The Fascinating History of the Accordion

Following is a short outline entitled

The accordion (the Italian name “fisarmonica” is derived from the German word “Physharmonikaz,” a compound name coming from the Greek word “Physa” – bellows – and “Harmonikos” – harmonic) is a musical instrument operated by air pressure, belonging to the family of the aerophones. It consists of three different parts: the right hand keyboard for the melody, the bellows, and the left hand keyboard (or buttons) for the accompaniment.

The accordion’s sound is produced by the reed, a small metal plate on which a thin steel strip is mounted that oscillates with the movement of the air produced by the compression of the bellows. The following three models are the most popular accordion types: on the “diatonic” model, the sound produced when the bellows are opened is different to that produced when they are closed; the “chromatic” model allows the complete range of twelve sounds to be played (this model also has “buttons” on the right hand keyboard); the “piano” accordion has a right hand keyboard that is very similar to a piano keyboard, with black and white keys.

The accordion, an instrument very close to the heart of generations of Italians, is a masterpiece of fine mechanics (the more familiar keyboard of a typewriter is nothing compared to the mechanism which works the bass and chord valves) and of fluid dynamics. Just think of the airtightness of the bellows and of the valves that open and close the access of air into the reeds), consisting of some hundreds of pieces built from a variety of materials, such as fir, maple, mahogany and walnut wood; metals such as steel, hard aluminum and brass; precious cashmere, felt and cloth, as well as lamb’s hide, kid and leather; celluloid, rubber and virgin wax.

The fascinating history of the accordion, coming to life again in this museum that was opened in 1981, starts way back 4,500 years ago with the Cheng in China; an instrument using for the first time the free reed, made to vibrate by a source of air. A copy of that instrument can be seen in the first showcase in the room on the right, on entering the museum.

But it was the Viennese Cyril Damian (also referred to as Cyrill Demian), of Armenian descent who patented the accordion at Paris, on the 6th of May 1829; a small four octave instrument that was to be the basis for the development of an absolutely revolutionary musical instrument. A reproduction of the original patent is shown on a photographic panel in the entrance hall of the Museum, near Paola Soprani’s portrait – the founder of the Italian accordion industry.

In Italy the accordion appeared for the first time in 1863. A pilgrim passing through the territory of Castelfidardo on his pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the “Black Madonna” of Loreto, stopped by chance in Antonio Soprani’s farmhouse.

He was carrying a rudimentary music box with him; the accordion, a queer object arousing the curiosity of Paolo Soprani, Antonio’s eldest son. Young Paolo opened the instrument, disassembled it and immediately perceived the possibility to build other similar items. The accordion was given to him as a present, and the ex-farmer soon successfully opened a small handicraft laboratory and sold the aesthetically and musically improved product mainly in nearby Loreto, the destination of a continuous, considerable flow of pilgrims.

So was born, between history and legend, the Italian accordion industry. Thirteen years later, in 1876, at Stradella near Pavia, Mariano Dallape, born at Cavedine del Trentino, also started to produce considerable quantities of accordions, made in view of the curiosity aroused by Damian’s Accordion in Tirol.

Soprani and Dallape did not know each other and never met, but they both had the same intuition as far as the development of the musical instrument is concerned; first improving the Viennese patent, succeeded in making the instrument known in all areas of the country; the second prepared the way for the modern accordion by applying basic innovations.

From these two centers of development, but especially from Castelfidardo, the construction of the accordion expanded very quickly, also thanks to the large number of craftsmen who first worked in the two pioneers’ laboratories and then started production on their own. In 1865, Cesare Pancotti opened the second Italian factory at Macerata; Settimio Soprani, one of Paolo’s brothers, followed in 1872 with a new laboratory at Castelfidardo, Giovanni Chiusaroli at Recanati in 1886, and Sante Crucianelli at Castelfidardo in 1888.

There was an extraordinary growth of new laboratories during the last decade of the 19th century, Luigi and Georgio Savoia started their activity at San Giovanni in Croce (CR), Guiseppe de Bernardi at Diano Marina (IM), Guiseppe Janni at Guilianova (TE), Pasquale Ficosecco at Castelfidardo, Antonio Ranco at Vercelli, Ercole Maga at Stradella, Fidele Socin at Bolzano, and the Scandalli brothers at Camerano (AN). The popularity of the accordion started to arouse the interest also in great musicians who started to write interesting musical pieces for this instrument. In 1883, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky introduced a piece for accordion in his “Suite No. 2 in C Major.” In 1898, Umberto Giodano used the accordion during the third act of his “Fedora,” – Alban Berg in the first act of his Wozzeck and, more recently, there has been Darius Milhaud and Dmitri Shostakovitch .

During the first years of this century the accordion started to get better known all over the world. In France, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Russia, and in the Americas it was already known among the middle classes, but the middle-lower classes also started to appreciate it thanks to the Italian emigrants. As a matter of fact, the latter have been the real propagators of the accordion; very often those emigrants trying to find a job, especially in the Americas, brought the accordion with them, to make them feel nearer to their homes, to their families and to their far away native country when listening to its music.

After the invention of celluloid in the United States of America and with the use of mother-of-pearl, the aesthetics of the instrument changed, and some of the items exhibited in this Museum demonstrate how the art of mosaics, applied to the accordion, sometimes reached excellent levels.

The year 1953 was undoubtedly the year of the largest expansion of accordion production and marketing. As a matter of fact, the instruments exported from Italy totaled 200,000 pieces, and the same quantity was exported from Germany. During recent years the development of electronics has had it’s influence also on our popular instrument. Felice Fugazza, a music composer and teacher at the Bologna Conservatory was the first to introduce transistors into the accordion in 1960.

Today the instrument has thousands of fans all over the world and for several years now, especially in the East European countries, it has earned the right of entry into the Conservatories.