The Classical Free-Reed, Inc.
A Short History of the Free-Reed Instruments in Classical Music

The Classical Accordion, part 1

by Henry Doktorski
copyright 1998

Because of the unfavorable reputation of the accordion, classical composers — with few exceptions — very infrequently used the instrument in their compositions, and then usually only for exaggerated effect.

One noteworthy exception was the first concert piece written for the accordion, which was composed in 1836 by Miss Louise Reisner. As the daughter of one of the first French accordion makers, she presented recitals of contemporary romantic music that included a piece of her own composition, a theme with variations in virtuoso style, at well-known Parisian concert halls such as the Hotel de Ville and the Conservatoire. Her piece was titled: Theme varie tres brillant pour accordion methode Reisner and was dedicated to the amateur players of this instrument.

Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) included four optional accordions in his Orchestral Suite No. 2 in C Major, op. 53 (1883), simply to add a little color to the third movement: Scherzo burlesque. The accordions play only two different chords in the entire forty-minute piece, for a total time of forty seconds. Obviously the composer used the instruments to imitate the flavor of a burlesque — a low-class comedy show.

Example 2. Tchaikovsky, Orchestral Suite No. 2 in C Major, op. 53, the part for four accordions (in its entirety) from the third movement.
Published by P.I. Jurgenson in 1884.

The Italian composer, Umberto Giordano (1867-1948), used the accordion in his opera Fedora (1898). The instrument appears three times in the third act (which is set in Switzerland), to accompany a short and simple song which is sung off-stage by a little Savoyard (Alpine shepherd). The accordion part (marked fisarmonica in the score) consists of two sustained chords (dominant ninth and tonic) and plays for a total of twenty-seven measures.

In 1921 Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) included the harmonium in Kammermusik No.1, a chamber work in four movements for twelve players, but later rewrote the part for accordion. I played this piece in 1995 with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and was delighted that, unlike Tchaikovsky and Giordano, Hindemith used the instrument to contribute significant musical substance throughout the entire work, with the exception of the third pastoral movement. What is the character of this work and why did Hindemith include the accordion in the orchestration?

Calum MacDonald wrote, "This cheerful, irreverent suite manifests clear reference to Hindemith's early experience performing in dance bands and musical comedy orchestras in and around Frankfurt. Strong rhythms, sparkling instrumentation, and incorrigible impudence are the work's distinguishing features. Its first three movements are a boisterously dissonant prelude, a frivolous march, and a pastoral 'quartet' for the three woodwind instruments and a single note on a glockenspiel. The finale . . . unleashes the whole ensemble in an obstreperous display of anarchic humor. The climax comes with the quotation, by the trumpet, of a contemporary foxtrot in G major, accompanied by scales in all the other eleven major keys, and the end is a manic stretto worthy of any great comedy of the silent screen."

The author Max Rieple attended a performance of Hindemith's Kammermusik No. 1 in Munich in 1923 and wrote: "A few weeks earlier I had been involved in a concert by the American George Antheil . . . and witnessed a bombardment of tomatoes, eggs, and even stinkbombs. I prepared myself for something similar on Hindemith's first appearance in Bavaria's conservative capitol. And I was right. Scarcely had the last measures of the fox-trot imbedded in the piece subsided than the hall turned into chaos. Whistles blew, boos resounded, chairs flew through the air — a hellish noise filled the large room. Hindemith, in the meantime, had disappeared backstage with the other musicians. As the spectacle reached its height, he reappeared — thoroughly calm — seated himself at the percussion . . . beat with all his might on the drums, and let the slide whistle howl. The honest Munchener were so taken aback by this unexpected behaviour that Hindemith was the victor in an unequal battle."

In 1922 the German composer, Alban Berg (1885-1935), included a short on-stage accordion part in his opera Wozzeck. The instrument appears only once: during the tavern scene, to lend a touch of authenticity to the saloon setting.

Another German composer, Kurt Weill (1900-1950) included the bandoneon and harmonium in several works; the best known being The Three Penny Opera (1928), a witty, spiky and sometimes moving music, which borrowed from the music hall and the world of jazz.

The accordion and harmonium were included in the opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1928) by the American composer, Virgil Thomson (1896-1989), with libretto by Gertrude Stein. Paul Wittke, a Thomson biographer, wrote, "The music is a potpourri of tempo changes and sounds — a Baptist choir and its accompanying harmonium, waltzes, patter songs, tangos, foxtrots, sentimental parlor songs, folk dances, street music, ragtime, marches — the sonic life of 19th-century mid-western America." Thomson also included an accordion in Acadian Airs and Dances from Louisiana Story (1948), which is based on Cajun folk music.

In 1929 Dmitri Shostakovitch (1906-1975) completed his first ballet, Zolotoy Vyek, op. 22 (The Golden Age), and included a harmonium in the fourth movement (Dance) to imitate the sound of an out-of-tune organ grinder.

In 1936 Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, op. 74. Harlow Robinson, a Prokofiev biographer, wrote, "In ten parts, the cantata was conceived on a scale as enormous as Russia and as ambitious as Communism. It required 'no less than' 500 singers and instrumentalists. The huge dimensions were dictated at least in part by Stalin's fondness for the grandiose and monumental. . . . Scored for two mixed choruses (one professional and one amateur) and four orchestras (symphonic, brass, percussion and bayan — a Russian-style concertina often used in folk music), the cantata uses texts by the saints of Soviet Communist ideology — Marx and Engels, Lenin and Stalin."

Robinson continued, "The longest and most important of the ten sections, which include several orchestral interludes, is 'Revolution.' Here, Prokofiev employs all his choral and orchestral resources in painting a wild cinematic picture of combat, complete with percussion gunfire, joyful folk dances on the bayan, clanging alarm bells and screaming sirens. . . . The powers-that-be, who controlled publication and performance, wanted to have nothing to do with the cantata. . . . It was shelved, remaining unpublished and, until 1966, unperformed."

Also in 1936 the German composer, Paul Dessau (1894-1979), wrote Mother Courage, which included accordion, piano, harmonium, two flutes, trumpet and percussion. He wrote two other works which used the accordion: the opera Die Verurteilung von Lucullus ( The Condemnation of Lucullus) (1949) and Five Dance Pieces (1951) for mandolin, guitar and accordion.

In 1937 the American composer, Marc Blitzstein (1903-1964), completed his play in music The Cradle Will Rock and used the accordion: 1) to imitate the sound of an organ in a scene which took place in a mission, 2) to imitate street sound and folk sound, and 3) as a filler-in harmonically with widely spaced chords.

In 1939 the French composer, Jean Francais (b. 1912), used the accordion in his powerful work, Apocalypse According to St. John. The French accordionist, Pascal Contet, wrote, "I must say that the instrument was relegated to the very end of the orchestre infernal, the utmost ordeal for an accordionist."

In 1946 the French composer, Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) — while in residence at Mills College near San Francisco — wrote Prelude et Postlude pour "Lidoire" for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, accordion, harp and contrabass. In 1949 the Canadian-born composer, Henry Brant (b. 1913), wrote All Soul's Carnival — an instrumental cantata — for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, accordion, and percussion. The piece is characterized by satiric and comedic ingredients, echoes of the circus, the dance hall, and of street music, insincere nostalgias, and more or less glossed-over horseplay.

In 1951 the American composer and criminologist, George Antheil (1900-1959) — of Ballet mecanique fame — wrote Accordion Dance for accordion and orchestra. In 1960 the Argentinean composer (who has lived in Cologne Germany since 1957), Mauricio Kagel (b. 1931), wrote Pandorasbox, a piece for bandoneon, piano, swinging piano stool and laughing. The bandoneonist is required to wear pajamas on stage.

In 1976 the American Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, David Del Tredici (b. 1937), wrote the one act opera Final Alice for amplified soprano, orchestra, and a folk group (two saxophones, mandolin, banjo and accordion) with text drawn from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Elliot Schwartz and Daniel Godfrey wrote about this piece in Music Since 1945, "Both Carroll's writing and Del Tredici's music draw life from the tension between simple, childlike innocence and the freakish world of dream and imagination. . . . Ebullience and boisterous humor is typical of the entire hour-long work, which fluctuates continually between unadorned diatonic harmony and tonal chaos as chord sequences start out simply and then blur, collide, or unravel, either gradually or unexpectedly — all in keeping with the sometimes charming, sometimes frightening, sometimes outrageous character of Carroll's words and pictures."

In 1977 La Testa d'Adriane, a theater piece for soprano and accordion, was written by the Canadian composer, R. Murray Schafer (b. 1933). I was present for a performance of the work in Toronto by Mary Lou Fallis and Joseph Macerollo. The piece is a circus sideshow. The accordionist, dressed in a tattered tuxedo and top hat, plays the part of a barker at a fair advertising a strange spectacle: the bodyless head of a woman. After attracting a crowd with his talking and playing, he dramatically pulls back a curtain revealing a woman's severed head resting on a table-top. (The illusion is achieved by means of a famous magician's trick: the singer's body is hidden inside a crate which is made invisible by the clever use of mirrors.)

The accordionist narrates, "She is not dead, she sleeps only. A tragic story: a young girl, confused, disappointed in love. . . . She killed herself. . . . But at the instant of death . . . she was saved . . . her head was saved, and preserved by a secret science. Nothing stirs her . . . but she can be awakened. . . . Music . . . music touches her distant soul and draws it back to the living world."

The accordionist serenades the girl and she wakes up and begins to sing; not words but vocalizations: "t k t k t k t k t k t k," "ch k ch k," "tg tg," she stutters while the accordionist accompanies her by rapidly clicking the keys silently and flicking the register switches.

Example 3. R. Murray Schafer, La Testa d'Adriane for soprano and accordion, page 11.
© 1980. Used by permission of Arcana Editions.

In 1995 the conductor-composer, Lorin Maazel (b. 1930) — who presently resides in Monaco — wrote Music for Violoncello and Orchestra which was premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with Mstislav Rostropovich as soloist. I had the pleasure of playing the "short but important" accordion part. Maestro Maazel, following in the footsteps of Tchaikovsky, Berg and Francais, used the instrument sparingly: only in three places. The accordion part consisted of approximately eighteen pages of tacet and two pages of music. My reward, however, was at the conclusion of the piece: a delightful accordion-cello duet with Mr. Rostropovich. The accordion theme: an organ-grinder-like waltz tune recalled from a forgotten past.

In 1996 Kagel wrote Orchestrion-Straat which I performed with the Tanglewood Festival Chamber Orchestra. The piece is dedicated to den Strassenmusikern. Steven Ledbetter wrote in the concert program notes, "Kagel's most recent work (completed in Cologne on January 19, 1996) is a tribute to the street musician, with an energetic, colorful, witty, lively series of figures suggesting the colorful bustle and the wide range of styles and approaches that one might hear in a major city. The most unusual instrument of the chamber orchestra is the accordion, an instrument long popular with street musicians; but the rest of the ensemble, too, could be musicians who make their living by passing the hat after they have entered the transient audience for a while."

Ledbetter continued, "And so, at the end of Orchestrion-Straat, the two percussionists take up the last instruments they have to play in the piece — a pair of collection boxes with a few coins in them. These they shake rhythmically as part of the end of the piece — before moving into the audience for your contributions. (The score's instructions read at this point: The coins gathered should be used to make a street musician happy — or several, if there is enough money.)"

In the preceding examples, the majority of composers used the accordion for comic or entertaining effect — like a buffoon (or at the very best, as a symbol for the common peasant or working-class people) — to evoke images of a burlesque farce (Tchaikovsky), an Alpine folk-scene (Giordano), a boisterous and frivolous dance band (Hindemith), a tavern (Berg), a music show (Weill), waltzes, tangos, foxtrots, and Cajun folk dances (Thomson), an out-of-tune organ grinder (Shostakovich), Russian folk dances (Prokofiev), an orchestre infernal (Francais), circus music, street music and glossed-over horseplay (Brant), a freakish world of dream and imagination (Del Tredici), a circus sideshow (Murray), an organ-grinder-like waltz (Maazel), and a street musician (Kagel).

At this point, you might wonder: why does the accordion have such a comical and proletarian reputation? Some claim that the reason the accordion is not often taken seriously as a classical instrument is that for the first one hundred or so years of its existence, it was so technically limited (generally only a single-action diatonic instrument) that it was suitable only for folk music and tavern music. Since "first impression makes lasting impression," the accordion's non-musical connotation with musical illiterates somehow continued throughout its second century, despite significant advances in its construction, tuning, and the musical training of its performers.

Others claim that the sound of the accordion itself is very strong and must be handled carefully in classical music to avoid disaster. Blitzstein said, "Being a rather special instrument, the accordion must necessarily be treated as such because a single-line melody can cut through an entire orchestra including the loudest brass (the sound is so piercing and full of quality). One must be careful in using it as an accompaniment or a choral instrument, since its virtue of standing out can also become its defect. It is a strong instrument and rather perilous, for you can't write for it as the regular instrument. It is too strong and conspicuous. Handled well, it can fit right into the orchestral texture. Handled wrong, it can sound like a bull in a china shop.

"The basic aspects of the accordion which are its virtues carry with them the danger. The tone color, even the nasal quality is agreeable for special purposes. For serious music, it is a characteristic instrument having as much quality as an oboe or a bassoon, but like them, there can be too much of a good thing. It can rob the orchestra of balance unless it is used carefully."

Finally, others claim that not only is the sound of the accordion strong and distinctive, but that it is also intrinsically humorous. Why do non-accordionists usually describe the accordion as a "happy" or "funny" instrument and why is the accordion so often the target of bad jokes?

In an article titled The Last Laugh — Accordion Jokes and Joking Accordions, I wrote, "Could it be possible that, from an objective scientific perspective, the instrument does make inherently naturally funny sounds? Not too long ago, I heard a contemporary composition at a prestigious new-music recital in which the accordion was made to sound like it had a bad case of flatulence. I shouldn't have been surprised, because the concert program notes emphasized that the accordion is a wind instrument. No wonder the accordion is the butt of so many jokes!"

The American accordionist-composer, William Schimmel, said, "When you get right down to it, the accordion can make some pretty funny sounds. Depending on what you play, it can be suave and sophisticated — or raunchy and vulgar. Both are real. Both are the accordion."

Of course, Schimmel is correct; the accordion has two sides: light and serious. Now let us investigate the history of the accordion in serious music and its use as a respected classical instrument to convey abstract musical ideas without comic or plebeian connotations.

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