The Accordion

The accordion is a musical instrument patented in 1829 by Cyrillus Damian, a Viennese instrument maker. Demian's instrument bore little resemblance to modern instruments; it only had a left hand keyboard, with the right hand simply operating the bellows. 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 helped spread its fame in 1828 by leaving Berlin and touring with it.

The history of accordion dates back to ancient China and an ancient Chinese instrument known as Cheng. Chinese history books trace back to the very birth of music itself, an event pinpointed in the Book Of Chronicles (Shu-Jing) as occurring during the reign of the legendary “Yellow Emperor”, Huang Di, around the year 3000 B.C. 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, 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. Greeks and Egyptians first used bellows around 1500 B.C to substitute blowing air by the mouth. This allowed stronger air pressure and conserved the musician’s energy.

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.

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 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’accordeon, 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.

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.

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.

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 former U.S.S.R., where the bavan, and accordion with a button keyboard, was 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.