Giovanni Hoffman — Serenade for Viola and Mandolin


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).