Concertina History

Posted by Eric Azumi on

A concertina is a free-reed musical instrument, like the various accordions and the harmonica. It has a bellows, and buttons typically on both ends of it. When pressed, the buttons travel in the same direction as the bellows, unlike accordion buttons, which travel perpendicularly to the bellows. Also, each button produces one note, while accordions typically produce chords with a single button.

The concertina was developed in England and Germany, most likely independently. The English version was invented in 1829 by Sir Charles Wheatstone, who filed a patent for an improved version in 1844. Carl Friedrich Uhlig announced the German version in 1834.

English System

English system concertinas traditionally share several features:
Unisonoric (push and draw on each button yield the same note), chromatic. Each button has a pivot * Hexagon shaped ends (though octagons and other shapes were produced as well
The English concertina is a chromatic instrument, having buttons in a rectangular arrangement of four staggered rows, with the short side of the rectangle addressing the wrist. The invention of the instrument is credited to Sir Charles Wheatstone; his earliest patent of a like instrument was granted 19 December 1829, No 5803 in Great Britain. The two innermost rows of the layout constitute a diatonic C major scale, distributed alternately between the two sides of the instrument. Thus in a given range, C-E-G-B-d is on one side, D-F-A-c-e on the other. The two outer rows consist of the sharps and flats required to complete the chromatic scale. This distribution of scale notes between sides facilitates rapid melodic play. (Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" was transcribed for English concertina early in the instrument's history.). But it also renders chords more difficult to learn than scales.

Giulio Regondi was a virtuoso performer and composer on this instrument as well as the guitar, and helped to popularize the instrument during the 19th century. Allan Atlas, in his book The Wheatstone Concertina in Victorian England identifies six known concertos written for this instrument. Many sonatas and other pieces survive.

The English concertina is typically held by placing the thumbs through thumb straps and the little fingers on metal finger rests, leaving three fingers free for playing. Alternatively, both the fourth and little fingers support the metal finger rest, leaving two fingers for playing. In the classical style of Regondi, the little finger is used as well as the other three fingers, and the metal finger rests are used only very occasionally. This allows all eight fingers to simultaneously play the instrument so large chords are possible. In pieces such as the Bernhard Molique Concerto No 1 in G for concertina and orchestra, or Percy Grainger's Shepherd's Hey, four, five, and six note chords are not uncommon, and would be difficult or impossible to play without using all the fingers.

English-system treble concertinas usually span 3 1/2 octaves. Baritones are similar but transpose down one octave. The keyboard stud-arrangement and spacing is the same throughout, so concertina band players can all play from music in treble clef, and it's straightforward to move from smaller to larger instruments.

Anglo System Concertinas

The Anglo, Irish or Seaman's concertina is, historically, a hybrid between the English and German concertinas. The button layouts are generally the same as the original 20-button German concertinas designed by Uhlig in 1834. Within a few years of that date, the German concertina was a popular import in England, Ireland, and North America, due to its ease of use and relatively low price. English manufacturers responded to this popularity by offering their own versions using traditional Initially the term Anglo-German only applied to concertinas of this type built in England - but as German manufacturers adopted some of these techniques, the term came to apply to all concertinas that used Uhlig's 20-button system. Use of the "German" part of the title Anglo-German ceased in the UK during World War I.

The heart of the Anglo system consists of two 10-button rows, each of which produces a diatonic major scale in a pattern devised around 1826 by a Bohemian called Richter for use in a harmonica (Richter tuning). Five buttons of each row are on each side. The two rows are musically a fifth apart. For example, if the row closest to the player's wrist is in the key of G, the next outer row is in the key of C below. An advantage of the Richter scale is that pressing three adjacent notes in one row produces a major triad. Also, because the travel direction inverts as you progress up the scale, at the point where the scale crosses from one side of the concertina to the other octaves can be played in the home keys.

A third row of extra notes was eventually added, loosely derived from the C scale. These added accidentals and notes that already existed in the diatonic rows, but in opposite bisonoric orientation, to make additional chords possible and certain melodic passages easier. At this point the instrument was chromatic over two octaves, but not every chord or other note combination was available in either push or draw. There is little variation between makers and models in the layout of the notes in the core diatonic rows, but somewhat more variation in the number and layout of the 'helper' notes. The two most common layouts of this 30-button variety are the Jeffries and Lachenal systems. Instruments in the key of C/G are most typical. Concertinas were popular with the Salvation Army.

The Anglo concertina is typically held by placing the hands through a leather strap, with the thumbs outside the strap and the palms resting on wooden bars. This arrangement leaves four fingers of each hand free for playing, and the thumbs free to operate an air valve (for expanding or contracting the bellows without sounding a note) or a drone. Anglo concertinas are often associated with the music of Ireland - though they are also used in other musical contexts, particularly in music for the English Morris dance and Boeremusiek. Famous English players of the Anglo include Scan Tester, John Spiers, William Kimber, and John Kirkpatrick.

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