2. History

The concertina belongs to a class of instruments known as Free Reed instruments, which also includes accordions and harmonicas. It was developed in 1829 and 1830 by Sir Charles Wheatstone of Wheatstone bridge fame after several years of building prototypes, a few of which still exist (in 1829 he patented its direct predecessor, the Symphonium, in a document which also described a very concertina-like instrument, and the patent includes a clear description of a hexagonal bellows-powered derivative, but he did not get round to patenting the concertina under that name until 1844). The already-existing family musical instrument firm of Wheatstone & Co switched over to manufacturing concertinas, each one expensively hand-made by highly skilled craftsmen, and at first the concertina was very much an instrument of the middle and upper class drawing room. Its fully chromatic range was suited to classical pieces, with its fast action lending it to "party pieces" such as The Flight of the Bumble Bee. In due course other firms such as Lachenal and Jeffries were founded (several by ex-Wheatstone employees) the cost of concertinas lowered, and the instrument moved out of the drawing room and into the world of popular music.

Picture of a Wheatstone Symphonium
Click here for a picture (37k) and description of a Wheatstone Symphonium.

Biography of Charles Wheatstone
Click here for an excellent Wikipedia article about Charles Wheatstone (though completely wrong in implying his uncle invented the concertina!).

It became popular with music hall performers, several of whom, such as Percy Honri (who billed himself as "A concert-in-a turn") and "Professor" J. H. MacCann, were musicians of the highest virtuosity. The Salvation Army liked it for its portability and strident tone. Concertina bands were formed, playing marches and other popular pieces (and commemorated to this day by the Concertina Brewery, who brew in the cellar of the old Mexborough Concertina Band Club in South Yorkshire). It also became a favourite of traditional musicians throughout the British Isles.

The Salvation Army and the Concertina Band
Click here for pictures (500k in total) and a discussion of the place of the concertina in the Salvation Army. We all know about the Army and brass bands, but at one time the concertina was just as important. Here is the evidence

New Bedford Concertina Band
Click here for a wonderful picture (109k) of the New Bedford Concertina Band and description by Tony Barrand.

In the 20th Century the instrument gradually fell out of favour, and one by one the makers closed or went out of business. Wheatstone's themselves (by this time owned by Boosey & Hawkes) closed in 1968, the last survivor being Crabbe & Co of Islington who closed in the late '80s.

What saved the instrument from gradually dwindling away into obscurity, as far as the UK was concerned, was the Folk Revival from the '60s onward. Performers looking for a different sound from the ubiquitous guitar were drawn to the concertina for all its old virtues of versatility and flexibility combined with portability. In addition the concertina permitted song accompaniments that were free of the rhythmic straitjacket that the guitar in unskilled hands tends to impose upon everything. For folk and morris dance the anglo concertina and its accordion cousin the melodeon proved ideal. People started making concertinas again, many of a quality to equal anything made by the old companies.

The Horniman Museum in London has purchased Neil Wayne's concertina collection, and has made it the centrepiece of a display devoted to the concertina. Having visited it I can say that while it isn't in itself worth a visit to London, if you are in London and you have any interest in the history of the concertina then it is a must see. Details in Section 10 - Clubs and Organisations, and Section 12 - The Internet.

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