Without going into too much detail, articles published in international newspapers during the first week of March 1878 provide evidence that the arrival of the mandolin on the world stage took place in Paris. Gratis performances by a large ensemble of Spanish musicians, dancers and singers (some who were erroneously said to play mandolins) met with phenomenal success during the 1878 Mardi Gras celebration in Paris.
The group of Spanish performers who enthralled the people of Paris in the first two weeks of March 1878 was led by two distinguished men. One was a Basque military surgeon named Ildefonso Zabaleta and the other was Ruperto Belderrain, a composer from Madrid.
In February 1878, Zabaleta and Belderrain’s players were known in Spain as “La Española.” During their time in France, they were referred to as “L’Etudiants Espagnols” or “La Estudiantina Espanola.” In English-speaking countries their name was translated to the “Spanish Students.” As an indication of the interest in this incredibly popular ensemble from the English-speaking world, no fewer than nine American newspapers, four British and one Australian newspaper ran numerous articles about these “Spanish students.”
In May of 1878, a different group of “Spanish Students” left Madrid to play music for the Summer in Spain and Portugal. As the group pared down and refined their repertoire, they began a concert tour of Europe, Great Britain, Russia and Scandinavia. In December of 1879, they left Liverpool for a yearlong tour of the United States with short stays in Canada, Puerto Rico and Cuba. This “Students” ensemble was formed and initially led by the composer, Dionisio Granados (aka Denis Granado).
In Spain, this “estudiantina“ (band of student musicians) performed as either “El Fígaro,” “Estudiantina Espanola” or “Estudiantina Espanola Fígaro.” On December 10, 1879, fifteen members of El Fígaro sailed across the Atlantic on the S.S. France to New York City. After a weather impacted slow crossing, the ship landed on January 1, 1880.
They arrived in New York under contract to an American theatrical promoter named Henry Eugene Abbey. Abbey hired them to perform in a surprisingly sophisticated vaudeville production called “Humpty Dumpty.” Granados, the founder and original director of El Fígaro, was not among the players who left Europe for North America. Initially, the El Fígaro director in America was Ignacio Martin.
The Roman Students
El Fígaro’s first American performance took place on January 2, 1880 at Abbey’s Park Theater in Boston. Before their New York City debut, the company staged dozens of warm-up performances in Connecticut, Maine, Massachussetts and Rhode Island during January.
On February 3, 1880, the “Humpty Dumpty Combination with the Celebrated Spanish Students” opened at Booth’s Theatre in New York City. The production was a huge hit and it remained at Booth’s nearly 8 weeks, ending its run on March 28th.
The one hitch was that on February 22, 1880 a group of opportunistic imitator ensemble opened at the Atlantic Garden Hall, two and a half miles from Booth’s Theatre.
This Atlantic Garden ensemble called themselves, dressed like and pretended to be (El Fígaro) the “Spanish Students.” Led by a 20 year old Italian immigrant musician named Carlo(s) Curti, this “bogus” estudiantina toured the United States, Canada and Cuba for three years.
Initially, Curti’s group freelanced. By March 1880, they were being managed by Gustave Amberg. At the same time Curti and his ensemble were performing as the Spanish Students in an Amberg production in Philadelphia, a showbiz manager named Nick Roberts was stagin his Humpty Dumpty production with 2 guitar-playing “German Students” at a different Philadelphia venue.
Soon, Curti’s Students were under contract to Nick Roberts.
Curti and his co-conspirator musicians were shamelessly and fraudulently billed as the “Spanish Students” in most of 1880 and sometimes as “the Roman Students” in the years that followed.
Until recently, all three of these groups were only known as the “Spanish Students.” This name-sharing situation created considerable confusion for audiences in the 1880s and for music historians in the ensuing years. Descriminating between the Spanish Student groups by using their less-familiar names (La Española, El Fígaro and the Roman Students) is a new approach used by music historians after 2016.
In June of 1880, due in part to dwindling box office revenues for the “Humpty Dumpty Combination,” impresario Henry Abbey sub-contracted El Fígaro to a prominent concert promoter named Maj. James B Pond. El Fígaro‘s first American tour ended in December 1880, when Pond failed to meet payroll obligations. After 334 concerts in the United States and brief concert tours in Cuba and Puerto Rico, most of El Fígaro returned to Spain. Two of that troupe had married and remained with their respective wives in the United States
In August of 1882, two seperate iterations of El Fígaro arrived in North America. One had its base of operations in New England and the other in Mexico. Gradually, those who started out in Mexico entered the United States and began presenting concerts in the American Southwest billed as the “Figaro Spanish Students Troupe.”
The second batch of El Fígaro concert performances lasted for nearly a year-and-a-half. Their travels were not limited to North America. They spent quite a bit of time and enjoyed cinsiderabl success in South America before another return to Spain.
While most of the newspaper reviews and advertisements published outside Spain, from 1878 and thereafter, claimed that La Española and El Fígaro included mandolin players in their instrumentation, that was inaccurate. These artists were from Spain where a 12-string bandurria was their national folk instrument. La Española and El Fígaro used bandurrias, not mandolins.Members of the Roman Students played mandolins (also flute, guitar, harp, violin and xylophone), not bandurrias. When El Fígaro left America in 1880, the mandolin-based Roman Students continued to tour the USA for two more years. After El Fígaro returned to Europe, the Roman Students and their employers regularly tried to draw a bigger audience by billing the imposter group as the “Spanish Students.”
When Carlo(s) Curti left the Students, several of the remaining players reformed under the leadership of Carlo Colombo (Columbo), using the name the “Venetian Troubadours.”
Both the Roman Students and the Venetian Troubadours continued to capitalize on the success of El Fígaro for years. They even created and promoted a myth about their own origin in an attempt to downplay the existance of their Spanish role models.
By 1885, the Venetian Troubadours broke up. Several members moved to different US cities and created careers for themselves as mandolin and guitar soloists. Some of those former, Italian “Spanish Students” became mandolin teachers and orchestra leaders in the areas where they lived. In part as a result of their activities, the demand for mandolins grew and a part of America’s “Industrial Revolution” developed into instrument building and mandolin-music publishing companies.
Because of all the Spanish Students’ successes and international popularity, an American “mandolin craze” and eventually a tremendous, inovative mando-centric market was born in the United States.