Early History Of The Accordion                                                                                                    Back

      The accordion, which stands it’s ground as one of those most Scottish of musical instruments, up there with the fiddle and the bagpipes, another wind driven manually operated pitch aproximator, must surely be a son of Scottish soil.  Not so, the invention and development of the accordion has very little to do with Scotland it would seem and goes back to a time long before Jimmy Shand had a hit record with the Bluebell Polka.  Accordion?  Ah you mean the fisarmonica say the Italians in Italian.  Nein, they mean the physharmonikaz, say the Germans in English. Well actually say the Greeks in rebuttal, physa is the Greek word for bellows and harmonikos, the Greek word for harmony so huh.  Then the Chinese pointed to Shujing, a book of chronicles that not only records the invention of the accordion but also the invention of music, boats, money, mono sodium glutanate, takeaway food containers and religious sacrifice most of which are regular features of everyday life for accordion players, except money.

      This all happened during the reign of Emperor Hwang Di after tea on a Tuesday afternoon in the year 3000 B.C.  A phoenix bird had whistled the Bluebell Polka to Hwang Di and so taken with the way his foot was tapping in time with the birdsong was he, that he sent his most perspicacious scholar Ling Lun to the mountains in search of deodorant, not having a great command of the English language, and a means of reproducing the song of the phoenix bird.  Ling returned with a pile of bamboo and a gourd assembled in the shape of the phoenix. This became the Sheng, a bamboo mouth organ utilising multiple bamboo pipes, a vibrating reed and a gourd that served as a resonating chamber.

      ‘We’ve already got one,’ said the Chingmiao tribes in Guizhou Province, China then the race was on to see who would be first to produce a m.i.d.i. version.  The ancient Greeks and Egyptians developed other instruments using the principle of a free vibrating reed but it was to be some time before the advent of deodorant.

      Who was responsible for bringing the Sheng to central Europe is a matter of contention but one of the main suspects is the Venetian traveller Marco Polo.  Marco was born in 1254 while his father and uncle were on a commercial trip to China.  Returning to China in 1271, at the request of their pal Kublai Khan, his father and uncle took Marco along warning him that during his travel experiences, there were two things he must never try, incest and the accordion.  They made the Khan’s residence by 1275 and it was 1295 before Marco returned to Venice so it’s highly possible that during this time, he shunned his father’s advice and succumbed to that most blasphemous of the two evils, the accordion.  Temptation may have come by way of the phoenix birds with their jaunty renditions of the Bluebell Polka resulting in his bringing the Sheng back to Venice from China.  It is also possible that he may have picked up a free reed instrument elsewhere on his travels throughout the Middle East or India.

      Another suspect is the great military leader Genghis Khan who, during the early thirteenth century, possibly used a free reed instrument as his secret weapon against his adversaries sending them screaming from the fields of battle from the Yellow Sea to the Black Sea.  Only the cream of the tartars were able to play the dangerous instrument at the enemy and retain composure and sanity.  After Genghis’ death around the late 1220’s possibly due to overexposure to the instrument, his lieutenants continued to expand the empire. With another secret weapon in their armoury, the furry industrial ear defenders, they had the advantage and extended the empire from Hungary to Korea.

      The Russians claim the credit for introducing the sheng and other free reed instruments to Europe while the English scoff at this idea bringing up the portative which should always be passed from right to left. Not only did we design and build the portative, they say, but we also invented accordion straps.  The portative, which sported a keyboard, bellows and reed pipes, was indeed strapped on to the player, possibly to prevent his escape, and was heard around England from the twelfth century.  Improvements were made to the instrument, which ended up with two sets of bellows and close beating oboe style reeds.  The instrument’s name was changed to the Bible Regal, as it was commonly heard played in churches.  During the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, it was an accompanying instrument for madrigal singers but lost popularity due to the fact that it was a bugger to keep in tune.  And this bothered an accordion player?

Gregor Lowrey.                                                                                                                                      Back