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Concertina History

The free-reed instruments covered on this site—concertinas, accordions, and melodeons—are descended from the Chinese sheng. Dating back to around 1500 B.C., the sheng is a free-reed mouth organ that initially featured gourd wind chambers, bamboo pipes and fiber reeds. The sheng remained unknown to the Western world for centuries.

By the time Pierre Amiot brought the instrument to Europe and shared it with instrument makers in 1777, the sheng had evolved greatly, adding improvements such as metal wind chambers and rearrangement of the pipes in a circle. With the sheng in the hands of European musicians and instrument makers, however, the stage was set for the invention of the accordion, melodeon, and concertina during the 1800s.

Sir Charles Wheatstone

The concertina is an invention of Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875), a physicist and inventor who was instrumental in the development of the electric telegraph and the Wheatstone bridge, a device that became a standard for measurement of electrical resistance in a laboratory setting.

At the tender age of 19, Wheatstone showed a flair for generating publicity of a Barnumesque nature. He invented what he called the “Enchanted Lyre,” or Aconcryptophone, and set up a prototype on two floors of his father's music shop. In a room on the first floor, he set up a lyre and chairs for an audience. Upstairs, musicians played instruments whose soundboards were connected to the lyre by a wire; this served to vibrate the strings of the lyre and produce notes. To the shocked disbelief of the audience, the unmanned lyre appeared to be playing of its own accord. Spooky!

In 1821, upon his uncle's death, Wheatstone and his brother William took on the operation of his business, making and selling musical instruments, primarily woodwinds. In 1829, Wheatstone invented the forerunner of the concertina, the Symphonium, and concertina prototypes soon thereafter. Within a short while, the full efforts of Wheatstone & Co. were focused exclusively on making concertinas.

Development of the Anglo and Duet Systems

The concertina business did not sit still during the remainder of the 19th century. Competitors arose to challenge the dominance of Wheatstone in the industry. In 1834, Carl Friedrich Uhlig invented the German concertina. After a trip to Germany to research Uhlig's instruments, George Jones developed the German-Anglo system in 1850, which combined the best characteristics of the German and English styles. Lachenal and Co., Wheatstone's largest competitor, made 250,000 concertinas, primarily Anglos, over the next 80 years, and German manufacturers in Saxony flooded the market with cheap Anglos. Not everything on the market was cheaply made, however. High-quality Anglos were also being made by companies that included Charles Jeffries and Crabb; Jeffries' products were in high demand because the superiority of their steel reeds.

Wheatstone & Co continued research and development of new concertina styles, and were particularly keen on coming up with a design for a Duet concertina. The idea for a Duet model—offering the preferred key layout of the Anglo, but unisonoric like the English—held great appeal for concertina players. In 1884, John Hill Maccann patented a Duet prototype based on an earlier Wheatstone & Co. model. To Wheatstone's dismay, Maccann licensed the patent to competitor Lachenal & Co. (Once Maccann's patent had expired in 1898, Wheatstone began making top-drawer Maccann-system Duets of their own.)

The Role of the Salvation Army

Any concertina history would be less than complete without mention of the Salvation Army, the worldwide religious organization. The Salvation Army was always an important supporter of and evangelist for the instrument. The Salvation Army contracted with George Jones to make an Anglo variation whose pitch would be compatible with brass instruments. Jones completed the task with great success, and went on to build concertinas specifically for the Salvation Army for the next 15 years. Over the years, members carried and played instruments of all types and all major fingering systems; at the Salvation Army's request, their instruments always had an unadorned black bellows.

Popular Demand: Spike and Plunge

The concertina grew in popularity throughout the 19th century, with fans of march music forming concertina bands, and traditional musicians throughout the British Isles adopting the instrument. The huge supply of cheap Anglos manufactured by Lachenal and the factories in Saxony made the instrument affordable, and brought the concertina to the masses. By the turn of the 20th century, the instrument's popularity hit its peak, and remained high for the next two decades.

The decade of the 1920s, however, saw a great decline in popular interest in concertina music. One by one, British manufacturers went out of business; Jeffries in the 1920s, Lachenal and Co. in the 1930s, and even Wheatstone & Co. itself (by then, sold off and renamed Boosey & Hawkes) in 1968.

With the great Folk Revival of the 1960s, however, the concertina came roaring back into the public eye and onto music store shelves. A new generation of craftspeople emerged to make the instruments available again, and even Wheatstone & Co., after a short period of inactivity, have once again opened their doors for business and are making limited quantities of concertinas reputed to play about as well as the legendary vintage Wheatstones. The concertina has now found a permanent home among Celtic musicians, as well as other traditional musicians who have rediscovered the instrument.