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Giulio Regondi at Oxford

In Fall 2005, Allan Atlas approached me with a gleam in his eye (discerned at some distance—in fact, via e-mail) with a request that I write a short piece on ‘Regondi at Oxford’. To aid me in this, he supplied an extensive bibliography of Regondi—but, he added, ‘none of these items mentions Regondi at Oxford’. As I had mentioned the subject myself in a recent publication,1 I was evidently deemed a suitable candidate for the task. What follows constitutes, of course, merely a footnote to history, but I hope not an uninteresting one. It is in that spirit that I offer it.2

I have, then, previously (though all too briefly) documented Regondi at Oxford in the 1850s, and a more detailed consideration of this activity will form the nub of the discussion here. It might reasonably seem that the fashion for the concertina in Oxford was synonymous with Regondi’s appearances in the city. As so often happens, however, upon further investigation a precedent becomes apparent. In March 1843 a local newspaper advertisement announced Mr John P. Barratt’s ‘Grand Vocal and Instrumental Concert’, scheduled to take place on Tuesday, 21 March, in the Town Hall, Oxford, ‘for which he has been fortunate enough to procure the assistance of the following Artistes’: it then lists among the ‘vocalists’ Mr [John] Braham (in first place), and heading the instrumentalists ‘Herr Koenig (cornet à pistons)’, followed by ‘Mr Julian Adams (Concertina)’.3

John Braham was clearly the principal attraction on this occasion. The Journal subsequently noted that a ‘numerous audience’ had assembled early to witness the return of ‘the veteran Braham’.4 The critic was enthusiastic in praise of the performances, both vocal and instrumental: ‘Of the instrumental performers, we cannot but speak in very high terms. . .’; the violin solo, he reported, was exquisite, ‘and so were Koenig’s on the cornet à pistons and Julian Adams’s on that admired instrument the concertina’.5

This early sighting of the concertina as a recital instrument in Oxford is, as far as I am aware, the only such occurrence before the 1850s and the arrival of Regondi on the scene. It would seem that the inclusion of the concertina in a list of the multifarious musical instruments owned (or hired) and practised by members of the university, published in 1856, reflects primarily the influence of Regondi’s performances in Oxford.6 It is also, of course, possible that Regondi was invited to perform in Oxford in the first instance as a result of an already growing interest in the concertina locally. However, other factors enter into the question, and before surveying his Oxford concerts, a glance at the nature of concert life in the city will be in order here.

It is only relatively recently that the focus in studies of music in England from the eighteenth century onwards has shifted significantly away from a London-centred approach, towards the provinces. Oxford is a special case, as a leading university city—one of the most ancient in the kingdom— Pica 3 2006 , Page 21 with a long and notable musical tradition, marked in that period by the distinction of having hosted the visits of Handel and Haydn, in 1733 and 1791, respectively. Important as they are, these two high points in Oxford’s musical life, copiously documented in the primary sources and the secondary literature, could all too easily obscure the continuity and extent of music’s cultivation in Oxford throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and beyond.

Another possibly distorting effect arises from the way in which the story has been told. It is to the work of the Revd John H. Mee, himself something of a legend in Oxford, that we owe the establishing of Oxford’s concert life as a topic of historical record, and the creation of the legendary reputation attached to the Holywell Music Room (opened 1748) as the first purpose-built concert hall in Europe.7 As I have observed elsewhere, Mee ‘constructed his Holywell history distinctly in terms of past glories and their coming to an end’.8 His two concluding chapters are entitled ‘Suspension of the Concerts’ and ‘The End of the Music Room’:

The third period in the history of the Music Room is a gloomy one … at last the enterprise, so vigorously started in 1748, and so sturdily maintained even during the greatest political and military struggle that ever engaged the energies of the English nation, comes to an inglorious end in 1840.

And his agenda at this point was clearly set out: ‘Our immediate task is to trace the progress of decay’.9

The demise of the celebrated subscription concerts run by the Musical Society at the Holywell for the remarkable period of nearly one hundred years in fact marked the beginning of a new phase in Oxford concert life from the 1840s onwards. The Musical Society, governed by a Committee, and almost exclusively using the Holywell Music Room as its concert venue, was now replaced by a number of individual entrepreneurs putting on performances in a variety of locations. This change gave a boost to the city’s concert life, and brought Giulio Regondi to Oxford in the midcentury.10 The stewards of the Musical Society had been keen ‘talentspotters’, booking the leading performers from London and abroad to appear as guest soloists in Oxford. Their successors as concert organizers in the city continued to be energetic in this regard. During the 1840s, invited soloists included Jenny Lind, Clara Novello, John Braham, Sigismund Thalberg, Madame Louise Dulcken (‘Pianist to the Queen’),11 Camillo Sivori (violin), and the Messrs Distin on ‘sax horns’.

Among those who launched their own concert series at this time were members of the Marshall family, a local musical dynasty. William Marshall senior had been leader of the Holywell Band, the resident orchestra for the subscription concerts, for more than forty years beginning in 1801. His sons William and Edward appeared regularly in concerts in the middle decades of the century, performing on violin and flute, respectively. The family collectively took a prominent role in Oxford’s musical life for at least half a century. William Marshall junior had made his Oxford debut on the violin, playing a duo with his father in 1815 at the age of about nine; he was Page 22, Pica 3 2006 also a singer, organist, and pianist, and was appointed Organist of Christ Church, Oxford (and simultaneously of St John’s College), in 1825, a post he held until 1846.12

Perhaps through the Marshall family’s London connections (William junior had trained as a chorister at the Chapel Royal), Regondi seems to have been adopted into their musical circle in Oxford, contributing to a number of their concerts in the early 1850s. (Another possibility is that members of Regondi’s own London network provided an introduction for him to Oxford’s concert platforms.) Even more inviting is the notion that members of the Marshall family were themselves concertinists, as the Wheatstone sales ledger C1046 records a transaction for a Mr W.P. Marshall on 12 May 1842 and another for a Mr. E. Marshall on 21 November 1840.13 In any event, Regondi’s first appearance in Oxford can be documented as having taken place in one of Edward Marshall’s concerts, held at the Star Assembly Room on 22 April 1850.14 The list of performers (advertised as ‘the following eminent Professors’) was headed, as was customary, by the vocalists, namely Mrs Alban Croft (‘late mezzo-soprano of the Royal English Opera, Drury Lane’) and Mr Sims Reeves (‘principal tenor of Her Majesty’s Theatre’), with Mr Alban Croft (baritone, also late of Drury Lane) in third place. Listed among the instrumentalists, after ‘Herr Ernst, (The eminent German Violinist)’—it was his first appearance in Oxford—was ‘Signor Giulio Regondi (Concertina and Guitar)’, followed by Mr Hamilton (pianoforte) and Mr Edward Marshall (flute). Mr Hamilton was billed as conductor on this occasion.

The concert was evidently a ‘high-profile’ event, with tickets advertised as on sale through a specialist agency, Russell’s of High Street, as well as through the usual outlets (which included individuals’ houses). There was to be a limited number of reserved seats, and patrons were advised to book early. The event was reported in the following week’s issue of the Journal as ‘well attended’, but not all aspects of the evening’s programme had proceeded smoothly as planned:

Previously to its commencement, however, handbills were circulated in the room, announcing that in consequence of a severe accident to Mrs. Alban Croft, that lady could not appear. . .[and so] the other performers had kindly consented to play or sing more than was specified.

Regondi, then, may perhaps have contributed more than he had bargained for. Both audience and critical reception were again enthusiastic: Sims Reeves was well received with his ‘Death of Nelson’, while Ernst (billed as a ‘pupil of Paganini’) scored a hit with his ‘“Carnival of Venice,” in which he introduced several new movements’, which were ‘perfectly marvellous’ and attracted hearty applause. ‘Giulio Regondi played an exquisite solo on the concertina, and another on the guitar, in both of which he met with well-merited applause’.15

That the association between Regondi and the Marshalls continued to develop is attested by the advertisement for Marshall senior’s benefit concert later that year:

Mr. Marshall, who has had the honour of leading the Concerts in the University of Oxford for the last 50 years, with great respect informs the Nobility and Gentry of the University and City, and his friends, that a Concert for his benefit will be given at the Star Assembly Rooms, on Monday the 11th of November, for which the following vocal performers are engaged:—Miss Messent, Miss Taylor [both from the Royal Academy of Music, London], Mr. Whitehouse (from the Chapel Royal, Windsor) and Mr. G. Marshall. Solo performers: Flute: Mr. E. Marshall; Concertina: Signor Giulio Regondi.16

The leader was Mr Marshall, assisted by Mr Reinagle, Mr Sharp, and the members of the Oxford Choral Society, who had ‘kindly given their services on this occasion’. The conductor was Dr Stephen Elvey, organist of New College and a respected figure in the University. Regondi was thus brought into contact with many of the leading lights on the Oxford musical scene, and they with him. The Journal reported that Marshall’s ‘friends and patrons’ had rallied round him, and singled out for praise Regondi’s performance: ‘Signor Regondi was encored in both of his performances on the concertina, which were executed in a manner that astonished and delighted all who heard them’. The concert was judged ‘extremely successful, and appeared to give much satisfaction to the large audience assembled on the occasion’.17

Regondi’s Oxford appearances continued during 1851, with his contribution in December of that year to ‘Mr Marshall’s concert’ at the ‘[Star] Assembly Rooms’, reportedly ‘attended by a highly respectable audience’, and judged an ‘excellent concert’. The characteristically mixed programme included, as well as some exquisite singing, various instrumental solos: ‘As usual, Regondi delighted the company by his unrivalled performance on the concertina’, while Mr E. Marshall was ‘deservedly applauded in his fantasia on the flute’. Numerous encores were demanded, ‘which were conceded most willingly’.18

Another important local entrepreneur was James Russell, of ‘Mr. Russell’s Music Warehouse’, situated at 125 High Street and 5 Turl Street, Oxford. He too engaged an impressive series of star performers for his concerts in the 1850s, some of them shared with Marshall’s concerts. Among the artists on his books was Giulio Regondi. For ‘Mr. Russell’s Concert’ on 10 February 1859 at the Town Hall, no less than ‘Madam Viardot Garcia’ was among the singers, while among the instrumental performers were, on ‘Concertina. Signor Giulio Regondi’, and on the ‘Pianoforte. Miss Arabella Goddard’.19 The critical review focused on Arabella Goddard, a frequent visitor to the city, and noted that the event was attended by ‘as large an audience as we ever remember to have seen at a concert in that room’.20

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Giulio Regondi: 1852 lithograph by Edward Gunstone from a daguerreotype by Martin Laroche.

Some context for Regondi’s performances at these concerts is given first by the Journal’s notices of items for sale: thus the issue of 26 November 1853 contained an advertisement offering readers, at the head of a list of items, ‘CONCERTINAS. 7s. 6d. to 18s.’ as well as ‘best French accordions’ at 5s. (8-key) and 7s. (10-key), to be had from the ‘Civet Cat and Scented Soap Works’, a general and rather fashionable emporium in the Corn Market, Oxford. Secondly, a reminder that this was a city populated by a relatively large proportion of young people, with attendant problems of decorum, is provided by the notice in the Journal of 21 November 1857, issued the day after a performance featuring mimicry and song had been given by the ‘sisters Sophia and Annie’:

Owing to the disgraceful behaviour of several gentlemen [of the University] at the entertainment at the Star Hotel on Monday evening, the Sisters Sophia and Annie decline appearing again in Oxford.

This was clearly a rather lowbrow entertainment, viewed as an occasion for riotous behaviour, but in the years that followed there were reports of undergraduates’ ‘bad manners’ keeping ‘most ladies away’ from the more serious classical concerts. I have, however, found no evidence to suggest that Regondi’s performances were received other than appreciatively and with the utmost courtesy on the part of his Oxford audiences.

As well as chronicling the Oxford element in Regondi’s concert career, a facet of his life previously undocumented in the published literature, these snapshots of Oxford concerts in the nineteenth century give much insight into the concert-going customs and expectations of the period. Regondi’s art as performer on the concertina evidently responded to those conditions with repeated successes, forming a reputation for him in Oxford, as indeed elsewhere, of being ‘unrivalled’ in his field.


1. In my book Music at Oxford in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 171.
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2. I am grateful to Allan Atlas for stimulating my further enquiry into this topic, and to the staff of the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Modern Papers), and the Centre for Oxfordshire Studies for facilitating my access to source material.
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3. Jackson’s Oxford Journal (JOJ: hereafter referred to in the text as ‘the Journal’), 11 March 1843. Allan Atlas notes (in a personal communication) that the Wheatstone sales ledgers record several entries for a Mr Adams, one of whom has a first initial J. (he purchased a 48-button instrument on 4 May 1841); Horniman Museum, London, Wayne Archive, C104a, 22; the ledgers are online at
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4. JOJ, 25 March 1843.
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5. JOJ, 25 March 1843.
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6. See Peter Maurice, What shall we do with Music? A Letter (London: published for the author, 1856), 4 and 22 (documenting, in the colleges, 125 pianofortes, Page 26, Pica 3 2006 10 harmoniums, 30 flutes, 20 violins and other strings, 30 concertinas and accordions, 18 cornets, and more ‘instruments in great variety’).
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7. See John Henry Mee, The Oldest Music Room in Europe: a Record of Eighteenth- Century Enterprise at Oxford (London and New York: John Lane, 1911).
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8. Susan Wollenberg, ‘“So much rational and elegant amusement, at an expence comparatively inconsiderable”: the Holywell Concerts in the Eighteenth Century’, in Susan Wollenberg and Simon McVeigh, eds., Concert Life in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), ch. 12, 247.
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9. Mee, Music Room, 175.
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10. At the same time as the growth of individual entrepreneurship, a plethora of new organizations formed, with both university-wide and college-based musical societies flourishing in increasing numbers as the university and its colleges expanded during the nineteenth century.
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11. We might note that Madame Dulcken was among Giulio Regondi’s accompanists, and that her niece Isabelle (b. 1836) was herself a virtuoso concertinist; see Allan W. Atlas, The Wheatstone English Concertina in Victorian England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 43, and ‘Ladies in the Wheatstone Ledgers: The Gendered Concertina in Victorian England, 1835-1870’, forthcoming in the Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, 39 (2006); see also, Helmut C. Jacobs, Der junge Gitarren- und Concertinavirtuose Giulio Regondi: Eine kritische Dokumentation seiner Konzertreise durch Europa 1840 und 1841. Texte zur Geschichte und Gegenwart des Akkordeons, 7 (Bochum: Augemus, 2001), 94, 252.
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12. Further on the Marshall family see Mee, Music Room, 184-86; and H. Watkins Shaw, The Succession of Organists of the Chapel Royal and the Cathedrals of England and Wales from c. 1538 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 214.
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13. The notices appear on pages 13 and 6, respectively; communication from Allan Atlas.
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14. JOJ, 20 April 1850. The Star was a local coaching inn, known under that name as early as 1469; after refurbishment of the building in 1783 it underwent further renovation in the early nineteenth century, with the opening of its Assembly Rooms to house public entertainments.
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15. JOJ, 27 April 1850.
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16. JOJ, 2 November 1850. Benefit concerts for individual musicians had been established since the mid-eighteenth century under the Musical Society’s rules. It was customary for colleagues to offer their services free on these occasions.
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17. JOJ, 9 November 1850.
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18. JOJ, 6 December 1851. The concert took place on the previous Monday, 1 December 1851. (In general the details of the repertoire performed at such concerts are not given systematically in the local press at this period.)
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19. JOJ, 5 February 1859. The Town Hall building, which was used increasingly for concerts in the nineteenth century, dated back to 1751; its replacement, built in 1893, still stands and is in use for civic events and concerts.
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20. JOJ, 12 February 1859.
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Clare: the Heartland of the Irish Concertina

Perched on the edge of insular Europe, the musical mecca of Clare covers almost 1,400 square miles of windswept mountain, blanket bogland, and limestone desert on the west coast of Ireland. Bartered historically between the western province of Connacht and the southern province of Munster, Clare sits between the barren wilderness of Connemara and the rich farm lands of Limerick and Tipperary. Throughout prolonged cycles of geological time, climate and glaciation conspired to surround the region on three sides by water and virtually isolate it from its neighbors. To the north and west, it is bordered by Galway Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. To the south and east it is hemmed in by the Shannon estuary and Lough Derg, while to the north and northwest it is cut off by the uplands of Sliabh Aughty and the lunar landscape of the Burren.

Human history in Clare began around 4000 BC, when the first Neolithic farmers arrived in the Burren karst. Speckled with over seven thousand archaeological sites — among them Bronze Age tombs, Iron Age forts, and Early Christian churches — Clare has been a research cornucopia for legions of archaeologists and natural historians since the close of the nineteenth century. The area was also layered with Viking, Norman, Elizabethan, and Cromwellian settlements, all of which left lasting imprints on the topography of the county. Few periods in Clare history, however, can compare with the social and psychological trauma of the Great Famine of the mid-nineteenth century. Sparked by an incurable potato blight, it ripped through the over-populated rural communities of the south, west, and northwest of Ireland and deprived millions of their food staple for five successive years from 1845 to 1850. By the time it was over, one million people had died of starvation, while another million had left the country in emigrant ships. Clare was in the front line of this Armageddon, which was to change forever the cultural topography of the region.

The Great Famine rocked Clare society to its foundations. In 1841, almost 25,000 Clare families lived in one-room mud cabins with inadequate ventilation and scant protection from the elements. This accounted for sixty percent of all registered houses in Clare. These homes were to become the primary victims of the famine tragedy, as hunger, disease, and emigration coincided to rid the area of entire communities. In the grim decade 1841-1851, the population of Clare fell by twenty-five percent. In all, about thirteen thousand Clare homes became uninhabited during the famine decade. 1 The anguish of Clare’s famine victims is graphically described in a plea sent on their behalf to the assistant secretary to the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, and the Board of Works in Dublin by a Captain Wynne in December 1846:

Although a man not easily moved, I confess myself unmanned by the intensity and extent of the suffering I witnessed more especially among the women and little children, crowds of whom were to be seen scattered over the turnip fields like a flock of banished crows, devouring the raw turnips, mothers half-naked, shivering in the snow and sleet, muttering exclamations of despair, while their children were screaming with hunger. 2

Despite the feeble efforts of relief committees, public work schemes, soup kitchens, and assisted emigration to America (which was minimal from Clare), the burden on the lower social classes continued to worsen into the early 1850s. With the economic pyramid crumbling beneath them, Clare landlords responded with callous severity. They set the pace for mass evictions in Ireland. With 3.2 percent of the Irish population, the county experienced 8.3 percent of all permanent evictions recorded by the Royal Irish Constabulary in the years 1849-1854.33 Increased costs and declining rents drove some landlords, like the Marquis of Thomond, who owned 40,000 acres, from mortgage to mortgage and eventual bankruptcy. Others, like the Machiavellian Vandaleurs in Kilrush (about whose purchases of Wheatstone concertinas, see below), opted for mass evictions and house leveling in an attempt to rid the countryside of inefficient rundale farms.4 Chronicled in horrific detail by the Illustrated London News, many of these clearances were conducted with untold brutality by land agents like Marcus Keane on the Iorrus peninsula. Keane, who exercised control over 60,000 acres, leveled as many as five hundred homes on behalf of his ascendancy clientele.5 From November 1847 to July 1850, more than 14,000 people (2,700 families) were evicted in the Kilrush Union alone, an exodus unparalleled in any other part of Ireland. Evicted tenants had few options, none of which was appealing. The prospect of being admitted to the workhouse was tantamount to a slow death, with cholera, malnutrition, and family breakup included as part of the destitute package. Many chose instead to brave the elements — and defy the law — by making temporary shelters in scailps (bog holes), behind stone walls, or in ditches, using the remnants of their broken homes as makeshift shelters.

The Grim Requiem of the Music Maker

While Crown clerks compiled sterile statistics on the famine catastrophe, and journalists tugged at the heartstrings of the literate public, the folk poet, the singer, and the music maker indexed the cultural cleansing of the Great Famine from the humanistic perspective of the famine victims themselves. Reflecting in lucid detail upon the inner world of the Irish-speaking clachán, famine songs, piping airs, and musical-place lore chronicled the demise of community life, work rituals, calendar customs, and folk beliefs. These anonymous tunes also mirrored the ultimate demise of their own keepers, who had given them a voice in the living traditions of pre-famine Ireland.

In Clare, where tradition-bearers and listeners, repertoires and musical territories were ravaged irrevocably by starvation and diaspora, folkloric evidence cites musicians ending their days in the workhouse, instrument makers going to ruin, and pipers following their audiences into exile in the New World. Contemporary antiquarians like George Petrie and Eugene O’Curry, who collected music and songs from clachán-based informants in West Clare prior to the famine, reflect sadly on the ‘silence’ which had been inflicted on the ‘land of song’.6 Their pessimism was an epitaph for the old world of the swaree and the dancing master, the townland and the fairy path, which had now ceded its place to a more conservative and materialistic milieu.7

While they cannot be regarded in the same light as orthodox eyewitnesses, traditional musicians did observe the famine droch-shaol (bad life) at close quarters. Their grim requiem contains cogent observations of its impact in rural communities.8 The small fragments of Clare songs which survived in Irish, like that recorded from Síle Ní Néill in Coolmeen, focused on the interwoven themes of mortality, destitution, and exile from the ‘insider’ perspective of the victims and their immediate kin. The following verse, recorded from Seán Mac Mathúna, who was born in Luach near Doolin in 1876, is a poignant case in point:

Is dána an rud domhsa a bheith ag súil le comhra
Is maith an rud domhsa má d’fhuighinn braillín
Is a Rí na Glóire tabhair fuscailt domhsa
Go dté mé im´chónaí san gcill úd thíos.9

It is a bad thing for me to expect a coffin
It will be a good thing for me to get a sheet
And God of Glory, grant me solace
Until I go to dwell in that graveyard below.
(My translation)

Despite the cultural cleansing of the Great Famine, almost a half-century would pass before the indigenous piping dialects of Clare would finally expire. In the years after 1850, a few itinerant pipers managed to eke out a livelihood in the small towns and villages in the west of the county. For example, Paddy O’Neill and John Quinlan worked as pipers on riverboats plying the Shannon between Limerick and Kilrush. Quinlan, who was commonly known as ‘Jack the Piper’, also played for holiday makers in Lahinch and Lisdoonvarna.10 In the Sliabh Aughty uplands of East Clare, the last remnants of local piping died with Mick Gill and Michael Burke before the end of the century. One of the last pipers of note to visit the area was Loughrea man Pat Twohill, who, along with his brother John, had worked as a professional piper in England during the 1860s. Twohill’s younger brother James was father of the celebrated American piper Patsy Touhey, who emigrated from Loughrea, Co. Galway, with his parents in 1869.

Fleeing the depression of the post-famine era, several Clare pipers followed their audiences into exile in the New World. Corofin-born Patrick Galvin left Clare for New Zealand in the late 1850s. Dubbed ‘The New Zealand Piper’ by the collector Francis O’Neill, it would be forty years before Galvin would return again to his native place. His contemporary, Johnny Patterson, was the most flamboyant of Clare’s emigrant pipers. In his celebrated ditty ‘The Stone Outside John Murphy’s Door’, Patterson immortalized his impoverished childhood in the hovels of Old Mill Street in Ennis. Having survived the worst effects of the famine, Patterson joined the British Army, where he received piccolo and drum lessons in the army band. At the end of five years of service, he bought his way out of the army and joined Swallow’s Circus. For the next forty years, Patterson toured Ireland, England, and the United States with a variety of circus companies. Dubbed the ‘Rambler from Clare’, Patterson featured piping in many of his shows, especially in the United States, where he was billed as a ‘Famous Irish clown and piper’. His songs include such Irish-American standards as Good Bye Johnny Dear, The Hat My Father Wore, The Garden Where the Praties Grow, and The Roving Irish Boy, and thrived on emigrant sentimentality.11

Pipers were not the only music makers to take their leave from Clare. Fiddlers and flute players were also conspicuous among Clare émigrés in North America. Fiddler Paddy Poole from Tulla spent many years in the United States in the late nineteenth century. He began teaching fiddle in East Clare after he returned home in the 1920s. Poole spent some time in Chicago, where he played with the vaudevillian piper Patsy Touhey. Flute player Patrick O’Mahony from West Clare also found his way to Chicago in the early 1880s. There he joined the police force and contributed numerous Clare dance tunes to the published collections of Francis O’Neill.12

It was into this milieu of cultural upheaval and musical change that the Anglo-German concertina arrived in Clare during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. It would eventually replace the uilleann pipes (whose exponents were ravaged by famine and exile) as a popular vernacular instrument. While its presence was especially felt in fishing, piloting, and trading communities along the lower Shannon estuary — one of the busiest riverine networks in Ireland during the nineteenth century — its espousal by women music makers would become its most enduring sociological feature at a time when women in Irish society were, for the most part, subservient players in a ubiquitous patriarchal milieu.13

Newfound Wealth, River Pilots, and Women’s Concertinas

Women born into rural communities in post-famine Clare grew up in a spartan, materialistic world. As non-inhering dependents in a patriarchal culture, women shared a common fate with servant boys, farm laborers, and disinherited males on the family farm. As the ‘disinherited sex’, they were deprived of the independent income, however meager, they enjoyed from domestic industry prior to the famine.14 With marriage becoming an economic union more often than an amorous one, wives became increasingly subservient to their domestic masters, their husbands. Similarly, unmarried sisters were governed by the whims of their fathers and brothers. For women lacking the luxury of a dowry or a farm to boost their economic status, their only escape was to emigrate, or else to find work as servant girls or shop attendants in a nearby town.

As the landless laborer and the clachán disappeared from the Clare countryside, the average size of farms got bigger. In the resulting economic transformation, it became increasingly difficult to marry above or below one’s ‘station’. As strong farmers refused to marry their daughters to laborers, the social choice for prospectors in the marriage market narrowed considerably.15 The age of marriage also changed. Sons waiting to inherit the family farm tended to be more patient than daughters waiting for a husband. Hence, husbands tended to be older than their wives. The widening age gap between spouses created a high proportion of widows at the other end of the life cycle. Wives and widows, many of them victims of loveless matches engineered by their fathers or local match makers, often projected their hunger for affection onto their eldest sons, and dreaded the rivalry of a daughter-in-law, who would ultimately compete with her for her son’s loyalty.

By the 1890s, however, the climate of frugality, which had marked the previous decades, began to wane, and the quality of women’s lives improved. Successive Land Acts and the deft attempts of Tory governments to ‘kill Home Rule with kindness’ led to an overall improvement in social and economic life in the Irish countryside. Inspired by similar developments in Denmark, Sir Horace Plunket’s cooperative movement helped to improve Irish agriculture, especially dairy farming. Plunket founded the first of his dairies, or ‘creameries’ as they are called in rural Ireland, in 1889 to upgrade the quality of Irish butter and cheese.16 Within a decade, creameries became common landmarks in most rural parishes. Following the brief failure of the potato crop in 1890, the future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour introduced a number of light railway schemes. In 1891, the Congested Districts Board was established to amalgamate farms and improve living conditions in impoverished western areas. Similarly, political devolution took an unprecedented step forward in 1898, when the Local Government Act created urban and county councils all over Ireland.

Clare was among the beneficiaries of these economic changes. The West Clare Railway had been incorporated in 1883. Within a decade, its South Clare line, linking Kilrush, Kilkee, and Miltown Malbay, was completed. As well as improving travel within the county, the railway introduced a whole range of consumer goods and services, which were once beyond the reach of its patrons. The combined effects of increased communication, the co-op movement, and the Congested Districts Board helped to generate new independent income for women in rural Clare. By the end of the century, many were taking advantage of the buoyant economic climate to sell eggs and butter in local country shops or nearby village markets. Others boarded the ‘West Clare’ to transport animals and garden produce to market towns along the railway line. This new domestic income allowed women to buy a range of goods, including cheap concertinas, which became ubiquitous in rural communities by the early 1900s. Their intriguing espousal of this hexagonal squeezebox would have far-reaching musical and social consequences.

Influenced by the Chinese shêng, and perhaps the Laotian khaen (ancient free-reed instruments brought to Europe by French Jesuit missionaries in the eighteenth century), the concertina had come to fruition during the Romantic period. The English concertina was patented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1829. Popular in music salons and parlors from Victorian England to Tsarist Russia, Wheatstone’s expensive chromatic instrument remained a ‘high art’ curiosity for most of the nineteenth century, though by the 1880s, it had found its way down into the ranks of working class musicians in industrial England, as well as into traditional music communities in rural Lancashire, the Cotswolds, and Central Midlands. It would be another half century, however, before a single-action Anglo version of Wheatstone’s concertina would become popular in the west of Ireland.17

Although the Dublin concertina manufacturer Joseph Scates advertised his instruments in the popular Freeman’s Journal as early as 1852, there is no evidence to suggest that his concertinas enjoyed widespread popularity among music communities in contemporary Clare.18 Moreover, though the names of such aristocratic Clare families as the Vandeleurs, Tolers, and Abingers appear in the sales ledgers of the London Wheatstone company during the 1840s and 1850s,19 oral history contends that the first concertinas to arrive en masse into Clare were German-made imports. Fragile, cheap, and short-lived, these ‘consumer’ instruments were probably adapted from Carl Uhlig’s diatonic konzertina made in Chemnitz, Germany, in the 1830s, and popularized by Manen’s twenty-key concertinas that reached the English marketplace in 1847. These cheap instruments enjoyed widespread popularity among sailors on long sea voyages and were stocked by maritime chandlers as part of their stock-in-trade merchandise. German concertinas arrived in Clare through a variety of sources, some direct and conspicuous, others oblique and vicarious. Its initial courier was most likely river traffic plying the Shannon between Loop Head and Limerick city, the last port of call for tall ships before crossing the North Atlantic.

Superceded to some degree by the West Clare Railway after 1892, the Shannon had been one of the busiest waterways in insular Europe throughout the nineteenth century.20 Apart from foreign cargo, the river had a thriving local trade. Steam boats carried stout, butter, and coal between Limerick and Kilrush, while turf boats brought turf up the river from as far west as Kilbaha. With its bustling ports, brisk shipping trade, and onerous navigational challenges, the river offered employment to shipwrights, dockers, coopers, lighthouse keepers, and fishermen who lived along its banks. The lives and activities of these riverine communities have been recorded extensively in the traditional songs and folklore of West Clare. Maritime superstitions, ghost ships, sea monsters, and mermaid legends are all part of the rich repository of Clare sea lore.

As well as servicing vessels arriving from foreign ports, islanders and river men along the Shannon had extensive ocean-going experience themselves. Ships owned by Limerick merchants enlisted crews from communities on both sides of the river in Clare, Limerick, and Kerry. Merchant seamen from Scattery Island, on the mouth of the estuary, had a long history of maritime travel. In 1903, for example, the three-master sailing ship the Salterbeck, owned by Captain James Murray of Kilrush, was transporting kelp and flagstones from Cappagh across the Atlantic to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Its crew ‘to a man’ was from Scattery. According to folklore collected on Scattery Island by Seán Mac Craith in 1954, the Salterbeck made the round trip across the Atlantic in the spring of 1903 in a record-breaking ‘eight weeks and five days’. 21 Up until the 1950s, social life on Scattery showed all the signs of maritime wealth. Book collections, eight-day clocks, and wireless sets were standard fittings in many island homes. In the 1920s, the islanders were among the first people in Clare to own Victrola-type gramophones and 78 rpm recordings of Irish traditional music. These were brought back to Scattery from America by merchant seamen from the island. It is likely that German concertinas reached West Clare through these same maritime channels.

By 1900, the concertina had replaced the uilleann pipes as a household instrument in rural Clare. Women earning surplus income from egg and butter sales, as well as other domestic industries, were among its chief patrons. In the vernacular of West Clare, the instrument was referred to as a bean cháirdín (female accordion), such was its popularity among female players. By 1910, concertinas were being stocked by hardware stores and bicycle shops in Ennis, Kilrush, Kildysart, and Ennistymon. They were usually bought on market days after poultry or dairy produce had been exchanged for money. Women, whose cottage earnings were consistent from year to year, could afford to upgrade to a new concertina, for the princely sum of half-a-crown, every few years.

The concertina was given pride of place in the country house kitchens of West Clare. Like tea, tobacco, and other domestic commodities, which were stored in a dry place, a special clúid, or alcove, was constructed for the concertina in the inner wall of the hearth, close to the open fire. Although many houses had resident concertina players who knew enough tunes to play for a polka set, some non-musical households also purchased concertinas, which they kept on hand in the alcove for a local concertina player to ‘come on cuaird to the house’ (literally ‘come on a visit to the house’).22 Unlike the daughters of strong farmers who learned to read piano scores and classical arias in bourgeois convent schools, young women who bought concertinas ‘out of their egg money’ learned their music informally in a kitchen setting. In this largely egalitarian environment, there was no obligation to learn an extensive repertoire, or to rise to certain predetermined standards of musical excellence. Many country house debutantes used a numbering system to learn tunes, while others relied on a more direct process of aural transmission. The primary objective for most young concertina players was to perfect local jig, reel, and polka rhythms, and to learn enough dance tunes to play for the Plain Set dance. In this self-contained rural milieu, proactive sharing of music and dance was considered far more important than the private appreciation of ‘high-art’ music from a distant urban periphery, which was then becoming the norm in many bourgeois families in the west of Ireland.

For most of the next century, concertina music would dovetail with the indigenous set dancing dialects of rural Clare and find its main patrons in rural communities in the west and east of the county. When Anglo-German concertinas made by Jeffries, Wheatstone, and Lachenal flooded the antique markets in Petticoat Lane after World War II, Clare musicians working in London became a key source for delivering concertinas to their neighbors back home. Henceforth, emigrant parcels, music shops, and hardware stores became the chief suppliers of new instruments, which were really ‘cast off’ instruments from the upper echelons of British society.

Clare Concertina Dialects and Players

In the period 1890-1970, concertina playing in Clare took place primarily in mountain communities (above the 200-foot contour) to the north and east of the county, and in the blanket boglands of West Clare.

Topographical examination of these concertina territories reveals four musical ‘dialects’ which were formed by clachán-type community clusters during the post-famine era, and which dovetailed with the indigenous set dancing dialects of rural Clare.23 The concertina dialect of south West Clare was highly rhythmical, melodically simple, and characterized by single-row fingering techniques on Anglo-German instruments. The Plain Set danced to polkas predominated in the region prior to the diffusion of the ubiquitous Caledonian Set in the 1920s and 1930s. Because of the influx of traveling teachers like fiddler George Whelan who crossed the Shannon from Kerry, the music of the area was linked umbilically with the polka and slide repertoires of Kerry and West Limerick. Hence, older concertina players like Charlie Simmons, Solus Lillis, Elizabeth Crotty, Matty Hanrahan, Frank Griffin, and Marty Purtill played a variety of archaic polkas and single reels. The Caledonian Set, however, facilitated more complex double reels, which were favored by players like Tom Carey, Sonny Murray, Tommy McCarthy, Bernard O’Sullivan, and Tommy McMahon.

The concertina dialect of mid West Clare was shaped explicitly by the rhythmic complexities of Caledonian set dancing, as well as the by American 78 rpm recordings of Co. Westmeath exile William J. Mullaly, which were prefaced by the dispersal of gramophones in the area during the 1920s. Dominated by the brean tír uplands of Mount Callan, this area extends from the Fergus Valley in the east, to Quilty on the Atlantic seaboard. Home to celebrated concertina masters such as Noel Hill, Edel Fox, Miriam Collins, Michael Sexton, and Gerard Haugh, as well as the late Tony Crehan and Gerdie Commane (see Example 1 in the Appendix for his version of ‘The Kilnamona Barndance’), the region still houses the steps and dance figures of Pat Barron, the last of the traveling dancing masters to teach in West Clare in the 1930s. Complex cross-row fingering, intensive melodic ornamentation, and a formidable repertoire of dance tunes mark the indigenous concertina style of this region.

The most outstanding concertina master in mid West Clare in recent times was Paddy Murphy from Fiach Roe, a rural community on the brow of Mount Callan (see Figure 1) . Influenced by the American concertina recordings of William J. Mullaly in the late 1920s,24 Paddy pioneered a unique system of cross-row fingering which facilitated the use of alternative scales for tunes in unfamiliar keys.25 The first Irish-born concertina player to broadcast on Irish radio, Paddy Murphy was also a competitive pioneer of the instrument. His victory at the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil (National Music Competition) in Cavan in 1954 marked the first-ever appearance of the concertina in an Irish national music competition. This forum has since attracted thousands of concertina players from all over Ireland, Britain, and North America. Much of Murphy’s vast repertoire (see Example 2 in the Appendix for his version of ‘The Moving Cloud’) was learned aurally from the fiddling of the local postman, Hughdie Doohan, who had a rare ability to read music from O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, which was published in Chicago in 1903 and enjoyed biblical status among Irish music communities by the 1920s and 1930s. Doohan, who was a key member of the local Fiach Roe Céilí Band, made well sure that his cohorts (whose skills of musical acquisition were primarily aural) would not want for access to the largest data bank of traditional Irish dance melodies in the world at the time.

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Fig.1. Clare concertina master Paddy Murphy, 1990 (© Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin,1990)

North Clare consists of three concertina communities situated along the perimeter of the Burren karst, all of which shared a common musical dialect. Two of these, Doolin and Bellharbour, were coastal, while the third was located in Kilfenora and Kilnaboy in the south Burren. With the curious exception of Pakie Russell (whose innovative style also explored cross-row fingering), most of the older players in North Clare favored melodically simple music and single-row fingering techniques, accentuating the inside or G row of the Anglo-German concertina. The overriding characteristic of this dialect was its emphasis on rhythm and ‘lift’ for set dancers. This ‘lift’ was endemic in the music of Peadaí Pheaitín Ó Flannagáin, James Droney, Brody Kierse, Biddy McGrath, and Michilín Connollan. It is still conspicuous today in the concertina playing of Chris, Ann, and Francis Droney (see Figure 2), Máirtín Fahy and Mick Carrucan, all of whom are extolled by North Clare set dancers.

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Fig. 2. Three generations of the Droney family from Bellharbour, northwest Clare,1969: Ann, James, and Chris. Chris Droney continues to enjoy a formidable reputation both in Ireland and among Irish concertina players in Europe and North America (© Chris Droney. Courtesy of the Droney family, 1988).

Concertina music in East Clare was concentrated along the Clare-Galway border in Sliabh Aughty, in the drumlin belt of Clooney and Feakle, and above the fertile lowlands of the Shannon, in Cratloe and Kilfentenan. German-made concertinas predominated in the region during the early 1900s, most of which were owned by women who seldom played beyond the confines of their own kitchens. The archaic repertoire and ethereal settings of Sliabh Aughty found a resolute custodian in concertina master John Naughton of Kilclaren. Many of his settings were shared by Connie Hogan from Woodford in East Galway, where dance music was dialectically linked to the repertoires played in neighboring communities in East Clare. The house music of the drumlin belt to the south was typified by the concertina playing of Mikey Donoghue, Bridget Dinan, and Margaret Dooley, the latter two continuing to play well after their one-hundredth birthdays. The concertina music of Cratloe and Kilfentenan survived until recent times in the playing of Paddy Shaughnessy and John O’Gorman. Reminiscent of an older world of cross-road dancing and rural ‘cuairding’, their traditional milieu was purged by the suburban sprawl of cosmopolitan Limerick and, ironically, ignored by the revival of traditional music in nearby towns and villages during the 1970s. The most prominent exponent of East Clare concertina music today is Mary McNamara, who has sustained a vibrant corpus of dance tunes from such masters as John Naughton and Mikey Donoghue. (See Figure 3 for a topographical map of Clare concertina music, 1880-1980.)

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Fig. 3. Topography of Clare Concertina Music, 1880-1980 (©Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin)

Clare Concertina Music Today

Concertina music in Clare has experienced a phenomenal upsurge since the 1980s, not least as a result of schools like Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy and Éigse Mrs. Crotty, which have created a forum for master performers and students. While this upsurge has attracted huge numbers of students to the instrument, it has failed to stem Clare Concertina Music Today Concertina music in Clare has experienced a phenomenal since the 1980s, not least as a result of schools like Scoil Samhraidh Clancy and Éigse Mrs. Crotty, which have created a forum performers and students. While this upsurge has attracted huge of students to the instrument, it has failed to stem the inevitable decline of regional concertina dialects in Clare. Conversely, recent developments in competitive performance and commercial recording have spurred the growth of a ‘modernist’ generic style and a meticulous imitation of professional performers, a practice that is not without precedent in Irish music history. While this homogenization has raised the level of technical accomplishment in Clare concertina playing, it has also led to the emergence of prodigiously ornamented tune settings and the introduction of non-indigenous repertoires. Similarly, it has led to an increased separation between ‘performance’ music and ‘dance’ music. Older players, whose sense of rhythm was implicitly linked to set dancing, often feel isolated by younger players who have eschewed the traditional dance milieu for the concert stage and television studio. Among the minority of younger players who continue to sustain the older dialects of Clare are Jacqui McCarthy, Florence Fahy, Breeda Green, Louise Pyne, and Francis Droney.

Foremost among an innovative corps of ‘modernist’ performers are Edel Fox, Pádraig Rynne, Hugh Healy, John McMahon, and Noel Hill, whose technical genius has propelled the concertina music of Clare well beyond the perimeters of its former communal dialects and whose teaching has helped to create a vast transnational network of Anglo-German concertina enthusiasts who are truly devoted to the concertina music of their Clare mentors. Like their predecessors in the early 1900s, women continue to dominate Clare concertina music. Among its celebrated female exponents are Yvonne and Lourda Griffin, Bríd and Ruth Meaney, Dympna Sullivan, Lorraine O’Brien, and Edel Fox, a recent recipient of the ‘Young Traditional Musician of the Year’ award from Irish national television. It is noteworthy

that longevity is common among female concertina players in Clare. Both Margaret Dooley and Bridget Dinan in East Clare lived well over one hundred years. Similarly, Susan Whelan of Islebrack celebrated her centenary in 1991 by playing a few tunes on her new Czechoslovakian concertina. The oldest musician in Clare until her death in December 2000 at the age of one hundred and four was concertina player Molly Carthy from Lisroe (see Figure 4). Having played music in three centuries, Molly entertained her family nightly (until a week before her death) by playing dance tunes on a teetering Bastari concertina made in Italy. Such centennial temerity bodes well for the future of concertina music in Clare and its renowned female guardians, especially now at the dawn of another new century and another brave new world of Irish concertina music.

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Fig. 4. The author with 101-year-old concertina player Molly Carthy, Clare, 1997 (© Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, 1997).


1. Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, ‘Aspects of the Economy and Society in Nineteenth Century Clare’, Dal gCais: Journal of Clare, 5 (1979), 110-14.
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2. Brian Dinan, Clare and Its People: A Concise History (Cork: Mercier Press, 1987), 96.
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3. James S. Donnelly, Jr., ‘The Kilrush Clearances during the Great Famine’, paper presented at the annual conference of the American Conference for Irish Studies, Fort Lauderdale, Florida (April, 1998).
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4. Clacháns (small rural villages or hamlets) associated with open-field rundale farms (using an infield/outfield system of crop rotation) were common in most parts of rural Ireland in the century before the outbreak of the Great Famine; see E. Estyn Evans, The Personality of Ireland: Habitat, Heritage and History (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1981), 55.
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5. Donnelly, ‘The Kilrush Clearances’; Donnelly cites the detailed investigations of the surveyor Francis Coffee who presented his findings on the Kilrush Clearances to Poulett Scrope’s select committee in July 1850. Coffee used local Ordnance Survey maps to track evidence of evictions on the southwest Clare peninsula. See also, Donnelly, The Great Irish Potato Famine (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2002), 146-47.
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6. George Petrie, The Complete Collection of Irish Music, ed. Charles Villiers Stanford (London: Boosey, 1902-1905), vol. 1, xii.
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7. The term swaree from the French soirée is a remnant of the Gallicized vocabulary of the pre-famine dancing masters.
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8.The famine years were referred to as ‘an droch-shaol’ (‘the bad life’) in Irish speaking communities. The use of the popular term ‘gorta’ (‘famine’) was a much later development.
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9. Cited in Cathal Póirtéir, Glórtha ón Ghorta: Bealoideas na Gaeilge agus an Gorta Mór (Baile Átha Cliath: Coiscéim, 1996), 286.
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10. Francis O’Neill, Irish Minstrels and Musicians (Chicago: Reegan, 1913), 230-31, 342-43. W.R. le Fanu gives a colorful description of meeting Paddy O’Neill on board the ‘Garry Owen’ (a boat plying the Shannon between Limerick and Kilrush) in his Seventy Years of Irish Life (New York: Arnold, 1898); cited in O’Neill, Irish Minstrels and Musicians, 230.
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11. Harry Bradshaw, ‘Johnny Patterson: The Rambler from Clare’, Dal gCais: Journal of Clare, 6 (1982), 73-80.
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12. O’Neill, Irish Minstrels and Musicians, 18-19.
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13. See Margaret MacCurtain and Donncha Ó Corráin, eds., Women in Irish Society: The Historical Dimension (Dublin: Arlen House; The Women’s Press, 1978).
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14. J.J. Lee, ‘Continuity and Change in Ireland 1945-1970’, in J.J. Lee, ed., Ireland 1945-1970 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1979), 166-77.
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15. Lee, The Modernization of Irish Society 1848-1918 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1973), 4.
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16. F.S.L. Lyons, Culture and Anarchy in Ireland 1890-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 53.
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17. Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, ‘The Concertina in the Traditional Music of Clare’, Ph.D. dissertation, Queen’s University, Belfast (1990), 47-72; see also Allan W. Atlas, The Wheatstone English Concertina in Victorian England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), and, on the matter of the patent, Atlas, ‘Historical Document: George Grove’s Article on the “Concertina” in the First Edition of A Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1878)’, Papers of the International Concertina Association, 2 (2005), 61.
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18. See Fintan Vallely, ed., The Companion to Irish Traditional Music (Cork: Cork University Press, 1999). 83. Scates, who imported pianos, harmoniums, and Wheatstone concertinas, traded at 26 College Green, Dublin, a very fashionable Dublin location at the time.
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19. I draw here on Allan Atlas, ‘Ladies in the Wheatstone Ledgers: The Gendered Concertina in Victorian England, 1835-1870’, forthcoming in the Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, 39 (2006). Briefly the following members of these families are recorded in the ledgers: Lady G[race] Vandeleur, 1 May 1855 (ledger C1049, 53) and 21 June 1855 (C1049, 58); a Lieutenant Vandeleur, 6 November 1856 (C1050, 38); Lady Elizabeth Toler, 12 March 1851 (C1047, 11); and Lord Abinger (= Robert Campbell Scarlet, 2nd Baron of Abinger and father of Lady Elizabeth Toler), 28 April 1842 (C1046, 13, and C104a, 27). The nine extant Wheatstone & Co. sales ledgers from the nineteenth century are housed in the Horniman Museum, London, Wayne Archive; they are online at My thanks to Allan Atlas for sharing this information with me prior to its publication.
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20. Seán Spellissy, ‘The Fergus Estuary: Reclamation and the Life of a River Pilot’, Dal gCais: Journal of Clare, 8 (1986), 31-35. See also Kevin Danaher, In Ireland Long Ago (Cork: Mercier Press, 1962), 118.
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21. Bairbre Ó Floinn, ‘The Lore of the Sea in County Clare: From the Collections of the Irish Folklore Commission’, Dal gCais: Journal of Clare, 8 (1986), 107-28.
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22. In the ‘macaronic’ (half-Irish, half-English) linguistic milieu of late nineteenth-century Clare, Irish language terms and phrases still enjoyed currency in the vernacular speech of rural communities, an uneasy reminder of the cultural cleansing effects of the Great Irish Famine (1845-1850).
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23. See Ó hAllmhuráin, ‘The Concertina in the Traditional Music of Clare’, 95, 432.
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24. Harry Bradshaw, liner notes to the recording William Mullaly: The First Irish Concertina Player to Record (Dublin: Viva Voce 005, n.d).
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25. Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin ‘From Hughdie’s to the Latin Quarter’, Treoir: The Book of Traditional Music, Song and Dance, 25/2 (1993), 40-44.
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Select Discography

Bernard O’Sullivan and Tommy McMahon, Clare Concertinas: Bernard O’Sullivan and Tommy McMahon, Topic-Free Reed, 502 (1975).

John Kelly, John Kelly: Fiddle and Concertina Player, Topic-Free Reed, 504 (1975).

Various Clare Concertina Players, Irish Traditional Concertina Styles, Topic-Free Reed, 506 (1975).

Pakie, Micko, and Gussie Russell, The Russell Family Album, Topic, 251 (1977).

Noel Hill, Noel Hill: The Irish Concertina, Ceirníní Cladaigh, CC 21 (1988).

John McMahon featured in Fisherstreet: Out in the Night: Music from Clare, Mulligan, CLUN 57 (1991).

Mary McNamara, Mary McNamara: Traditional Music from East Clare, Ceirníní Cladaigh, CC 60 (1994).

Chris Droney, Chris Droney: The Fertile Rock, Cló Iar-Chonnachta, CIC 110 (1995).

John Williams, John Williams, Green Linnet, GL 1157 (1995).

Gearóid ÓhAllmhuráin, Gearóid ÓhAllmhuráin: Traditional Music from Clare and Beyond, Celtic Crossings, CC2005 (1996/2005).

Tommy McCarthy, Tommy McCarthy: Sporting Nell: Concertina, Uilleann Pipes and Tin Whistle, Maree Music, MMC 52 (1997).

Tim Collins, Dancing on Silver: Irish Traditional Concertina Music, Cróisín Music, CM 001 (2004).

Ex. 1. Gerdie Commane’s version of The Kilnamona Barndance. The late Gerdie Commane, who died in December 2005, at the age of 88, was one of Clare’s most celebrated traditional concertina players. His recording with Inagh fiddler Joe Ryan, Two Gentlemen of Clare Music (Ennis: Clachán Music, 2002), is a landmark in archival recording (transcription © Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, 1990).

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Ex. 2. Paddy Murphy’s version of The Moving Cloud reel. Composed by Donegal fiddler Neillidh Boyle, this reel is regarded as a pièce de résistance by free-reed players in Ireland. This transcription shows Murphy’s consummate mastery of alternative scales, melodic variations, and complex ornamentation techniques (transcription © Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, 1990).

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The Matusewitch Family: A Bibliography

For three generations, stretching back to the early twentieth century, the Matusewitch family has stood at the forefront of both the concertina and accordion worlds. Gregory (1886-1939), the family patriarch, concertized extensively in Russia and Europe before moving the family to the United States in 1923, where he had a relatively brief but active career under the auspices of the young impresario Sol Hurok. The wide spectrum of his performances included appearances in major concert halls (including New York’s Carnegie Hall and Town Hall), on early American radio broadcasts and recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company, and even, for a time, on the vaudeville circuit.

Boris (1918-1978), the younger of Gregory’s two sons, succeeded him as the USA’s leading concertinist and teacher of the instrument. Over the course of a rich and varied career, he performed at west coast nightclubs, gave annual concerts at Carnegie Recital Hall, appeared on leading television shows, was a featured soloist with orchestras, and teamed up with dancer Rod Strong in an innovative combination of music and dance. As for his students: they are legion. Gregory’s other son, Sergei (1917-1998), was primarily an accordionist, though he also played the concertina and taught the instrument together with Boris at their New York music studio from the 1950s through the 1970s. Finally, Boris’s son, Eric (b. 1951), represents a third generation of the family; and though content to call himself an amateur, he often performed publicly with his father at venues that included Carnegie Recital Hall.

In addition to popularizing the English concertina in the United States, the Matusewitch family’s legacy includes two concertina tutors, several recordings, a handful of original compositions for concertina and accordion, a veritable slew of journal articles about the family, and scrapbooks full of glowing reviews and other notices. These materials constitute a significant collection of (largely English-language) material both by and about the family and form the core of the bibliography that follows.

The bibliography deals with the careers of Gregory, Boris, and Sergei. The entries, which range chronologically from 1922 to the present day, are organized in nine parts, some alphabetically by author/title (the latter for those that are unsigned), others chronologically by ‘event’: I. books and monographs; II. articles in journals, newspapers, and newsletters; III. select concert notices and reviews; IV. a list of compositions written for concertina and accordion by Gregory and Sergei Matusewitch, respectively; V. Boris on Broadway; VI. a reference to Boris’s television appearance; VII. recordings; VIII. concertina tutors; and IX. miscellaneous items. Finally, some entries for journals and newspapers lack references to volume and/or page numbers, this because I have gleaned them from scrapbook clippings that were clipped with just a little too much abandon.

I. Books

Atlas, Allan W. The Wheatstone English Concertina in Victorian England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).
Atlas dedicated his book to Boris and Sergei, with whom he studied concertina and accordion, respectively; he notes that the great concertina virtuoso of the first half of the 20th century, Gregory Matusewitch, ‘played mainly violin music, as did his sons Boris and Sergei’ (p. 72, n. 75).

Carlin, Richard. English Concertina (New York: Oak Publications, 1977).
Carlin points out that Gregory was a Russian concertina ‘master’ who toured England and the USA; contains photos of Boris with dance partner Rod Strong, c. 1952 (p. 6) and Gregory and a pupil, from the 1920s (p. 53).

Flynn, Ronald, Edwin Davidson, and Edward Chavez. The Golden Age of the Accordion (Schertz, TX: Flynn Associates, 1984).
Includes an interview with John Reuther, the founding editor of Accordion World, who notes that Sergei studied accordion with Pietro Deiro and taught at Wurlitzer’s in New York during the 1930s (pp. 142-143); there is a photo of Sergei (p. 158).

Rose, Alexander. Memoirs of a Heterosexual (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967).
The author, who studied with Boris, writes that he ‘[h]eard a concertina player in a night club and rushed to Matusewitch, the famous concertina artist, [the] next day for lessons’ (p. 284).

Taubman, Howard. The Pleasure of Their Company: A Reminiscence (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1994).
The former New York Times music and drama critic served in the army (entertainment unit) with Boris during World War II; he fondly recalls Boris as a friend and musician, writing that ‘Boris played the concertina brilliantly, and his repertoire was enormous’ (pp. 133-34).

Wagner, Christoph. Das Akkordeon oder die Erfindung der populären Musik (Mainz: Schott, 2001).
Includes a discussion of Gregory’s career, along with a publicity photo taken in Danzig during the 1920s (pp. 152-54).

II. Journals, Newspapers, and Newsletters

Accordion World 8 (September 1942); 9 (November 1943).
The covers of these two issues contain photos of Sergei, ‘concert artist, composer and teacher’.

Atlas, Allan W. ‘The “Respectable” Concertina’, Music & Letters 80 (1999), 241-53.
Refers to a recording that includes a 1927/28 selection by Gregory (p. 250; see §VII).

_____. Review of Music for the English Concertina, ed. Willem Wakker, Free-Reed Journal 1 (1999), 81-86.
Includes brief references to Gregory and Boris, and mentions that the latter performed Bernhard Molique’s Concertina Concerto in G, Op. 46 (p. 81).

Berquist, Hilding. ‘The Accordion and Concertina in Russia’, Accordion World 18 (October 1953), 7.
Notes that Gregory ‘studied at the Royal Academy of Music in Riga, graduating in 1915’.

_____. ‘Concertinas’, Accordion World 14 (September 1949), 12-13, 32-33; also online at the Classical Free Reed website:
Writes that ‘[a]ccordionists would do well to attend the recitals and other appearances of our own Boris Matusewitch’.

_____. ‘Concertina Concertos’, Accordion World 15 (January 1950), 17, 37.
Berquist states that he introduced Boris to the Molique Concertina Concerto No. 1 in G, Op. 46 (p. 17).

_____. ‘Concertina Literature, Part 2’, Accordion World 15 (October 1950),12-16; also online at the Classical Free-Reed website:
Berquist notes that he gave Boris copies of concertina concertos by Franz Bosen and Bernhard Molique.

C. Wheatstone & Co. The Concertina World, 1851-1951 (1951).
A seven-page history of—and publicity brochure for—the Wheatstone concertina company; lists Boris as one of the ‘stars’ of the concertina world and includes his photo.

Carlin, Richard. ‘The English Concertina: Hard Times’, Mugwumps 6 (April 1980), 12-19.
Devotes several paragraphs to the careers of Gregory and Boris.

‘Concertina Artist Supreme’, Accordion World 5 (November 1940), 16.
A short profile (with photo) of Boris.

Cooney, Michael. ‘Teach In: How to Find, Train, and Maintain a Concertina’, Sing Out! 20 (March/April 1971), 5-6.
Notes that Boris advertised a five-week concertina course in the Village Voice (a New York weekly) for which he used Wheatstone concertinas (p. 5).

Gabriel, Thomas. ‘The Russian Virtuosi in America: An Interview with Sergei Matusewitch’, Concertina & Squeezebox 21 (Autumn 1989), 4-10.
Sergei reminisces about the Matusewitch family.

Horowitz, Joshua. ‘The Klezmer Accordion: Old New Worlds (1899-2001)’, Musical Performance 3 (2001), 135-62.
Includes a discussion of Gregory as ‘one of the finest of the early Yiddish music accordionists [sic]’ (pp. 137-40, 145) and two European photos of Gregory.

International Concertina Association. Newsletter 155 (June 1968).
Mentions that Neil Wayne, then resident at the University of Wisconsin, ‘has been fortunate enough to spend an afternoon with Sergei Matusewitch, one of the famous concertina playing brothers’.

Jacobs, Kathleen. ‘Old World to New’, Manhattan Plaza News (April 1997), 1, 10-11.
Sergei, who lived in New York’s Manhattan Plaza (limited to performing artists and their families), discusses his musical family; includes photos of Sergei and Gregory.

Matusewitch, Boris. ‘The Growth of the Concertina in the USA’, Accordion and Guitar World 23 (December 1958), 30.
Discusses the growing popularity of the English concertina in the USA.

Matusewitch, Eric. ‘Boris Matusewitch’, Mugwumps 7 (June 1983), 14-15.
Review (with photo) of Boris’s career.

_____. ‘Gregory Matusewitch’, Mugwumps 7 (August/September 1983), 10-11.
Review (with photo) of Gregory’s career.

_____. ‘The Matusewitch Family: Concertina and Accordion Virtuosi—Russia, Europe and the United States’, (1997), also online at the Classical Free Reed website: essays/matusewitch.html.
A history of the family, with photos of Gregory, Boris, Sergei, and Eric.

_____. ‘Pilat and Panzeri, Love Me Tonight, arranged for English Concertina by Boris Matusewitch’, Free-Reed Journal 4 (2002), 162-65.
A brief review of Boris’s career, focusing on his concertina arrangements; includes his arrangement of a popular song by Pilat and Panzeri.

Merris, Randall C. ‘Instruction Manuals for the English, Anglo, and Duet Concertina’, Free-Reed Journal 4 (2002), 85-118; also online at, where it is periodically updated.
Lists two instruction manuals for the English concertina by Boris and Sergei (pp. 94-95).

Palmer, Bill. ‘Should Accordionists Play Bach?’ Accordion World 14 (April 1949), 9; also online at Classical Free-Reed website:
Mentions that Sergei performed J.S. Bach’s Toccata in D Minor (originally for organ) at his concerts.

‘Piano-Accordion’s Distant Relative: The Concertina’, Accordion World 1 (April 1936), 18.
Profile (with photo) of Gregory Matusewitch.

Tarte, Bob. ‘Forces of Nature’, Beat 21 (2002); online at
Includes a review of the Global Accordion—Early Recordings (Weltmusik Wergo; see §VII), and writes of Gregory’s virtuosity as being ‘extraordinary in his performance of “Yidisher Melodien” on piccolo accordion [sic!]’.

Taubman, Howard. ‘No Amateurs, These GI Joes’, New York Times (June 18, 1944), section 2, p. 5.
Howard Taubman, music critic for the Times—and then a private in the army—writes about musicians in the Special Service Training Group at Camp Sibert, Alabama, including Pvt. Boris Matusewitch, ‘virtuoso of the concertina’.

Wakker, Willem. ‘De Matusewitch Familie’ (Pts. 1-3) Klank (January, July, October, 1999); online at
A history of the Matusewitch family (in Dutch).

Wallace, Ed. ‘Twist Its Arm and It Squeals—but Nice’, New York World Telegram and Sun (December 1, 1952), 3.
Profile (with photo) of Boris.

III. Select Concert Notices and Reviews in English

(a) Gregory

Adams, Franklin P. ‘The Conning Tower’, The World (March 4, 1922), 11.
The famed literary figure wrote a favorable review of Gregory’s February 25, 1922, Town Hall (New York) recital.

‘Again Scores Success Here with his Concertina: Gregory Matusewitch is Heard at Alliance’, Savannah [Georgia] Morning News (February 17, 1930).

‘Artist Excels on Concertina’, Houston Post-Dispatch (January 27, 1928).
Short review of Gregory’s January 26, 1928, concert at the Houston Jewish Institute.

Bennett, Grena. “Concertina Recital,” New York American (December 27, 1926).
Brief review of Gregory’s December 26, 1926, Town Hall recital; Bennett wrote that ‘the unusual and delightful instrument was manipulated by Gregory Matusewitch. Handel’s E-major sonata, as it sounded, might have been performed by an orchestra of eight musicians so fully and colorfully harmonized were its four movements’.

‘Concert Will be Given: Jewish Musician to Appear in High School Auditorium Tuesday’, South Bend [Indiana] Tribune (January 24, 1927), 7.
Notes that Gregory (here called ‘George’) has appeared in many cities and that newspaper critics have been ‘highly laudatory’ in their reviews; he is described as having ‘complete mastery of the instrument’ and his performances as drawing large audiences.

Downes, Olin. ‘Gives Concertina Recital’, New York Times (December 27, 1926), 20.
Review of December 26, 1926, Town Hall recital; Downes found that ‘[t]he great range of tone color he produced and his complete mastery gave variety and interest to the four movements [of the Handel sonata in E major]’.

‘Famed Artist on Concertina is Coming Here: Gregory Matusewitch to Appear on Thursday Night’, Erie [Pennsylvania] Dispatch-Herald (February 15, 1927).

‘Gave Splendid Program for Concertina Concert’, Norwich, Connecticut, Bulletin (February 19, 1931).
Favorable review of Gregory’s February 18, 1931, recital sponsored by the Workmen’s Circle.

‘Matusevitz and His Concertina’, Savannah [Georgia] Morning News (January 18, 1928).
A review of Gregory’s January 17, 1928, recital at the Jewish Educational Alliance; the critic exclaimed that ‘[p]laying with a virtuosity that was not short of wonderful, the artist produced music from his small instrument that the writer of these lines could never believe it contained’.

‘Matusewitch Gives Brilliant English Concertina Recital’, New York Herald Tribune (December 27, 1926), 8.
‘At Town Hall yesterday afternoon [December 26, 1926] there was a concert comprising both those rare and invigorating qualities of novelty and complete virtuosity. Gregory Matusewitch showed an astonished and delighted audience that the English concertina, played as he can play it, has a right to be designated a major solo instrument’.

‘Matusewitch Recital’, Accordion World 1 (December 1936), 6.
Reviews Gregory’s recital of November 21, 1936, at Wurlitzer Auditorium (New York), at which he was assisted by his sons, Boris and Solomon (Sergei).

‘Not So Lonely Concertina’, The World (December 27, 1926), 12.
Brief review of Gregory’s December 26, 1926, recital at New York’s Town Hall. The music critic wrote: ‘Under the miraculous manipulation of Gregory Matusewitch, the lowly concertina becomes idealized so that such music as Handel’s E-major sonata. . .emerges as though from the stop of an organ’.

‘“Out All Night” at the Colony’, New York Telegram (September 26, 1927).
Notice of Gregory’s performance at the Colony Theatre, New York; the author writes that Gregory Matusewitch, ‘virtuoso of the miniature English concertina, causes it to emit a startingly versatile collection of sounds’.

‘Russian Café Offers Treat’, New York American (December 7, 1932).
Mentions that Gregory Matusewitch, ‘virtuoso of the concertina’, will be playing at the Russian Art Restaurant in New York on December 11, 1932 (a benefit for the New York American Christmas and Relief-Fund); includes a photo of Gregory.

(b) Boris and Sergei

‘Brothers Matusewitch’, International Musician (March 1952).
Short review of the Matusewitch brothers’ joint recital at Carnegie Recital Hall, February 16, 1952. The critic wrote that Sergei ‘has revealed himself as a sensitive and finished artist, capable of producing unusual musical effects’.

‘Empire Room Headliners’, Chicago Sunday Tribune (February 8, 1953), Pt. 7, p. 13.
Notice that the ‘novelty duo’ of Gregory and Strong will be playing at the Empire Room of the Palmer House Hotel, Chicago; includes a caricature of the concertina-dance team. (Note that Boris dropped the name Matusewitch and used Gregory only in his nightclub act with Rod Strong.)

‘First Civic Music Presentation Hailed as Success by Audience’, Panama City [Florida] Herald (November 3, 1955).
The music critic noted that ‘[a]rtistry and entertainment of the highest caliber were combined last night by dancer Rod Strong and concertina virtuoso Boris Gregory’.

‘Going Out Guide: Bach on Concertinas’, New York Times (August 19, 1981), section C, p. 15.
Notes that Sergei and Randy Stein (Sergei’s student) will play Bach’s Double Violin Concerto on two concertinas with the Balalaika Symphony Orchestra (Seaside Park, Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York).

Herron, Paul. ‘On the Town’, Washington Post and Times Herald (May 24, 1954).
Writes that Boris Gregory and Rod Strong are headliners at the Harlequin Room of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Washington, D.C. ‘Our advice is to stay for the second show, too. The act is unusual and you probably won’t appreciate it as much the first time as the second go-round’.

Johnson, Harriet. ‘Review of New York Philharmonic International Promenade Concert’, New York Post (June 12, 1970), 49.
Boris supplied the music for a ballet choreographed by dancer Edward Villela (Off to Sea Once More); Johnson took note of Boris’s nautical stage costume: ‘Boris Matusewitch, a sea-hippie, was there with his concertina to add sights and sounds to life on deck and in port’.

‘Matusewitch Recital’, Accordion World 4 (June 1939), 20.
Short review of a recital by Boris and Sergei at the Rand School Auditorium in New York: ‘The appreciation with which these two artists were regarded left no doubt that they were indeed masters of their favorite instruments, and doing much to make them popular’.

‘Mozart for Accordion’, New York Times (January 18, 1980), section C, p. 18.
Notice of Sergei’s January 19, 1980, recital in the Bruno Walter Auditorium of the Lincoln Center Library-Museum for the Performing Arts.

‘Play Musical Shorts’, New York World-Telegram (Nov. 14, 1952), 23.
Notes that Boris and his dance partner, Rod Strong, ‘will make a series of musical shorts after they complete their present engagement at the Persian Room of the Plaza Hotel, New York City’.

Sobol, Louis. ‘New York Calvacade: Along Prattle-Tattle Lane’, New York Journal-American (November 15, 1952), 11.
Sobol writes, ‘The team of Boris Gregory and Rod Strong at the Plaza Persian Room—one plays the concertina while the other leaps around and dances like mad’.

‘Soldier Shows’, Army Times (?1944).
Notes that ‘the nation’s outstanding concertina artist’ (Boris Matusewitch) will play Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine and Fritz Kreisler’s Caprice Viennois.

‘Television Reviews: Sight and Sound’, Variety (September 23, 1953).
Short notice that Boris Gregory, ‘the sensational concertina virtuoso, and dancer Rod Strong have been booked for a return engagement on NBC-TV’s ‘Your Show of Shows’ next month’.

‘Two Matusewitches in Musical Program’, New York Times (January 25, 1948).
Review of joint recital in Times Hall, New York, January 24, 1948. ‘The concertina. . .being primarily a melodic instrument, of haunting quality, capable of delicate inflection, nuance and even vibrato. . .His rendition of Mr. [Robert] Lissauer’s works had charm and melody, and the composer added his applause to that of the audience’.

‘Up Front: Lively Music’, New York Post (May 18, 1979).
Notice of Sergei’s May 20, 1979, recital at the Priory concert hall; the program included transcriptions of works by Bach, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Paganini, Liszt, and Chopin.

Walker, Danton. ‘Broadway: Neon Nites’, Sunday Daily News (November 16, 1952), section 2, p.11.
‘The new nite club combo of Rod Strong and Boris Gregory fits in wonderfully with the background of the Persian Room. But how about letting Boris, who’s touted as the world’s leading concertina virtuoso, have at least one solo, instead of being merely background for handsome and nimble Rod’s dancing?’

IV. Music Written for Concertina and Accordion

(a) Gregory

Oriental, Op. 3, No. 1, for concertina. Arr. J.G. Samos (New York: I. Press and G. Matusewitch, 1928).

(b) Sergei

Artiste Fantasie (A Classic Composition in Modern Concert Style for the Piano Accordion) (Brooklyn, NY: Warner Publications, 1937).

Capriccioso (Classic Accordion Solo) (Brooklyn, NY: Warner Publications, 1947).

Etude in D Minor (A New Concert Bellow Shake Etude in Modern Concert Style for the Piano Accordion) (Brooklyn, NY: Warner Publications, 1942).

V. Boris on Broadway

Fanny (November 1954–December 1956), directed by Joshua Logan, music by Harold Rome, Majestic and Belasco Theatres.
Boris played concertina in the orchestra; his wife (and former student), Norma, substituted for him while he was touring with dancer Rod Strong.

How to Be a Jewish Mother (December 1967–January 1968), based on the book by Dan Greenberg, music by Michael Leonard, Hudson Theatre.
Boris played concertina in the orchestra.

They Knew What They Wanted (October 2-21,1939), play written by Sidney Howard, Empire Theatre.
Music performed by Boris (concertina) and Rosito Anthony (singer/guitarist); listed on the Internet Broadway Database:

The Wall (October 1960–March 1961), based on the novel by John Hersey, directed by Morton Da Costa, featuring songs by Robert De Cormier and Millard Lampell, Billy Rose Theatre.
Boris played the concertina offstage for actor George C. Scott.

Wisteria Trees (March-September 1950), based on The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, directed by Joshua Logan, musical arrangements by Lehman Engel, Martin Beck Theatre.
Boris played concertina in the orchestra.

VI. A Television Appearance by Boris

Your Show of Shows, NBC-TV (September 13, 1952).
Boris Gregory and dancer Rod Strong performed on the popular show starring Sid Caesar.

VII. Recordings: Gregory, Boris, and Sergei

(a) Gregory

The English Concertina. Compiled and annotated by Richard Carlin. Folkways Records FW 8845 (1976).
Includes selections by Gregory Matusewitch (V. Monti’s Czardas) and The Boris Matusewitch Quartet (Scott Joplin’s Chrysanthemum).

Global Accordion: Early Recordings. Compiled by Christoph Wagner. Wergo SM 1623 2 (2001).
Gregory plays Yiddisher Melodien.

Gregori Matusewitch. Circulated privately either as a tape or CD, this contains previously recorded selections: Zigeunerweisen (Odeon A 10212-A, Germany), Serenade (Victor 73616), Czardas and London Polka (Victor 9035), Yiddisher Melodien and Yiddisher Wulach (Odeon A 10212-A).

(b) Boris

Fanny. A musical play by S.N. Behrman and Joshua Logan; music and Lyrics by Harold Rome. RCA Victor LOC-1015 (1954).
Boris plays concertina in the orchestra of this original cast album.

Around the Samovar. Leonid Bolotine and Orchestra. Warner Bros. Records W1255 (1959).
Boris played concertina in the orchestra in this recording of Russian folk music.

(c) Sergei

Accordion-Concertina Recital. S-M Records, S M 002 (no date).
Includes selections by Frosini, Sarasate, Brahms, J.S. Bach, Massenet, Tchaikovsky, Gluck, and Monti.

VIII. Concertina Instruction Manuals

Matusewitch, Boris Gregory and Sergei. Matusewitch Associates 5 Week Course for the English Concertina (New York: Matusewitch Associates, c. 1965).

_______. Method for the English Concertina (New York: Matusewitch Associates, 1952).
A copy at the Library of Congress.

IX. Miscellaneous

Matusewitch, Gregory. Publicity Brochure (1920s).
Includes excerpts from his European and American concert reviews and a photograph; listed on the International Concertina Association website, Reuben Shaw Archive, Item #RS002:

Matusewitch Associates, “Five Week Course: Concertina’, Village Voice (November 23, 1972), 46.
The brothers’ standard newspaper advertisement for their concertina course; it ran regularly in the Village Voice and New York Times from the 1950s to 1970s.

Reed Cavity Design and Resonance

Note: In the original hardcopy publication, Equations 5 and 7 contained errors, which carried through to the Table of that publication. These errors, however, are not large enough to alter the main conclusions made in that publication. In this HTML publication, these errors have been corrected, and there are corresponding differences between the Table and Text here and the Table and Text of the original hardcopy publication. I wish to thank Johann Pascher for first pointing out these errors to me – Tom Tonon


Resonance occurs in acoustic systems, and reed cavities in concertinas and other free-reed instruments are no exception. Investigations of reed cavity resonance have been carried out in Europe and in the United States.1 It is my intention here to focus on the practical details of reed cavity resonance, and I hope this article can assist towards a more thorough and broadly accessible discussion. I present here qualitative and quantitative aspects of resonant cavity design, including suggestions on how resonance can possibly enhance as well as detract from reed performance. The approach here incorporates simple acoustic models, and is based both on suggestions from the work of others and on the limited experiments I have done myself. At the end of this article I present tabulated examples of resonant cavity geometries calculated from these models, as applied to the musical range of the concertina family of instruments.


An important function of the reed cavity is to provide secure and airtight mounting of the reed in order that a uniform stream of air can be directed through the reed and that tongue vibration can proceed without interference.2 Practical free-reed instruments cannot exist without cavities, and very few people have heard the sound of a free reed without an associated cavity. Builders are aware that cavity shape can influence reed performance, and is this feature of the cavity that concerns us here.

The vibrating reed tongue and the air within and about the cavity are acoustically coupled together. In some designs, the effect of the cavity on the musical tone is small, or negligible; in other designs, the effect of the cavity can significantly modify the musical tone; and in still other designs, the acoustic effect of the cavity can prevent the reed from speaking properly.

Coupled Vibrations

Mechanical systems possessing mass and elasticity experience natural modes of vibration called resonance,3 and two or more systems can participate in coupled vibrations. The reed tongue is one such system, and the air within and about the cavity comprises another. The combined tongue/cavity system is coupled together by the air pressure/velocity behavior at and near the vent (slot) through which the tongue passes, since both the vibrating tongue and the vibrating air mass within and about the cavity influence this region. The tongue vibration occurs at a frequency very slightly lower than its natural frequency—vibrating as a bar with one end fixed and the other free—inducing air and pressure oscillations about the vent, and thus causing air inside the cavity to vibrate.4 Because of the coupling mechanism, this influence can amplify or diminish the fundamental of the musical tone, and the precise nature of this influence depends in general upon the particular resonant mode of the cavity and the position of the vibrating tongue with respect to the cavity. The degree of any influence to be expected is difficult to determine without experiment, though there are at least two parameters that must be considered in this determination. One is the frequency match between the resonant mode of the cavity and the vibrational frequency of the tongue, and another is the size of the cavity, or, better stated, the power output of the mass of air that is induced to resonant vibration in comparison to the vibrational power output of the reed itself. Bigger cavities will have larger potential influence.

As an illustration, consider a wider scope of reed instruments. With woodwinds—the clarinet, for instance—the body of the instrument takes on the role of the cavity, which is relatively very large, and the air mass in and about this geometry resonates as the primary source of vibrational energy, with the reed vibration itself contributing very little. The beating reed of the clarinet functions as a pressure-controlling device, is placed at a pressure antinode, and vibrates at a frequency equal to that of the cavity-mode vibration, which is well below the reed’s own natural frequency. Reed vibration and air vibration are strongly coupled, and air vibration dominates, with the soft, pliable reed simply tagging along. At the other extreme are the tone chambers (cassottos) placed in some accordions. Here, the reed/tongue system is weakly coupled to the air geometry associated with the tone chamber, and resonant vibrations of air in and about the tone chamber have little effect back on tongue vibration, which provides the predominant amount of acoustical power. Tone chamber vibrations, however, do significantly alter the sound of the musical tone (volume and timbre) for those reeds that present partials with frequencies that match the resonant frequencies of the tone chamber (a phenomenon discussed in more detail below).5

An intermediate example is the beating reed used in organ pipes,6 which is again a device closely coupled to air vibration and placed near a pressure antinode. Here, the tongue is not nearly as compliant as the beating reed in a woodwind instrument, but it is also not as stiff as that in free reeds, and the resonant frequency of the combined system is a compromise between the tongue and air column systems. A final example is the Asian free reed, which normally functions with a pipe resonator, to which it is closely coupled. This reed is placed near the closed end of the resonator (bawu,with the other end open), approximately a quarter length away from the closed end (khaen), or at the open end of an open pipe resonator (sheng). Such varied placement indicates that the coupling between this reed and its resonator is complicated. For the khaen and sheng, the resonator frequencies are closely matched and the playing frequency is typically slightly above the resonant frequencies of both the reed and the resonator. For the bawu, the playing frequency is near the pipe-resonant frequency, which is considerably above the resonant frequency of the reed.7

With the Western free-reed system, tongue and air vibration coupling is also strong, but a key feature of the mechanism for vibration here is different from those of both the beating reed and the Asian free reed. With the Western free reed, tongue vibration is self-excited and does not require a vibrating air mass (resonator) in order to transfer a steady air pressure difference into oscillatory motion. The mechanism for self-excitation takes place in the neighborhood of the vent and occurs at the frequency at which the tongue vibrates: that is, the fundamental of the musical tone. The tongue can thus be made to vibrate without any cavity, and it can be made to vibrate at frequencies far from any resonant frequency of the cavity. Far from cavity resonance, air vibration in the cavity is small and will thus have relatively little effect on air motion in the critical vent region. As tongue vibration frequency and cavity mode resonant frequency become closer, however, cavity air vibration can become large enough to influence the self-excitation mechanism. Whether this influence assists or interferes with tongue vibration and the resulting musical tone depends upon the resonant mode of the cavity and how the reed is mounted in relation to the cavity. In what follows, I apply the Helmholtz, quarter-wave, and full-wave models as a way to understand the resonant modes possible with the reed cavity and how they might influence reed performance.

The interference described above can completely prevent the tongue from vibrating: the reed becomes choked. Choking is predicted, then, under certain conditions when tongue vibration frequency is in some neighborhood of cavity mode frequency. Builders occasionally encounter choking in the higher-pitched reeds, and later in this article, I provide calculations illustrating why such reeds are likely candidates for choking, based upon resonant effects. As a remedy, builders sometimes provide a ‘vent hole’ in the cavity, or file off a corner of the tongue, in order to allow the reed to sound properly. These gaps function by allowing air leakage, destroying the offending resonant mode of the cavity, and perhaps also by incorporating a larger degree of damping in the cavity mode vibration. Three other methods are sometimes used by builders to prevent choking: eliminate leather valves on both reeds mounted in the cavity, reduce cavity height to an absolute minimum, and mount the reed with the reed tip near the air opening to the cavity.8 The first of these provides the same function as the ‘vent hole’ described earlier, the second of these changes the resonant geometry, when the cavity is functioning as a Helmholtz resonator, and the third is useful when the cavity is functioning as a quarter-wave tube. I discuss these resonant geometries more fully in the following sections.

An interesting experiment is to take a reed block out of an accordion and attempt to sound the reeds by blowing or sucking through the air passages while making a tight seal between your lips and the block opening. For many reeds, weak, or even no sound results, suggesting an offending resonant mode of the large cavity created by the addition of your pulmonary system to that of the reed block. Some of these reeds, however, can be made to play well simply by holding your nostrils closed while blowing or sucking. Thus, closing your nostrils changes the resonant geometry to one that contains no offending mode. Another way to sometimes allow voicing is simply to suck in rather than blow out, or visa versa, which both engages a different reed—which may have only a slightly different pitch or a pitch one or two semitones different—and also causes a different airflow direction through the reed block. Changing reeds can change the resonance relation, and a different mean flow direction can make a slight change in the cavity resonant frequency.9 Finally, allowing some gap between your lips and the reed block, or breathing also a little through your nose can also restore clear voicing, since your pulmonary system is then partially de-coupled from the rest of the system. Such demonstrations reveal strong coupling between tongue and cavity vibration and suggest that cavity resonance can have a major effect on self-excited tongue vibration.

Fundamental, Overtones, and Partials

The vibrating reed tongue periodically chops the air stream that forces its motion, resulting in complex pressure pulses whose waveform contains many partials (the fundamental, defined by the vibration frequency of the tongue, and overtones).10 These partials have frequencies very close to whole number ratios of each other, and are thus called harmonic. Departure from harmonicity could accompany excitation of additional vibrational modes of the tongue, though such excitation is very small, occurring only at very high blowing pressures.11 In any event, acoustic waves produced by select partials can interact with resonant modes of the cavity. As a result, these partials can be strengthened or weakened, just like the fundamental, as explained above, but there is a diminishing consequence to reed performance as resonance moves up to higher and higher partials. For higher partials, then, the tongue/cavity system is weakly coupled to tongue vibration, and for these partials, one might expect the cavity to function like the weakly coupled tone chambers described earlier. One would not expect a noticeable effect on musical tone if a cavity mode resonates with, for instance, the 10th partial of a musical tone; however, for the lower partials, say less than the 4th, an attentive listener might notice a difference in tone, and even volume.

There does not appear to be an extended effort concerning resonance exploitation on the part of squeezebox builders. Perhaps this is because the last 150 years of development have taught builders that any benefits to be gained are small compared to the required effort. This seeming lack of interest is also understandable because of the danger of destructive interference, which, as I show below, becomes possible in the neighborhood of resonance with certain cavity modes and for certain reed mounting positions. There is also the danger of uneven reed performance within the musical range of the instrument. Such dangers, however, should be reduced both if the techniques for resonance exploitation are well understood and if the builder emphasizes the reinforcement of higher partials of the musical tone, staying away from the fundamental in cases where it is known that fundamental resonance will be destructive. I will explore conditions under which builders can expect such destructive interference, suggest remedies, and, where convenient, show how one might exploit cavity resonance as a way to alter, and perhaps improve, musical tone.

For those interested in such exploitation of resonance, note that, for resonant design to be optimum, air leaks through cavity walls should be eliminated. Often in practice, two reeds share the same cavity, and in such cases, both reeds should be valved, so that the non-speaking reed does not provide a leak of acoustic energy. With English-system instruments, both reeds are of the same pitch, whereas in other, bi-sonorous, designs (the Anglo, for example), the two pitches differ, usually by one or two half tones. Since resonant cavity design depends upon the pitch of the musical tone, the question arises as to which pitch to use with bi-sonorous cavities. As a starting point, one might simply design for the average of the two pitches, at least for initial investigations, with the possibility for subsequent tweaking. More elaborate treatment of these cases would require the construction of separate cavities by means of partitions,12 which is beyond the scope of this article.

The Wavelength of Oscillation

An important parameter in every acoustic phenomenon is the wavelength of oscillation, lambda_15.gif (145 bytes), defined by (Equation 1)

where c is the speed of sound (1130 ft/sec for air at room temperature) in the wave medium and v the frequency of oscillatory motion. The wavelength is our characteristic length, and all dimensions of the cavity must be compared to this length in order to draw valid conclusions concerning their acoustic relevance. In our case, the frequency, v, will be that of the partial of interest.

Comparing the various cavity dimensions to the pertinent wavelength of oscillation allows us to predict what kind of resonant modes are possible for a given cavity geometry. Practically speaking and in simple terms, a given geometry will behave at resonance in one of two ways: as a Helmholtz resonator or as a quarter-wave tube. With special instrument construction not normally utilized, full-wave resonance can also be produced, as discussed below.

Helmholtz Resonator13

Typical cavities consist of a volume of air connected to a necked-down region where vibratory air motion can be concentrated. Such geometry resembles that of the classic Helmholtz resonator. When lambda_15.gif (145 bytes) is much larger than all cavity dimensions, we can expect the cavity geometry to behave according to this model, in which case, all pressure fluctuations within the cavity will be spatially uniform. Figure 1 depicts this geometry, situated so that the reeds are placed behind, out of view, and the necked-down region produced by the air hole in the concertina Action Board is identified with the Aperture of the figure. In operation, pressure oscillations in the cavity impart oscillations in the air that travels through this aperture, and this air motion has a non-zero time average that corresponds to the net airflow in or out of the bellows. The response of this geometry will increase as some partial of the musical tone approaches its resonant frequency. In effect, this construction is a mechanical system, equivalent to the more familiar spring/mass system, with the compressible air in the cavity corresponding to the spring, and the vibrating air in the vicinity of the aperture corresponding to the mass.

Most all of us are familiar with how easy it is to excite a Helmholtz resonator; we can simply blow across the mouth of a soda bottle. One might thus question whether a Helmholtz resonator can be excited by a reed placed in the wall of the resonator, as in Figure 1, and not, for instance, near the outside of the aperture. The free reed, being a flow-controlling device, introduces mass into the Volume of the resonator in periodic fashion, resulting in cavity air pressure oscillations. Theoretically then, the Volume is excited in the very way it functions as part of the resonator, and at resonance, the coupled system should behave very differently from its behavior far away from resonance. Although it is difficult to determine solely on theoretical grounds just what this resonance behavior will be, it is, as shown below, a simple matter to calculate the resonant frequency of this geometry.

With this geometry, my own limited experimentation has shown that, when the cavity experiences Helmholtz resonance with the fundamental of reed-tongue vibration, interference occurs, and the reed-tongue vibration is seriously hampered, even choked. This interference occurs even for Helmholtz resonant frequencies somewhat below the fundamental and suggests that resonant cavity air vibration feedback to the critical vent region upsets the self-excitation mechanism, at least for those cavities large enough to supply sufficient energy. In other words, at resonance, the reed-tongue vibration is not ‘stiff’ enough to completely dominate cavity resonance. Hence the practice of some builders to provide air leaks in the cavity, or incorporate very small cavity volumes as a way to change and/or reduce the resonance response. Alternatively, one can make other adjustments to resonator geometry, by utilizing the expressions given here for the calculation of cavity resonant frequency. In addition, my own experiments show the following: for Helmholtz resonant frequencies a little larger than the fundamental, interference does not occur, and I have even observed volume amplification. Similar behavior occurs during Helmholtz resonance with the second partial (first overtone), though with reduced intensity and less interference, with the absence of choking. The resonance effect drops off rapidly for even higher partials. A general effect on tone seems to be a reduction in sound contribution from the partials with frequencies well above the cavity resonant frequency. These observations appear to be insensitive to where exactly the reed tip is located in the cavity wall.

Fig. 1. Helmholtz model.

As noted above, the acoustic wave associated with lambda_15.gif (145 bytes) in the calculation of the resonant frequency need not arise from only the frequency of tongue vibration (fundamental). Higher partials of the pressure waveform produced by the vibrating tongue should also be considered, since such partials may still result in wavelengths that are significantly larger than all cavity dimensions, which validates the Helmholtz model. The same cavity, of course, will cease to function as a Helmholtz resonator for frequencies so high that the associated wavelengths are comparable to some resonator dimension. In these cases, the cavity can perhaps function as a quarter-wave tube (see below). The Helmholtz resonator represents an extreme end of the range of resonant geometries and has only one resonance mode. By definition, overtones do not exist in its operation, simply because such overtones imply that some cavity dimension is comparable to the wavelength associated with such overtones.

The resonant frequency, v0, for the Helmholtz geometry is given below (Equation 2):

where also, from Equation 1, lambda_15.gif (145 bytes)0 = c/v0; pi_15.gif (145 bytes) = 3.14; root_15.gif (126 bytes) is the square root function; A is the area of the aperture (air hole); t is the length of the Aperture (thickness of the Action Board); d is the diameter of the aperture; V is the net air volume within the cavity, and k is a number in the approximate range 0.43 to 0.80, with the higher values chosen if the fully open pallet remains within approximate distance d of the aperture. Lower values are chosen for k if this distance is about twice d (pallets that remain close to the hole will decrease the resonator pitch). The accuracy of this ‘end correction’ term, kd, decreases as lambda_15.gif (145 bytes)0 becomes smaller and no longer large compared to the product (2pi_15.gif (145 bytes)d).14

The calculation of V depends upon the construction of the cavity. For traditional English construction, one reed is situated outside the cavity, often with its leather valve situated inside the cavity, and another reed is situated somewhat inside the cavity. For accordion-reeded instruments, the entire reed is situated outside the cavity, with a slight addition of air space due to the thickness of the cavity wall supporting the reed. In the simple case of an orthogonal cavity, of length L, width W, and height H, we calculate (Equation 3):

where Vadj is the volume adjustment because of how the reed is mounted. With this notation, the volume of any reed part within the cavity proper will contribute negatively to Vadj (reed volume is subtracted). Note that in Figure 1 the Helmholtz geometry is, for the sake of simplicity, assumed to be such an orthogonal structure. Sample calculations using these expressions will be presented below.

Quarter-Wave Tube Resonator

A tube is defined as a cylinder whose transverse dimensions are much less than its length,15 with a quarter-wave tube resonator being such a tube—of length one-quarter wavelength—with one end open and the other end closed. Reed cavities somewhat resemble tubes, and Figure 2 depicts a cavity that functions as a quarter-wave tube. This drawing depicts traditional-style English concertina reeds that are mounted with the free tip of the tongue near the closed tube end.

Fig. 2. Quarter-Wave Model.

From Figure 2, an immediate conclusion is that, with the cavity functioning as a resonant quarter-wave tube using the tongue vibration frequency (fundamental) for the relevant wavelength, there is likely to be serious interference between tongue vibration and cavity air vibration. The explanation is as follows. At resonance, the air within the cavity must vibrate with a velocity node (minimum) at the closed end and a velocity antinode (maximum) at the open end. The self-excited free reed mechanism, however, requires a large velocity oscillation near the freely vibrating tip of the tongue, which is in the vicinity where the tube air vibration requires a minimum. Thus, neither vibrating system satisfies the requirement of the other, and interference with the reed’s self-excitation mechanism is likely. I have experimentally verified such interference, including choking, which is similar to the choking caused by cavities resonating as Helmholtz resonators (as explained above). Even with (effective) tube lengths a bit different from one-quarter wavelength, the reed might speak only weakly.16 The suggestions on how to avoid Helmholtz resonance interference explained above also apply here, but with quarter-wave resonance, an alternative method to provide better voicing would be reorient the reed so that the free tip of the tongue lies near the open end of the cavity. Builders sometimes adopt this practice, which is illustrated in Figure 3, and doing so will likely result in amplification in musical tone, since each vibrating system then satisfies the requirement of the other. I have observed such amplification experimentally, and such amplification is theoretically possible both at the fundamental frequency and at overtones whose frequencies are odd-numbered multiples of the fundamental. With conventional reed placement, and if a higher partial of the musical tone provides the pertinent wavelength with which to measure the length of the tube, choking is less likely, though weak tones are still possible.

Fig. 3. Quarter-Wave Model with Alternate Reed Mounting

The resonant quarter wavelength geometry is given by (Equation 4):

where, from Equation 1, vo = c/lambda_15.gif (143 bytes)o , where vo is the resonant frequency, and the ‘effective tube length’ is given approximately by (Equation 5):

where L is the cavity length, t is the thickness of the Action Board, pi_15.gif (145 bytes) = 3.14, d is aperture diameter, and as in the Helmholtz model above, k is a number from between about 0.4 and 0.8, depending on how close the pallet remains to the aperture. In Equation 5, it is assumed that lambda_15.gif (143 bytes)o is large compared to the product (2pi_15.gif (145 bytes)d) and large compared to the difference (Leff – L).17

For some cavity geometries, W, the cavity width, is not very much smaller than L, and in such cases, there may be an occurrence of transverse standing modes, though on simple analysis, they do not appear to require much concern here.18 style> For those interested in exploiting the effect of quarter-wave tubes on musical tone, it may be advantageous to divide the cavity with a lengthwise partition, effectively separating the two reed tongues that share the same cavity and significantly increasing the ratio L/W. Figure 4 illustrates this partition, with the resulting reduction in the size of W. Such a partition may also be more useful for bi-sonorous cavities. As mentioned earlier, a quarter-wave geometry (with reed tongue tip mounted as in Figure 3) that amplifies a partial of one frequency will also amplify partials having frequencies that are odd multiples of this frequency.

Fig. 4. Quarter-Wave Model with Partition

Full-Wave Tube Resonator

A full-wave tube resonator is a tube of length one wavelength, with either both ends open or both ends closed. Because of the end conditions, such geometry does not normally exist in squeezebox construction; however, from a theoretical point of view, and for those interested in how such geometry might be exploited for its resonance possibilities, Figure 5 illustrates one way in which this could be done. The configuration here incorporates the open-end conditions. Note the partition in Figure 5, which creates a tube of one wavelength from a cavity whose length is closer to one-half wavelength. Note also the placement of the free tip of the reed tongue, which is near the air hole, at the top. With this arrangement, the requirement for maximum air velocity by both tongue and cavity air vibrations is satisfied, and amplification should theoretically occur for the design partial, as well as for partials having frequencies that are whole number multiples of the frequency of the design partial.19

Fig. 5. Full-Wave Model with Partition.

The resonant geometry for the full-wave tube geometry is given by (Equation 6):

where, from Equation 1, vo = c/lambda_15.gif (143 bytes)o, vo is the resonant frequency, and following the approach taken with the quarter-wave geometry, Leff is the ‘effective length’ of the air cavity, expressed by (Equation 7):

where L is the cavity length, t is the thickness of the Action Board, d is aperture diameter, and as in the Helmholtz model above, k is a number from between about 0.4 and 0.8, depending on how close the pallet remains to the aperture. For accuracy, the same restrictions noted in reference to the quarter-wave geometry also apply here.20

As can be seen in Figures 4 and 5, there is a small difference between the partition in a quarter-wave cavity and that of a full-wave cavity. Provided the reed tips are mounted as shown, it is a simple matter to physically change a quarter-wave cavity to a full-wave cavity, though the full-wave cavity must be excited at a frequency four times that of the quarter-wave cavity.

In looking at the Helmholtz, quarter-wave, and full-wave geometries depicted in Figures 1, 2, and 5, one might ask: what’s the difference? The difference is the magnitude of the wavelength, lambda_15.gif (143 bytes)o, which corresponds to the frequency of the partial contained in the pressure waveform produced by the vibrating tongue that is being investigated. In general, the same geometry can behave like a Helmholtz resonator at one wavelength, like a quarter-wave resonator at another, and like a full-wave resonator at still another, provided the quarter-wave tube has one end open and the other closed, and the full-wave tube has both ends open.


The resonant geometries and corresponding equations for resonant frequency and resonant cavity lengths for the Helmholtz, quarter-wave, and full-wave geometries are only models, and inaccuracies can be expected with comparison to the real world. Some sources of inaccuracy have been pointed out, especially those associated with an estimate of the effective mass (value for k), the assumed comparative sizes among cavity dimensions, and the comparison of these dimensions with the wavelength of oscillation. In practice, such limitations are usually stretched to the limit, and often beyond, in order to utilize such expressions as experimental guidelines. With the quarter-wave and full-wave models, we should also mention that air motion through the reed vent (slot) is not entirely concentrated at the end of the cavity; the vibrating tongue moves through the vent with finite clearance, causing some leakage of acoustic energy from the cavity. In addition, the presence of reed parts inside the tube causes changes in cross section that can influence the resonant frequency. Calculations performed according to suggestions here can be effective illustrators of concepts involved, but should, because of inaccuracies, be considered only as starting points for experimentation.

All lengths in inches
Note is nomenclature for piano keyboard
Partial is partial number
v is frequency of corresponding partial (Hz)
lambda_15.gif (143 bytes) is wavelength of corresponding partial
Vadj is volume adjustment to orthogonal cavity structure, Equation 3 (cubic inches)
W is orthogonal cavity width in Helmholtz model
L is orthogonal cavity length in Helmholtz model
d is aperture diameter
t is aperture length (Action Board thickness)
H is calculated orthogonal cavity height for Helmholtz resonance, Equation 2 & 3, k = 0.6
Smax = 0.15 lambda_15.gif (143 bytes)o is about maximum size of any component for Helmholtz model to remain accurate
Hfixed is cavity height used for tube calculations in next two columns
L-QW is length of cavity for quarter-wave model, Equations 4 & 5, k = 0.6
L/2-FW is length of cavity for partitioned full-wave model, Equations 6 & 7, k = 0.6
BOLD numbers indicate regions on the musical scale where resonance occurs and/or where reed choking may occur (when Partial = 1)

Sample Calculations

Table 1 presents the results of calculations that illustrate how close reasonable cavity dimensions come to resonant geometries. One can study Table 1 and draw conclusions on where along the musical pitch range there is greater or lesser tendency for cavity resonance to approach the frequencies of various partials of the musical tone. Table 1 also gives an idea of how much cavity geometries need to be adjusted in order to arrive at geometries that will resonate at the frequencies of various partials of the musical tone.

In Table 1, Column Note shows the musical note, with nomenclature based on the 88-key piano. As can be seen, the calculations represent the musical range of bass (G1 to C5), baritone (G2 to C6), treble (G3 to C7), and piccolo (G4 to C8) concertinas. Column Partial shows the partial number of the pressure waveform produced by the tongue vibration, with fundamental taken as 1, first overtone as 2, etc. Column vo gives the frequency corresponding to the overtone, and Column Vadj gives an approximate volume adjustment, accounting for departures from the orthogonal volume calculation (Equation 3). Column lambda_15.gif (143 bytes)o gives the wavelength corresponding to frequency vo , and Columns W, L, d, t, H, and Smax are used in the Helmholtz resonator calculation, listing (orthogonal) cavity width (W), length (L), height (H), and aperture diameter (d). Using Equations 2 and 3, we may calculate the value of (H) from the other parameters (W, L, d, and t), whose values were adjusted until a reasonable value for (H) was obtained. Column Smax calculates the maximum size that any of the previous five parameters can assume, without the simple Helmholtz calculation becoming inaccurate, as discussed in the previous section on Helmholtz Resonators. Column Hfixed gives the cavity height used in the tube calculations in the next two columns. Column L-QW gives the cavity length for quarter-wave tube resonance (Equations 4 and 5), and Column L-FW gives the cavity length of a full-wave resonant tube (Equations 6 and 7).

As an example, consider the first line in the calculation for note G1; this shows that the Helmholtz calculation using the fundamental as the design frequency yields a very large value for cavity height, H (166 inches!), when reasonable values for W, L, d, and t were chosen. Note that with this calculation, the magnitude of H is much larger than the value for Smax, indicating that the Helmholtz model does not apply; however, we can still conclude—and the unduly large value for H indicates—that the resonant Helmholtz geometry is very different from the cavity geometry that would exist in the real world (which would have a value for H around 0.5 inches). Thus there is no chance that a cavity for this reed pitch could resonate with the fundamental of the musical tone. The second calculation for note G1 uses the ninth partial (eighth overtone) as the design frequency, and a smaller value for H is obtained, though still perhaps not practical (1.11 inches). The third calculation, for the 11th partial, does show a realistic value for H, assuming moderate adjustments to other cavity dimensions. Bold numbers here and elsewhere in Table 1 indicate areas of susceptible resonance matching between cavity modes and various musical tone partials. Thus, one might conclude on theoretical grounds that some partial higher than about 11 for this reed pitch may be altered by Helmholtz resonance of the cavity, though it is doubtful that alteration of such a high overtone would be noticeable to a listener. Similar comments apply to the fourth line, which calculates the results for an even higher overtone. Note, however, that the value for Smax in this last calculation is less than the value for L, which indicates that the Helmholtz model is becoming less accurate.

For note G2, one concludes similarly that there is no chance that a concertina will be built wherein the cavity provides Helmholtz resonance for the fundamental at reed pitch G2. As with G1, however, the possibility for such resonance increases as we consider higher partials, and in particular, one can expect that some partial starting with the 6th or 7th might experience such resonance.

Thus, higher pitched reeds have cavities that display tendencies to resonate with decreasing ‘partial number’. For note G3, we find that 4th or 5th partials and higher give realistic values for H, and thus a possibility to encounter Helmholtz resonance in a range of overtones that could become noticeable. For note G4, we find that 3rd partials and higher are candidates for resonance. For these notes, my own experimentation suggests that the affected partials may experience reinforcement (interference) if the Helmholtz frequency is a little above (or below) the partial frequency. Note C5 produces a 3rd partial as a candidate for Helmholtz resonance, though the pertinent wavelength is becoming a bit small and the accuracy of this calculation is becoming compromised (see value for Smax). When we get to notes between C5 and C7 and upward, we see a possibility that the fundamental itself may experience Helmholtz resonance with the cavity. With notes higher than about C7, wavelengths are becoming so small that the Helmholtz model may contain serious errors, as shown by comparative values of Smax. Such errors, however, do not mean that the cavity will not resonate, but only that another model must be applied, and we retain the bold format to indicate the possibility of some sort of resonance with the fundamental.21 In some of these cases, the tube models become applicable, as discussed below.

I mentioned earlier my own experimental results that suggest interference when Helmholtz resonance is about equal to or a little lower than reed-tongue vibration frequency (the fundamental). Table 1 shows that such interference can be expected somewhere between notes C5 and C6. In theory, a simple fix for compromised reed performance would be to alter some key cavity or aperture dimension, according to the resonance formulas presented in this article. For resonance with higher partials, as with notes G3 to G8, my experimentation has shown that serious interference with the self- excitation mechanism appears unlikely, though some weakening of tone is possible when the Helmholtz frequency is close to, or somewhat lower than, the second or third partial frequency. For Helmholtz resonance at frequencies in a moderate range that is a little larger than these partial frequencies, I have observed possible enhancement, suggesting passive filtration by the cavity resonance, as explained in the sections Fundamental, Overtones and Partials. Should a builder choose to exploit any possible enhancement at resonance, Table 1 suggests that notes above approximately G4 would be likely candidates, and that precisely tuned Helmholtz resonators must be especially made for notes C6 and above, because of the danger of interference leading to choking.

style=”font-family: Verdana; color: red;”>We now examine the results associated with quarter-wave tube resonance. style> Column L-QW was calculated using Equations 4 and 5, and with the realistic values in Columns W, L, d, t, and Hfixed. style> The idea here is to compare the numbers in Column L with the numbers in Column L-QW, and quarter-wave resonance is expected for those partials where these numbers are in reasonable agreement. style> Bold numbers again indicate possible resonance areas. style> As in the case of the Helmholtz calculation, there is a general trend, with resonance possibilities occurring for lower partial numbers as the musical pitch increases. style> Thus, the fifteenth partial of note G1, the fourth partial of note G4, the third partial of note C5, the second partial of note C6, and the first partials (fundamentals) of notes C7 and C8 show such behavior. style> In some of these calculations, there is departure from the restrictions placed on Equations 4 and 5, though the trends illustrated here should be still valid.

In general terms, we thus come to a similar conclusion as with the Helmholtz calculation; namely, that the lower-pitched reeds can provide higher partials with frequencies that can match the quarter-wave resonant mode of their cavities, and that, as the pitch of the reed increases, lower-numbered partials can provide such frequencies, until we arrive at the highest-pitched reeds, where the fundamental itself provides such frequencies.

As mentioned earlier, and as shown in Figure 2, concertina cavity designs often situate the free tip of the reed tongue away from the air hole. From Table 1, for notes in the octave about C7, this arrangement invites the possibility of reed choking. As also noted previously, a simple remedy, among others, might be to mount the reed tip at the aperture end of the cavity, which might then result in tone enhancement. (See the section Quarter-Wave Tube Resonator for further explanation of such effects.)

Column L-FW does not normally apply to existing concertinas, since its calculation assumes a partition, with reed orientation shown as in Figure 5. I include it for completeness, and it may be of import to those interested in understanding and exploiting resonance phenomenon. Table 1 shows that only the highest-pitched reeds are expected to show susceptibility for fundamental resonance with full-wave tubes, indicating applicability somewhere in the vicinity of note C8.

One can see that the occurrence of resonant behavior in Table 1 is dependent upon the assumed dimensions of the cavities, and that real concertinas will have other cavity dimensions and other occurrences. It is important to note, however, that the general trend concluded here for both Helmholtz and tube models should be valid for real instruments.

Summary and Conclusions

Reed cavity resonance exhibits a full range of influence on concertina reed performance. In some cases, reed cavities have very little effect, while in other cases, there can be significant effect on the timbre and volume of the musical tone. Finally, resonance effects can cause serious interference with reed tongue vibration and musical tone, particularly for Helmholtz and quarter-wave resonance with high-pitched reeds. The Helmholtz resonator and quarter-wave tube models can explain much of the resonant behavior of reed cavities, and I have presented methods to calculate their resonant geometries. The sample calculations illustrate the range of influence of resonance on bass, baritone, treble, and piccolo instruments. For the lowest range of these instruments, only the higher partials of the musical tone appear open to influence. As one moves up the pitch range of this family of instruments, lower-numbered, more noticeable partials become susceptible to influence from cavity resonance, and for the highest pitches, I suggest resonant interference and reed choking is a danger in some cavity designs. Helmholtz resonance appears to be the more commonly experienced type of resonance, though quarter-wave resonance makes a significant appearance, in a less regular fashion.

In this article, I have presented possible mechanisms for interference and choking, remedies to prevent such behavior, and suggestions on how one might attempt exploitation of resonant effects for improved musical tone. These discussions and suggestions are based, in part, on my limited experimentation on these issues, which I cannot say is universally conclusive. Free-reed operation is a complicated affair, and I hope the discussion here can encourage participation by others.


1. See for instance, Gerhard Richter: Akustische Probleme bei Akkordeons und Mundharmonikas, Teil 1: Allgemeine Grundlagen (Kamen, Germany: Karthause-Schmulling, 1985). More recent—and in English—is a series of papers by James P. Cottingham, abstracts of which are published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America: ‘Acoustics of American Reed Organs’, 99 (1996), 2461; with Casey A. Fetzer, ‘Modeling Free Reed Behavior using Calculated Reed Admittance’, 102 (1997), 3084; ‘Theoretical and Experimental Investigation of the Air-Driven Free Reed’, 103 (1998), 2835.

2. Care must be taken so that no air jets or concentrations of air streams interfere with the self-excitation mechanism of tongue vibration.

3. Damping (friction) is also present in any real system, though it is not required for resonance. In this article, we neglect the small effect damping has on cavity resonant frequencies.

4. There is a mean (time-average) airflow through the cavity, upon which is superimposed an air vibration with oscillating pressure and velocity. The magnitude of these oscillations depends upon spatial position within and about the cavity.

5. Any concertina player can observe the tone chamber effect by playing the instrument close inside the corner of a room. Sound reflection off the walls in this case produces a tone with timbre noticeably different from that of the tone played out in the open.

6. Free reeds were used in organ pipes, though they were, to my knowledge, discontinued during the 1920’s because their start (attack) transient was regarded as too slow.

7. See Cottingham, ‘Acoustics of a Symmetric Free Reed Coupled to a Pipe Resonator’, abstract in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 107 (2000), 2896. An important difference between Asian and Western free reeds is that the Asian reed operates always as an “opening” reed, whereas the Western free reed operates as a “closing” reed and sometimes as both a “closing” reed and an “opening” reed. For an explanation of this terminology and the implications, see Neville H. Fletcher and Thomas D. Rossing, The Physics of Musical Instruments, 2nd ed. (New York: Springer, 1999), 401, 413.

8. Aldo Mencasini, owner, Bell-Duovox Accordion, West Nyack, New York, private communication.

9. The presence of a mean flow through the reed vent has a small (second order), but sometimes significant, effect on reed performance.

10. Some people are erroneously under the impression that the partials in the musical tone of squeezeboxes are caused by higher resonance modes in the reed tongue itself, in the same way that a vibrating guitar string produces its partials.

11. See Cottingham, C. Joseph Lilly, and Christopher H. Reed, ‘The Motion of Air-Driven Free Reeds’, The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 105 (1999), 940.

12. By partition, I mean a lengthwise divider down the middle of the cavity, with only the vicinity of the port hole allowing acoustical communication between the resulting half-size cavities.

13. Named after Hermann Helmholtz (1821-1894), whose Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik (Brunswick, 1863; English translation by A. J. Ellis, 1875/reprinted 1956, as On the Sensations of Tone) is one of the classic studies of musical acoustics. As Allan W. Atlas has noted, Ellis himself played the concertina; see ‘Who Bought Concertinas in the Winter of 1851? A Glimpse at the Sales Accounts of Wheatstone & Co.’, Nineteenth-Century British Music Studies, 1, ed. Bennett Zon (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), 63-64.

14. The calculation of k is a complex exercise, though it has been done for cases that approximate its application here. The “end correction” kd is necessary to account for the inertia of the air mass that vibrates in the region immediately outside the air hole, and the extent of this mass depends upon the size of the hole with respect to the wavelength and the proximity of the pallet to the hole. For instruments where the pallet remains closer to the hole than stated, even larger values of k should be used. Such an effect is used in some marimbas, as a way of tuning the associated quarter-wave tube resonator. Note also that radiation loss from the cavity should be small when the stated restrictions are satisfied and is thus neglected in these calculations.

15. The main reason for this requirement is to ensure that the inherent assumptions of one- dimensional flow inside the tube are adhered to. For more rigorous conformity between this quarter-wave model and practice, one can place partitions down the center of the cavity, effectively doubling the ratio L/W, as discussed elsewhere in the text. Since the transverse dimensions are assumed much less than a quarter wavelength, waveform variations in the transverse direction are negligible, and the cross-sectional shape of the tube is not important, unless higher-order effects, such as wall friction, are included.

16. Since the clarinet is basically a quarter-wave tube with one end open and the other closed, and with the reed placed at the closed end, one might ask why the free reed behaves differently. The answer lies in the nature of the two reeds, as explained previously. The clarinet reed is a pressure-controlling device, whereas the free reed is a flow-controlling device. With the tube in resonance, the boundary condition at the wall requires a velocity node and a pressure maximum. Such a condition is compatible with the clarinet’s beating reed and incompatible with the free reed.

17. (see note 14).

18. The appearance of transverse standing waves should not invalidate the expressions given here; they can only add additional modes of vibration. Because of the geometries involved and the wall (zero velocity) boundary conditions in the transverse direction, only those transverse modes that support partials with frequencies having whole number ratios of the pertinent frequency are likely, and these would most often result in frequencies too high to be of interest. The resonant frequencies of mixed longitudinal/transverse modes, however, require a more complicated analysis.

19. One might be curious about why we skipped half-wave tube resonators, which would be shorter and perhaps more practical than full-wave tubes. The reason is that half-wave tubes require both ends open, and oscillations at one end are 180 degrees out of phase with those at the other end. Thus an arrangement with the vibrating reed tip at both ends, as in Figure 5, could not work, since this arrangement excites the two ends of the tube air with the same phase. Of course, one might separate both ends of the (half-wave and full-wave) tubes and excite only one end, but this would require two pallets connected to the same key, and this arrangement is not considered practical.

20. When the aperture area becomes too small in comparison to the tube cross section, WH, the end conditions are no longer simply ‘open’, but in this case, the tube may still function as a full-wave resonator, since even ‘closed’ conditions allow resonance (see also note 14).

21. For those interested in calculating the ‘Helmholtz’ resonant frequency in these cases, see Fletcher and Rossing, The Physics of Musical Instruments, 227–32, where a discussion is given for cases in which resonator dimensions are comparable to the wavelength in the long direction, L, but still require the transverse dimensions, W and H, to be much less than the wavelength. With these more complicated calculations involving wavelength effects, in which the resonator ceases to behave as the simple resonator, overtones occur, introducing additional possibilities for resonance.

The Black Concertina Tradition of South Africa

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.