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Best Music for the Accordion

Article written for BBC Music Magazine on 12.03.2024

Since the 1950s, the accordion has seen a revolution in the development of its idiomatic programme, as well as new dimensions in its relationship with popular music, jazz and creative music. As it is such a recent instrument, it would be quite difficult to say which of the situations came first. On the one hand, the proliferation of original music for solo accordion, chamber music and concertos composed by some of the most prominent contemporary composers and the transcription works from the European erudite tradition, provided a gateway for this instrument, as a vehicle for various programmes of unquestionable integrity, to the widest range of international stages. On the other hand, its entire traditional foundation is made up of technical, virtuoso and musical levels that influence a handful of schools of classical interpretation and composition for the accordion through oral, written or recorded means. It is this process, in its abundance of varying characteristics that is responsible for a thinking, active community whose influence and representation is hoped to continue growing. As such, what could be better than taking a look at some of the key pieces originally written for the accordion:

Sequenza XIII (Chanson)

Luciano Berio

This was written in 1995 for the accordionist Teodoro Anzelotti, although Berio had already used the accordion several times, as an integral member of different instrumental groups and as a timbric source for the orchestration. In the words of the composer, meeting Anzelotti convinced him to approach the accordion as a solo instrument and, therefore, to deal with popular experiences: from melodies for countryside outings, to songs of the working class, to discotheques, to Argentinian tangos and to jazz - which, from his point of view, contributed more than any other experience towards the redefinition of the instrument over the last few decades.

Even today, this Sequenza, which is part of a series of fourteen compositions for solo instruments or voice, is considered to be one of the most demanding pieces written for the instrument. Relying on a virtuosity and rhythmic complexity on both keyboards, its repetition of the stated motifs, the constant polyrhythm, the brilliant use of the Standard and Free Bass systems and the extended tessitura delivered, make this one of the most interesting pieces as an introduction to the accordion within contemporary music. Of particular note is the difficulty of the passage that exists in the third system of page 4 of the Universal Edition - an absolute case study. Among the excellent versions that exist, my choice goes to the interpretation of the Polish accordionist, Maciej Frąckiewicz, which can be found on his album “Portrait of a Lover”.

Et exspecto

Sofia Gubaidulina

The Russian composer, Sofia Gubaidulina, will probably be immediately recognised for her concertos for violin and orchestra, “Offertorium” and “In Tempus Praesens”, for her ingenious mastery of the orchestration technique, as well as for her personal relationship with composition and human eminence. While her mark on music in the second half of the 20th century is undeniable, her contribution towards the accordion’s development is no less impressive. As a composer, she perfected meticulous work on the techniques that are intrinsic to the instrument, such as bellow shakes, slides, clusters, glissandos and the use of the timbric capabilities of the accordion’s voices and registers that are still echoed today in the language of so many other composers. “Et exspecto” is a sonata composed in 1986, dedicated to the Russian accordionist Фридрих Липс. It offers us a genuine journey through his language and life experience with the accordion. It is of a deeply religious nature, closely linked to the Christian faith and alluding to the second coming of Jesus Christ, where a tonal chorus is set against large sections of clusters. That same chorus, which is present in the first four movements, is only absent in the fifth and last. Throughout the composition, there is a gradual increase in dissonance and density, clearly heard in José Valente's interpretation on his album “Modern Music Spectrum”.

Vagabonde Blu

Salvatore Sciarrino

Among original pieces for the accordion, this is the one that has been most recorded and played in a recital since its creation. “Vagabonde Blu” is deep entrenched in sound exploration and is a landmark in the erudition of the accordion as a concert instrument through the careful assembly of notes, the use of very reduced dynamics, of space and of silence. It was written in 1998 and was, once again, dedicated to Teodoro Anzellotti. The importance of this 65-year old Italian accordionist and the key role he has played in contemporary music and the history of this instrument could never go unnoticed. For that very reason, I would point out the excellence of his 1999 album “Push Pull” , not only due to being a remarkable interpreter and thinker of the instrument but also due to the audio recording of his entire discography. Also of note is the inclusion on that same album of a work that deserves our undivided attention - “Melodia”, by the Japanese composer, Toshio Hosokawa.


Jesús Torres

The Spanish composer, Jesús Torres, is responsible for creating one of the most fascinating concertos for accordion and orchestra, his “Concierto para Acordeón y Orquestra” from 2004. He couldn’t have chosen a better companion for his creation than the accordionist Iñaki Alberdi, also Spanish. 2013 saw the creation of “Cadencias”, this time a piece for solo accordion created by moulding the musical material used in his concerto described above. The composition begins with a few chords and arpeggios in the instrument's lowest register, although there is no lack of intensity in the articulation. That same motion requires greater control of the bellows, one of the major assets of having Alberdi as his interpreter. As the piece progresses, we encounter a very successful play on the stereo effect of the two keyboards, both with specific notes and clusters. The final moments of the work are exquisite and one of the best orchestrations for solo accordion that I know. The work is currently available on the Youtube channel of Fundación Juan March.


Rebecca Saunders

Rebecca Saunders, a composer from London, has an astonishing authority in her writing for the accordion, from her knowledge of its registers to its performing capabilities, and even more noteworthy, its place within the sound of an ensemble and the use of the instrument as a timbric quality to bind the musical formation. Her composition for solo accordion, written in 2018, is the culmination of that experience of the instrument with her intelligent musical language. The piece is recorded on her album “Rebecca Saunders: Solo”, from 2020, containing the following words from the artist - “Flesh is dedicated to Krassimir Sterev with whom I worked closely investigating this very particular palette of sounds for the accordion combined with the voice.

Each change in the direction of the bellows is closely controlled: the opening of the bellows is accompanied with a fast and regular rhythmic changing of the chin registers, and the closing of the bellows then with the voice. The text is recited on an out or in-breath, half-whispered, nearly "silent" or suppressed beneath a hand. The text flows unrelenting yet beneath the surface, barely comprehensible. At times single words or phrases rear up and become clear, and are then consumed back within the flow of the recitation.

The text explores a particularly explicit fragment of Molly Bloom ́s interior monologue, the final chapter of James Joyces Ulysses. I wished to rebuke any coy clichéd interpretation of Molly Bloom, exploring the fathomless depths this monologue unleashes: a raw sexual energy per se and not confined to any narrow definition of sex and gender.

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