Accordion: novelty item or underrated gem?

Many think the accordion is little more than an out-of-tune novelty instrument. Paul Chamberlain aims to change that

The accordion has been the butt of many jokes and to many still conjures up a certain stereotype, with people expecting only to hear folk or dance hall tunes played ‘out of tune’.

Growing up in Scotland, I was accustomed to hearing the accordion in traditional music and even my own father, who was very much an old-school classical violinist, was not overly excited by the prospect of me taking up the accordion. However, through the introduction to a concert instrument which was ‘in tune’ and realising the vast range of music that could be played on it, his pre-conceptions were shattered – we even performed together a few times.

The free-bass accordion – in which the left hand keyboard can be uncoupled from the usual system of preset chords – allows me to access the vast array of polyphonic works such as those by Bach, Mozart and Scarlatti, and well as a substantial and ever-increasing body of original repertoire and other transcriptions.

As a relatively new instrument on the classical music scene, the tremendous versatility and scope of the accordion is constantly proving to be a source of discovery for many classical music enthusiasts. On countless occasions I have spoken to audiences after performances who told me that before the concert they weren’t sure what to expect, and thought there might be some rendition of polkas or waltzes. They certainly weren’t expecting to hear Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D minor.

In many other European countries, the accordion is firmly established in the conservatoires, but the UK is only now beginning to catch up. I was the first classical accordionist to graduate from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland with a BMus Honours degree and I subsequently completed a Masters in Performance there. As the only accordionist in a keyboard department brimming with dazzling pianists, I felt that there was a lot to prove. Being awarded the Governor’s Recital prize was a great honour and is testament that the accordion can, and indeed should be, viewed as an important player in serious performance.

For concert organisers, the fear of the unknown can prove a barrier to putting on an accordion recital and it can be difficult to convince them otherwise, but I am confident that more and more players and audiences will embrace the accordion in the future. During concerts it’s important to engage the audience not only in the music they are listening to, but also to give a brief insight into the workings of what is an extremely complex feat of engineering.

Last year I became the first accordionist to perform a solo recital in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall as part of the long established Manchester Midday Concerts series. Through bringing the accordion and its repertoire to fresh audiences (many of whom are astonished at its capabilities), I am striving to continue to build its reputation as a fine concert instrument.

This summer I will be bringing this fascinating instrument and its repertoire to new audiences with a series of seventeen concerts taking me around the UK. The tour coincides with the release of my new album and commences at the 1901 Arts Club in London on 1 July. The conclusion of the tour will be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with performances at the Royal Over-Seas League.

The classical accordion is now gaining an established and ever-growing following. However, we still need to make the leap from considering it a novelty item to fully appreciating and understanding of the merits of this vastly under-rated instrument.

Paul Chamberlain is a classical accordionist.

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