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

Virgil States a "Need"

by Alfred Mayer

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

A few months back, I was listening to the regular CBS Sunday afternoon broadcasts of better music. On this particular afternoon, I was drinking in the strains of a modern American opera entitled Four Saints In Three Acts written by the distinguished composer and critic, Virgil Thomson. As the sounds wafted through the air, I imagined that I had perceived the timbre of an accordion in the midst of the orchestra. I know that often, in an orchestral selection, the reeds will strike a combination of notes (and sometimes in the brass, also) that to my ears sound identical with the sound of the accordion.. This reminds me of Stravinsky's Petroushka, the composer attempts to imitate the sounds and wheezes of our beloved instrument and, for my money the attempt is very unsuccessful. Well, to get back to the track, I didn't want to believe that I heard our instrument in the Four Saints score and attributed the sound to the afore mentioned coincidence. Well, I continued listening and throughout the score I heard similar sounds and seemed quite sure that I heard an accordion. I still wasn't certain, though, because the few meager works wherein the accordion is included in the score are well-reiterated in our circles and no Saints score was ever mentioned. To verify my finding, I wrote a letter to the composer.

Despite the fact that Mr. Thomson is on the staff of a staid, conservative, reactionary newspaper, he impresses me as a very sincere, progressive modern individual; his response to my query strengthens this opinion. Due to the fact that the accordion, in its present form, is of comparatively recent origin, it was never included in scores of the past; today, with the instrument attempting to secure its proper place in the field of the orchestra, most composers conveniently disregard it. They are in the most part ignorant of the capabilities of the instrument and complacently dismiss its importance. Mr. Thomson deserves a commendation for not being a member of this snobbish set. As evidence of this fine healthy, optimistic attitude I quote from Mr. Thomson's letter to me.

"The accordion is a most valuable orchestral instrument. I find it useful in soft passages and incomparable for strong accents. It blends admirably with strings and with the harmonium. The chief inconvenience in writing for it is the scarcity of schooled players who can read rapidly and correctly and who are accustomed to orchestral routine. Let us hope that in a few more years we shall see the instrument used for ensemble writing more currently than it is at the present."

As is evident from these choice remarks, there is nothing appreciably at fault with the instrument; it's the people behind it; the players. As accordionists, this is quite a blow to our ego; if we are to make any progress at all we must realize our shortcomings admit them and conquer them. For too many years, accordionists have been rationalizing their way out of the situation and have contented themselves with mediocrity and poor musicianship; to the uninitiated these failings were always pictured as faults of the instrument. If we want more and more composers to write literature for us I doubt if we can buy them off with greenbacks; rather, I'd prefer to sway them with musicianship and accomplishment. Let's produce a generation of sincere, well-informed, schooled, accomplished musicians and we'll set all musicdom back on its heels. Composers will then be seeking us out! For the coming year, I'd like to hear about and see evidences of teachers and students making concentrated efforts to improve, primarily, the art of sight- reading and transposing. For some advice as to a method, I suggest that you dig out some copies of last year's Accordion World and read an article by me entitled Back To Reading.

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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