Italian handcrafts: The accordions of Castelfidardo
- WTI Magazine #134 Dec 17, 2020
The ancestor of the accordion was the “tcheng” or “sheng”, an ancient instrument from China and other Southeast Asian countries dating back 4,500 years in time.The “tcheng” was the first instrument to use free reeds, the principle on which the accordion is based.
The patent for the accordion was filed in Vienna in 1829 by Cyrill Demian, but it was fundamentally redesigned in Italy in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Castelfidardo was the scene of a crucial moment in the unification of Italy, when the papal army was defeated by the Piedmontese troops, with the subsequent annexation of the territories of Marche and Umbria to the Kingdom of Italy. This area was the cradle in which the first “organetti” or “fisarmoniche” were developed.
The instruments became known thanks to the French troops in the service of the Papal States and were later refined and adapted to suit ethno-musical tastes.
Paolo Soprani, son of a Castelfidardo farmer, dramatically changed the “modus vivendi” of a part of the Marche region in 1863 by inventing an industry from scratch, which in a short space of time transformed a purely agricultural reality into an economy open to the world. Without doubt, a decisive factor in the development of Soprani’s new business was its proximity to Loreto, a religious centre and crossroads for trade.
Loreto may even have been where Soprani bought the Austrian instrument that gave him the opportunity to change his life, and the Marian city was also the starting point for making his product known and become widely distributed.
The accordion enjoyed such popularity and success in Italy at that time that Giuseppe Verdi decided to propose the study of the instrument in Italian conservatories. The Castelfidardo accordion industry really took off at the end of the 19th century, as shown both by production figures and the number of workers employed.
However, the Second World War had devastating effects on accordion production: 51,000 instruments were produced in 1938 compared to just over 500 in 1944.
The armistice and the end of the war gave the people new hope and desire for socialising and entertainment. This led to a boom for the industry in Castelfidardo.
Dozens of accordion-making companies were established here between 1946 and 1948. The town of the Marches, which had about 9,000 inhabitants at that time, provided employment for about 10,000 workers, mainly from the neighbouring towns of Loreto, Osimo and Recanati.
Another crisis was looming on the horizon, however: a change in musical tastes, with melody giving way to rhythm in music.
Many business owners managed to convert their companies to the production of pianos, guitars and other musical instruments over a short space of time but, unfortunately, the small-scale businesses producing hand-crafted accordions were hardest hit.
Today, thanks to a cultural revival brought about by the efforts of many, the market for quality professional instruments has become a prestigious niche in the area of Castelfidardo and the surrounding towns.
The Development of the Instrument
As long as the accordion was considered solely as a folk instrument, the trend in accordion teaching was to concentrate mainly on developing right hand technique. The left hand was considered as an accessory and at times became completely irrelevant.
The chords on which rhythmic accompaniment was based were already predetermined, at least those used most generally. It was difficult to find an accordionist who could develop even a fragmented melody with the left hand or was capable of arousing the admiration of an audience.
The bellows were understood solely in terms of air production or, at best, as a means for highlighting rhythmic accents. The inability to produce notes at a true pitch with the left hand was one of the causes of the instrument being relegated to a limbo of so-called “poor instruments”.
The real evolution of the accordion began in the 1950s, when some composers sought to enhance the use of harmonic accompaniment and therefore re-assess the contribution of the left hand in general.
Some of these musicians developed methods to improve the technique of both hands. The musical content of the exercises trained the student to use the bellows with precision, to explore the sense of the musical phrases and to adjust the touch, position and fingering accordingly.
The ground was thereby laid for further emancipation: the use of low notes at true pitches, resulting in the ability to explore a repertoire that was previously unattainable.
Castelfidardo, the global home of the accordion, is located half-way between the mountains and the sea, between the valleys of the Aspio and Musone rivers. Over the decades, the manufacture of accordions has spread to other neighbouring towns, including Camerano, Osimo, Sirolo, Numana, Loreto, Recanati and Porto Recanati.
Even now, many stages in the production of this instrument are still entrusted to experienced hands, able to add a touch of warmth and authenticity to accordion manufacture, and many of the instrument’s internal parts are often made by hand.
The city has now diversified its industrial production to include electroplating, mechanical engineering and electronics, and has become a true industrial centre to the south of Ancona.
By Camera di Commercio di Ancona with Unioncamere