A concertina is a free-reed musical instrument, like the various accordions and the harmonica. It has a bellows and buttons typically on both ends of it. When pressed, the buttons travel in the same direction as the bellows, unlike accordion buttons which travel perpendicularly to it. Also, each button produces one note, while accordions typically can produce chords with a single button.
The concertina was developed in England and Germany, probably independently. The English version was invented in 1829 by Sir Charles Wheatstone and a patent for an improved version was filed by him in 1844. The German version was announced in 1834 by Carl Friedrich Uhlig.
Because the concertina was developed nearly contemporaneously in England and Germany, systems can be broadly divided into English, German, and Anglo-German types. To a player proficient in one of these systems, a concertina constructed according to a different system may be quite unfamiliar.
The most common concertina systems are listed below. The list is not exhaustive, as the concertina is not only a venerable and widespread instrument, but also an evolving instrument: modern experiments in concertina construction include chromatic scales offering more than 12 steps per octave, and instruments which allow the pitch of the notes to be sharped or flatted by the performer.
The eponymous English concertina is a fully chromatic instrument having buttons in a rectangular arrangement of four staggered rows, with the short side of the rectangle addressing the wrist. The invention of the instrument is credited to Sir Charles Wheatstone; his earliest patent of a like instrument was granted 19 December 1829, No 5803 in Great Britain. The two innermost rows of the layout constitute a diatonic C major scale, distributed alternately between the two sides of the instrument. Thus in a given range, C-E-G-B-d is on one side, D-F-A-c-e on the other. The two outer rows consist of the sharps and flats required to complete the chromatic scale. This distribution of scale notes between sides facilitates rapid melodic play. (Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" was transcribed for English concertina early in the instrument's history.). But it also renders chords somewhat more difficult to learn than scales.
Giulio Regondi was a virtuoso performer and composer on this instrument as well as the guitar, and helped to popularize the instrument during the 19th century. Allan Atlas, in his book "The Wheatstone Concertina in Victorian England" identifies six known concertos written for this instrument. There are still many sonatas and other pieces that survive.
The English concertina is typically held by placing the thumbs through thumb straps and the little fingers on metal finger rests, leaving three fingers free for noting. Alternately, both the fourth and little fingers support the metal finger rest, leaving two fingers for noting. In the classical style of Regondi, the little finger is used as well as the other three fingers and the metal finger rests are used only very occasionally. This allows all eight fingers to simultaneously play the instrument so large chords are possible. In pieces such as the Wilhelm Bernhardt Molique "Concerto No 1 in G for concertina and orchestra", or Percy Grainger's "Shepherd's Hey", four, five and six note chords are not uncommon, and would be difficult or impossible to play without using all the fingers.
Frequently, German concertinas also use more than one reed for each note to produce a fuller sound. Depending on the manufacturer, each note may have up to five reeds spread across three octaves. Sometimes these reeds may be slightly out of tune with each other in order to produce a vibrato effect; this is called wet, musette, or Chicago tuning. With dry or Minnesota tuning the reeds are in tune with each other and do not produce this effect. There is also the traditional tuning of an octave spread as establish by Herr Lange in the nineteenth century.
There are various German concertina systems which share common construction features and core button layout. In the United States, particularly in the Midwest, the term "concertina" often refers to the Chemnitzer concertina. Chemnitzer Concertinas are bisonoric (see above) and are closely related to the bandoneón, but with a somewhat different keyboard layout and decorative style, with some mechanical innovations pioneered by German-American instrument builder and inventor Otto Schlicht.
The Anglo or Anglo-German concertina is historically a hybrid between the English and German types of concertinas. The button layouts are generally the same as the original 20-button German concertinas designed by Uhlig in 1834. Within a few years of that date, the German concertina was a popular import in England, Ireland and North America, due to its ease of use and relatively low price. Due to this popularity, English manufacturers began offering their own versions built using traditional English methods: concertina reeds instead of long-plate reeds, independent pivots for each button, and hexagon-shaped ends. Initially the term Anglo-German only applied to the concertinas of this type built in England. But as German manufacturers adopted some of these techniques, the term came to apply to all concertinas that used the 20-button system patented by Uhlig. Use of the "German" part of the title Anglo-German ceased in the UK during WW1.
The heart of the Anglo system consists of two 10-button rows, each of which produces a diatonic major scale in a pattern devised around 1826 by a Bohemian called Richter for use in a harmonica. Five buttons of each row are on each side. The two rows are musically a fifth apart; for example, if the row closest to the player's wrist is in the key of G, the next outer row is in the key of C below. An advantage of the Richter scale is that pressing three adjacent notes in one row produces a major triad. Also, because the travel direction inverts as you progress up the scale, at the point where the scale crosses from one side of the concertina to the other octaves can be played in the home keys.
A third row of extra notes was eventually added, loosely derived from the C# scale, consisting of accidentals and notes which already existed in the diatonic rows but in opposite bisonoric orientation to make additional chords possible and certain melodic passages easier. At this point the instrument was "chromatic" over two octaves, but not every chord or other note combination was available in either push or draw. There is little variation between makers and models in the layout of the notes in the core diatonic rows, but somewhat more variation in the number and layout of the helper notes. The two most common layouts of this 30-button variety are the Jeffries and Lachenal systems. Layouts with 36, 38 and 40 buttons are not uncommon, and a few anglos have as many as 50. Instruments in the key of C/G are most typical; other key combinations are also available, the keys of G/D and Bf/F being the most common alternatives. Bf/F and Af/Ef were popular with the Salvation Army.
The Anglo concertina is typically held by placing the hands through a leather strap, with the thumbs outside the strap and the palms resting on wooden bars. This arrangement leaves four fingers of each hand free for noting and the thumbs free to operate an air valve (for expanding or contracting the bellows without sounding a note) or a drone. Anglo concertinas are often associated with the music of Ireland, although they are also used in other musical contexts, particularly in music for the English Morris dance and Boeremusiek. Famous English players of the Anglo include Scan Tester, William Kimber, and John Kirkpatrick.
George Jones is often credited as the first English maker of the chromatic Anglo concertina. British firms active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries include those founded by Charles Wheatstone, Charles Jeffries (who built primarily Anglo-style concertinas), Louis Lachenal (who built concertinas in both English and Anglo styles and was the most prolific manufacturer of the period), and John Crabb.
In the 1850s, Anglo-German concertina's ability to play both melody and accompaniment led English manufacturers to start developing the various Duet systems, and the popular Maccann system were developed towards the end of the century. Meanwhile, German manufacturers were producing concertinas with more than 20 buttons for local sale. Three keyboard systems for German Concertinas eventually became popular: Uhlig's Chemnitzer system, Carl Zimmerman's Carlsfeld system, and the Bandoneón's Reinische system. Several efforts were made by the various German manufacturers to develop a single unified keyboard system for all German concertinas; but this was only partially accomplished at the end of the 19th century when the Chemnitzer and Carlsfelder systems were merged into the unified concertina system and a unified bandoneón system was created. Despite the new standards, the older systems remained popular into the 20th century.
Throughout the 19th century, the concertina was a popular instrument. The Salvation Army in England, America, Australia and New Zealand commonly used concertinas in their bands, and other concertina bands and musicians performed in all parts of the English speaking world. German emigrants carried their Chemnizter and Bandoneóns with them to the United States and Argentina, respectively, where they were regionally popular. In England, the United States and Australia the concertina became nearly ubiquitous.
In early 20th century, this popularity started to rapidly decline. Reasons included the growing relative popularity of the accordion, the mass production of other instruments such as the piano, increasingly chromatic and less tonal forms of music such as blues and jazz, and the overall decline of amateur musical performance due to radio and the phonograph. By the middle of the century, very few concertina makers remained, and most of those used accordion reeds and inexpensive, unreliable button mechanisms. Yet the various forms of concertina survived in some areas: Anglo concertinas in Irish traditional music, the English and the Anglo in English Morris dancing, the Anglo in Africa, among Afrikaaners (see Boer music) and Zulus (who call it a "squashbox"), the Chemnitzer in the United States as a polka instrument, and the Bandoneón in Argentina as a prominent part of the Tango tradition. During the period between World War One and World War Two there were many Concertina and Bandonion bands in Germany; but with the rise of the Nazi regime these musical clubs disappeared.
The folk revival movements of the 1960s led to a modest resurgence in the popularity of the concertina particularly the Anglo. More recently the popularity of the Concertina again seems to be experiencing a resurgence, particularly the Anglo in the traditional music of Ireland. Renewed interest in Tango since the 1980s has also seen interest in the Bandoneón increase.
Currently there are at least eleven makers of traditional hand-made concertinas, in Europe, South Africa, Australia and North America. They use mainly traditional construction techniques and hand-made reeds, and generally offer many options for the type of concertina, materials, decoration, button layouts, tuning, and other customizations. Quality traditional concertinas require labour and high skill to produce, so prices can be high and waiting lists measured in years. Cheap mass-produced accordion reeded instruments are less reliable. Since the mid-1970s, hand-made accordion-reeded concertinas have become a high-quality cheaper alternative. They are mainly made using traditional building techniques, and some are built customized to order, but the traditional design is adapted to use mass-produced accordion reeds to significantly reduce production cost and time. They are commonly called "hybrids", although some manufacturers object to this term.