Said to be several thousand years old, the Sheng (Cheng, Zheng), is one of the oldest musical instruments and is the ancestor of the accordion. The Sheng consists of 17 to 36 bamboo pipes mounted on a gourd shaped wind chamber. Each pipe is affixed to a reed. Notes or chords are produced by blowing or inhaling air (like a harmonica) through a metal tube connecting the base while covering one or more air holes on the bamboo pipes.
Legend has it that the mythological Yellow Emperor of China, Huangdi, dispatched Ling Lun to establish a central pitch to which the nation’s music would be tuned. Traveling to a valley in the Tibetan Himalayas, Ling Lun selected a bamboo stalk of 3.9 inches and the pitch blown through that stalk became “standard pitch.” Ling Lun then observed six male and six female phoenix’ (also a mythological bird which symbolized harmony) and chose eleven other bamboo pipes of varying lengths to reflect the birds’ beautiful voices. This division of the octave into twelve parts represents cosmic harmony (yin and yang). Ling Lun affixed these bamboo pipes into a gourd, arranging them in the shape of a phoenix and presented the Sheng (“sublime voice”) to the Emperor.
The Sheng continues to be used in modern China, updated with brass reeds and a metal wind chamber.
[Modern day Sheng]
The introduction of the Sheng to the West is also steeped in legend. By some accounts, Marco Polo returned to Europe with a Sheng. The Sheng was also known to the Court society of St. Petersburg, Russia in the 1740’s. French sources claim that that the first Sheng was sent from China by missionary in the 1770.
By the 19th Century, a wave of free reed instruments developed including the mouth blown harmonica, later to be manufactured by Matthias Hohner by mass production in Trossingen, Germany in the 1850’s. (Later to become the Hohner accordion factory).
In 1821 Christian Buschmann of Berlin patented a “Handaoline” which operated with levers. In 1829, Cyrillus Damian of Vienna patented the “akkordeon” with accompanying chord buttons. M Button of Paris introduced an accordion with piano keys (but without any chord buttons.)
Sir Charles Wheatstone patented the concertina in 1829. In the 1850’s, Heinrich Band of Germany developed a square accordion which became known as the “bandoneon.” The bandoneon became popular in Argentina and typified tango music. See diuscussion in http://www.inorg.chem.ethz.ch/tango/band/bandoneon.html
Similar to the bandoneon, chemnitzer concertina was developed in Chemnitz, Germany and was brought to the United States by German immigrants. It became popular with Midwest Polka bands and remains a staple to this day.
Italy became the center of accordion manufacturing in the late 1800’s. Paolo Soprani became manufacturing accordions in Catelfidardo in 1872. Tessio Javani of Catelfidardo developed an accordion with pre-set registers including violin, flute, organ and tremolo. Mariano Dallape developed a system of bass buttons arranged in the Circle of Fifths (see Accordion Anatomy) with bass and counterbass rows and four rows of chords. This became known as the “stradella system.”
In the early 1900’s , Hohner of Trossingen, Germany, expanded its harmonica factory to the production of accordions and in the 1920’s introduced an accordion orchestra which played classical pieces from sheet music and toured Europe.
German immigrants to Louisiana in the late 1800’s brought with them the one-row diatonic accordion (known as melodeons) which became popular in the early 1900’s. Cajun fiddle dances were adapted to the accordion.
Likewise, German immigrants to Mexico and Texas at the turn of the century brought with them the diatonic accordion as well as waltz and polkas. The two or three row button accordion became popular and polkas and waltzes evolved into a Tex-Mex or Conjunto style music.
The chromatic button accordion, unlike the diatonic accordion, plays the same note on the push and the pull. First developed in the 1850’s, it remains most popular in Europe. In the 1930’s, the musette (button) accordion became popular in Paris. Gus Viseur was a well-known accordionist who played with Django Reinhardt.
The Russian chromatic accordion is known as the Bayan. It was promoted by the early Soviet government as an instrument of the people and the Jupiter Bayan factory was established as a department of the Red Army.
[Juupiter Bayan accordion]
In 1909, Guido Diero introduced the piano accordion to the United States and soon became one of the most popular (and highly paid) accordion players of the early 20th century. He was, for a time, married to Mae West. See www.guidodiero.com.
Accordions became popular on the American vaudeville circuit.
By the 1930’s accordion schools began to flourish.
The first half of the twentieth century became known as the golden age of accordions in the United States. Many accordions were manufactured in the United States with establishments such as Columbo & Sons in San Francisco, Italo-American Accordion Company in Chicago, Excelsior in New York, and Iorio in New York and later New Jersey. In Western New York, accordionist Roxy Caccamise founded Roxy's Music in Batavia. Roxy's continues to sell and service accordions to this day.
In 1949, Horace Heidt sponsored a nation-wide talent contest (America’s Got Talent of 1949) and Dick Contino was the first winner. He made Lady of Spain a household word. Elvis Presley copied Dick Contino's hip gyrations.
Though John Lennon played the accordion (See Notable Accordion Players), the Beatles spelled a drastic change in musical tastes. Electronic accordions such as the Cordovox and Duovox, though popular with accordionists, never caught the public's attention. Titano produce a Combo Cordion hoping to ride the Rock 'n Roll wave, but it was also not a success.
[Titano's Combo Accordion, now a collector's item]
Though accordions remained still popular in England and Europe, as well as with ethnic groups, the love-affair with the accordion waned in the second half of the twentieth century. Many of the manufacturers which dominated the accordion industry merged and then ceased business. Most recently, Dallape, one of the earliest Italian manufacturers of accordions, announced it would cease business in 2010, although Roland agreed to digitize and thus preserve the Dallape accordion sound for use in Roland's line of V-accordions.
Yet as the 21st century saw light, the accordion has slowly but surely begun its resurgance. With Lady of Spain a distant memory, pop musicians began to utilize the accordion sound and even Bruce Springstein's E-Street band included an accordionist. Hollywood and now TV advertisements have relied on accordion music to a greater extent. The Roland V-Accordion brought the accordion into the digital age and has sparked renewed interest.
Thus, deeply rooted in the past, the accordion has retained its niche in the music industry and hopefully will continue to florish.