Accordéon History Book

Philippe Krümm, music columnist and editor of both Accordéon et Accordéonistes and Trad, has come out with a corker of a book. L’Accordéon: Quelle Histoire! (roughly Accordion: What a Story!) is a 120 page book packed with pictures and “iconography” from the 1930s to today. The book is featured at the AMTA website, and is available through Auvergne Diffusion.

This is the second accordéon history book to come out in a the past few months. See the other one here!

Accordion in the 19th Century (Free Download)

Diatonic News reports the release of a new monograph by Gorka Hermosa, The Accordion in the 19th Century. Hermosa, from Urretxu, Basque Country, is a classically trained player of the chromatic button accordion, who performs everything from folk music to Bach to avant garde. This book, his fourth, is even more expansive than his repertoire. Focusing on accordion music of the 19th century — almost all of it for diatonic instruments — Hermosa casts his scholarly net far enough so that, by the end of the 93 pages, the reader has a remarkable understanding of all metal free reed instruments of the day. The book culminates in its discussion of diatonic accordion, concertina, and harmonium after giving a thorough review of predecessors to these free reed instruments, and discussing their organology. On top of its thoroughness, though, the book is a fun, brisk read, at least for those of us fascinated by such things. This is extraordinary writing, and scholarship.

Best of all, The Accordion in the 19th Century, and Hermosa’s other three books, are available for free download. Bravo.

Building Materials

Photo by Knut Utler

In comments on the Accordion Workshop post, the inquisitive TomB wrote:

The most striking thing to me about these photos is just how much metal is inside these instruments. Has that always been the case?

Building materials are not my forte, so I asked my buddy, Andy from Vermont. In very quick order, he replied:

As far as I know, metal has always been used on the part that I would call the pallet rods, which connect the button lever (the part attached to the button) to the pallet. However, the button levers were (and still are, in many accordions) made out of wood. I believe that the pallets themselves were historically made out of wood (and again, still are wooden in many accordions), but some modern accordions use aluminum pallets.

My Melodie has nylon (possibly Delrin) button levers, copper pallet rods, and wooden pallets.  Your Nik has wooden button levers, and probably aluminum pallet rods.  You can check under the grille and see whether the pallets themselves are wooden or metal. [I checked and they are wood. GC] I’ve seen some old bandoneons with wooden pallet rods. The only modern button accordion that I’ve seen (in pictures only) with wood pallet rods is a model made by a French builder, Stephan Le Lan.

An advantage of metal is stability despite humidity changes. If pallet rods shrink or expand, the result can pull the pallets away from the action board, which would result in air leaks and reeds that sound even when the button isn’t depressed.

Thank you, Andy from Vermont!

Accordion Speak 101: Breton Music

I pulled this out of the Patrick Lefebvre post because I thought it would stand better on its own. Apologies if I’m wrong. As always, comments, questions, and corrections are welcome.

Bombarde and Biniou Duo:
Piercing and Piercing-er

Breton accordion music is not something I mentioned in my foregoing post, A Brief History of French Accordion, and I’ve been chided for it. Breton music, the music of Brittany, is a parallel tradition to the musique traditionelle du centre FranceThe two traditions rarely encountered one another. Brittany is the celtic region in northern France, and its music is characterized by small pieces of melody repeated, repeated with slight variation, and trance-making persistence. About a hundred years ago, accordions joined the Breton musical ensemble, along with the bombardes (shawm) and biniou (bagpipe). When I stumbled onto Patrick Lefebvre in 2003 I wasn’t even aware that there was such a thing as a Breton accordion tradition. But there is. There is.

A Brief History of French Accordion

The information in this post comes from some disreputable sources (liner notes and websites), and from conversations with musicians during my trip to Alsace. Any comments, corrections, or questions are welcome. In fact, I’m very aware of the gaps in my knowledge. I would love to know more.
Cabrette et Vielle

Most people, when they imagine French accordion music — if they imagine it — think of Parisian cafés, Edith Piaf, expatriate artists, and the time between the wars. That isn’t the music that’s captured my heart — though the two are related. The accordion music of rural France (musique traditionelle du centre France), centered in Auvergne and the Massif Central, was originally played by a duo of bagpipe (cabrette) and hurdy-gurdy (vielle à roue). Around one hundred and seventy years ago, the accordion was invented and adopted by many musicians of central France.  

This led to consternation and conflict. Flyers were posted asking dance organizers to refrain from hiring accordionists, as the accordion was only barely a musical instrument. “Help us drive out the accordions that are overwhelming our region,” wrote one bagpiper. “[Accordions],” he continued, “are good for little more than accompanying a dancing bear and are absolutely unworthy of limbering the legs of our delightful Cantal girls.” 
Unfortunately, the hurdy-gurdy and the pipes could, apparently, not compare in sweetness to the newfangled squeezing instrument. The hurdy-gurdy and pipes also suffered in comparison because they are notoriously difficult to keep in tune. The accordion, having steel reeds, stays in tune for years. It almost seems unnatural.
Enter the accordion!

Thus the accordion entered France, an invasive species, like so much wheezing cheatgrass. Then, during the last half of the 19th century, a wave of migrants traveled from Auvergne to Paris seeking opportunity.  Like black musicians in the American south moving north to Chicago, the Auvergnat formed their own communities and brought their music with them. Some things changed.

The accordionists formed into large bands and added a rhythm section (often including, yes, a banjo). They adopted the fleeter, more harmonically flexible, chromatic accordion, as opposed to the more limited (but, if I may, far more charming) diatonic accordion. They played music more swiftly and with more ornaments than ever before. The rural music they’d brought with them became florid, smokey, and urban. Still beautiful, but in a completely different way. This music, bal musette, became the Next Big Thing in Paris, and, once Edith Piaf emerged, provided the soundtrack for fifty years of Parisian life, legend, and cliché.
Jean Blanchard’s recording

of solo accordéon diatonique

But the original kernel continued to exist. As with much ethnic music, it seemed in danger of dying out until, in the 1960s and ‘70s, the same folk music wave that brought blues to the fore in Britain and the United States inspired artists such as Jean Blanchard, La Chavannée, and others. They combined all of the instruments of French dance music — accordion, pipes, hurdy gurdy, recorder, and violin, as well as voice — into bands, and looked at the bourrées, mazurkas, and waltzes in their simpler forms. The results were sublime.