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The history of the accordion: its invention, evolution and famous accordion makers

Article written for BBC Music Magazine on 07.03.2024

When was the accordion invented?

The first “accordion” type structure was devised by Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buchmann, in 1822. In 1829, Cyrill Remian came up with the following idea: a single key could produce a functional chord. But it was only in 1844 that the English inventor, Charles Wheatstone, patented an instrument encompassing the pre-set chord system, with a keyboard and bellows. In 2024, you’ll find instruments with a wide variety of systems, keyboards and configurations, the main influence being the Russian and European manufacturing styles. Despite being portable and having a powerful sound, many makers today try to hone its amplification using microphones, extend its range through a midi connection or even use other kinds of untempered tuning.

How has the playing style changed?

The accordion is intrinsically linked to many different musical styles. Not only can the layout of its keyboard change from one country to another but as its construction is still recent, it is far from standardised. That said, it is immensely interesting to obtain a historic and ongoing view of the instrument through its discography. These different schools of musical thought are still active. Starting with world music, the Portuguese artist Eugénia Lima with "Ó Linda Terra Algarvia" (1968) and the Frenchman Joe Rossi with "Valse Musette" (1958). Currently, there’s Joao Frade  in his self-titled record from 2018, which he himself describes as “Creative Portuguese Music” or Lelo Nika , from Serbia, with “Beyond Borders” (2010). With regard to classical music, “De Profundis” (1992) by Фридрих Липс is of the utmost importance as a milestone for the Russian accordion and extremely relevant within the European school. Although it is a recent album, it is a wonderful compendium of a precious heritage of great Russian interpreters. At present, I would highlight “Bidaia” by the Spanish accordionist Iñaki Alberdi . It's an album with music by Federico Jusid, bringing together the accordion and the Navarra Symphony Orchestra. In the world of jazz, I feel there is an obvious thread, starting with the American, Tommy Gumina, and his 1960 album “Pacific Standard” (Swingin’ Time). In 1985, Richard Galliano would change the history of this language on the accordion with his album “Spleen”. Today, you have the French artist Vincent Peirani in a duet with Emile Parisien on “Abrazo”.

Who are the famous accordion makers?

These are some of the most famous brands: Pigini, Hohner, Bugari Armando, Scandalli, Cavagnolo, Mengascini, Jupiter and Roland (Digital Accordions).

How does it work?

I would start by mentioning the bellows, the device responsible for the flow of air through all the reeds on both keyboards (left and right). The bellows are used to control the instrument’s volume and expression. As it circulates, the air will vibrate the reeds, which have a fixed tuning and vary in size: the bigger they are, the more bass the sound they produce. The air can only circulate after pressing the keys/buttons on the keyboards. Following that process, the pallet is lifted, and the air will flow in or out depending on the expansion or compression of the bellows. The right-hand keyboard may be chromatic, diatonic or in a piano keyboard format. The left-hand keyboard may be arranged normally with a chromatic layout (Free Bass System) or in the Stradella Bass System (arranged at intervals of perfect fifths and major, minor and dominant chords associated with a single button).

How to play it?

There’s no end of possibilities with this instrument, from changing the tone, using its registers (as if it were a pipe organ), to quickly handling the bellows with changes of direction, even to percussive techniques on its body, or using different possible voicings (like the Stradella system and its ability to play the bass through fifths and the respective functional chord, creating an accompaniment to melodies played on the right-hand keyboard). But you can’t beat listening to compositions that use all these techniques and many more, composed by some of the most influential composers, such as:

- "Sequenza XIII (Chanson)" by Luciano Berio

- "Et Exspecto" by Sofia Gubaidulina

- "Vagabonde Blu" by Salvatore Sciarrino

- "Cadencias" by Jesus Torres

- "Flesh" by Rebecca Saunders

Regarding accordion shops or places that are particularly good to buy accordions/accordion accessories I would recommend the following portuguese luthiers: Atelier do Acordeon , Acordeonata - Pigini Portugal and João Tomás Afinador.

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