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

Should Accordionists Play Bach?

by Bill Palmer (1917-1996)

This article was reprinted in its entirety from the April 1949 issue of Accordion World (New York).

There seems to be a definitely established school of thought to the effect that Accordionists should leave the music of Bach and the other great masters strictly alone.

This is not surprising. I am reminded of the school that insists that Bach's so- called "piano works" should be played only on the clavichord, since they were originally written for that instrument and do not sound as intended when played on the piano. It is fortunate that this idea is not accepted by many, or piano students and artists would be robbed of a vast amount of important literature, and a valuable part of their training.

Certainly it is true that there are many compositions that we had best not attempt. This is largely because of the limitations of the bass keyboard. It certainly does not mean that we must leave ALL of Bach's works alone, even with the standard accordion as it now exists.

The "Toccata in D Minor" has become standard accordion repertoire. It is very well adapted to our instrument, and has been heard on programs of Galla-Rini, Magnante, Matusewitch, and many other outstanding artists. I have used this selection in at least fifty concerts, together with other compositions of Bach. I have never received adverse criticism on any of Bach's works, even from the most serious critics and many of them have expressed surprise at how well these numbers can be adapted to the accordion.

The foremost concert pianists often use transcriptions of Bach's organ works on their programs, in spite of the wealth of great music already at their disposal. Such music is better adapted for the accordion, which is, after all, a member of the organ family. Even the "Fugue in D Minor" that follows the famous "Toccata" is not impossible, and can actually be more accurately transcribed for standard accordion than for piano. I will even be so bold as to say that the accordion can give many of Bach's compositions a touch of expressive fire that the organ cannot equal.

On a recent concert tour Arthur Rubenstein played the well known "Chaconne" from the Sonata No. 6 for unaccompanied violin. I am sure the accordion can approach the tone of the violin as closely as a piano can. This number was very effective as a piano solo, and received the plaudits of critics. It would also make an effective accordion solo, I am sure.

There is a wealth of material here for our use. Not all of it is "heavy" or serious. There are light Rondos, Themes with variations, Gavottes, Bourees, etc.

Bach wrote for every conceivable instrument of his day. He transcribed his own vocal works for organ, has [his] organ works for string quartets, and even made a flute solo out of one of them. I cannot believe that the Old Master himself would have objected to accordion arrangements of some of his works.

At the Milwaukee State Teacher's College in 1947 I played two rather light compositions of Bach. The director of the music department liked these so well that he asked me to repeat them at a class of his music majors, and to comment on the possibilities of the modern piano accordion. He remarked at the time that he would like for me to play these selections at the high schools of the city to "prove to the students," as he expressed it, "that Bach is easy to listen to."

I am tempted to believe that the accordionist who shuns Bach is either not well acquainted with this music or does not appreciate the true possibilities of his instrument.

In my recent article for ACCORDION WORLD, "An Open Letter to Accordion Manufacturers," I stated the need for a more adequate bass keyboard. If we can only add two octaves of usable, continuous range to the left hand, in addition to the present set-up, practically all of Bach's organ works will then be possible. This may mean the addition of more bass buttons, will not necessarily mean the end of the standard 120 bass accordion. It might mean that an accordionist who has learned to play well on the 120 bass would then graduate to a still larger instrument, perhaps with 160 basses. Those who are still content to play oom-pah do not have to do this, of course. In any event the 120 bass accordion, one of the finest foundation instruments in existence, would still provide the foundation for all accordionists.

No, I do not believe that ALL accordionists should attempt to play Bach. The AMBITIOUS student can improve himself a great deal in every respect by studying the works of this musical giant. No man has a right to dampen the enthusiasm of such a student or to stand in the way of the progress of the accordion because of his own lack of ambition or imagination.

Editor's Comment: The free-bass accordion which Dr. Palmer desired had already been invented in Europe (chromatic free-bass system), but had not yet become popular in the United States. Paul Hindemith included a part for free-bass accordion in his Kammermusik No. 1 (1922) as did Alban Berg in his opera Wozzeck (1922).

According to Hohner Music Publishers, the first solo piece written for the accordion with the free-bass left-hand manual was Paganiniana (1952), a virtuosic set of eighteen etudes on a theme by Niccolo Paganini by the German composer Hans Brehme (1904-1957).

Mogens Ellegaard, the "father of the avant-garde accordion movement," discovered the free-bass accordion in 1953. Palmer himself invented a free-bass accordion (quint system) around the same time which was later patented by the Titano Accordion Company. The chromatic system became popular in Europe and Russia while the quint system became popular in America, New Zealand and Italy.

The great Russian bayanist, Vyacheslav Semyonov, recorded Bach's Chaconne, which was reviewed on the pages of The Free-Reed Review. Friedrich Lips has also recorded this work, but at this time, the CD has not yet been reviewed on these pages.

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 his comprehensive American Accordion Musicological Society library.

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