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Saturday morning quotes 6.9: The anti-lute

July 16, 2016

AccordionOccasionally even the most confirmed advocate of early music tires of a serious life in the slow lane and longs for a bit of fun.  And what could be more fun than a dose of accordion music?

The much-maligned accordion, often called the Stomach Steinway or the Belly Baldwin, is a staple for many kinds of music from every corner of the globe, but is probably the opposite of the lute in every respect.  Listeners seldom complain that the instrument is too quiet.  While tuning and temperament are matters pertinent to different styles of music, string material and the particular plane of the finger are simply not issues discussed ad nauseam by players when two or more accordionists congregate.  And employed as an accompanying instrument, singers who wish to add a little wobble to their pitch are seldom subject to displays of the curled lip and the arched brow from their accompanist.

Probably the primary difference between a lutenist and a musician who plays the accordion is that one of the two actually works for serious money.

“I knew nothing of the real life of a musician, but I seemed to see myself standing in front of great crowds of people, playing my accordion.”

– Lawrence Welk

Able to negotiate a vast repertory, the instrument also occupies the concert stage with the same noble air and gravitas as the quiet lute, as can be heard in this piece by the famous composer, Frankie Milano. And one can hear a pleasing rendition of Hausmusik performed by a possible descendant of the aforementioned composer, played entirely without pickups and eschewing the usual plunk, plunk, sprong to which we have become inured by our legion of lutenists. Or we can hear more serious works borrowed from the repertory of an instrument that is probably its closest relative.

And the true character of Monteverdi’s music finally comes to life when played on the accordion.  Had Monteverdi known about the existence of the accordion, there would never had been this impractical nonsense of over-stuffing the orchestra pit with giraffe-necked theorboes in multiples of five.  And of course Vivaldi has never sounded better than on the instrument that most accurately realizes the composer’s ideas.

Accordions are much less difficult to locate, and instrument builders typically deliver them to clients without a song and dance and a ten-year delay.  Sadly, there exists no bricks and mortar Lute-O-Rama where the prospective lutenist might visit, spend the day and compare a wide variety of instruments in various shapes and sizes. In fact, luthiers could do worse than learn from this example of a questionnaire designed to elicit important information from their clients, particularly on the essential matter of rhinestones.

We are quite fond of the triplet-rich French cafe accordion sound, and indulge without irony whenever we become entirely sick of lutes and their utter un-dependability.  The accordion is the anti-lute.

Addendum: Roman Turovsky kindly shared a link to a video that features lute and accordion together.



  1. Daniel Winheld permalink

    I have been a fan of the Bandoneon (ironically, invented by a German in the19th century for poor churches that could not afford organs) -but became a favorite instrument for Tango in the brothels of Buenos Aires) since falling in love with the music of Astor Piazzolla. One can hear guitar (acoustic & electric) with bandoneon in many of Piazzolla’s recordings.

    In modern avant garde, we have Pauline Oliveros playing poignantly beautiful (and sometimes strange!) music on her accordion, which she has tuned in Just Intonation.

    • Thanks, Dan. Yes, we enjoy Astor Piazzolla’s music and have heard some interesting arrangements and orchestrations. So much of his music made use of the bandoneon’s characteristic rhythmic rasp of the bellows, and the effect doesn’t always transfer well on, say, the violin. And it’s perversely amusing to hear a string section wailing away on the left-hand chords, but the spirit of the music is the point. I’ve had to play (not lute) alongside all kinds of instruments, and the wide tuning of the accordion can be a challenge. But the worst was when I had to play Scots fiddle tunes with a set of ripely tuned war pipes,and having to transpose everything into Eb. Never again.

  2. Thank you for this smile-provoking post. Would it be okay for you, if I still preferred listening to the lute, now that you’ve spent so much energy on promoting the anti-lute? Even rhinestones wouldn’t change anything.

    • Thanks for your comment, J. Yes, please continue to appreciate the lute and its opposite end of the sound spectrum. The small indulgence in accordions was somewhat cathartic and we’re feeling much better now.

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