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 were diatonic.

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 (AA), 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 certain level and also considering the cost of an instrument, demonstartes the contrary. Today things changed in Europe, and first Paris, later 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 melancholy feeling.

Technical Aspects

Whereas the accordion is usually build up using trapezum shaped tongues mounted on individual plates which are easy to replace with commercially pretuned ones, the bandoneon (now historical instruments) has up to 7 bi-sonoric tones, or 14 rectangular shaped tongues (reeds) on one zinc or aluminum plate (high steady mass). Each tone has a fundamental and an octave mounted on an separate reed plate and which is tuned exactly even. This results in a dry sound. So you have to achieve the tuning on the old plate taking the maximum care not to destroy the tongues. It requires special equipment to restore damaged tongues, since you can't buy them.

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
Smithsonian Institution
Washington, DC 20560

(German, Spanish, English)
last update: 2017-02-07

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