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 Accordion

Accordion

(Fr. accordéon; Ger. Akkordeon, Handharmonika, Klavier-Harmonika, Ziehharmonika; It. armonica a manticino, fisarmonica; Russ. bayan, garmonica, garmoschka)

A term applied to a number of portable free-reed aerophones.

The word ‘accordion’ is widely used specifically to mean the type of instrument with a rectangular body shape, a chromatic right-hand keyboard (whether with piano keys or buttons) parallel to the player's body and a bass button keyboard under the left hand. The bass keyboard of this kind of instrument has combinations of buttons that play single notes and buttons that are mechanically coupled to sound chord formations. The term ‘Jmelodeon’ is sometimes used for smaller diatonic button accordions, types typically with one or two right-hand rows of buttons. ‘Concertina’ refers to chromatic and diatonic instruments with buttons parallel to the bellows. Some varieties of concertina have polygonal shapes (usually hexagonal), but square, box-shaped concertinas have also been made since they were first developed in the 1830s, notably the diatonic ‘Chemnitz’ concertina. The Bandoneon is essentially a variant of the Chemnitz concertina, also being square or rectangular in shape. In some respects these instruments have distinct histories, usages and repertories. It is possible, therefore, to distinguish between the accordion and the concertina as two distinct groups within the same family of instruments. However, in many languages and cultures the term ‘accordion’ is more generally assigned to all instruments of this family, to the extent that the specificity of the distinctions is lost. Furthermore, a historical view of the evolution of these instruments shows profuse interrelationships in terms of their invention, countries of origin and manufacture, and their construction and terminology. A world-view of the accordion must therefore allow the inclusion of all kinds of free-reed aerophone.

The button diatonic accordion is certainly the most popular type of accordion, and is manufactured in most regions of the world. Those models that employ the most advanced technologies originate in Germany.

The piano accordion

As its name suggests, the right-hand section of this accordion contains a piano-type keyboard, commonly having up to 45 keys.

The button chromatic accordion

Known as the bayan in Russia and the musette in France, these differ from piano accordions mainly in that the right-hand section of this type of accordion is organized in three, four or five rows of buttons, usually coloured black and white.

Other accordions

Many types of accordion have been made with various combinations of diatonic and chromatic keyboards, most of which are rare and no longer in production, and various other keyboard systems have also been adapted to the accordion.

The garmoshka is a large group of accordions found in both diatonic and chromatic varieties in Russia and Eastern Europe. They are intended as folk rather than concert instruments, and they evolved largely independent of Western influences.

The accordion in Africa

Accordions and concertinas have been present in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa since the 19th century, though with a somewhat scattered distribution. They were first brought to African coastal cities by European and West African sailors, merchants and settlers, and taken inland by migrant workers. Many different models from Europe and elsewhere have been used. Although never attaining the popularity of the guitar, the accordion family has been a fundamental factor in the rise of several popular styles in both urban and rural areas. Accordions have been used both for solo expression and in small dance bands. Intrinsically African musical ideas have been transferred to these instruments, producing original and individual playing styles and techniques.

Accordions were also present on the East African coast from the early 20th century. They were part of the tarab ensembles recorded by Tracey in Dar es Salaam in the 1950s, along with four violins, two udi (lutes), ukulele or mandolin, clarinet, bass and drums.

Composers, repertory

By the early 20th century the accordion was associated around the world with traditional music, cafés, dance halls and music halls. In order for it to be taken seriously as a concert instrument there was a need for schools to give high-level instruction on the instrument, for the development of an original repertory by recognized composers, and for refinements to be made to the instrument so that it could produce what the new repertory required. It also needed to be capable of responding consistently to the demands of subtle artistic performance. Ernst Hohner grasped the dilemma and approached Paul Hindemith (whose Kammermusik no.1, 1922, included an accordion in the chamber orchestra) to write original music for the instrument. Hindemith recommended a talented young composer, Hugo Herrmann, for the task. Herrmann agreed and wrote Sieben neue Spielmusiken (1927), the first original work for solo accordion.

In 1931 Hohner founded the Harmonika-Fachschule in Trossingen. Herrmann became its director, hiring an extraordinary body of staff.

By about 1945 large-scale pieces were being written with a preference for polyphonic styles. Free tonality and atonality became the preferred styles for composition, made possible with the advent of freebass accordions. A tremendous growth in original repertory took place from about 1963, when the Städtische Musikschule Trossingen sought to expand the presence of experimental music and atonal styles in its concerts. One of the most important composers of new music for the accordion of this period was Wolfgang Jacobi (1894–1972). This period was also marked by the publication of accordion music by Scandinavian composers such as the Danes Ole Schmidt and N.V. Bentzon and the Swede T.I. Lundquist.

Composers of works featuring the accordion have included Alban Berg (Wozzeck, 1923), Roy Harris (Theme and Variations, 1947), Paul Dessau (Die Verurteilung des Lukullus, 1949), Carmelo Pino (Sonata Moderne op.2, 1956; Concertino for Accordion and Strings, 1964), Alan Hovhaness (Suite for Accordion, 1958; Accordion Concerto, 1959; Rubaiyat, 1979), Paul Creston (Accordion Concerto, 1958), Wallingford Riegger (Cooper Square, 1958), Henry Cowell (Iridescent Rondo, 1959; Concerto brevis, 1960), David Diamond (Night Music, 1961), Robert Russell Bennett (Quintet for accordion and string quartet, 1962), Nicolas Flagello (Introduction and Scherzo, 1964), Guy Klucevsek (an accordionist himself, he has composed many works for the instrument), William Schimmel (Fables, 1964; The Spring Street Ritual, 1978), Pauline Oliveros (many works, including Horse Sings from Cloud, 1975), Eric Salzman (Accord, 1975), Robert Rodriguez (Tango, 1985) and Luciano Berio (Sequenza XIII, 1995).

Reference (with liberty): New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, (editors), 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

"Accordion" Teachers:

  • Antoine Dib
  • Gilbert Melki
  • Kamal Morkos

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