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Accordion History

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Accordion History 2017-01-15T20:12:51+00:00

The accordion (the Italian name “fisarmonica” is derived from the German word “Physharmonikaz,” a compound name coming from the Greek word “Physa” – bellows – and “Harmonikos” – harmonic) is a musical instrument operated by air pressure, belonging to the family of the aerophones. It consists of three different parts: the right hand keyboard for the melody, the bellows, and the left hand keyboard (or buttons) for the accompaniment.

The accordion’s sound is produced by the reed, a small metal plate on which a thin steel strip is mounted that oscillates with the movement of the air produced by the compression of the bellows. The following three models are the most popular accordion types: on the “diatonic” model, the sound produced when the bellows are opened is different to that produced when they are closed; the “chromatic” model allows the complete range of twelve sounds to be played (this model also has “buttons” on the right hand keyboard); the “piano” accordion has a right hand keyboard that is very similar to a piano keyboard, with black and white keys.

The accordion, an instrument very close to the heart of generations of Italians, is a masterpiece of fine mechanics (the more familiar keyboard of a typewriter is nothing compared to the mechanism which works the bass and chord valves) and of fluid dynamics. The airtightness of the bellows and of the valves that open and close the access of air into the reeds, consists of some hundreds of pieces built from a variety of materials, such as fir, maple, mahogany and walnut wood; metals such as steel, hard aluminum and brass; precious cashmere, felt and cloth, as well as lamb’s hide, kid and leather; celluloid, rubber and virgin wax.

The accordion is a free reed instrument and is in the same family as other instruments such as the sheng (pictured right) and khaen. The sheng and khaen are both much older than the accordion and this type of reed did inspire the kind of free reeds in use in the accordion as we know it today.

The accordion is one of several European inventions of the early 19th century that used free reeds driven by a bellows. An instrument called accordion was first patented in 1829 by Cyrill Demian, of Armenian origin, in Vienna.

Demian’s instrument bore little resemblance to modern instruments. ROMANTIQUE4It only had a left hand buttonboard, with the right hand simply operating the bellows. One key feature for which Demian sought the patent was the sounding of an entire chord by depressing one key. His instrument also could sound two different chords with the same key; one for each bellows direction (a bisonoric action).  At that time in Vienna, mouth harmonicas with Kanzellen (chambers) had already been available for many years, along with bigger instruments driven by hand bellows. The diatonic key arrangement was also already in use on mouth-blown instruments. Demian’s patent thus covered an accompanying instrument: an accordion played with the left hand, opposite to the way that contemporary chromatic hand harmonicas were played, small and light enough for travelers to take with them and used to accompany singing. The patent also described instruments with both bass and treble sections, although Demian preferred the bass-only instrument owing to its cost and weight advantages.

After Demian’s invention, other accordions appeared, some featuring only the righthanded keyboard for playing melodies. It took English inventor Charles Wheatstone to squeeze both chords and keyboard together in one squeezebox. His 1844 patent for what he called a “concertina” also featured the ability to easily tune the reeds from the outside with a simple tool.

In Italy the accordion appeared for the first time in 1863. A pilgrim passing through the territory of Castelfidardo on his pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the “Black Madonna” of Loreto, stopped by chance in Antonio Soprani’s farmhouse.

He was carrying a rudimentary music box with him; The Accordion, a queer object arousing the curiosity of Paolo Soprani, Antonio’s eldest son. Young Paolo opened the instrument, disassembled it and immediately perceived the possibility to build other similar items. The accordion was given to him as a present, and the ex-farmer soon successfully opened a small handicraft laboratory and sold the aesthetically and musically improved product mainly in nearby Loreto, the destination of a continuous, considerable flow of pilgrims.

The intuitive Signor Soprani, however, managed to revolutionize life in the Marche region, creating a new industry which in a short period of time succeeded in transforming the local economy from one based on agriculture, to an industrial one open to the international market.  A decisive role in the development of Soprani’s new family business was played by the nearby town of Loreto, a religious, cultural and commercial centre, packed with visitors from far and wide. It may well have been in Loreto that Soprani bought the first Austrian or French accordion, and certainly the energetic nature of the town enabled him to promote and popularize the accordion. Thanks to excellent sales figures and the fact that orders were coming in from all over Italy, Soprani’s brother Settimio, who until then had worked with his brother, decided to set up business alone and in 1872 opened his own workshop imitating Cesare Pancotti who in 1865 had started one of his own in Macerata.  Thirteen years later, in 1876, at Stradella near Pavia, Mariano Dallape, born at Cavedine del Trentino, also started to produce considerable quantities of accordions, made in view of the curiosity aroused by Demian’s Accordion in Tirol.  In a brief space of time, Dallape managed to improve the piano-accordion invented by Monsieur Buton in 1852. 

Soprani and Dallape did not know each other and never met, but they both had the same intuition as far as the development of the musical instrument is concerned; first improving the Viennese patent, succeeded in making the instrument known in all areas of the country; the second paved the way for the modern accordion by applying basic innovations.  During these years, both in Marche and the nearby region of Abruzzo, various workshops began to spring up, such as those of Sante Crucianelli in 1888, Giuseppe Janni from Giulianova in 1882, Pasquale Ficosecco from Loreto in 1889, Giovanni Chiusaroli from Recanati and Raffaele Pistelli from Teramo in 1886.

There was an extraordinary growth of new laboratories during the last decade of the 19th century, Luigi and Georgio Savoia started their activity at San Giovanni in Croce (CR), Guiseppe de Bernardi at Diano Marina (IM), Guiseppe Janni at Guilianova (TE), Pasquale Ficosecco at Castelfidardo, Antonio Ranco at Vercelli, Ercole Maga at Stradella, Fidele Socin at Bolzano, and the Scandalli brothers at Camerano (AN). The popularity of the accordion started to arouse the interest also in great musicians who started to write interesting musical pieces for this instrument. In 1883, Petr Ific Ciaikovski introduced a piece for accordion in his “Suite No. 2 in C Major.” In 1898, Umberto Giodano used the accordion during the third act of his “Fedora,” -Alban Berg in the first act of his ‘Wozzele’ and, more recently, there has been Darius Milhaud and Dmiri Sostakovic.

During the first years of the twentieth century the accordion started to become better known all over the world. In France, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Russia, and in the Americas it was already known among the middle classes, but the middle-lower classes also started to appreciate it thanks to the Italian emigrants. As a matter of fact, the latter have been the real propagators of the accordion; very often those emigrants trying to find a job, especially in the Americas, brought the accordion with them, to make them feet nearer to their homes, to their families and to their far away native country when listening to its music.  During this time the majority of production was absorbed by the Italian market, as the official data explains that in 1907 only 690 accordion were exported. However, by 1913 the export figures had risen to 14365! Impressive data such as this can be explained by the important role played by the emigration of talented local artisans, workers and musicians who promoted their craft in accordion making within their adopted countries. They were aided in this by the high quality of the accordion made in Italy, which outclassed competition from France, Germany, Russia and Czechoslovakia.

Between 1899 and 1905, pioneers such as Americo Magliani, Enrico Guerrini, Pasquale Piatanesi, Francesco Serenelli, Adriano Picchietti, Paolo Guerrini and others managed to ‘conquer’ the overseas market such as those of the United States, Canada and South America. Enrico Guerrini and Colombo Piatanesi in San Francisco, and Egisto Pancotti in New York started overseas production units from the humble beginnings of workshops which originally only specialized in repairing accordion.

After the invention of celluloid in the United States of America and with the use of mother-of-pearl, the aesthetics of the instrument changed.  The accordion suddenly became a canvas for artisans to paint, making beautiful masterpieces that parallel fine, intricate artworks.

The disastrous conflict of the Second World War (1939-1945) had a devastating effect on the accordion sector. Production went down from 51000 units in 1938, to 10077 in 1941, to a mere 500 in 1944. The armistice which marked the end of the war gave the Italian people new hope and a new enthusiasm for life. In Castelfidardo alone, between 1946 and 1948 nineteen new companies were founded for the production of accordion. Exports increased from 57523 units in 1947 to 192058 in 1953, heralding a boom period for the instrument. This small town in Marche, with a population of just 9000, gave employment to over 10000 workers in the musical instrument sector alone. These workers came mainly from the neighbouring towns of Loreto, Osimo and Recanati.

This was also a time of great mergers. The historic company of Settimio Soprani merged with the F.lli Scandalli from Camerano to create the colossal firm of Farfisa, the company Excelsior in New York opened a production line in Castelfidardo and new entrepreneurs, whose products are mainly sold in the United States, gave their companies names from the great Hollywood studios and cinema chains, such as Paramount Accordions, Universal Accordions, United Artists, Metropolitan, MGM, Iris, Minerva and Astra. A street in Castelfidardo, today called Marconi Street, was then called Dollar Street, due to the fact that most of the company directors of the time built their villas there.

Another crisis, however, was looming on the horizon. This time it was not connected to economic or war factors. Musical tastes changed forever during the 1960s. A more rhythmic style of music began to replace the older melodic style. Elvis Presley followed by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones become the new idols for the modern youth. Several entrepreneurs of the Marche region managed, during these years, to adapt their factories to the production of modern, more fashionable musical instruments such as electric guitars and keyboards. Unfortunately a large number of small family run businesses took the brunt of the crisis. Between 1960 and 1963 seventeen closures took place. It was therefore inevitable that attempts had to be made to incorporate new technology to the accordion. In 1962, a Farfisa technical team led by Gianfelice Fugazza, with the collaboration of the accordion virtuoso Gervasio Marcosignori put the first transistors into the accordion. The outcome was the “Cordovox”, an instrument with plenty of potential, not out of place with the modern music of the day. But to promote the accordion as a modern musical instrument, the industry would have needed a different strategy. A list of factors impeded the accordion becoming a fashionable instrument; in those years, the entrepreneurs were often divided over how best to promote the accordion, inspirational accordion players never became role models as the artists were often more interested in demonstrating the instrument than being concerned with musical integrity. Furthermore very little attention was paid to the arrival of the television as an important vehicle to promote the instrument, while music schools were still anchored to old teaching methods.

Today there is a renewed enthusiasm for the accordion, with increased attention to higher quality instruments rather than the emphasis being on mass production. The study of the instrument has been included in musical conservatories, while several workshops have started the skillful production of Bajan style accordions. Furthermore there has been an emphasis on the attention to musical literature, while the idea that the accordion is exclusively a solo instrument is gradually changing, thanks to influential artists such as Richard Galliano and Marc Perrone in France, Gianni Coscia in Italy, and Frank Marocco in the USA

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.  These companies will only have a future if they can correctly interpret market demands, as Paolo Soprani did in 1863.


Source:  Beniamino Bugiolacchi  Director, International Museum of Accordion Castelfidardo:  International Town Museum Of Accordions – Castelfidardo, Italy & Wikipedia