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

What's Right With Our Instrument

by Bill Palmer (1917-1996)

This article was reprinted in its entirety from the February 1947 issue of Accordion World (New York).

"What a pity that such talent is wasted on an accordion!" "What a pity the accordion has no worthwhile musical literature!"

Don't remarks like these just make you BOIL OVER? Such things were often heard a few years ago, but they are becoming rare, thanks to the rapid rise of the accordion in popularity with the public and their growing place in the esteem of the best musicians everywhere. Our instrument is on the verge of becoming at last a truly recognized member of the great family of accredited musical instruments of orchestras, conservatories, colleges, and schools all over the world. It is now the responsibility of every accordionist to get behind our favorite instrument and give it as great a boost as possible in the last important steps necessary for full recognition.

All of our best arguments must be mustered, and we must personally endeavor to set the best of examples in our own teaching and playing to show the true values of the accordion to the world of music.

We need never apologize to any one for the few limitations of the accordion. I'm proud to call myself an accordionist, because I am proud of the instrument I've chosen! The fact that our instrument is a newcomer to the world of serious music offers us a challenge to be real pioneers in providing for it a needed library of solos, concertos, etc., probing the secrets of new techniques, and demanding improvements in the construction of the instrument. We are the people who must guarantee that its development be as rapid as possible, and who must see to it that it is properly and quickly recognized by the best of musicians as an instrument worthy the best of music.

Never be discouraged by the hesitancy of some few to accept the accordion. Our progress has been amazingly rapid.

We often envy the place attained by the violin as the prima-donna of the Symphony Orchestra. We needn't. We are NEW, and our progress is streamlined when we compare it with the slow evolution of that instrument, which required centuries for development and recognition.

Starting as a peculiar looking bowed instrument known as the "rebec" (popular in the thirteenth century), it was not even full recognized in the days of its greatest makers, Amati, Stradivarius, and Guarneri, some five hundred years later. Montiverdi first introduced the violin into the orchestra in 1624, and then he gave it a very secondary part. He gave far more important parts to three PORTABLE ORGANS. It is my guess that he would have gladly parted with all three in exchange for an instrument of the range and tone of a multi-shift accordion of our day. That range is something to brag about. Did you every stop to consider that the range of a modern accordion, in the treble keyboard alone, extends from the lowest pitch possible with a bass clarinet to well above the highest range of the flute?

Organists marvel at the music that J. S. Bach composed for the inferior organs of his day, yet he laid the very foundations of modern organ composition in a time when good organ literature must have been more scarce than good accordion compositions are now.

No instrument in all history has evolved as rapidly as the accordion has in the past forty years. It has been like a child growing rapidly to full maturity. Once it was a glorified harmonica. Now it is a small orchestra within itself, with advantages possessed by no other single orchestra instrument.

We must recognize our limitations, of course. All instruments have these. Perhaps a violin can do things that an accordion cannot, but on the other hand the accordion can produce effects that would require half a dozen instruments of the violin family. WE pity the poor violinist, who must always play with other instruments to produce satisfying music.

A certain class of "long haired Musicians" objects to the fact that we must use a tempered keyboard. "Why, certainly, we can never use your instrument in a Symphony," one of these characters said to me "until you have some means of playing all tones with accurate pitch. F sharp and G flat, you know, are actually different in pitch. It is possible for the violin to play them accurately, but not an accordion, which has only one black key tuned so as to produce a sound that is between the two."

He's right in one respect. He knows that we do like Bach's "well tempered clavichord," and that we are using it for our treble keyboard. But how many other instruments now in use in the Symphonies suffer the same limitation?

When the flute was first adopted as an orchestral highbrow, and even as late as the nineteenth century, it was impossible to even play a C major scale on that instrument in tune, let along differentiate between F sharp and G flat. Rossini remarked that "the only thing worse than one flute is two flutes."

The piano, harp, and organ, as well as scores of wind instruments have suffered very little from lack of recognition, and they all have limitations resulting from temperament.

What are our limitations? What are our possibilities? Our disadvantages? Our advantages? Let us familiarize ourselves with them all, so that we can present convincing arguments to those who want to argue the issue with us.

Can an organ get the speed, the response, the sudden accents, the delicate shading that we can? Can a piano sustain tones, make a melody sing and breathe with life?

This article could run on to book-length if we were to take up each instrument separately. It is not our purpose to show what is wrong with any instrument, but rather to call attention to what's RIGHT with the accordion.

The point of the story is this: Let us stop being sorry that our history had a late beginning, and let us be proud that all of us have an important part in building worthy traditions for the piano-accordion, not an instrument of yesterday, but THE instrument of today with great days coming.

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

To see the article by Faithe Deffner titled, In Memory of Dr. Willard "Bill" Palmer, Click Here.

Invitation to Contributors / Submission Guidelines
Back to The Free-Reed Journal Contents Page
Back to The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. Home Page