The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

The Accordion in the Orchestra

by Hilding Bergquist
Minneapolis, Minn.

This article was reprinted in its entirety from the October 1948 issue of Accordion World (New York).

Since I stated in my July article that orchestral composers will always be inclined to regard the accordion and concertina as NEVER likely to form part of the force, ALWAYS at work in the instrumentation of the orchestra, I have now thought it appropriate to give some instances of our instruments picturesquely placed therein by composers who have believed that they would give piquancy and relief to certain portions of the score when judiciously introduced there.

The most important composer to do this was Tschaikowsky, who in 1883 composed his Second Orchestral Suite in C (the "Characteristic". OP. 53,) and introduced four accordions in the humorous "Scherzo" movement. The scoring is simple, and it is likely to be understood that the diatonic accordions were used at that time. I don't believe this work has ever been heard in America. It was premiered in 1884 in Russia under M. Erdmansderfer and published by Jurgenson.

Other Russians who have scored for the accordion have been Yuri Shaporin and Prokofieff, while some of Teutonic extraction have been Franz Schreker, Carl Orff, Alban Berg, and the Hungarian Eugene Zador (now in the USA). Even a few Americans have deigned to write for it, like Virgil Thomson, Marc Blitzstein and perhaps some others of the present day. (In a moment I shall refer to a work by Franke Harling over 20 years ago in which our own Charlie Magnante was featured solowise.)

In the foregoing examples (as well as those for the concertina to which I shall shortly refer) there may be some which flatter the statues of the accordion as a musical instrument and others may detract from it. Therefore we should be critically suspicious of the manner in which a composer evaluates it and then writes for it. We certainly can not be please with an accordion part which is negligible in interest and value.

The accordion (concertina and bandoneon) can be said to occupy a similar position in the great family of musical instruments to the violet among the flowers. The stately lily, the sweet violet and the fragrant stock - each has its position in the garden, although it may not always find its place in the bouquet (orchestra).

A work of which I think would have been interesting to have heard (perhaps it could be revived in today's modern dress) was Franke Harling's Jazz Concerto Grosso for Symphony Orchestra (110 men) and jazz band (a dozen men or 50), premiered in New York at the Roxy Theatre on May 14, 1927. In this work the orchestra was in the pit and the jazz band on the stage. What was no doubt the first American instance of an accordionist's association in such company occurred here when Charles Magnante was engaged to execute (as his share in the work) a difficult extended cadenza assigned to him as a member of the jazz band upon the stage by Harling.

"Metronome" Magazine said: "There is a cadenza for an accordion so elaborate that it would offer great difficulties to a solo violinist. It will introduce an entirely new technique for the accordion."

The work was written in free style but contained a fugue written in jazz rhythm. It is provocative to think about this work possibly being revived again!

In connection with the two photos showing Magnante and his great contemporary, Cornell, as members of the Lucky Strike Orchestra of some fifty men, with BA Rolfe conducting, it seems appropriate to give here a short sketch of their orchestral and radio work.

Cornell Smelser (for more of him see my July and November 1947 articles) was born on Aug. 7, 1902, in Budapest, Hungary, and came to the US in 1920. He was originally a pianist and later became fascinated by the accordion. He seems not to have entered radio and recording work as an accordionist with orchestras until the last part of 1929 and continued as one of the favorite accordionists over the New York air waves until around the middle of 1931, when, unfortunately, destiny appeared in the form of severe illness which was to prevent him from returning to his musical work. Besides his beautiful musicianship, he had also been a brilliant scientific scholar, which possibly accounts in part for the peculiarly ravishing, bold, solid strangely liquid quality of tone inherent in the reeds of his accordion, which was, no doubt, under his minute supervision when made.

If readers will closely observe his accordion in a photo, they will se upon it the first and last letters of his name, directly behind the microphone. Cornell's appearance on the accordion horizon was the appearance of a rare genius, and although his fate was to shine like a star for only a short period, he has already attained immortality in the minds and hearts of those who loved the way he played the accordion.

The perennial Charlie Magnante (who goes on and on and on in radio like the proverbial stream) was born on December 7, 1905 in New York City. (Where else!) His admirable career has closely followed the 'temptations' radio since 1923 and has since then ventured but occasionally (into concerts and other appearances) from its sacrosanct and chilly chambers.

In the "Golden Years" of 1930 and 1931 Magnante's high total of radio shows per week numbered 31 and Cornell told me he did as many as 37! Thus we see that both these miraculous orchestra accordionists were dispatching upwards of 70 weekly radio programs together, so that seemingly no matter what time of day or night the radio was listened to, you were sure to hear one or the other!

After this digression now let us turn our attention to a brief survey of the concertina in orchestral history.

It is interesting to note the recorded soliloquizing as follows one of the most eminent English composers and pupil of Mozart, Thomas Attwood, when he went to hear a miscellaneous concert at the old Haymarket Opera House in London over some 110 years ago, and at which the youth, Giulio Regondi (for more of him see my July and September 1947, April 1948 articles; by the way, both photos in the April 1948 article are of him - the top one showing him as a youth) was to play solo, a movement possibly from some violin concerto, several of which he was wanting to play at that early time. (The concertina was a new instrument then, too, having been invented by Charles Wheatstone shortly before in the late 1820's as a revolutionary improvement on the primitive accordion invented a few years earlier on the Continent.)

Although Regondi had then already fully developed its possibilities, this occasion was the first time Attwood had heard it. After Regondi started to play a few bars, Attwood remarked to his friend John Hullah, "This is exquisite!" After a few more bars, "What can you want with two clarinets when you can have this?" And still later and evidently in astonishment, "This will revolutionize the orchestra!"

As captivated as Attwood was with the concertina he surely would have scored for it had he not died shortly after in 1838. He had been one of the founders of the Philharmonic Society in 1813. Other very early instances of the concertina's introduction into orchestras in London was when Bochsa, the famous composer and harpist, engaged George Case, a contemporary and colleague of Regondi, for the ballet music at Her Majesty's Theatre. George Case also played much at the Promenade Concerts of the time, and in the band of the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden, and the Theatre Royal. Later on the concertina was played for years in the bands of the Court and Criterion Theatres by Roe, who also went to Philadelphia to play in connection with Godfrey's military band on the occasion of its visit there.

Richard Blagrove, another colleague of Regondi, on an occasion at the Queen's Concert Rooms, Hanover Square, played with his eminent brother Henry, first violinist of the Philharmonic, a duo for concertina and violin with Orchestra, composed by Henry and conducted by Molique. Richard Blagrove is also stated to have played at the Saturday Concerts at the Crystal Palace with orchestra, August Manns conducting.

The concertina was also favorably employed as obligato at the Leslie Choir Concerts, both at the Trocadero at the Paris Exhibition in 1878, and at St. Jame's Hall in London.

Coming nearer our own day, the English composer, Josef Holbrooke has remained the foremost to score for the concertina, probably his first work being the dramatic "The Bells", premiered in 1906 under Hans Richter, the concertina part played, I believe, by the prominent lady virtuoso, Christine Hawkes, who also gave concerts at Steinway Hall and such hallowed places. (Holbrooke was originally wished to employ some 20 concertinas for this work!) In the prelude to his opera, 'Dylan', premiered in 1909 at Queen's Hall under Sir Thomas Beecham, two concertinas are used, and also in 1909 he used three concertinas (two treble and one baritone) in his "Pierrot an Pierrette" under his direction. Another English composer, Perey Grainger, in one version of a folk-music setting of his "Shepherd's Hay" for some 12 instruments, includes a concertina. This version was also given in December, 1913 in New York under Frank Damrosch.

I hope that this brief survey of the orchestral role of our instruments to date will be of some interest to those readers who cherish the hope of seeing them "utilized much more frequently and advantageously in the future standard orchestral works of composers, and also in modern dance orchestras as well as jazz organizations.

My series of historical reference articles which began with the July, 1947 issue will continue indefinitely and readers may find them desirable for educational purposes.

From: Allan Atlas
Date: Sun, 18 Apr 2004

This article by Bergquist is FULL of inaccuracies.

THE BASIC PROBLEM: THE CONCERTINA WAS NOT USED IN THE ORCHESTRA. . . . .those references to Richard Blagrove and George Case do not mean that they played the concertina in the orchestra. . . . . . . .Blagrove was a top-notch viola player. . . . . .Case was a violinist. . . . . .those are the instruments that THEY played in the orchestra................... .etc etc etc........

Allan Atlas, director and founder
The Center for the Study of Free-Reed Instruments
Graduate Center
City University of New York

The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. staff gratefully acknowledges volunteer Benjamin Lang who assisted in the production of this article, as well as Stanley Darrow and the comprehensive American Accordion Musicological Society library.

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