The Instrument

The Classical Accordion

The classical accordion evolved during the last half of the 20th Century. It is also known as the free-bass accordion, concert accordion, accordéon de concert, accordéon classique, klassisches Akkordeon, bayan.

The difference between the classical accordion and the traditional ‘standard-bass’ accordion lies in the left hand. Although identical to look at, the classical accordion has a keyboard of single notes arranged chromatically. The standard-bass accordion has a keyboard of pre-fixed chords; major, minor, dominant 7th and diminished 7th chords and a single note pitch range of only a major 7th. This keyboard has obvious musical limitations.

The classical accordion has two single-note keyboards both with a tonal range of over seven octaves. This has created a whole new repertoire for the instrument from Baroque transcriptions through to an ever-growing original number of works by composers of today. Composers who have written solo, chamber and concerto works for the classical accordion include Sofia Gubaidulina, Luciano Berio, Arne Nordheim, Per Nørgaard, Poul Ruders and many others. The classical accordion is a synthesis of keyboard and wind instrument. The sound is produced by air being passed through a metal reed by means of the bellows movement guided by the player’s left arm.

It can sustain a sound/sounds and make subtle nuances of crescendo and diminuendo. It has a big dynamic range from ppp to fff and can achieve great contrast in colour from its registers – 2 x 16 foot, 8 foot and 4 foot. It can be regarded as a small organ in that respect.

It is worth noting that CPE Bach and Mozart wanted instrument makers to develop a small portable keyboard instrument that could sustain a sound. One such experiment produced an instrument called a bogenklavier (bowed piano). CPE Bach wrote a sonata for it.

In an educational context, the classical accordion has huge possibilities; it doesn’t need accompaniment and can accompany other instruments. The classical accordion is especially effective with string instruments. “If cellists want to discover all the possibilities of the cello, they should play with accordion and not piano”, Rostropovich.

A child can learn harmony, counter-point, phrasing (bellows control) and technical and musical development are not held back because of a physical inability to stretch large intervals with one hand. A young child can easily stretch over one octave. There is now an accredited grade examination syllabus by the Trinity/Guildhall examination board which is linked to the school system.

Although still a young instrument, the classical accordion has a substantial repertoire (see repertoire lists) of solo, chamber and concerto works. And composers are using it to great effect in orchestral works too. A few examples are: Harrison Birtwistle opera ‘The Last Supper’, Per Nørgaard ‘Terrains Vagues’, Sofia Gubaidulina ‘Figures of Time’, Poul Ruder’s opera ‘Kafka’.

Owen Murray plays on a custom hand-made classical accordion, model ‘MYTHOS’ - the “Stradivarius” of the accordion world, MYTHOS nr.27, made in 2008 at the Pigini accordion factory in Castelfidardo, Italy.

The instrument is tuned by Leonid Setrakov.