Caterina Lichtenberg (Interview): "The mandolin is in a very different place today"
Updated: May 9, 2021
Whether you’re a classical mandolinist, a bluegrass player or just an avid aficionado of the little, double-stringed instrument: You have most likely made acquaintance with the name Caterina Lichtenberg. Or, to be more accurate: Professor Caterina Lichtenberg.
Lichtenberg is not only one of the best known contemporary classical mandolinists, she also holds the only existing professorship for classical Mandolin at the music conservatory in Cologne. Lichtenberg, much like her predecessor at the conservatory, Marga Wilden-Hüsgen, has done a lot for the standing of the mandolin. But while Wilden-Hüsgen followed a more puristic approach, reintroducing the mandolin into the classical canon with original literature, Lichtenberg opened up her field of study and encourages her students to dive into other musical, non-classical spheres.
That also has a lot to do with one for her supposedly most formative encounters – namely the one with her husband, famous US-American bluegrass mandolinist Mike Marshall. Lichtenberg and Marshall are not only partners in their private, but also professional life: They perform together, they record together and they both teach at artistworks.com – Lichtenberg the classical style, Marshall Bluegrass (as well as other styles).
Read the full interview with Caterina Lichtenberg below.
How did you come to the mandolin?
I grew up in a musical home. My parents weren't practicing musicians, but they had a huge record collection. So I listened to a lot of music, baroque music as well as romantic music. We lived in a big house with my grandparents. My brother, who is older than me, started taking lessons at the music school very early. As a result, I was used to listening to music when I was a baby — and wanted to learn an instrument at the age of six. At first I wanted to play the piano because my brother also played the piano. But that wasn't possible at the music school and so it came to the mandolin. I come from Magdeburg and there was mandolin training at the music school and also a large plucked string orchestra. I thought that was great, also because the mandolin was an instrument that not everyone played. That's how I discovered the mandolin for myself.
You grew up in Magdeburg, but you were born in Bulgaria, right?
Yes, I was born in Bulgaria because my mother is from Bulgaria. But I never lived in Bulgaria. My mother flew to Bulgaria in the ninth month of her pregnancy to have her children in the family circle. It was the same with the birth of my brother and with me. Eight weeks later, the family returned to Germany. Nevertheless, I feel this Bulgarian part in me very strongly. Surely also because I speak the language and spent the summer every year in Bulgaria with my grandparents.
Did Bulgaria also have a musical influence on you? The Eastern European countries have their own, exciting folk music.
A very fantastic one, in fact! I love Bulgarian folk music. Those rhythms! It's quite a contrast to German music. That's also how it was in my parents' house: the temperaments of my parents are very much reflected in Bulgarian and German folk music. These two elements have been ingrained in me since early childhood. At first I only listened to this music, but the transition from listening to playing was very natural later on. However, I started playing Bulgarian folk music myself only in adulthood.
Mandolin is certainly not the easiest instrument for children - because you always have to press down the double strings.
Of course, the piano is easier at first, because you strike the keys and a note sounds immediately. But I think every instrument has its own difficulty. For example, the violin with its unnatural posture for children, or the guitar. The mandolin - I mean the belly-shaped one that I play, in the U.S. they tend to play flat ones - has a very child-friendly shape - a shape that you can really hug. When you press on the fretboard, it creaks and squeaks a little bit at first, but you quickly develop callus and it didn't take too long before it worked.
Because you just mentioned classical music and baroque music: So you had a classical background from childhood.
Yes. As a mandolin student, I actually played classical music exclusively. But at home, my brother at some point was oriented more towards jazz. Through him, I listened to a lot about jazz and soul. Later, it also went in the direction of pop music - his room was on the top floor. My parents on the first floor listened mostly to baroque music. And my grandparents, who lived on the bottom floor, were opera lovers. There were three different levels, not only in terms of floors, but also musical levels.
What other instruments did you play?
I played the piano by ear, and at some point I started taking lessons. Mandolin was not an instrument you could study as a major in the GDR, so I started playing classical guitar as a second instrument at the age of eleven. I then studied both instruments: Mandolin and guitar as a major, piano as a minor.
When did you realize that you wanted to become a professional?
I really liked my mandolin teacher and told her already in the second lesson that I wanted to do this professionally. She was still laughing then. I always enjoyed the lessons and my parents didn't interfere at all. During puberty, the desire to make music became stronger and stronger. There were ups and downs, but at the age of 14 I was already sure that I wanted to become a musician. At the age of 17, I passed the entrance examination to the "Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy" Academy of Music in Leipzig, a Magdeburg branch.
But at that time you were already playing gigs with various ensembles, weren't you?
In the former GDR, there was a nationwide music competition called "Young Talents," which I won at the age of 17. As an award, the winner was allowed to play a concert with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra of the time — we played a Vivaldi concerto. That was when I tasted blood. I also played solo and in an ensemble with two guitarists and in a quartet. I had many small gigs before I started practicing music professionally.
You are, after all, a person who has contributed a lot to the fame and reputation of the mandolin, and still do. What was the standing of the mandolin in classical music when you started? Is it at a different point today than it was ten, twenty years ago?
Absolutely, it's in a very different place today. When I started playing mandolin, I loved the instrument, but the scene was a bit dusty, and I didn't always like the music in mandolin orchestras. My brother, who played jazz, was in a whole different scene that I thought was cooler. The mandolin had a kind of shadowy existence in many places. But an incredible amount has happened in the last ten or twenty years. The instrument is now perceived quite differently. For me personally, the perception changed radically when I met my husband 14 years ago, the mandolinist Mike Marshall. The mandolin got a completely different, so-called sexy side. I got to know bluegrass and this cool new acoustic music through him and in playing with him, I was able to open it up for myself. I realized that in this stylistic range of both musical worlds, the instrument becomes perfect. Through the encounter with this other culture, the music I grew up with became even more attractive to me. Many players of my generation, as well as the younger generation, are contributing to the recognition of the mandolin in professional circles as well.
You studied with Marga Wilden-Hüsgen and also became her successor at the university. Wilden-Hüsgen did a lot for the mandolin, in many respects. How would you classify her influence?
She has done an incredible amount for the mandolin. First of all, through her research on mandolin history. She networked with many colleagues in Europe and contributed to the re-introduction of the classical mandolin schoolbooks of the 18th century. This led to a rethinking of mandolin technique, with a much warmer tone and applied touch - and much original literature was also made accessible through this research. But she also did a lot for the development of the instrument, collaborating with the instrument maker Reinhold Seiffert, which resulted in a new model, which I call the "German mandolin", in which the tone of the lute or the guitar was a model. With the establishment of the teaching position and later the chair, the mandolin was perceived in a very different way in the general musical life. She was a very inspiring teacher, strict, but I needed that at the time. Marga is passionate and she lives for the classical mandolin ... In the beginning it was a matter of establishing the instrument and that was certainly not easy. Another accomplishment of hers is the rediscovery of the soprano lute, the baroque mandolin. It has a unique sound and it opened the door to early music for our instrument.
So Wilden-Hüsgen was a purist.
Yes, she wanted mainly original literature to be played. I understand that, too. Thirty years ago, it was still very, very important to present the instrument with its original literature and not just by playing arrangements. Today, you can get away from that a bit, because the instrument and the literature have become better known.
Often the mandolin is not necessarily associated with classical music. We know that Beethoven wrote pieces for the mandolin, Vivaldi as well. How much original literature is there in classical music?
An unbelievable amount. I have entire folders that contain only the names of composers and their works. By no means has everything been researched. That is also one of Marga's merits: when she or her colleagues found something, they immediately exchanged information. Of course, names like Vivaldi and Beethoven are important and great. But there are many composers that you don't know at all, but they still wrote such beautiful pieces. Something very specific about this instrument is that different playing techniques have developed in different eras. The appreciation of the mandolin has fluctuated throughout history. It had a heyday in the 18th century, which ended with the French Revolution. Around 1800 there was a high in the Viennese cultural area. From 1830, a slumber followed before its popularity rose again in Italy. After 1860, however, the mandolin came to the fore as a tremolo playing instrument, which was not common in the 18th century. These are things we learn from 18th century school works: that people did not tremolo in the 18th century because it was considered unaesthetic at the time. Today we know that tremolo as a main playing technique is only used in the works after 1860. These different playing techniques combine in contemporary works. When the teaching position was established in 1979, the instrument was initially ridiculed by many colleagues, and it was all the more important to initially play primarily original literature and not just arrangements.
For a while, the mandolin was referred to as the "little man's violin”. Did the mandolin have to regain its standing?
I used to think so. However, because I have traveled a lot internationally, I have noticed that the standing of the mandolin is perceived quite differently in other countries. In America, for example, the mandolin is integrated into bluegrass and jazz. If you turn on the radio there, you hear mandolin! In the USA, many men also play the mandolin; in Germany, when I was a student, 90% of those who played this instrument were women. I would say that in the classical field, the mandolin in Europe has had to work its way up a bit in the last 100 years. Initially an instrument of the aristocracy in the 18th century, its image changed. Around 1900 it was the "violin of the little man". Many workers' orchestras were formed, and the instrument was played by people from poorer backgrounds who could just about afford the mandolin. This was, as I said, quite different in the 18th century, because it was quite highly respected and many compositions of that time were dedicated, for example, to very important personalities in Paris and in Lyon. This change of image from the 18th to the 19th century is interesting in the case of the mandolin. In Europe, it was somewhat ridiculed in the 1950s, 1960s and perhaps even in the 1970s. Through the rediscovery of the original composition and the reappraisal of its history, it is establishing itself again. But in Brazil, for example, the mandolin is very popular, and in North America, too. In Japan, they are also held in high esteem. I met some business people there who proudly gave me their business card - as is the custom there - and on the business card it said: "Member of a mandolin orchestra". You would never find that on managers' business cards in Germany. In Japan there is a great mandolin scene, super virtuoso players and many young composers who write great works for our instrument.
Your husband Mike Marshall is a world-renowned bluegrass mandolinist, who also plays choro and jazz. Did you have contact with this kind of playing before him?
I have always been very interested in this music, I knew it through my brother. But I didn't play it on my instrument at first. For me, mandolin used to be associated only with classical music. If I wanted to play something stylistically different, I did it on the guitar or the piano. A few years before I met my husband, however, I made small excursions into South American music and Brazilian choro music, for example with the Trio Delicado. There I also began to play works by Piazzolla. I listened to bluegrass more in silence. This music was not so popular at that time in the mandolin class at the college. I was listening to David Grisman on CDs, Mike Marshall with his Modern Mandolin Quartet. I dreamed of how great it would be to experience this other world of music in person. As luck would have it, in 2007 I was invited to play and teach at David Grisman and Mike Marshall's Mandolin Symposium in Santa Cruz, California. Already weeks before that, I had a feeling that something great was about to happen. Just that classical and bluegrass mandolin will meet and learn and benefit from each other through this encounter. But I couldn't know that it would also be a great moment for me in my private life – meeting with my husband.
Are Americans often surprised when you tell them about the rich history of the mandolin in Europe?
Yes, totally. When I used to go somewhere there with my mandolin, people would ask me, "What is that, a banjo?" (laughs). They didn't even perceive my mandolin as one, because in America they mainly play flat mandolins. These beautiful, elaborate 18th-century arpeggio techniques that I had learned at college from Marga could also be wonderfully applied to Irish music. There were some players who thought that these cross-picking techniques were invented by a 1950s mandolin master. When I told them that they also existed 200 years ago, it was an aha moment for many. The awareness that our instrument has such a long and rich history is totally exciting for many. And for us classical musicians, it is exciting to see that the mandolin is not just a melody instrument. In America, the mandolin is seen more as a chordal instrument. In bluegrass bands, they often play chop chords, and that's a very different musical approach. The mandolin is an ingenious chordal instrument because the fifths tuning makes it possible to shift between the chords wonderfully. This knowledge is a gain for me and now also flows into my teaching. Stylistic versatility is an important area for me in addition to my main studies. As a professor, I find it very important that the students in my classes also get to know the "other" musical side, such as bluegrass, jazz, improvisation, and chord playing, etc. What they do with it later is up to them.
To what extent does your professorship consist of research, and to what extent of practical teaching?
It is an artistic professorship, so research is not my main area. But in collaboration with my colleagues, everything comes together at the Cologne University of Music and Dance, since this professorship is the only chair for mandolin in the world. That's why I try to help students to get interested in musicological topics as well, or work on interdisciplinary projects myself. It would be great if there was someone else at the university who was primarily responsible for mandolin research. I mainly try to bundle the information or bring appropriate people together. What's also really great at our university is the new "Individuale" course. The aim here is to give students a realistic perspective on their later professional life, in the form of stylistic expansion, among other things. I jumped right on this bandwagon because I thought that's exactly what we need for the mandolin. The great fortune here is that Mike Marshall has been given a teaching assignment for this area and he can offer this tailored for mandolinists, but it is also open to other instruments. In addition, he also teaches majors, so some of the mandolin study can be done in the major with him. This is exactly what I have always wanted. I wish I had also had this opportunity when I was 20 years old to combine both classical music and the music of the so-called U-music and improvisation in one study - but now I can make it possible for my students. I think it's very smart for preparing them for the future as musicians.
Together you and Mike do holistic mandolin work, so to speak - also regarding your courses on Artistworks. There are a lot of points of contact there between bluegrass and classical mandolin. Would you say through things like Artistworks, but also the Mandolin Café website, the scene has grown more together?
That's our world today: networking and globalization. You can learn from each other. Through my excursions into these other worlds, I've reflected and learned so much about my own playing, am now perhaps even more rooted in what makes me me, and see baroque music again from a different perspective. Also for Mike - I know because we talked about it a lot - it was interesting to play a lot of classical music with me, to get to know this way of phrasing and to think less chordally and rhythmically. You mentioned Artistworks: That's where we recommend students try each other's courses. Personally, what I love about Artistworks is that I can relate to beginners again. In my bubble at the university, I mainly have very advanced players who were already playing great before, only to become even better. But I also find it exciting to work with people who are beginners. I have to reflect didactically in a completely different way, and I enjoy that. The joy of students who can play their first song is infectious. That's different when you only work professionally and it's always about always being better. Sometimes you lose that joy for the little things. I think it's nice to have this mixture between the different levels.
You said that studying American music strengthened you in your identity. But has it also changed your playing? Do you have a few extra tricks in your toolbox?
The most important aspect is that I have a lot more fun auditioning and being on stage. As a classical musician, you're always conditioned to prepare for a goal. It has to be perfect, you have to "deliver." If you then make mistakes, the world collapses. You can lose some of the joy of playing, and the stomach ache before every concert can become exhausting over time. In America, I got to know this fun of playing among musicians. There, it's all about the joy of making music together and it doesn't matter if a note is wrong or not. I've learned a little bit from this relaxed attitude. Of course, you have to work differently in classical music, we play these pre-composed pieces and there is little room for improvisation. But I have tried to "take along" this joy of playing. I played in many unusual settings - for classical musicians - for example in large arenas and outdoors, e.g. at the Rockygrass festival in front of 6,000 people. You rarely have that many people as a classical musician, because you can't fit that many people into a church (laughs).
These experiences just show me, it's all about the music. There is only good or bad music. You can learn a lot from each other and jazz is such an intellectual challenge, so is choro or bluegrass and in its perfection, each style is demanding. Respect for each other grows when you engage with each other.
Have you sometimes noticed a kind of cultural snobbishness in the classical scene?
I have often noticed it, but more in Europe. Often towards our instrument, but that faded away as soon as I played. But also on a personal level, when I started playing a lot with Mike, people in classical circles turned up their noses. There was a horror going through the classical mandolin scene: "Oh God, Caterina has the only professorship and was supposed to represent classical mandolin. Now she's going to dilute the professorship with low brow music." That was about ten years ago and fortunately it has been proven that this is not the case. Just because you think outside the box and get a breath of fresh air doesn't mean that you lose your roots. I would put it this way, you become more aware of stylistic subtleties - and occasionally even notice similarities in aesthetics. Baroque music also has to groove, and really good baroque orchestras have this beat in the fast movements. There are many parallels, but also differences, which you only notice when you dive a bit into other realms. Of course, you won't be able to play all styles perfectly - nevertheless, I would recommend everyone to swim around in different waters as much as possible.
Do you also like to play bluegrass mandolins?
Very much so. But still, I have to admit that I prefer the Neapolitan mandolin for me personally, I love the bulbous shape and sound. But when I chop chords, I immediately notice the advantages of a Gibson mandolin. It comes through very differently and is more comfortable to play because the neck is thinner. It fits better for chord playing. On my mandolin, the fingerboard is a little wider, which is better for transparent playing.
In 2020 your first solo album was released, tell us something about the making of it.
I had two hours of solo programming ready in the spring of 2020. Pieces that have been my favorites for years and that I play every now and then. Suddenly we had a lot of time due to the lockdown and we thought we'd finish the CD now. The first piece on my solo album is by Telemann, who is also from Magdeburg, the city where I grew up. I played four different mandolins on the CD. The CD was made in the U.S. and I had my baroque mandolin with me, an alto-baroque mandolin, my Neapolitan mandolin and an American mandola by David Grisman, which I used for Bach Suite - the instrument sounds incredibly great and I played it with a quill, which is also used for the baroque mandolin - so that's how I combined the two worlds. On my Neapolitan mandolin I played a work by Raffaele Calace and a Japanese work by Yasuo Kuwahara, a representative of Japanese mandolin music. I traveled, so to speak, through the countries, times and instruments.
Some guitarists even find it difficult to switch between Les Pauls and Stratocasters because of the different necks, but you switch without any problems.
I have always liked to try out things as much as possible. I also play different instruments at my concerts, which goes down very well with the audience. But many colleagues find this change rather unpleasant. On a baroque mandolin, for example, you need much less pressure in the left hand, and this change from the Neapolitan mandolin to the baroque mandolin is not so easy in concert. But I think that by changing instruments you change your technique, you refine it, and your tone shaping benefits from it. I think my sound has developed in this way because I have always looked at each instrument: Where is the soul of the instrument? Every instrument, if it is a good one, has its "sweet" tones. You have to find them, you have to listen carefully. When you play different instruments, you have to find this soul again and again, or rediscover it. But I have my favorite mandolin - and if I had to leave quickly tomorrow and could only take one mandolin with me, I would immediately know which one it would be. One that can do everything and combines everything in terms of sound and style.
Find more information about the artist on her official website.