Monthly Archives: December 2009

The Black Concertina Tradition of South Africa

PICA Volume 2, 2005

A Brief Outline

Two important developments in the nineteenth century bear directly on our topic. First, the Industrial Revolution made possible the mass production of consumer goods—including musical instruments—at greatly reduced costs to the consumer; and among these instruments were the concertina, accordion, and other squeezebox relatives of the free-reed family. Second, the combination of exploration and burgeoning of capitalist trade opened up Africa, Asia, and other ‘distant lands’ hitherto unfamiliar to Europeans. Among these was South Africa, which fell under British administration in 1814. And with the realization in the 1880s of South Africa’s underground resources, there began the great rush for gold and diamonds in the areas around Kimberley and Johannesburg, as well as the formation of the country’s mining towns. As Christoph Wagner notes, the global spread of mass-produced free-reed instruments ‘offered everyone active participation in the practice of music …’. He continues:

in the second half of the 19th century, young people were leaving rural areas and moving into the cities … The same went for the concertina in the newly developing mining towns of South Africa, [and for] the bandoneon in the tango music of Buenos Aires and Montevideo … people from different districts, regions and countries, with different skin colours, religions, languages, dialects and needs met each other.

And finally, he talks about the development of ‘new-style forms of musical expression’.1

Before beginning our narrative about the concertina in South Africa, a few words are necessary about that nation’s racial, political, and economic structures. That the black majority was limited in terms of both economic and musical-cultural opportunities goes without saying. In the twentieth century, for example, songs were strictly censored,2 and white and black musicians were discouraged from playing together. In fact, many social divisions were reflected in distinctive musical traditions. On the other hand, the reservoir of cheap rural labour (called upon as needed to work the country’s urban industries) meant that, despite the untold misery, there was an on-going social and cultural interchange—including a musical cross-fertilisation—between races and classes, countryside and city.3

From the early 1880s on, then, labour was required as the mines and dependent industries opened up. And since it was not possible for whole families to move into this raw, new environment, a workforce was quickly built up of rural black males of varying ethnic backgrounds and cultures who were brought into the cities by the chance of paid work. Moreover, it quickly became obvious that entertainment was needed for the miners and other workers. One of the ways in which this need was filled was by the mine shops, which sold musical instruments, in particular guitars, violins, harmonicas, and, of course, concertinas. From the start, the concertinas were the cheap German or Italian models, as the mineworkers’ main aim was usually to provide for families back in their sometimes far-distant villages and rural communities (not that they could have afforded the superior English-made instruments even had they been available).

In recent times, Bastari (now Stagi) have been the main suppliers. In fact, Zulu speakers sometimes call the concertina ‘iBastari’,4 though it is commonly known as the ‘squashbox’. The concertina most often used by black musicians (and by some Boeremusiek players, as well) is based on the twenty-button ‘Anglo-German’ system, and usually has two riveted accordion-type reeds per note, tuned an octave apart. This gives a full sound, ‘a dense texture that resembles the broad sonority of a Sotho male-voice chorus’, as David Coplan describes it.5 And though the action on these instruments is less than fast, it is astonishing to hear what a good player can accomplish.

The button board of the standard squashbox (as built by Stagi) is laid out as follows (see Figure 1):

Fig. 1. Layout of buttons on the standard squashbox.

Like the Anglo, this gives two different notes for each button, one when the bellows are pulled, the other when pushed. And to those familiar with the Anglo buttonboard, it is like an Anglo in E flat and B flat, but with the push/pull reversed on both the right-hand end of the E-flat row and the left-hand end of the B-flat row. (In addition, there is a D on the pull on the right-hand row.) To an Anglo player like myself, it is a bit like trying to ride a bicycle on which, upon turning the handlebar left, the bike turns right—but only sometimes.

In his history of the accordion, Pierre Monichon traces back to 1832 the convention that push/pull instruments have the chord of the major tonic on the push all along one row of buttons.6 This is true for melodeons, diatonic accordions, bandoneons, concertinas, and even mouth organs. In fact, the squashbox is the only instrument that I’ve come across that breaks the rule. Why? And when did this special layout become the standard in South Africa?

Some years ago, Dr Bastari assured me that he had no records concerning the origins of the system, and I have as yet found no one who can shed any light on the matter. And though there are disadvantages to the squashbox layout, there are also some advantages. One useful feature is that several notes (B flat, C, D, E flat, F, and G) are available on both push and pull, so that the player does not ‘run out of bellows’ when continually playing the same note; he can simply change button and direction. As Clegg notes: ‘The first thing you’re taught is to find out which notes sound the same when pushed in and pulled out’.7 Certainly, this factor is used to good purpose on many recordings, with exciting, sustained drone effects that cut across the rhythm, either in the bass or in a higher register, at times a fifth, at times an octave from the tonic. The system also makes it useful, if not essential, to cross rows, so that players do not think of distinct B-flat and E-flat rows, but rather in terms of discrete notes on different parts of the buttonboard.

It seems fair to assume that the earliest cheap concertinas arriving in South Africa had Anglo tunings, but that at some stage someone decided to change some of the notes around.8 Clearly, the alteration caught on, and eventually got back to the Bastari works. Though there are today high-quality concertinas made in South Africa, these would have had little relevance for the development of the black tradition.

The anthropologist-musician Johnny Clegg has developed a rich biculturalism, speaking fluent Zulu and performing throughout the world. He plays both guitar and concertina, which he learnt in his teens from black musicians (an apprenticeship which led him to many nights in custody under apartheid laws). He has a profound understanding of the concertina in Zulu music, and suggests that

A Zulu will wear a three piece suit, but with sandals on his feet. The Zulu has thus ‘neutralised’ the value attached to the suit. It is no longer a western object; he has ‘Africanised’ it … The same system of ‘neutralisation’ exists with musical instruments … each object keeps its form, but is diverted from its primary function.9

To which he adds:

[For the Zulus] the guitar and the concertina became part of what is known as the gxagxa musical tradition. The gxagxa are. . .somehow problematically situated between what we call a really fervent traditionalist, Ibhinca, somebody who wears the skins, and Ikhola, a Christian. He’s somebody who has mixed both music forms and has developed a ‘mazkande’ tradition.10

There are references to many different ethnic groups taking up the concertina at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Thus Coplan notes that

Southern Sotho miners … played … the concertina in place of traditional solo instruments as accompaniment to the individualized singing and dancing of their friends … [Mpondo miners] developed an affinity for the concertina. New concertina dances integrated rhythms and steps developed by migrants in urban areas into a framework of traditional dances.11

He goes on to say:

Mpondo players depended more on European and Cape Coloured folk rhythms and melodies than [did] the Sotho, though the latter were by no means immune to Afrikaans vastrap rhythms, Cape Melodies, and the ‘three-chord vamp’ … music constructed according to traditional Sotho principles … through the polyphonic movement of parallel fourths and fifths within the structure of the western ‘three-chord’ (tonic-dominant-subdominant) system.12

Certainly, the concertina can be used within either a two-chord or three-chord structure with few problems, though depending on the actual scales and chords used, the choice of key is limited on a twenty-button instrument.

Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, and Sotho all had their own languages, songs and dances, and instrumental traditions, and their menfolk took the new instruments back to the villages when they went on leave. Clegg talks of the Zulu concertina tradition being

generated out of acculturation, out of a process whereby migrants left their homelands, went into the city, were exposed to different musical forms and came back … in Kwasulu you will not find any exponents of good concertina music … unless they are migrants.13

Thus the concertina quickly found a place as an innovative means of interpreting the old, rural African traditions, which were still very much alive; and its low price, as well as its relative durability and portability, helped make it a favourite.

As the concertina became integrated into the black tradition, so the traditional music itself, reflecting the changes in society, was subjected to other influences. Black musicians certainly heard the folk-dance music of British and Boer traditions, as they did various styles of popular music and song. In fact, both Percy Honri and Alexander Prince, concertinsts of music hall fame (both on the Duet concertina), played in South Africa in the early twentieth century, and Honri actually made recordings there, with vocals in Afrikaans (the latter being largely irrelevant to most black musicians).

There is an interesting perspective on this ‘mixed’ musical development in J. R. Couper’s novel, Mixed Humanity, published in Natal in 1892. He offers the following description of a dance:

After knocking at the door, which was opened by a coloured man, they were accosted by a very fat, bloated woman, almost black, sitting on a chair just inside the entrance … Underneath the stage, in the place set apart for the orchestra, and facing outwards, was a band consisting of five men of various shades of colour. Their musical instruments were two squeaking fiddles, two guitars, and a loud-toned concertina. The body of the hall was occupied by about thirty couples dancing a set of quadrilles. The ladies, like the bandmen, were of all colours, from the delicate complexion of the Colonial girl to the coal-like black of the zulu. There were but few whites amongst them, and, with hardly one exception, all were ugly and coarse-looking. They were gaudily attired in ill-fitting dresses.14

Clearly, Couper hardly approved of the ‘mixed’ scene. Another passage is even more censorious:

Charlie was a ‘Christian Nigger’—a term applied to civilized and converted Kaffirs. He had been educated at a mission station in his native land, but, like many South African blacks who enjoyed this wholesome and beneficial influence, he had turned his privileges to but poor account, at least so far as honesty was concerned … He had a rather good tenor voice, which the missionaries had taken no little pains to cultivate for choir purposes … And he was a proficient concertina player.15

One more note about the nineteenth century: the Afrikaaners (Boers), too, adopted the concertina in all its forms, and even today, there are thriving Boeremusiek groups and clubs, often featuring excellent players. The instrument is seen by many to be part of the traditional Boer identity, even to the extent that I have been told that traditional music was played on the concertina during the ‘Great Trek’ (1830s), though that took place before the widespread production and commercialization of the instrument worlds away in Europe!

The process amongst those touched by the developing mixed culture of the black mineworkers continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century, and the concertina became fully part of the evolving musical tradition.16 Always versatile, it was used to accompany both songs and dancing, both as a solo instrument and as part of various ensembles. Only as the years went by, did some musicians develop a preference for the piano accordion.17

Bongeni Mthethwa of the University of Natal, mentions another—if seemingly unlikely—use for the instrument:

Traditionally, the Maskanda uses his instruments as a mode of transport. He can walk long distances to the music of his guitar/concertina. The concertina is supposed to ‘transport’ him, since the walk becomes transformed into a musical experience. It is also common to find the guitar, violin, concertina ensemble forming a walking band in the rural areas.18

To this Clegg adds, referring to the concertina:

This is a bus, this is transport, this will take you wherever you want to go … This is a very physical instrument … if you walk playing … the isifutho [air button] … will allow you to open and close it. It’s got to be pushed at the right times during the rhythms to enable you to go in and out … while you’re playing your tune … As you’re playing, you’re walking, your fingers are playing the notes … and I know that my little finger is going to go with my left foot when I put it down.19

The cross-fertilisation of musics went on. For example, a strong jazz tradition developed in the cities of South Africa, sometimes closely derivative of American jazz, at other times having its own special character. Other styles, in turn, sprang from this, notably the Kwela tin-whistle music. As time passed, recordings were released on 78 rpm discs. Some, from the 1940s, feature concertina playing that shows the influence of western, jazz-flavoured dance bands, just as they sometimes hint at European folk influences, and even echo the ‘blackface minstrel’ music which was also popular, particularly in Capetown. At the same time, the on-going two-way contact with the countryside — mineworkers came and went — ensured repeated ‘new’ influences from that source.

As everywhere, popular music styles develop and change. Yet as other instruments were introduced, the squashbox continued to hold its place well into the 1970s, by which time western pop music was making itself felt everywhere. The styles known as ‘Township Jive’ and ‘Mbaqanga’ developed as something of a synthesis of the earlier urban styles, the continuing rural traditions, and rock and pop imported mainly from the United States and Britain. Thousands of recordings were made using various combinations that one associates with rock, but which also included violins, accordions, and concertinas. And though the musical style is quite different, the concertina often plays a role somewhat parallel to the clarinet in New Orleans jazz, in that while it is not necessarily the lead instrument, it weaves in and out of the mix, with crisp, sharp, repeated phrases, adding a special feel and dimension to the overall sound.

Since the end of the 1970s, the urban use of the concertina has had mixed fortunes as regards popularity. One reasons was perhaps the rising price of concertinas in South Africa, but more importantly, musical fashions moved on, and the newer disco-oriented rhythms and technology did not offer a comfortable fit for the instrument. To cite Clegg once again:

Traditional music in the late 80s was seen to be backward. [It] was seen to be politically retrogressive, reactionary. And the rise of Inkatha meant that traditional Zulu music was seen as aligned to tribalism. There’s a very strong tension in South Africa between modernism and tribalism.20

In the late 1980s, a fourteen-year-old black friend from Soweto said, upon hearing some of my township records: ‘Yes, it’s good music; it’s what older people, like my mother, listen to’.—serious condemnation, indeed, from a fourteen-year-old.

In March 1990, Johnny Clegg told me that it was very rare now to hear the concertina played in the streets. When the famous concertinist Sipho Mchunu (also a fine guitarist) issued the recording Yithi Esavimba in 1999, he did not use the concertina at all. As Clegg, a close friend of mine for years, informed me: ‘I told him he should [use the concertina] … but keyboards play the concertina part instead’.

Though perhaps out of fashion, the concertina did not die out altogether, as more recordings including the instrument were released on cassettes by the likes of Ngane and Khamba, Amaphisi, and Inzitombi Zenhlanhla. To be sure, the tapes are not found in smart city record stores, but were aimed mainly at an ‘unsophisticated’ rural market, and usually included electric bass, guitar, drums, and powerful vocals. At the same time, maskanda musicians continue to play, generally unamplified, in streets and marketplaces, their groups typically consisting of concertina, whistle, violin, and a guitar or two. Finally, ‘Gumboot’ dance teams, whose origins reach back to the early days of the mines, compete against each other, formally or informally, often accompanied by these same instruments.

I will conclude by mentioning an exciting and perhaps far-reaching step towards the rehabilitation of the concertina. Neither ‘politically retrogressive’ nor ‘reactionary’, the singer Busi Mhlongo recently released a CD titled Urbanzulu (2000). Her strong, moving, joyful voice punches out a musical message for the twenty-first century with both power and passion, backed by a sizzling, driving, electric band—with concertina! The sensitive bellows control and the dynamic subtlety and delicacy of Mphendukwlwa Mkhize’s playing, allied with the crisp rhythmic lift, overcome many of the apparent constraints of the instrument, and make a rich contribution to the overall success of the disc. Is it too soon to ask if the concertina is back? The musicianship echoes Johnny Clegg’s words: ‘We say, you’re holding a life in your hands, because it breathes. It’s like a pulsing being that you’re holding when you’re playing. You can feel it, it breathes with you’.21

Discography: What follows is a very selective discography that includes samples of a wide range of the South African concertina. (One should supplement the recordings listed here with those cited in Jared Snyder, ‘Rusted Reeds: A Short Survey of Historic and Field Recordings of Free Reeds from Africa’, The Free-Reed Journal, 1 [1999], 60-75). Most of the recordings should be available from specialist suppliers such as Stern’s: <>; telephone numbers in London and New York, respectively, are: 44 207 3875550 and 1 (212) 964-5455.

Amakhansela, Phuzekhemisi. Gallo CDGMP 40886 (2002): where ‘Trad. Zulu’ edges towards ‘Township Jive’; electric bass, guitar, drums, and concertina.

Duo Juluka, Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu. World Network WDR 9 54.036 (1992): the Clegg-Mchunu Duo, with their take on maskanda; some of the best concertina playing around; they share the CD with Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Gumboot Guitar, various artists. Topic TSCD 923 (2003): recent recordings from the international collection of the British Library; present-day street music as played for gumboot dancers; many tracks featuring excellent concertina playing; informative liner notes.

Iduma Lya Gebuza: Metal Reeds in Africa. Concertina, Melodeon & Harmonica, various artists, compiled and annotated by Peter Kennedy. Folktracks 45-815 (1976): field recordings from the 1950s, including a few concertina tracks; the rougher roots of the music; available from Folktracks, 16 Brunswick Square, Gloucester GL1 1UG; <>.

Indestructible Beat of Soweto, Ngane & Khamba. Stern’s Earthworks STEW 14CD (1985): first of a wonderful series focused mainly on ‘Township Jive’; a great concertina track by Ngane & Khamba.

Introducing Shiyani Ngcobo, Shiyani Ngcobo. World Music Network INTRO 01CD (2004): modern street maskanda; a few tracks with outstanding concertina playing.

Squashbox: Le Concertina Zoulou et Sotho en Afrique du sud, various artists, compiled and annotated by Harry Scurfield. Silex Y225107 (1993): a compilation of early 78 rpm recordings, all with concertina; currently out of print.

Urbanzulu, Busi Mhlongo. M. E. L. T. BW 2118 (2000): driving music from a wonderful voice; weaving in and out of the texture is Mphendukelwa Mkhize’s robust and subtle, punchy and delicate concertina playing.

A Pictorial Postscript: Since with the exception of Figure 4, the three illustrations that follow are not specifically related to any one point in the main text of the article, we have placed them one after the other in a postscript of sorts. All three illustrations are from the collection of free reed-related iconography amassed by Jared Snyder and are reproduced here with his kind permission.

Fig. 2 ‘A Musical Quartette’, postcard circa 1900-1910.

Fig. 3. ‘A minister visits the village’, photograph circa 1905.

Fig. 4. ‘On the way home from the mines’, from a series of postcards, circa 1900, titled ‘Sketches of South African Life’, Series I: ‘Kaffir Life’.


1. Christoph Wagner, ‘Zur Rezeption und weltweiten Verbreitung der Handharmonika-instrumente’, in Harmonium und Handharmonika: Bericht des 20. Musikinstrumentenbau-Symposiums, 1999. Michaelsteiner Konferenzberichte, 62, ed. Monika Lustig (Blankenburg: Stiftung Michaelstein, 2002), 196.

2. On the way in which music was censored on the radio, see Jeremy Marre and Hannah Charlton, Beats of the Heart: Popular Music of the World (New York: Pantheon, 1987), 44-47.

3. As Johnny Clegg points out: ‘The migrant is a tragic figure, stuck between two worlds, cut in two. He spends more time in the town than in the country, but when he arrives, he brings his culture with him’; quoted in Philippe Conrath, La Passion Zoulou (Paris: Editions Seghers, 1988), 73.

4. Johnny Clegg, The Music of Zulu Immigrant Workers in Johannesburg: A Focus on Concertina and Guitar (Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand, 1981), 3.

5. David Coplan, In Township Tonight (London: Longman, 1985), 24.

6. Pierre Monichon, L’Accordéon. Collection ‘Que sais-je?’ (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1971), 44-45.

7. Clegg, The Music of Zulu Immigrant Workers, 9.

8. The same process took place in connection with the bandoneon in Argentina and Uruguay, where tango musicians adapted the so-called ‘Rhenish’ layout to their own musical needs; see among others, Maria Dunkel’s excellent liner notes for Bandoneon Pure: Dances of Uruguay. Traditional Music of the World, 5. Smithsonian Folkways SF 40431 (1993), 10; my thanks to Allan Atlas for the information and the reference.

9. Clegg, quoted in Conrath, La Passion Zoulou, 73.

10. Clegg, The Music of Zulu Immigrant Workers, 1.

11. Coplan, In Township Tonight, 22-24.

12. Coplan, In Township Tonight, 23.

13. Clegg, The Music of Zulu Immigrant Workers, 3.

14. J. R. Couper, Mixed Humanity (Natal, 1892), 36.

15. Couper, Mixed Humanity, 107-8.

16. Coplan, In Township Tonight, 24: ‘These trade-store musical instruments achieved such a wide distribution among non-Christian Africans by the early 1900s that they came to be considered fully traditional’.

17. Coplan, In Township Tonight, 5: ‘Sotho musicians are highly conscious of the contrasting properties of various instruments; they insist that…the piano-accordion allows for greater melodic and tonal variety and solo improvisation than the concertina’.

18. Private correspondence (1990), and see Fig. 4.

19. Clegg, The Music of Zulu Immigrant Workers, 7.

20. Clegg, in an interview in Dirty Linen, 67 (1996), 19.

21. Clegg, The Music of Zulu Immigrant Workers, 8.

Marie Lachenal: Concertinist

PICA Volume 2, 2005


I. 1 Introduction: Marie Lachenal (1848-1937) had three claims to fame and social prominence: one by birth, one by marriage, and one acquired as an accomplished performer of classical music on the English concertina. Born to the concertina by virtue of the family business—‘Louis Lachenal, Concertina Manufacturer’, the firm established by her father in 18582—Marie learned to play the concertina and applied her talents to the promotion of Lachenal concertinas long after her father’s death in 1861 and her mother’s divestiture of the business in the early 1870s.

In 1868, Marie married Edwin A. Debenham (1844-1925), a member of a family of photographers who specialized in portraits of royalty, statesmen, and artists, as well as somewhat less illustrious clientele. Founded by Edwin’s father near the very dawn of photography, the family photography business bridged the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and eventually produced three generations of Debenham photographers.

Edwin and Marie’s family was large by modern standards, with nine children of whom eight survived infancy. And though Marie’s maternal responsibilities took a toll on her career as performer and teacher, she still managed to maintain high standards of performance throughout her absence from the stage for maternity and child rearing. In fact, the advent of what might be called her ‘second career’ in the 1880s saw her garner the same high praise from the critics that she had received in 1865-1866, when The Mesdemoiselles Lachenal—the teenagers Marie, Eugenie, and Josephine—first took to the stage in London and Edinburgh.

II. The Performer: Marie Lachenal and sisters Eugenie and Josephine made their debut at Myddelton Hall, in Islington, on 14 June 1865,3 at the ages of sixteen, fifteen, and thirteen, respectively, perhaps while still studying with Richard Blagrove (1826-1895), already a prominent concertina impresario by the 1860s and eventually the preeminent classical concertinist after the death of Giulio Regondi in 1872.4 The sisters’ Islington performance drew a glowing review in the Islington Times of 17 June 1865:5

… the Mdlles. Lachenal’s Concert is we believe the first entertainment available for the million[s] in which the Concertina has been in a position fairly to challenge a verdict on its merits as an orchestral instrument of surpassing beauty and extensive capabilities. The Concert commenced with an operatic selection for five Concertinas (two trebles, tenor, baritone and bass), of which the united effect was magnificent, now resembling the tones of the organ, now more like a string band, preserving the spirit of the airs, yet gracing them with novel charm … Mdlle Marie Lachenal was deservedly encored after performing a splendid fantasia on the airs from [Gounod’s] “Faust” on the Concertina with great taste and artistic effect; this one piece was sufficient to entitle the Concert to a success, but the enthusiasm of the audience rose higher still on hearing a trio of Scotch airs for treble, baritone and bass Concertinas by the Mdlles. Lachenal … the performance gave evidence of much talent and finished style and the Concert successfully demonstrated to the general public that which was known only to few enthusiastic amateurs—viz., the adaptability of the Concertina to first-class orchestral Music, where this elegant instrument shines with peculiar effect both in melody and harmony, and sustains the full score unaided by instruments of any other description.

And not only did Richard Blagrove attend the concert in order to lend support and enjoy the accomplishments of his students, but he was one of the concertinists who joined the sisters in the quintet that drew comment in the Islington Times review. The fifth member of the quintet was Blagrove’s sister, Ellen Attwater.6

In a letter to the editor of the South Hackney Correspondent for 27 July 1865, an enthusiastic admirer of the English concertina paid the Lachenal sisters the ultimate compliment, placing them in the company of the finest concertinists of the day: Giulio Regondi, Richard Blagrove, and George Case.7

Following the Islington performance in the summer of 1865, the Lachenal sisters headed to Edinburgh for an October 1865 performance at The Saturday Evening Concerts at the George Street Music Hall.8 Billed as ‘The Celebrated Performers on the ENGLISH CONCERTINA’, the ‘act’ consisted of Marie, Eugenie, Josephine, and their piano accompanist Frederick William Bridgman (1833-1892), an Edinburgh musician who also played the concertina and joined the sisters for a concertina quartet.9 What appears to have begun as a limited engagement lengthened into an October-January stay, prompted by highly favorable reviews of their performance:

The great novelty in the programme was the concerted pieces, arranged for three and four concertinas—the first occasion, we believe, in which such a combination has been heard in Edinburgh. The effect was exceedingly good, more especially in the operatic selections and the national airs. The first quartett, on themes from [Rossini’s] “Semiramide,” [Bellini’s] “Sonnambula,” and [Donizetti’s] “Lucrezia Borgia,” played by the sisters Lachenal and Mr. Bridgman, was most satisfactory both as to its arrangement and performance. Mdlle. Marie Lachenal’s solo on airs from [Gounod’s] “Faust” was also worthy of all praise for the tasteful and artistic manner in which it was rendered. Not less effective was the duet on subjects taken from [Meyerbeer’s] “Les Huguenots,” played by Mdlles. Marie and Eugenie on treble and tenor concertinas. The trio on national melodies, as might be expected met with an enthusiastic reception, and was re-demanded. Mdlles. Lachenal are unquestionably proficient on their respective instruments. . .(The Scotsman, 22 October 1865).

The successful performance on 21 October was followed by a Saturday Evening Concert at the Music Hall on 11 November; this performance received a round of accolades and an announcement of the sisters’ extended stay in Edinburgh:

The concertina playing of the Mdlles Lachenal and Mr Bridgman formed a most important feature in the concert. The quartette on airs from [Donizetti’s] L’Elisir d’Amore was exceedingly effective. It is cleverly arranged, and was most tastefully interpreted by Mr Bridgman and his fair co-executants. The duet on airs from [Auber’s] Le Domino Noir, &c, for treble concertina and pianoforte, was also most charmingly given by Mdlle Marie Lachenal and Mr Bridgman. The trio on Scottish airs by the three sisters was equally satisfactory, and received an encore, which, however, was gracefully declined. Their concluding number was the quartette introducing “Rule Britannia,” “Home, sweet home,” and God save the Queen.” During the performance of the National Anthem the audience remained seated—a phenomenon we never saw exhibited in any concert-room. We are glad to learn that these accomplished artistes intend to remain some time in Edinburgh, so that we may hope to have frequent opportunities of hearing them (The Scotsman, 13 November 1865).

The Lachenals’ next performance at the Music Hall’s Saturday Night Concerts took place on 16 December and, like the earlier ones, was loudly applauded:

Two concert solos, the one on national airs and the other on themes from [Rossini’s] William Tell, were tastefully played by Mdlle Marie Lachenal, and met with immense applause. Not less satisfactory as performances were the trio, by the three sisters, and the quartett, [Weber’s] “Invitation a la Danse,” in which they were assisted by Mr Bridgman. . .[who] discharged his usual duties as accompanist most efficiently (The Scotsman, 18 December 1865).

Between their major performances, the sisters contributed their talents to charity events, including a 13 December concert for the benefit of the Edinburgh Lifeboat Fund. The concert organizers were disappointed by the low turnout, but certainly not by the quality of the sisters’ performance:

The concertina, played by Mdlles. Lachenal and Mr Bridgman, was worthy of all praise, and loudly applauded, the quartette from [Donizetti’s] L’Elisir d’Amore and the trio on Scotch and Irish airs being re-demanded (The Scotsman, 14 December 1865).

Between their engagements at the Music Hall, the sisters also appeared at a ‘grand musical soirée’ sponsored by the Total Abstinence Society and the Band of Hope and held at the Corn Exchange Hall, Dalkeith, on 25 December. The sisters shared the instrumental segment of the program with the Band of the Edinburgh Volunteers. It was, however, Christmas Night, and there were no more than eight hundred in attendance, half of whom were children. But the Lachenal sisters played to their full-house standards and, as usual, their talents and efforts were rewarded by the reviewer:

The most attractive feature in the evening’s proceedings was the musical portion of the programme, which included a variety of excellent quartetts, trios, and solos for the concertina. . .admirably performed by Mdlles Marie, Eugenie, and Josephine Lachenal … Mr F.W. Bridgman … performed the duties of accompanist in his well-known superior style (The Scotsman, 27 December 1865).

The Lachenal sisters’ last performance in Edinburgh took place on 20 January 1866, once again as part of The Saturday Evening Concerts. And though they treated the audience to at least some pieces not included in their earlier performances at the Music Hall, they went unnoticed by the press. It appears that their last performance was not reviewed, at least not by The Scotsman, possibly because they were leaving Edinburgh and were therefore less newsworthy than when future performances loomed.

Marie and her sisters had little opportunity to capitalize on their successes. In 1868, Marie left the Lachenal household to set up housekeeping of her own with husband Edwin, and the Lachenal sisters trio was disbanded. Not until around 1920, when the Fayre Four Sisters—Inga, Tina, Sylvia, and Lillian Webb—took to the stage,10 would there be another all-sister concertina ensemble of the same high caliber as the Lachenal sisters.

The years from 1869 to the early 1880s were devoted to the Debenham children, which left little time for the concertina even in the parlor. Yet the later resurgence of Marie’s career suggests that she at least found time to maintain (possibly even add to) her technique with regular or occasional practice and through teaching both her own children and perhaps other pupils as well. If Marie performed outside the home at all, it was probably at small, fairly informal venues, somewhat akin to the charity concerts of the mid-1860s. Perhaps an exception to this was an occasional appearance at the series of concerts that Richard Blagrove liked to organize in connection with his Concertina Fund, these sometimes requiring forces of up to eight concertinas.11

We can catch a glimpse of the day-to-day stress of Marie’s life from an extract drawn from a family diary (now in the possession of the Debenham family) and dating from 1876:

Marie, pregnant with her 5th child, had joined Edwin in Weymouth where he was establishing a new business. In February [1876]. . .he took time to visit his favourite brother Arthur, in Ryde, where he worked by lamplight each evening, painting an opal picture which would be sent as a specimen. About ten days after he left the Isle of Wight, Marie sent a note to her brother-in-law requesting he come immediately to visit his brother Edwin, who had been stricken with a condition known as erysipelas [known as ‘St. Anthony’s Fire’, a viral infection]. Arthur left Ryde by train and within hours found his special brother in a delirious state with a fever ranging from gentleness in lucid intervals to raging at its height. This was an extremely anxious time for Marie as her sister Eugenie was in another room confined with scarlet fever. Finally Elizabeth Lachenal arrived from London with another brother of Edwin’s to assist.

Edwin took months to regain his strength, and, within a few months, Marie gave birth to Frederick (Albert Debenham’s father), in Weymouth, on 23 April 1876.12

In 1885, Marie reappeared among the ranks of leading concertinists. The occasion was the International Inventions Exhibition in London, which brought out the flock of high-profile concertinists from the ‘stables’ of both Wheatstone and Lachenal. The concertina activities at the Exhibition were recorded as follows:

At the Inventions Exhibition Messrs. Wheatstones’ Recitals by Mr. G. [sic!] Blagrove, Mr. J.C. Ward, and the Messrs. Chidley, were greatly admired, and the Quartettes which were played on the Treble, Tenor, and Bass Concertinas showed the beautiful effect of concerted music, when performed on the Concertinas, and by competent musicians. The solos were also artistically rendered. Again, there were the Recitals by Mr. James Alsepti, Mr. Henry Roe, Mr. George Roe, and Madame Debenham, under the direction of Messrs. Lachenal and Co., and various solos (some of them comprising the most difficult music) being accomplished on this instrument in a manner that would take a good Violinist to excel.13

That Marie must have held her own in the midst of this all-star cast is evidenced by the following review:

A concert given to prove the pure and brilliant quality of the Lachenal concertina afforded much gratification to the large audiences in the music-room of the International Inventions Exhibition last Tuesday evening. . .Marie Lachenal . . .played fantasias from Gounod, Rossini, and Meyerbeer, with consumate [sic] ease, and was deservedly applauded.14

We can see what Marie looked like at this time from a full-length portrait showing her with concertina in hand; the portrait was made by husband Edwin at the Debenham studio just around the time of the Exhibition (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Marie Lachenal with concertina (photograph by Edwin A. Debenham, Debenham & Co., York, c. 1885; reproduced courtesy of the Debenham family). (Leeds Mercury)

The positive response to her performance just a few years after the birth of her last child, Elsie Linda, in 1882, must have provided a psychological boost. And Marie began to look forward to a ‘second’ full-fledged career as a concertinist. In the next two decades, she earned acclaim from audiences from Huddersfield and Leeds in the north to Southampton and Torquay in the south, all the while continuing to take on concertina pupils.
Around the turn of the century, Marie reinforced her efforts to promote her career by having an ‘announcement’ printed that advertised her availability as both performer and teacher (see Fig. 2), and followed that with a number of choice excerpts from reviews that she had clipped from the press, a selection from which follows.15

Fig. 2. Marie’s ‘announcement’, c. 1900
(reproduced courtesy of the Debenham family).

Mme. Marie Lachenal performed R. Blagrove’s concertina solo ‘Scottish Airs’ in a manner which delighted the audience, who insisted on its repetition. (Southampton Times)

Winter Garden Concerts—Foremost amongst those on Monday evening was Mme. Lachenal, whose solos ‘Les Huegenots’ [sic], ‘Le Prophéte,’ and ‘Fantasia on airs from Faust,’ again proved her thorough acquaintance with the concertina, and the applause with which she was greeted shewed that this lady has won her way to popular favor. (Torquay Times)16

Mme Lachenal again sustained the reputation she has gained on more than one occasion for the masterly way in which she handles the English concertina, and her ‘Scotch Airs’ were loudly applauded. (Devon County Standard)17

Mme. Lachenal showed herself to be a very facile and correct executant, and an accomplished artiste in her style of playing, her accent and phrasing being particularly good, and her ability in bringing out the dramatic side of the music was really remarkable. Indeed, she showed what a wonderful variety of tone and expressiveness can be obtained from the instrument by a good player. (Huddersfield Examiner)

Leeds Coliseum Saturday Concerts—The feature of the performance was the rendering of a couple of concertina solos by Mme. Lachenal, of Huddersfield, in such a manner as to win the hearty applause of the audience. Her fingering of the instrument was perfect. She is the best performer of the kind we have heard for some time. (Leeds Daily News)18

Leeds Coliseum Saturday Concerts—A novelty in the evening’s entertainment, and one which will bear repeating was a concertina solo by Mme. Marie Lachenal, who succeeded in drawing music from the instrument which few would have given it credit for possessing.

Dating from the turn of the century is another portrait of Marie with her concertina (Fig. 3). Produced by husband Edwin, it roughly coincided with Marie’s announcement of her continuing availability for performances and teaching.

Fig. 3. Marie Lachenal with concertina (photograph by Edwin A. Debenham, Debenham Studios, Gloucester, c. 1900; reproduced courtesy of the Debenham family).

III. The Musical Repertory: Thanks to the many references to specific pieces in the announcements and reviews of her concerts in the 1860s and in the 1880s through the turn of the century, we can form a fairly good picture of Marie’s repertory. The Appendix lists all the pieces culled from those announcements and reviews.

IV. The Lachenal and Debenham Families: Marie Lachenal was born on 13 August 1848 in the family home at 26 King Street (now part of Shaftesbury Avenue),19 London, and was christened on 11 February 1849 at St. Anne’s, Soho, London. She was the first of nine children born to Louis (1821-1861) and Elizabeth Lachenal (1825-1904), born Jeanne (or Françoise) Marie Elisabeth Irion.20 Louis and Elizabeth married on 3 November 1847, probably in Elizabeth’s hometown of Ferney Voltaire (France), but possibly across the border in Geneva (given that Louis was Swiss-born). They departed for London shortly thereafter, arriving there on 10 November 1847. (Louis had originally settled in England in December 1839.)

The Lachenals’ eight other children were: Jane Elizabeth (23 July 1849 – 2 March 1883), who adopted the stage name Eugenie; Josephine (b. 28 January 1851), the third of the concertina-playing sisters; Louis Jules (b. 16 May 1853); Constance (b. 19 August 1855); François Edouard (b. 27 July 1856), Marie Louise (b. c. 25 October 1857); Alice (b. 27 November 1859); and Alexander (b. 17 October 1861). Louis Lachenal died on 18 December 1861, just three years after beginning to market concertinas under his own name (rather than wholesaling to Wheatstone) and moving his operations to 8, Little James Street, Bedford Row, London, WC, along which street Lachenal concertinas would be manufactured for the next seventy-some-odd years.21

After Louis’ death, Elizabeth managed the firm until 1873, at which time she sold the business to a group of Lachenal employees, who changed the name to Lachenal & Co.22 Elizabeth then spent three decades in retirement, and died on 10 September 1904 in the home of daughter Marie Louise Waddell in Stout Green, North London.

To return to Marie: by 1867 she had met and fallen in love with Edwin Alfred Debenham, who, having a fine voice, was also something of a performer, and often sang at public concerts. Marie and Edwin married on 7 April 1868 in St. Peter’s Church, Regent Square, London. Edwin was born on 7 June 1844 in Bury St. Edmonds, Suffolk, where the Debenham family was long established and well known.23 He was the seventh of eight children born to Samuel and Salome Debenham (born Warren). Recognizing the opportunities stemming from the recent advances in photography and with something of an artistic flair of his own, Samuel Debenham had moved his family to London in 1846 to pursue a career as a photographer. By 1860, he was well established with his own studios, having learned much about the new art form, which he then taught to his sons.
By 1862, Edwin and younger brother Arthur were working for their older brother, William Elliott Debenham (age twenty-three), who had already set up a successful studio at 158 Regent Street, London. In 1867, Edwin and Arthur formed a partnership and set up a studio of their own in Ryde, Island of Wight. Within a year, though, Arthur had married, and Edwin agreed to withdraw from the partnership, though not without a cash settlement. The Isle of Wight became the center of Arthur’s business and an opportune site for advancing the Debenham slogan of ‘Photographer to Royalty’. Indeed, Arthur was a favorite photographer of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra when they resided at Osborne House, their summer home, or went sailing on the royal yacht ‘Victoria’.24 In addition, Arthur produced a family portrait of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandria, taken during the Russian royal family’s last visit to England in 1910.

Edwin’s older brother, William Elliott, preferred to operate mainly from his Regent Street studio, which was an ideal location for attracting such high-profile clients as members of the royal family, prime ministers, poets, and artists. Edwin chose a decentralized approach, expanding his operation around England, especially (but not exclusively) along the southern coast. Among his locations: the early studio in Reigate, Surrey, as well as E. Debenham (later Debenham & Gould), Glen View Studios in Bournemouth,25 E. Debenham (later Debenham & Smith) in Southampton, E. Debenham’s ‘Royal Portraits Studio’ in Weymouth, Debenham & Co. in York, and the Debenham studios in Torquay and Gloucester. The Debenham studios also reached north to Edinburgh, where Edwin had a studio that would later belong to his son and namesake, Edwin Holford Debenham (c. 1872-1936).26

A number of calling cards and cabinet cards produced at the studios of Edwin, his brothers, and their sons may still be found among collectors.27 A particular passion of Edwin Debenham was the pleasure of photographing Marie and his children. In addition to portraits of Marie with her concertina (see Figures 1 and 3), Edwin produced a cameo-mount portrait of her at age seventy. Shown in Figure 4, it dates from 1919.
In 1869, with Marie at his side, Edwin opened his studio in Reigate, Surrey. At the same time, the family began to grow with the arrival of their first child, Lucy Alice. Their first son, Arthur Jules, was born in late 1870, and seven more children arrived during the next twelve years: Edwin Holford (c. 1872-1936), Leonard (b. 1874),28 Frederick William (1876-1956),29 Philip Eugene (b. c. 1877), Leonard Coleman (b. c. 1879), Josephine (b. 1880), and Elsie Linda (1882-1967), their places of birth seemingly following the path of Debenham studios across England.

Fig. 4. Marie Lachenal (photograph by Edwin A. Debenham, Debenham Studios, 1919; reproduced courtesy of the Debenham family).

The 1871 census shows that Marie and Edwin’s residence was in Reigate. A decade later, the family was located in Holford, Holdenhurst, near Bournemouth, whereas the 1891 census has the family at 24 Newton Lane, Castlegate District, York, and records Edwin and Marie as ‘Photographer[s]’. The 1901 census places Marie, Edwin, and three of the children in Gloucester; by 1920, Marie and Edwin were residing in Nottingham.

Though Marie taught the concertina to some of the children, none of them followed her as a profession concertinist. Nonetheless, the 1901 census records both Josephine (then age twenty) and Elsie Linda (age eighteen) as ‘Musical student[s]’, with Josephine eventually having a career as a music teacher.

Finally, retirement took Edwin and Marie to Darlington, in northern England (a few miles south of Durham). This was a time for Edwin, patriarch of a family with deep religious convictions, to direct his energies to the church, where he was a lay reader. Edwin died on 21 February 1925 at their home on Northgate Street; and after a widowhood of twelve years, Marie Lachenal died on 29 May 1937, at age 88. She was buried on 1 June in the Darlington East Cemetery, Geneva Road, Darlington.


Marie Lachenal’s Repertory

What follows is a list of pieces that constitute at least part of Marie Lachenal’s repertory as these may be culled from the Islington Times review of her 1865 concert, the announcements and reviews of the 1865/66 Edinburgh concerts that appeared in The Scotsman, and the reviews that appeared in various newspapers of the concerts that Marie gave in the 1880s and later. The great majority of works—both for concertina with piano and for concertina ensembles—belong to the almost-proverbial ‘Fantasia on. . .’ genre, that is, settings of well-known songs and popular opera arias of the day that were intended to display the performer’s virtuosity. In some instances, it is not possible to identify the composer with certainty, as more than one concertinist-composer/arranger drew on the same ‘common stock’ of materials. We have, therefore, attributed pieces as follows: (1) when the composer is named in either an announcement or a review, his name is indicated together with an asterisk; (2) when a title can be assigned to more than one composer (that is, more than one composer wrote a piece with the same title, based on the British Library’s online catalogue or Wheatstone’s Catalogue of Music for the English Concertina or Aeola, c. 1919), we have favored the piece by Blagrove (as long as it is known to date from before the concert in question) on the grounds of his close relationship with Marie Lachenal. Publication dates follow those in the British Library online catalogue <>. Finally, the list is organized by type of ensemble.

A. Treble concertina and pianoforte

Concertante Duet on Airs from ‘Le Domino’, ‘Fra Diavolo’, and ‘Masaniello’, Blagrove and Sydney Smith* (n.d.)
Duet on Airs from Herold’s ‘Zampa’, Blagrove (1862)
Fantasia on Airs from Donizetti’s Opera ‘Linda di Chamounix’, Blagrove (1848)
Fantasia on Airs from Gounod’s [Opera] ‘Faust’, Blagrove* (1863)
Fantasia on Airs from Meyerbeer’s Opera ‘Le Prophéte’, Blagrove (1851)
Fantasia on Airs from Meyerbeer’s Opera ‘Les Huguenots’, Blagrove (1851)
Fantasia on Airs from Rossini’s Opera ‘Guillaume Tell’, Blagrove (1855)
Fantasia on Airs from Schira’s Opera ‘Niccolò di Lapi’, Blagrove (1863)
Fantasia on Airs from Verdi’s Opera ‘Il Trovatore’, Blagrove (1856)
Fantasia on English Airs, Blagrove (no copy in the British Library)
Fantasia on Scottish Airs, Blagrove (1854)
Fantasia on ‘Souvenir de Donizetti’, Blagrove (1867)
Serenade, Regondi* (1859)30

B. Concertina ensembles

Invitation à la Danse, probably based on the famous piece by Carl Maria von Weber (two trebles, tenor, and bass)
Mozart, Quartet in F major [K. 590] (two trebles, tenor, and bass)
Quartet on Airs from [Donizetti’s]‘L’Elisir d’Amore’, George Case* (two trebles, tenor, and bass)
Quartet on English Airs, George Case* (two trebles, tenor, and bass)
Selections from Meyerbeer’s Opera ‘Les Huguenots’, Blagrove (treble and tenor)
Selections from Rossini’s Opera ‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia’, (two trebles, tenor, and bass)
Selections from Rossini’s Opera ‘Guillaume Tell’, Blagrove (treble and tenor)
Themes from [Rossini’s] ‘Semiramide’, [Bellini’s] Sonnambula’, and [Donizetti’s] ‘Lucrezia Borgia’ (two trebles, tenor, and bass)
Trio on Scotch Airs, George Case* (treble, baritone, and bass; or two trebles and bass)
Trio on Irish Airs, George Case* (two trebles and bass)

C. Treble concertina and strings

Beethoven, Serenade (likely that in D major, Op. 8, 1797, with viola and cello)
English Airs (with violin, viola, and cello)
Mayseder, Duet No. 1, (with violin)
Mozart, Quartet, No. 23 [in F major, K. 590] (with violin, viola, and cello)


1. We appreciate the comments of Chris Algar, Richard Carlin, Stephen Chambers, Geoffrey Crabb, Robert Gaskins, Douglas Rogers, Neil Wayne, Wes Williams, and the editor of PICA. Stephen Chambers’s contribution to the documentation of Lachenal and Debenham genealogy deserves a special note of thanks.

2. On the firm of Lachenal, see the two important articles by Stephen Chambers: ‘Louis Lachenal: “Engineer and Concertina Manufacturer”, Part I’, The Free-Reed Journal, 1 (1999), 7-18; ‘Some Notes on Lachenal Concertina Production and Serial Numbers’, Papers of the International Concertina Association, 1 (2004), 3-23.

3. Both venue and date are identified in a review printed in The Musical Times, xii/269 (1 July 1865), 101; the review goes on to say: ‘The effect [of the concertina quintet] was exceedingly good; and the adaptability of the instruments to the execution of orchestral music was most successfully shown’.

4. On Blagrove’s concertina-related activities (he was also a violist in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and taught that instrument at the Royal Academy of Music), see Allan W. Atlas, The Wheatstone English Concertina in Victorian England, especially Chapters 4-6; on the Blagrove family of musicians, see The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., ed. Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan, 2001), iii, 670-71. In later years, Marie described herself as a ‘favourite student of Richard Blagrove’. A Richard Blagrove photograph in the form of a calling card was produced by the studio of Debenham & Gabell, 158 Regent Street, London; see <>.

The bibliography on Regondi (1822/23-1872) has grown rapidly in recent years: to cite only those items that are entirely or mainly concertina-related (he was also a virtuoso guitarist): Douglas Rogers, ‘Giulio Regondi: Guitarist, Concertinist, or Melaphonist? A Reconnaissance’, The Guitar Review, 91 (Fall 1992), 1-9; 92 (Winter 1993), 14-21; 97 (Spring 1994), 11-17; Tom Lawrence, ‘Giulio Regondi and the Concertina in Ireland’, Concertina World: International Concertina Association Newsletter, 411 (July 1998), 21-25 (online at <http:// www.ucd.le/pages/99/articles/Lawrence.pdf>); Atlas, The Wheatstone English Concertina, 48-54; ‘Collins, Count Fosco, and the Concertina’, Wilkie Collins Society Journal, new ser., 2 (1999), 56-60; ‘Giulio Regondi: Two Newly Discovered Letters’, The Free-Reed Journal, 4 (2002), 70-84 (the latter two articles online at <>); Helmut C. Jacobs, Der junge Guitarren- und Concertinavirtuose Giulio Regondi: Eine kritische Dokumentation seiner Konzertreise durch Europa, 1840 und 1841 (Bochum: Augemus, 2001); two forthcoming articles: Atlas, ‘A 41-Cent Emendation: A Textual Problem in Wheatstone’s Publication of Giulio Regondi’s Serenade for English Concertina and Pianoforte’, to appear in the journal Early Music (2005),33/4; Alessandro Boris Amisich, ‘Where was Regondi Born?’, to appear in Papers of the International Concertina Association, 3 (2006).

5. Our attempts to find a copy of this newspaper have come up short. We therefore quote the review as it appears in William Cawdell, A Short Account of the English Concertina by an Amateur: Its Uses and Capabilities, Faculty of Acquirement, and Other Advantages (London: W. Cawdell, 1865; reprinted with new title page, 1866), 15 (both versions online at <>).

6. Already a widow, Ellen (born c. 1816) is listed as living in Richard Blagrove’s household along with her three sons in the 1861 census.

7. See Cawdell, A Short Account, 22. The letter, signed ‘TREMELO-NON-TROPPO’, was almost certainly written by Cawdell himself. George Tinkler Case (1823-1892) was a violinist (in the Covent Garden Opera Orchestra), pianist, and concertinist, who turned out a voluminous amount of music for the concertina; see Atlas, The Wheatstone English Concertina, Chapters 4-5.

8. On the George Street Music Hall and the performances held there, see Robert Gaskins, ‘The Lachenal Sisters Visit Edinburgh, 1865-1866’, at <>, which includes all the notices from The Scotsman cited below (and more).

9. On the day of the concert, The Scotsman focused on the following highlight: ‘The programme for to-night contains a novelty—viz., the performance of a movement from Mozart’s Quartett in F major, played on four concertinas. The artistes are the Mdlles. Lachenal, of London celebrity, and Mr. Bridgman’. There are three possibilities for the quartet in question: K. 138 (1772), which Mozart called a Divertimento, the equally early K. 168 (1772/73) or, most likely, the late K. 590 (1790), one of the so-called ‘Prussian’ quartets (our thanks to Allan Atlas for this information). On Bridgman, who was noted as a child prodigy and enjoyed a successful career as a teacher in Edinburgh, see James D. Brown and Stephen S. Stratton, British Musical Biography: A Dictionary of Musical Artists, Authors and Composers Born in Britain and Its Colonies (London: Reeves, 1897; reprint: New York: Da Capo Press, 1971), 61.

10. On the Webbs, see Richard Carlin, ‘The Fayre Four Sisters’, The Free-Reed Journal, 3 (2001), 79-88.

11. See Atlas, The Wheatstone English Concertina, 67-68; it was for one of these concerts that the Dutch-born composer Edouard Silas wrote his now-lost Adagio in E for eight concertinas.

12. The late Albert Debenham was the husband of Faye Debenham, co-author of this article.

13. John Hill Maccann, The Concertinist’s Guide (London: Howard, 1888), 3-4 (online at <http://>). The initial ‘G.’ before Blagrove’s name should probably be ‘R.’ Maccann likely refers to Marie as ‘Madame Debenham’ because of the lengthy period that had elapsed since Marie had performed under her own name. On John Charles Ward, see Atlas, The Wheatstone English Concertina, passim; Alsepti is treated in some detail in Atlas, ‘Signor Alsepti and “Regondi’s Golden Exercise”’, Concertina World: Newsletter of the International Concertina Association, No. 426, supplement (July 2003); on the brothers Roe, see Atlas, ‘The Victorian Concertina: Some Issues of Performance Practice’, forthcoming in The Nineteenth-Century Music Review; finally, the Chidleys took over the firm of Wheatstone & Co. c. 1870 (see Chambers, ‘Some Notes on Lachenal Concertina Production’, 20, n. 18).

14. Illustrated London News, 1885. (We have not been able to determine the exact date of this review, which was preserved as a press clipping by Marie herself.)

15. Though Marie identified the newspapers from which the clippings were cut, she did not provide dates, which have yet to be determined.

16. The Winter Garden in Torquay, an iron and glass structure located behind the post office on Brandons Hill, was built in 1881 with about a 3,000-seat capacity. The structure was relocated to Wellington Pier in Great Yarmouth in 1904.

17. The Devon County Standard, founded on 1 April 1882, changed its name to the Torquay Observer and District News after 29 April 1898, which is therefore the terminus ante quem for the review; see ‘Devon Newspaper Bibliography’ at <>.

18. Opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales in July 1885, the 3,000-seat Coliseum Theatre became Leeds’ first full-time cinema in 1905.

19. This was a busy year for the Lachenal family, as it was in 1848 that Louis began large-scale production of concertinas to be sold by Wheatstone’s.

20. She changed her name from Jeanne to Françoise on the birth certificates of her children. In his last will and testament, dated 8 May 1856, Louis referred to his ‘dear wife Françoise Marie Elizabeth Lachenal’ (Chambers, ‘Some Notes on Lachenal Concertina Production’, n. 12). After her husband’s death (or even possibly before it), she became known as ‘Elizabeth’ (altering the French ‘Elisabeth’).

21. See Chambers, ‘Louis Lachenal’, 16.

22. See Chambers, ‘Some Notes on Lachenal Concertina Production’, 8-9.

23. In fact, there is a town called Debenham in Suffolk.

24. Arthur’s studios on the Isle of Wight included those at Arcade and 28 Union Street in Ryde and a studio in Cowes. Arthur (later Debenham & Sons) also had studios in Brighton, Newport, Sandown, and Seaview.

25. The most famous client of Debenham & Gould at the Glen View Studios may have been Oscar Wilde, who posed for the photographers in 1887. Two photographs from that session are owned by the Clark Library at the University of California, Los Angeles.

26. The Debenham studios had various ownership and operating structures: sole ownership and management by a Debenham brother or nephew; partnership with a brother, son, or unrelated party; and studio sub-contracting under a lease or franchise-type arrangement. Competition was strong, but the demand for portrait photography kept pace with—and even outpaced—the proliferation of studios. During the period of Edwin and his brothers, the popularity and affordability of studio photography filtered down from royalty and celebrities to the upper and middle classes, and finally to the more prosperous members of the working class. Most upscale Victorian parlors had wedding and other large portraits, and collecting small cardboard-backed portraits—calling cards (2½” x 3½ prints) and cabinet cards (about 4” x 5”)—was all the rage from the royals on down. The popularity of the studios would only wane with the rise of amateur photography and the advent of George Eastman and the Kodak.

27. The Roger Vaughan Collection of images of calling cards, some made at the Debenham studios and some two thousand others produced at several hundred other Victorian studios, appears online at Many original photographs by the Debenhams are preserved in museum collections in England and elsewhere.

28. He died on 15 July 1874, just fifteen days old.

29. Frederick William, father of Faye Debenham’s late husband, was born on 23 April 1876 in Weymouth, Dorset. He and Margaret Pottar Guthrie-Russell were married in Alberta, Canada, on 19 April 1916. He died 16 May 1956 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

30. There is a recording of the piece by Douglas Rogers, English concertina, and Julie Lustman, piano, on The Great Regondi: Original Compositions by the 19th Century’s Unparalleled Guitarist and Concertinist, The Regondi Guild, Bridge Records BCB 9039 (1993). For a discussion of a textual problem in the Serenade, see Atlas, ‘A 41-Cent Emendation’ (see note 4).

Frank Butler: An Interview


Frank Butler (Fig. 1) will hardly need an introduction to concertinists: he was one of the twentieth century’s finest players of the English concertina, with a career as a performer that spanned the 1920s-1940s; he was one of the most important teachers of the instrument, which he taught for several decades in London’s schools for adult-education; beginning in the 1950s, he was a driving force in—and one of the founding members of—the International Concertina Association, to which he devoted himself with his usual energy; and he was even a historian of the instrument, having contributed an informative article on the behind-the-scenes business of concertina manufacturing in the nineteenth century. 1 In addition, Butler touched many concertinists with whom he never came into personal contact through his fine tutor for the instrument, The Concertina,2 which not only offers a comprehensive method for playing the instrument, but provides a primer on the basic elements of music theory, and thus reflects Butler’s strongly held belief that concertinists should be good, well-rounded musicians.

What follows is based on an interview that I conducted with Frank Butler in January 1975.3

Frank E. Butler was born in March 1904, 4 the youngest of three children. His formal education came to an end when he was fourteen, at which time he was apprenticed to a wholesale drapers for two-and-a-half years. He then spent the remainder of his working life in the employ of a publisher that specialized in school textbooks, rising from book packer to the important post of advisor on educational publishing. Frank began his musical career as a pianist:

My mother made efforts to teach me the piano, not very successfully because she belonged to the ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ fraternity, and therefore she was quite harsh in her teaching. But when I was sixteen-and-a-half, I suddenly took to it on my own account, except that if my mother walked in to play, I walked out. I wasn’t having the risk of another cuff!

Frank taught himself to play the piano and read music by using the Trinity College of Music examinations for the piano as a guide. Before long, he was touring as a pianist with a ‘concert party’, that is, a group of musicians who normally joined forces with a comedian, singer, and Master of Ceremonies to perform at local clubs. Most of the members of the party were employed in regular day jobs, and used their party performances in order to earn a bit of extra money on the side.

Frank’s interest in the concertina was inspired by the memory of his grandfather, the well-known concertina manufacturer George Jones: 5

My grandfather, George Jones, was a manufacturer of concertinas. I can’t tell you from memory when he started in the business; I think he gave up around 1910. He started as an out-worker for Wheatstone’s. He joined with another outworker of Wheatstone’s [Jabez Austin] in some sort of partnership. . .My grandfather [joined Austin] at the age of twenty, as manager, which was a pretty hectic rise for those days, and [within a year, Austin] had drunk himself to death. So my grandfather found himself in possession of quite a good-sized music business…

Two of Jones’s students would play a crucial role in Butler’s career: Arthur and Joseph Webb. Better known as the ‘Brothers Webb’ (Arthur as Root-Toot, or Ruté, as it was sometimes spelled, Joseph as Jo-Jo), they were among the most popular musical circus clowns of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and also played the music halls and clubs that were, at the time, ubiquitous throughout England. And in addition to their fiddle, musical saw, and drum (not to mention their feats of acrobatics, juggling, and comic skits), the brothers played concertinas in the course of their act. Moreover, since the circuses of the period offered Sunday concerts of semi-classical music, the brothers had an opportunity to show off their concertina-playing skills, Arthur on the treble, Joseph on the baritone. 6 It was the Webb brothers who encouraged Frank to take up the concertina in the late 1920s, when Frank was twenty-five years old:

The brothers Webb said, ‘What an appalling thing it is that Frank, the only one of the Jones brood that seems to have gone truly musical, doesn’t play a concertina’. My grandfather, of course, was dead. My grandmother had two of his instruments, not very good ones, so the brothers Webb lent me a treble English ‘tina; and, in all honesty, I can say that within six weeks I was using it on the stage; I was playing Dvoøák’s ‘Humoresque’ and Beethoven’s ‘Minuet in G’, and they remained my stock solos for three months…

At that time, light-classics such as those mentioned by Frank, along with selections from operas, marches by Sousa, and popular songs of the day were the meat-and-potatoes of the concertinist’s repertory. This was the music that people wanted to hear in the music halls, and this was what the professionals played.

Frank used the concertina as a ‘novelty’ to perform one or two solos as part of the concert party. And though Frank never became, in his words, ‘a full-time, professional “artiste’’’, he was able to find a good deal of work, since opportunities for semi-professional performers at this time were numerous:

A lot of churches used to run regular concerts. There wasn’t the radio or television…the clubs, the working-men’s clubs, and so forth, were all in existence and all had regular concerts. I don’t know that they have the same now; I believe they switch the television on and leave it at that. Several cinemas were not allowed to open on Sundays unless it was a ‘concert’. So by some weird logic, if you put on two films and a short program of music in between, it became a ‘concert’. And that was legal! With some concerts, it was lethal, I should think! That provided us with Sunday night jobs, and some of them were very well paid. This work was not limited to London, and we used to go far afield for those days: Folkestone, Cambridge, Bedford, Luton. . .it meant, very often, not getting home until 2:00 in the morning, which will tell you why I didn’t want to do any more than three a week.

In the early years of the Depression, Frank’s concert party broke up, and he began to tour as a solo artist. He limited his solo work to the concertina, and he soon had well over thirty numbers under his fingers. Yet Frank found performing unrewarding:

I went on to working solo turns, and my heart really wasn’t in it. The people wanted popular choruses, and they wanted ‘ditties’ that they could sing, and I got no pleasure out of playing the concertina while eight hundred to a thousand people bawled choruses at me. . .I had some thirty numbers in my repertory then, which I knew from memory, and I knew [them] so well that I could carry on a conversation at the same time I was playing them. I always had a selection going of the popular songs of the day. Funny enough, the only ones that comes to mind immediately [are] ‘If I Had A Talking Picture of You’ and ‘Sonny Boy’, that sort of thing. I also had several selections of old music hall choruses; these would always go down well, particularly in the clubs. Truthfully, I didn’t like playing them, but this was your only way to get encores. In the end, I didn’t care whether I got an encore or not; that’s why I gave up.

Frank put away his concertina until after the Second World War. In the meantime, his wife had encouraged him to take up the piano again, which, as it turned out, led him to playing classical music on the concertina. In 1953, the grandly named International Concertina Association—really at first just a London-based group of players—was formed. Frank attended his first meeting a year later, and became the Association’s secretary in 1955, editing the ICA Newsletter from 1956 to 1967. Frank also organized the ICA’s first festival, which subsequently developed into a yearly competition aimed at encouraging young players to take up the instrument. Finally, he began teaching group classes at various London-area ‘Institutes’ (schools run by the individual boroughs and devoted to adult-education), which he would continue to do through the late 1970s:

Harry Minting [the last manager of the Wheatstone firm, and a concertina player and teacher active in London for many decades] started this school [in the early 1950s]… He recruited so many students it became a little bit of a problem, and he engaged me to take his beginners’ classes. He had two classes. And this really got me deep into teaching. I’d only done it in a desultory fashion up to then. I decided immediately that there was nothing published that met my requirements, [so] I wrote the exercises myself, and that, in 1955, was the beginning of the Butler tutor… Minting after a time transferred his club to the Holloway Institute, where I teach now [1975]. Minting himself became ill, and I stepped in as his substitute, his deputy, and was quite happy over it. . .And [when, in 1959,] Minting… decided to give that up entirely… [he] asked me if I would like to take the class. And I took this class over from him, really, on a few hours notice. And I’m now in my sixteenth year of it.

One year before that [thus in 1958], Battersea Institute started a class of concertina playing at the request of an old gentleman in the borough who asked the principal if he could have a class. And the principal said, ‘If you can get sufficient students, yes’. The old gent advertised in all the local papers, put little notices in the local shops, and he recruited a class. The principal of Battersea Institute engaged me as the teacher. So there I was with Battersea Institute, substituting for Minting at Holloway, and then [after Minting left] I found myself with Holloway Institute as well. And from that moment, for many years I reigned supreme as the only accredited teacher of the English concertina, with two of London’s Institutes to work in.

Butler soon discovered that many of his students could not read music, so he designed a course of study that would teach the basics of reading music while it developed exercises that would help students understand the unique layout of the English concertina’s keyboard. Like the Trinity method with which he had taught himself, Frank’s method was based on taking the students from elementary scales and exercises to the most difficult classical music. He also drew on his experiences developing textbook material for beginning readers. Butler’s method was based on constantly challenging the student with a wide variety of graded material:

To me, the most important thing in playing is sight-reading. When you’re teaching an infant at school to read, you don’t give him one book, and let him read that until he can read it perfectly. [Better to have him] read something different every time he opens a book. You get some repetition, but on the whole, the child’s reading capacity is being expanded the whole time.

And I work very much the same [way] with music. I’m very anxious to get these pupils to the stage where they can read music as fluently as you or I read a newspaper or a novel. As in reading [a] text, you start off with a small vocabulary and gradually expand it, so with music you start off with one note and expand it until you’ve got twelve different pitches and four different variations of duration. And when you’ve acquired that much, you’ve already opened an enormous field to explore, because all of your simple folk or traditional tunes lay within your grasp. I aim that within two years the concertina player will be a fluent reader and have considerable dexterity in playing. A brilliant pupil will go through my course in eight months; I shouldn’t think I’ve seen this more than about three times in fifteen years, but it’s done.

Sadly, by the early 1970s, Butler’s eyesight was failing, and he had to wait several years to get the operation that he needed through Britain’s National Health system. Still, he continued to teach through the early 1980s. Fortunately, the concertina revival of the mid-1970s—based mainly in England—brought him to the attention of a new generation of players, and with the publication of his instruction book, his method of teaching spread widely and quickly. Although Butler was himself primarily interested in the ‘classics’, he was whole-heartedly sympathetic to all styles of music, and his teaching gave students a strong foundation for playing in any style they wished.

Honored and admired by all who knew him, Frank Butler—a gentle man with a wonderful sense of humor—passed away on 21 February 1992.7


1. See ‘Concertinas in the Commercial Road: The Story of George Jones’, Concertina & Squeezebox, 20 (1989), 5-14; Jones was Butler’s maternal grandfather.

Photo of Frank Butler

2. Frank Butler, The Concertina: A Handbook and Tutor for Beginners on the English Concertina (Duffield: The Free Reed Press, 1974/reprint: New York: Oak Publications, 1976); another of Butler’s pedagogical publications was Concertina Two (n.p.: Frank Butler, 1983), with a supplement titled Arranging Music for the English Concertina, with an Introduction to Harmony; there is a review of the 1983 publication in Concertina Magazine, 7 (1984), 18-19; see Randall C. Merris, ‘Instruction Manuals for the English, Anglo, and Duet Concertina: An Annotated Bibliography’, The Free-Reed Journal, 4 (2002), 90 (Merris’s valuable inventory of concertina tutors is also available online:

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3. The interview was conducted as part of a research project on the concertina that I was able to carry out thanks to a Youth Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Eventually, Butler wrote about me in a short note titled ‘Richard Carlin Revisited’, Concertina & Squeezebox, 20 (1989), 21. In addition to Frank Butler, I interviewed Harry Minting, Harry Crabb, Arthur Austin, and the sisters Inga, Tina, Sylvia, and Lillian Webb, known as the Fayre Four Sisters, who were the daughters of the concertina-playing Joseph Webb (about whom see below); I reported on my interview with the Webb sisters in ‘The Fayre Four Sisters: Concertina Virtuosi’, The Free-Reed Journal, 3 (2000), 79-88.

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4. There has been some confusion about the year. Although 1904 is the year cited both by Butler himself in the interview and Alex Richards in ‘The Frank Butler Story’, Concertina Magazine, 9 (Winter 1989), 20, the obituary in Concertina & Squeezebox, 27 (1992), 4-5, gives the year as 1903. My thanks to Stephen Chambers for calling Richards’s article to my attention and to Jon McNamara for providing me with a copy.

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5. Jones (1832-1918) is usually credited with having expanded the scale of the Anglo-German concertina from its original 20-button, diatonic format to a fully chromatic, 30-, 36-, or 40-button instrument; he also manufactured English concertinas, and designed a portable harmonium that was a commercial success. Jones himself played the concertina in the music halls, and was influential as a teacher of the instrument; on Jones, see Butler, ‘Concertinas in the Commercial Road’; Neil Wayne, ‘Concertina Book-Final Edit’, online at unpublished manuscript, 58-65 (a copy in the Wayne Archive, Horniman Museum, London); Stephen Chambers, ‘Louis Lachenal: “Engineer and Concertina Manufac-turer” (Pt. 1)’, The Free-Reed Journal, 1 (1999), 7-8; Jones’s own ‘Memoir’ appears (heavily edited by Frank Butler and Neil Wayne) as ‘The Concertina in Victorian Times: An Echo from the Past—Recollections of the English Concertina Trade by George Jones’, Free Reed: The Concertina Newsletter, 16 (1973), 14-20.

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6. Further on the Brothers Webb, see Frank Butler, ‘The Webb Brothers: A Memorial’, Concertina & Squeezebox, 18-19 (1989), 11-14; Carlin, ‘The Fayre Four Sisters’, 79-82.

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7. There is an eloquent obituary by Joel Cowan in Concertina & Squeezebox (see note 3); although the ICA Newsletter did not run a formal obituary, No. 385 (May/June 1992), 3, contains some letters of tribute (my thanks to Wes Williams for this information).

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Fig 1. Frank Butler and Eileen Jones in Frank’s garden, 1991