear, named after the cities in which instrument makers refined the Neapolitan original to their own tastes. The Roman mandolin (which had a more rounded neck and a higher bridge than its Neapolitan cousin) appeared, followed by the Florentine (with its smaller body and longer neck), and finally the Milanese or Lombardian mandolin, which featured an almond-shaped, more elongated body and a less deeply convex back. Other countries, too, quickly adapted the mandolin to local tastes. In the eighteenth century, France, Portugal, and Spain all had their own versions of the instrument.
Composers of Western art music have often used the instrument for color. Mozart included it in Act II of his opera Don Giovanni, where the Don is to accompany his popular serenade “Deh vieni alla finestra,” on the mandolin. Verdi uses it to accompany a chorus in his opera Otello. Mahler seems to have been quite fond of the mandolin’s sound, using it in both his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies as well as in Das Lied von der Erde. Even Stravinsky (in Agon) and Schoenberg (in his Variations for Orchestra and Opus 24 Serenade) have written for it.
“There is a reason Giovanni Hoffman’s Serenade for mandolin and viola isn’t played a lot, and that’s because it’s so hard for the mandolin,” says mandolinist Ben Brussell, who is featured in the work this afternoon. “In all of the mandolin literature, there’s nothing that I have come across that is a hard to play as this Serenade. It makes the Vivaldi concertos look like child’s play.”
Though no one seems to know for sure exactly when the piece was written, the score of the Serenade indicates that it was composed “circa 1800.” Which means it was written for an instrument slightly different from a modern mandolin, which is shaped somewhat differently and, according to Brussell, holds the pitch more securely and projects the sound better.
“I’ve had to make a few adaptations to the Serenade to make it playable,” Brussell says. “My supposition is that the first movement and the last movement were in sketch form. The three inner movements are more like chamber music, with the viola and mandolin parts being pretty much equal. Whereas the two outer movements are more like viola accompaniments and mandolin etudes, as opposed to real chamber music.
“I’ve had to do a bit of work — adding a couple measures here, deleting a couple there, to make it fit well on a modern mandolin. Music of that era, roughly Mozart’s period, often look deceptively simple. In this piece, for instance, Hoffman will sometimes ask the mandolin to play a run. Then, rather then notating a full chord, as a modern composer would, he asks the mandolin to play an octave and a fifth, which is quite awkward to play and sounds off to modern ears. So I’ve had to fill in some of the voicings to make the work ‘sound’ on a modern instrument.”
Over the years, Leonid Gesin, the violist in today’s concert, has played Hoffman’s Serenade several times. “There are not many pieces written for mandolin and viola,” he says with a laugh. “Almost nobody knows this music, but people like it when they hear it. It’s a beautiful piece.”
This article appeared originally in the program book of the San Francisco Symphony and is used here with permission.
The painting at the top of the article is “Girl with a Mandolin” by Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1836 – 1911).