A Bandonion or Bandoneon
is some sort of square headed accordion,
as I read somewhere.
I'm not surprised about the fact, that you don't know about this instrument
since it was not sold in a great scale to the US. Even in Germany,
where this bellow instrument was invented by
Carl Friedrich Uhlig in Chemnitz probably around 1834, it is rare to
find people with knowledge about. However, this instrument became the
symbol of tango, a popular music originated at the borders of the
Rio de la Plata. It was the tango that saved us this instrument from
its extermination and its revival makes us aware
of the instrument's existence. That's also why the instrument's name
changed from its original Bandonion, which expresses
Heinrich Band's Akkordion, to the Spanish Bandoneón.
Heinrich Band, a music teacher and dealer, was the prominent promoter of this
Instrument though he did not invent the instrument but modified
and extended the original keyboard layout.
After WW II the East German Language Council accepted the term Bandoneon as a regular denomination besides the original one honoring the largest market being still the Rio de la Plata area.
It is basically a modified German concertina, originally with
3 rows of buttons and 54 tones, and which later was extended.
Heinrich Band became the promoter of this instrument after 1854
when he organized the production and commercialized it together with a
specially ciphered written music. In 1882 appeared the name "Bandonion" derived
from his name. It was supposed to be used as a substitute for the organ
in small church communities. May be it was the very special sound which
maintain the demand, but the very complex disposition of the buttons,
prevented a greater diffusion. The idea was to have an instrument
for polyphonic music rather than for melody one and the buttons where
placed in a way to facilitate forming of chords. In contrast to
the accordion, already quite popular in many countries, this instrument
does not provide predefined chords. In addition, most of the buttons
have a different tone whether the bellow is opened or closed, this wrongly
denominated as "diatonic". The upcomming popularity of the tango in the
20ties forced the french musette players to play also the bandoneon.
Because of the difficulty of learning it, they asked for so called
chromatic instruments with equal tone for opening and closing. Until
today there rests a certain tradition in
the French speaking Switzerland speaking of the "French" chromatic model.
In Geneva e.g. there existed an orchestra with 10 bandoneons but only 2 of them
The popularity changed rapidly when about in 1890 the original instrument
manufactured by Ernst Louis Arnold (ELA) reached the
region of the River Plate where it was found to match perfectly well with
the coming up tango. From then on the popular accordion was completely
displaced and in 1911 the most famous producer, Alfred Arnold in Carlsfeld
began manufacturing bandonions exclusively for the market in Argentina
and Uruguay. The design was gradually modified and the number of tones
increased up to 142, some models 152, with 5 button rows in left hand
and 6 rows in the right.
Only in one year (1930) there where exported 25,000 units to Argentina.
If you consider the price comparable with that of a piano, it was of great
commercial importance. Here the name was "translated" from the German
Bandonion to Spanish: BANDONEON.
Unfortunately the production ceased during World War II. A few units
left the factory after the war, but for quality reasons and changes
of the market of the target countries,
the factory closed in December 1956.
In Germany itself, as I mentioned, there was no great development of the
playing techniques, and even in Argentina professionals began to develop
first methods in the twenties, but mainly based on piano methods.
No European conservatory included this instrument in its teaching program
giving the instrument a low social position.
Many people believe it is something for poor street musicians.
But the fact that it takes very long, like a violin, to achieve a
and also considering the cost of an instrument, demonstartes the contrary.
Today things changed in Europe, and first
Rotterdam and recently
many other French conservatories are offering lessons for bandoneon.
The tonal range is the same as for the cembalo, and baroque music sounds
specially pleasant. The highest level was probably reached by
Alejandro Barletta (1925 - 2008)
in Buenos Aires.
René Marino Rivero (1935 - 2010)
in Uruguay, a pupil of Barletta, made
very many transcriptions of Bach, Frescobaldi and other composers of the
baroque and he is perhaps actually the most advantaged player for classical and
contemporary music on this instrument.
In the US it was perhaps Astor Piazzolla (who
lived there for 17 years) which made it later known with recordings
together with Gerry Mulligan and Gary Burton. There are very few
musicians experimenting with jazz
and I believe the future lies in this. Similar to the saxophone it allows
forming the sound but in a polyphonic manner and which gives a strong
There are nearly no more good instruments on the market today, but the increasing demand (interest), not only in Argentina and Europe, but in Japan, possibly reinitialize production. Here in Switzerland, Brazil, the Netherlands and Berlin there are people (mainly organ builders) working to acquire the needed know how.
If you are interested in more details about the bandoneon in general, I can recommend you a compact disc which is also available in the US, and specially because of the 80 page booklet coming with. The recording is done by the mentioned Marino Rivero but here he plays folk dances of Uruguay, may be it is not too representative for the instrument.
Smithsonian Folkways - Traditional Music of the World 5
Bandoneon Pure: Dances of Uruguay
Smithsonian/ Folkways Recording CD SF 4031 Office of Folklife Programs
955 L'Enfant Plaza, Suite 2600
Washington, DC 20560