Elodie Soulard à l'accordéon
Elodie Soulard à l'accordéon  © Radio France  /  Dailymotion/FranceMusique

What role can the accordion have in classical music?

The accordion carried for a long time the image of a « bal musette » instrument. That preconceived notion has greatly changed, especially since the beginning of the 21st century: as a matter of fact, it occupies a role that keeps getting bigger and bigger in classical music.

We have not forgotten everything nor lost everything. There are memories in my accordion, and when I squeeze it, I see them come out". Juliette ou la Clé des songes, opera of Bohuslav Martinů, act 1 scene 4, Georges Neveux.

The accordion is an instrument of memories, reminding us the popular balls or the folkloric and traditional tunes... But its role should not be reduced to these repertoires. Since the beginning of the 20th century, it has been established in the music world as a fully-fledged classical instrument.

It has held that role since its appearance in the 1830s. At that time, the accordion was very present in France, in the bourgeois salons. Vincent Lhermet, an accordionist and author of a thesis on contemporary accordion repertoire in Europe since 1900 says: "It was tasteful to play opera arias performed in the Parisian venues".

How did we go from the image of a noble instrument, turned to the opera repertoire, to a popular instrument almost considered cheesy for nearly a century? This change occurred over only a few decades. The accordionist Pascal Contet said: "When Napoleon III abdicated (in 1870 ed.), the accordion fell into disuse". This may be linked to the opening of the first accordion factory in Italy in Castelfidardo in 1863. The accordion gradually lost its elite nature and conquered little by little the popular culture.

The accordion is a phoenix

It was not until the 1980's/1990's that the instrument took back its place in the world of classical music, and only by the 21st century did contemporary composers begin to take a closer look at its potential.

This renewal is praised by Vincent Lhermet: "Since the 2000's the accordion has "exploded". The composers no longer see a frontier between the popular and the learned, barriers are falling from all sides". One of these barriers was the absence of accordion classes in national conservatoires, but this was finally remedied in 2002 by the Paris Conservatoire.

"The previous [composers] who refused to write works for me 20 years ago have begun to change their attitude" confesses Pascal Contet who worked with Philippe Manoury, Bruno Mantovani, Bernard Cavanna or Philippe Hurel.

From the baroque to the contemporary

Even if the instrument is recent, accordionists can take on a wide repertoire. Vincent Lhermet explains: "From the 17th century to the first half of the 18th century, we can play all the works, we just have to read the music as is". 

Only the romantic repertoire causes trouble to the accordionists. Most of the piano pieces of that time use the pedal and "there is no resonance with the accordion, so we have to make notes last longer and it's difficult" says Vincent Lhermet

Today, accordionists can play many contemporary creations thanks to the still recent enthusiasm of the composers for their instrument. Pascal Contet tries to explain this delay: "In the 1960's and the 1970's, it was not the best time for the accordion because it was a time of electro-acoustic musical explorations and the accordion was still regarded as cheesy". 

But not all musicians follow the path of contemporary music. According to Vincent Lhermet, "there is a quarrel between ancient and modern, between keeping the heritage of traditional music, of the "bal musette" and the contemporary creation". For the young accordionist, "creation is sometimes looked upon unfavorably, as if it was neglecting tradition". 

An instrument of the memory

The accordion is seen with difficulty as a modern instrument. It remains popular and keeps with it the memory of a certain period, as Eric Denut said in a sleeve note for Juliette ou la Clé des songes

Give an echo to the piano of the enchantress Juliette, accordion [...] literally clean the sounding space of the round and dense tinges of the orchestra to suggest to the protagonists, as a soloist, that the time of memory has come back again. However, it is not neutral either: the connotations that are associated to it, today and yesterday, to the work creation, are those of the "good old times", of the nostalgia of a passed golden age whose memory only holds, like the instrument's sound, to one string. 

Old, modern, popular, alive, nostalgic... Vincent Lhermet found the right word to describe his instrument: "swiss army knife", a polyvalent instrument, for the accordion matches all the instruments, the orchestra, the voice, "offering a link, and a resonance to the overall sounds".