Chinese history books trace back to the very birth of music itself, an event pinpointed in the Book Of Chronicles (Schu-Ching) as occurring during the reign of the legendary “Yellow Emperor”, Huang Ti, around the year 3000 B.C.
Huang’s other accomplishments included the invention of boats, money, and religious sacrifice. He is said to have sent the noted scholar Ling Lun to the western mountain regions of his domain to find a way to reproduce the song of the phoenix bird. Ling returned with the cheng (or sheng), and captured music for mankind, taking the first step toward the genesis of the accordion.
The cheng is in fact the first known instrument to use the free vibrating reed principle, which is the basis of the accordion’s sound production. Shaped to resemble the phoenix, the cheng had between 13 and 24 bamboo pipes, a small gourd which acted as a resonator box and wind chamber, and a mouthpiece. Other instruments using a free vibrating reed were developed in ancient Egypt and Greece, and were depicted in many beliefs.
Reed Instrument Development
Virtually unchanged after centuries of use, the cheng attracted the attention of European musicians and craftsmen after being taken to Russia around the year 1770. Assertions that this marked the introduction of the free-vibrating reed principle in Europe are debatable. Among the earlier variations on this design in the West was the portative, which was widely heard in England during the 12th and 13th centuries. The portative consisted of a small keyboard, bellows, and reed pipes, and was strapped onto the player. The regal, later termed the Bible regal because of its wide use in churches, was the next step along this line. It had a keyboard, one or two sets of bellows, and, unlike the accordion and other open-reed instruments, close beating oboe-like reeds. This instrument eventually lost popularity due to a tendency to go out of tune too easily. It was frequently used for accompanying madrigal singers, between the 15th and 18th centuries.
Cyrillus Damian (also referred to as Cyrill Demian), a Viennese instrument maker, has often been credited with the creation of the first true accordion. He was, in fact, the first to patent an instrument of that name, having received royal patronage for his invention in 1829. Damian’s design featured two to four bass keys that produced chords within a range of an octave. But the first true accordion made its appearance in 1822, when a German instrument maker named Christian Friedrich Buschmann (1775-1832) put some expanding bellows onto a small portable keyboard, with free vibrating reeds inside the instrument itself. He dubbed it the hand-aeoline, and helped spread its fame in 1828 by leaving Berlin and touring with it.
There were actually many varieties of the free-vibrating reed instrument developed during the early 1800s. Some of them are still quite well known today. Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875) was awarded the British Patent No. 5803 for his concertina in 1829. Heinrich Band (1821-1860) of Krefeld, Germany, invented the bandoneon in 1840; this square-shaped instrument, played by pressing finger buttons is popular with Argentine tango bands. That same year Alexandre Debain finished his harmonium in Paris. In this pipeless organ (commonly found in churches and households until the advent of electric organs in the 1930s) air is passed to the reed blocks via foot-operated bellows. In some early models a second person was required to pump air into the instrument through bellows attached to the rear of the keyboard.
As the renowned fame and popularity for accordions grew, so did a demand for instruction manuals. The first such textbook, featuring both original music and arrangements of familiar pieces, was written by A. Reisner and published in Paris in 1832. Another tutorial volume, Pichenot’s Methode pour l’Accordéon, appeared later that year. In 1834 Adolph Muller published his instructional book in Vienna, and since then the music market has sustained a flood of similar programs, with about 30 titles published during the 1860s alone.
Further Instrument Development
Meanwhile, from 1830 onwards, the development of the accordion continued at an accelerating pace. Still, there were some important differences between the instruments of that era and those of today. For one, early accordions did not have shoulder straps that allowed the player to hold the instrument close to the body. The older models were played by placing the thumb, the little finger, and sometimes the fourth finger of the right hand under the treble keyboard, leaving only the remaining two or three fingers free to press the keys. The thumb of the left hand was also placed under the instrument to steady it, with only the second and fifth fingers used for playing. Most players today wear double straps, although single-strapped accordions, which leave the keyboard at a less upright angle, are popular in the Soviet Union.
Additionally, early accordions, like the bandoneon (and, for that matter, the harmonica) that exists today, produced different notes on the press and draw of the bellows. Thus, if the C key were pressed to produce that note on the opening of the bellows, the note D might sound when the bellows were closed. These instruments are characterised as diatonic, and the pitch of their notes was determined by the placement of the keys and the reeds by each maker.
The chromatic accordion, which produced the same note on the press and the draw of the bellows, came into use in 1850 when an accordionist named Walter requested that one be custom-built for him. His model, incidentally, also featured 12 bass buttons, cleverly arranged so that all 12 key signatures could be accommodated.
One interesting development from this period was the appearance of what subsequently became known as the Schrammel accordion, first used in 1877 with a quartet comprising an accordion, two violins, and bass guitar. The Schrammel had 52 treble buttons arranged in three rows that produced the same notes, together with 12 basses that produced different notes, on the press and draw of the bellows. This model was used often at Viennese gatherings and can still be heard today, but its popularity is limited because of its small range of notes and the difficulty with which it is mastered.
It seems clear that at this stage the accordion was being conceived of as a portable type of organ. Pipe organs had of course become extremely sophisticated by then, with tones produced through open-ended wooden or metal flute pipes of up to eight feet (for the lowest C then in the instrument’s range) in length, and with its own free vibrating reeds set in a brass plate, to be activated when the reed stop is engaged. This exact design was incorporated into the accordions of that era, with several brass or steel reeds embedded into a long wooden block in a somewhat simplified version of the modern accordion design.
The Modern Accordion
So when the first piano accordion, or the first accordion to feature a piano-style ivory keyboard, was produced in Vienna in 1863, many performers regarded it as a means of liberating themselves, to a limited extent, from being confined to their massive and immobile walls of pipes. As with the modern accordion, these keys were much smaller than those on the piano, and more rounded to allow for faster playing. Design requests from musicians helped refine the shape and appearance of the accordion keyboard even more over the next several years. One of these artists, Pietro Deiro, brought his custom built piano accordion to the United States and, thanks to a successful New York concert at the Washington Square Theatre in 1909, earned a reputation for himself as the father of the American accordion playing.
During the early part of the twentieth century the leading accordion manufacturers began increasing their output and, thanks to pressure from professional players, settling on a general standard size and shape for the instrument, with 19½” the agreed length for a 41 note keyboard. One company in particular managed to establish a solid slot for itself in the industry hierarchy. It is commonly accepted that Matthias Hohner (1833 – 1902) was to the accordion what Henry Ford was to the automobile – an enterprising figure who made his product available to a great number of people at reasonable prices. Originally a clockmaker in Trossingen, Germany, Hohner had begun building accordions at his workshop in 1857, but by roughly 20 years after his death the business he had founded was creating them by mass production.
The Global Effect
Today the accordion is truly an international phenomenon. There are several manufacturers of fine accordions in the U.S., but their output is small compared to their European counterparts. Large contemporary producers are located in Germany, France, and the U.S.S.R., where the bavan, and accordion with a button keyboard, is frequently played. But by far the most voluminous companies are in Italy. About 75 percent of the instruments built there are exported around the world; one firm, Scandali, a subsidiary of Farfisa, does an especially good business with the Soviet Union. In China the instrument is being built in large numbers there too, with two large manufacturers.
Performance and Recent Composers
With all these improvements, it is no surprise that the parameters of performance have also grown in recent years. Music for piano, celeste, harpsichord, harmonium, and organ may now be played on the free bass accordion without having to alter a note of the score, thanks to the greater freedom allowed for the left hand. And there is a substantial repertoire of works specifically written for accordion by such composers as Tchaikovsky, Berg, Paul Creston, Henry Cowell, Walter Riegger, Alan Hovhaness, Tito Guidotti, Lukas Foss, James Nightingale, William Schimmel, Ole Schmidt, Tjorborn Lundquist, Hugo Hermann, Richard Rodney, Bennett Douglas Ward, Wolfgang Jacobi, Nicolas Tchaikin, and many others. New works are also frequently commissioned by the American Accordionists’ Association, the Accordion Teachers Guild, and other organisations.
Colleges and universities in the U.S. now accept music students majoring in accordion, a fact that reflects the instrument’s unquestioned legitimacy in classical music. It has been seen on the concert platform at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Albert and Festival Halls in England, and has appeared as the featured solo instrument with the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Pops Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London.
The accordion has also made inroads into the field of popular music. The Beatles, Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, the Rolling Stones, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Jimmy Webb, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and a host of other artists have used the accordion on records and onstage, while it has proven itself as ideal for soloing and for blending in well with the clarinet, the saxophone, and the flute in jazz settings too. The jazz world has seen such notable accordionists as Art Van Damme, Mat Matthews, Tommy Gumina, Leon Sash, Ernie Felice, Angelo di Pippo, and Jack Emblow.
Further innovations followed and continue to the present. Various buttonboard and keyboard systems have been developed, as well as voicings (the combination of multiple tones at different octaves), with mechanisms to switch between different voices during performance, and different methods of internal construction to improve tone, stability and durability.