At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a new group of musical instruments arose in Europe, whose origins may be traced to the arrival of examples of the Chinese free-reed mouth organ or sheng in Europe in the late eighteenth century (Ref 1). The main varieties of these new instruments were the mouth organ, developed in Germany around 1825; the accordion, patented in Vienna in 1829, and the concertina, invented by Charles Wheatstone around 1829 or 1830, initially as a scientific curiosity, but marketed from 1836 as a serious musical instrument.
European free-reed instruments, such as Uhlig's diatonic konzertina, the diatonic button accordions of Buschmann and Demian, and the French accordeons-diatonique of the 1850s largely remained as relatively trivial 'folk' instruments (or, in the case of Debain's free-reed harmonium, evolved into the larger reed organs and American (or Cabinet) organs).
However, the Wheatstone concertina, by virtue of its fully chromatic and eminently playable 'English' fingering system, rapidly achieved acclaim as a serious solo and ensemble instrument, not only becoming highly popular amongst musical amateurs, but attracting numerous virtuoso performers and composers.
Lord Balfour (British Prime Minister 1902-5) was in fact an ardent concertina player, and the explorers Shackleton and Livingstone both acquired Wheatstone concertinas (Ref 2).
A number of sonatas, concertos and chamber works involving the concertina appeared in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, by composers including Tschaikovsky, Macfarren,Benedict, Percy Grainger, Charles Ives, Molique, Regondi and Silas (Ref 3).
By the early years of the twentieth century, the concertina's popularity had broadened, giving rise to the working class concertina bands of England's northern mill towns, and the instrument also found a niche as a populist addition to the instrumentation of the Salvation Army band. From the 1920s, the instrument declined in popularity, once again becoming the preserve of a small but enthusiastic following of amateur 'concertinists'.
Apart from a modest and continuing revival that arose within Britain's 'folk music' revival during the 1960s and 1970s, the instrument is today seldom used for serious music.
(1) See inter alia J Howarth: 'Free-reed Instruments', in A. Baines (ed., for the Galpin Society): The Penguin Book of Musical Instruments (Harmondsworth, 1961), p.318ff. Howarth mentions another claim, however (p.321), that besides the sheng, plucked idiophones such as the jew's harp may also have had some influence.
(2) Percy Scholes: The Oxford Companion to Music, 9th edn (OUP, 1955), p.870.
(3) Ibid., and also The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, ed. Stanley Sadie (London, 1984), vol. I, p.460.
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