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

A Symphonic Seat For the Accordion

by Hilding Bergquist

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

On the part of many accordion enthusiasts there is some wishful thinking and dreaming that some day the accordion will occupy a "regular chair" in a standard symphony orchestra. In spite of the fact that Berlioz, the "father of the orchestra" many years ago regarded the concertina with enough favor to include a treatise on it in his "Art of Instrumentation" (and as he probably would have done also with today's accordion) and in spite of the fact that both these instruments have had not a few excellent performers, the fact still remains they have not made any inroads into the ranks of symphonies as yet (excerpting on certain occasions) nor perhaps are they ever likely to. And the fault is not necessarily that the composers who are often accused and complained about because they will not write for -- or do not know how to write for them. This is irrelevant. And even if orchestral composers continue to score occasionally for particular accordion "effects".

As they have done in the past the accordionist's position will NOT be that of "a regular", unless one is willing to term the instrument and thus classified in the same category as the harp, organ, etc., when used in conjunction with the orchestra. The instrumentation of the 'standard' symphony orchestra has remained "fixed" for a long, long time, and it is primarily for this reason that the accordion is never likely to form part of the force always at work in such an aggregation. (And have we all not seen the same situation in modern dance orchestras?) In the performance of concertos with orchestra, however, the accordion is on the same plane as the piano.

But we need not despair. Perhaps a more satisfactory substitute shall we say, can be had in the formation of more and more symphonic orchestras "of our own" consisting of accordions, concertinas, and bandoneons.

Perhaps these instruments can even be used in conjunction with one another, as the tone of each is distinctly different. And also, in this media, we can see a vast field of opportunity for a discerning virtuoso-composer-accordionist to create entirely original works, rather than adapting those from the standard orchestral repertoire. In this way such a composer could give the works performed by the standard symphony orchestra a run for their money!

Original relative works for such a media may be a comparatively new idea in itself, although the formation of such accordion orchestras is not new. Concertina orchestras for instance (I use the words accordion, concertina, bandoneon interchangeably) date back several decades in England, Russia, and Germany, and the late Russian concertina virtuoso Raphael, considered as his prime achievement the formation, in 1912, of a 45-piece concertina orchestra. And as recent as only some ten years ago in Germany, there flourished 45 entire bandoneon orchestras in Berlin alone! (Not to mention the accordion and concertina orchestras.)

Over twenty years ago in Russia, native instruments were being perfected in a special laboratory of the State Institute for Musical Science. The first instrument to be subjected to such investigation -- and thus dignified -- was the accordion -- the most popular instrument known to the workers and peasants. A standard type of accordion, allowing for the execution of complicated musical works of the masters, without any adaptation, was thus created. The Soviet accordion sections attached to music polytechnicums and the schools have helped too with the general standard among musical circles. And the work among Russian accordionists at this time culminated in the organization of a series of accordion orchestras, actually coping with such works as Beethoven's Third Symphony, his Egmont, and Grieg Suites. Some years ago, just before the war, it has been stated, an attempt was made to bring one of these Russian accordion symphony orchestras over here to the U.S., but it never materialized. This aggregation of accordionists was said to play everything from Bach to Shostakovitch. (Incidentally I remember with great pleasure the brilliant accordion art displayed in the Russian musical film "They met in Moscow." One of the leading actors in this film portrayed an accordionist.)

Probably the two leading accordion orchestras in Germany today are those conducted by Rudolph Wurthner and Alan Helm. (Bandoneon orchestras have been in abundance, and two well-known bandoneon virtuosi are Walter Porschmann and Arthur Meriowsky.) Some 10 years ago, when visiting England, Alan Helm's accordion orchestra recorded in London an original work composed by G. S. Mathis, entitled "Spring", Symphonic Impression (Tone Poem), Part 1 and 2, on "His Master's Voice" (H.M.V.) 664. The work is described as follows (it was published by Hohner in London.) :

"Written in the modern harmonic idiom, akin in parts to the music of Debussy and Stravinsky, it is the first attempt to provide the accordion with that type of serious symphonic music which, until now has been the prerogative of the (standard) symphony orchestra. One truly becomes lost for words at the graceful playing, and the accordion tone seems to become almost perfect woodwinds and strings."

While in London, this orchestra also performed a monumental composition by the Swedish organist-composer Diderick Buxtehude, a fore-runner and inspiration of Bach, but it was not recorded.

A few such accordion orchestras have also existed here in the U.S. in various parts of the country during the last twenty years or so, but only very recently have they begun to achieve a more meritorious recognition and prominence. (Perhaps all-accordion modern dance orchestras could also be formed.)

The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. staff gratefully acknowledges volunteer Brian O'Boyle 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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