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Pursued by angry accordionists

Some remarks that I made on the BBC’s PM slot provoked a flood of responses to the Feedback programme, demanding my head on a pike. Since they all came from people who played the accordion, I felt pretty safe – and here’s why.

What I said was that the accordion is a bit of a joke because it can make some of ‘the most poisonous noises’ to be heard on any instrument.

I added – and this bit was cut out – that I would not dare to make that comment about any other instrument, including the thereminovox, because the players would get up and biff me one. With the accordion there is no risk of violent retaliation since the poor players have a suitcase strapped to their front and their arms are trussed up in straps.

That said – and this was included – the accordion has a huge social and political significance in certain places and times. I cited France in the 1940s and 1950s and the Soviet Bloc from the 1970s on. In such places, the apparently harmless accordionist could slip under the political radar and convey subversive messages deep into the heart of society. Could this be why the accordion is enjoying renewed popularity in the UK?




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  1. Steven Miles says:

    Avoid putting your head on pikes. Fish have rights too.

  2. James Ar. says:

    Whoever said that Violin was the devil’s instrument, clearly hadn’t heard the mighty accordion.

  3. Organs can sound pretty hideous but fortunately they aren’t that portable.

  4. Tully Potter says:

    I like the accordion.

  5. Gentleman: A man who can play the accordion…but doesn’t.

  6. THe accordion is enjoying great popularity also in Canada especially with chamber groups. The Clarinet Extravaganza Group has accordion along with guitar, clarinet and soprano, and our accordionist is very busy with a solo career as well. Ann

    • Back in the ’90s, the New York downtown new music scene had something of a superstar (within that context) accordion player named Guy Klucevsek.

      And, of course, Pauline Oliveros, one of the doyennes of America’s musical avant-garde, is an accordionist.

  7. All instruments have their individual beauty in the right hands.
    The accordion is a great instrument for lighter forms of music–I like it very much–I have one which I just squeeze for fun. In Australia, it is called THE SQUEEZE-BOX–you know Aussies–they often sound too down-to-earth.
    I am an amateur fiddler and had played with accordionists many times and it thrilled me.
    So, dear accordionists–despair not! You shall be HEARD–anyhow, anywhere, under any circumstance.

    • Angela Cockburn says:

      A squeezebox is a different, smaller instrument, which fits between the hands, and has buttons, not keys. We had one when I was small and I could make horrible noises on it.

      • John Tilt says:

        A little knowledge clearly is ignorance! The button accordions are the more sophisticated versions (except of course for the little diatonic squeeze boxes, which of course are only in fact intended for use as folk instruments). But the free bass button accordion, and sometimes even the rather more old fashioned Piano accordion, are in fact accepted for classical music studies at academy level throughout the world these days! Check out the accordion course at the Royal Academy of Music… in London.

    • John Tilt says:

      Hello Peter Lim, in response to your enthusiastic ‘great instrument for lighter music’ observation, I just wanted to ask if you were perhaps unaware that, the accordion (the serious version with necessary extra bass button manual providing additional compass of 6 octaves), is a serious study at the Royal academy of Music, The Sibelius Academy Finland and at many other universities courses throughout Europe and Scandinavia. Accordion students study and are awarded Bachelor, Master and higher degrees, just as all other instrumentalists. The widespread recognition of accordion as a serous instrument is not so new, for example the RAM course has been going for 28 years! The writer of the column with his unpleasant comments is clearly ignorant over all this, or has never even heard a proper accordion recital. I myself play piano, accordion, organ, and a little on the violin and yet I find the accordion rather the more interesting of these.

  8. Well, if only the Easter European in Ilkley could play more than the one tune in the minor key and with harmony that fitted:). Perhaps I would feel differently! In saying that, wonderful Shostakovich symphony, whose number escapes me, with about six accordions in the orchestra!

  9. robcat2075 says:

    Go teach beginner string classes and you will know “poisonous.”

  10. Matthew Compton says:

    I am unclear as to why the accordion has been singled out by Mr Lebrecht in this way, other than through what appears to be simple (simplistic?) prejudice. It is possible to produce ‘poisonous noises’ on just about any instrument. This is dependent mainly on the skill (or otherwise) of the player, as well as on the quality (or otherwise) of the individual instrument. While it is no doubt true that a large number of bad accordions (along with bad violins, bad guitars plugged into bad amps etc etc) can be heard being played badly on city streets and underground stations all over the world, Mr Lebrecht has apparently chosen to completely ignore the increasing importance of the accordion as a serious concert instrument. Sadly, I didn’t hear the PM piece, but I doubt very much if the existence of a course at the Royal Academy of Music in Classical Accordion was even mentioned…

    • Indeed. As someone who has taught violin in the past, I am convinced that even an accordion in the hands of satan himself could not approach the toxicity of a bowed instrument in the hands of a small child.

    • Oy vey.

      That’s very upright of you, Mr. Compton.

      Are you truly unaware of the accordion’s long history as a figure of fun?

      I invite everyone to enjoy this old Far Side cartoon by the great Gary Larson.

      • Timon Wapenaar says:

        So the accordionist is booked to play New Year’s Eve at a restaurant. At the end of the party, the owner is ecstatic. “Wow, that was really something! Everyone had such a great time. Listen, what would you say about doing the same party same time next year?”

        Accordionist lifts mournful eyes and says

        “Sure. Mind if I leave my instrument here in the meantime?”

      • Matthew Compton says:

        Ha ha! I’ve owned a copy of that masterpiece for years, MWnyc – brilliant! As a viola-player who likes occasionally to visit Planet Squeezebox, I’m acutely aware that both my preferred instruments have been regarded as objects of derision (apparently, I just need to add banjo to complete the set…). What bothered me about Mr Lebrecht’s remarks was their apparent ignorance of recent developments, both in the quality of accordions now available and in the standard of playing achieved by an increasing number of professional players.
        Spot on, Julian Rowlands – I had that sound in my head as I typed…!!!

    • John Tilt says:

      Excellent comments here!

  11. Well, dang. The BBC producers really did cut the best part.

    I must say, though, I’m rather enjoying the visual image of Norman running in terror across the Millennium Bridge and along the South Bank, a pack of angry accordionists in furious pursuit.

    Anyone else care to pick up the narrative thread? We could end up crowdsourcing our very own Lebrecht fan fiction.

    • I think Norman is safe. Unless the “Lady of Spain” decides to emigrate. Then there’s going to be trouble…

      • John Tilt says:

        I don’t know where the Lady of Spain has wondered off to, but no decent accordionists play that repertoire anymore. .. I have however heard among other classics by soloists …works such as Schubert’s Wanderer …being played properly and without abridgment), the entire Bach Goldberg Variations, and performances of Scarlatti Sonatas, old organ music from Frescobaldi and Michaelangelo Rossi, through to Shostokovitch, Prokofiev and many more modern composers such as Sophia Gubadulina. Are not all instruments capable of playing bad repertoire badly? Why then do we still hear this ignorance that associates the accordion with Lady of Spain, or that other great work, The Irish Washerwoman? My goodness, the British public are so condescending!

        • Oh, please – the Irish Washerwoman is a fiddle piece. Those damn accordions had better keep away.


    • Matthew Compton says:

      Best body armour known to man… ;-)

  12. Re: poisonous instruments. Norman, you obviously have never attempted to teach beginning oboe. I’ll take just about anything over that any day. Then there’s the horn………

  13. PK Miller says:

    I have always loved that Far Side cartoon. A dear friend who plays both accordion AND harp has an enlarged copy in her home studio.

    I must say, the immortal Myron Floren of Lawrence Welk fame could play that thing like nobody on earth. He once played his own arrangement of the Bach d minor Toccata and it was stunning.

    And having had an absolute debacle w/the oboe as a freshman in high school, having taught band for 3 years at a local high school–kids who somehow made it through elementary & jr. high band w/out anyone noticing they couldn’t play and/or couldn’t read music, I feel the pain of Brian Hughes, Julian Rowland et al. And I still remember first hearing George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children on an area public radio station, calling the on air personality & declaring, “My cat sings better than that!!! Fortunately, our cat never sang! (She would however listen intently to me sing in the shower, meow at me and march out the door. Everybody’s a critic!)

  14. BOb Burns says:

    Play an accordion…go to jail.

  15. Don’t forget the Tchaikovsky: Suite No.2, Op.53: III. Scherzo Burlesque
    Here is a spirited recording:
    The accordions are featured starting from 2:12 apparently having a conversation (or dispute) with the string section.

  16. Roberto Gonzalez says:

    Perfect pitch: The ability to throw an accordion into a toilet commode, without hitting the rim.

    (Also usable on banjos).

  17. Roberto Gonzalez says:

    Also usable on bagpipes…

    • John Tilt says:

      Same technique for Violin, and other stringed instruments, plus guitars …oh and practically all wind instruments as well? Yours in a bad taste joke …with a nasty kind of unpleasant association.

    • Michael NYC says:

      The above passes for humor at a sophisticated music website?

  18. Michael NYC says:

    Just to clarify, my above comment particularly “pitched” at Roberto Gonzalez and his toilet humor. No doubt, many a website thrives from general bigoted commentary, just not to be expected at this website. It would be surprising to hear that Mr. Gonzalez is a practicing musician.

    • Michael, what makes you think Roberto isn’t a practicing musician? I can’t think of a single professional musician of my acquaintance (and that covers a lot of people) who haven’t, or wouldn’t make a “viola joke” (sometimes transposed for singers, percussionists, bagpipes). Indeed, the most frequent tellers of viola jokes, in my experience, are viola players themselves. What’s the problem?

      • John Tilt says:

        I agree with Michael NYC’s comments. ‘What’s the problem’ asks Mr Anon …a man who has not even the guts to put his name to his comments! The ‘problem’ is that some of us just get sick of gratuitous abuse being hurled at things that matter to them, by ignoramuses. Mr Anus’s shift in emphasis to numerous other instruments (viola, marimba, bagpipes) is just an attempt to divert from the ignorant Mr Gonzales’ original pointless comments.

    • John Tilt says:

      Michael NYC, thanks you for your comment. It is good to know that there are still some decent folk out there!

      • Michael NYC says:

        John, thank you as well for further dissecting the logic behind the ignorant name calling and stereotyping exhibited by Mr. Gonzalez and his anonymous supporters. “Anon” in particular doesn’t seem to grasp that there’s a difference between self-deprecating humor done with humility and the brutal macho/mindless juvenile humor exhibited by Mr. Gonzalez and the other name callers. That style will always be out there, but need it be flaunted at a website concerned with substantive musical topics?

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