Accordion History


Castelfidardo: international centre of Accordion production in Italy

Before discussing the history of the accordion, it is important to point out that in the first half of the 19th century Italy was not the geographical and political entity we know today. Instead it was an "ensemble" of small states, in sharp contrast with some European Powers which had already achieved their political union.

It is around this period that we find the first mention of the musical instrument named "accordion". The territory known as Italy today was then under the dominion of several different "powers". Sicily and the Neapolitan region were ruled by the Bourbons and Piedmont was ruled by the Savoy family, sovereigns of French extraction. Furthermore, while the Lombard and Venetian regions were under the power of the Austrians, the Vatican State, with the Pope as the supreme spiritual and political leader, backed by the continental powers, France and Austria, occupied most central territories. Therefore, although a certain degree of common cultural identity existed in the peninsula at this time, the customs and culture of various regions were strongly influenced by those foreign powers that ruled them.

The defeat in 1860 of the pontifical army at Castelfidardo by the Piedmontese troops, marked a fundamental move towards Italian unification. The annexing of the central regions of Marche and Umbria in the Italian kingdom meant the birth of new hopes and ideals for the people who had been, until then, under the dominion of foreign powers. Immediately after the annexing of the territory of Marche - particularly in Castelfidardo - we witness the birth of the first accordions and concertinas which were probably introduced to the Italians by French troops allied to the Papal State. These instruments were soon adapted to suit Italian taste.

Around the same time, another centre for the production of accordion developed in the north of Italy, in a town called Stradella within the Trentino region, thanks to the initiative of Signore Dallape' who may well have come across some rudimentary accordions used in Austrian popular music, such as that trademarked by a certain Mr Demian.

After the unification, liberated at last from the foreign political domination of the last few centuries, Italians broke free from their former constraints and discovered a new sense of identity and love of life. The accordion, with its uncomplicated and cheerful sound, its ease of use and transportation, was the ideal instrument to adopt in opposition to the elitist and costly music of previous years.

Paolo Soprani, a farmhand from Castelfidardo, captured the mood of the time in the early 1860s and started what was to become the first industrial production of accordions. Earlier, 'pioneers' such as Giacomo Alunni from Nocera Umbra in 1850, Giovanni Cingolani from Recanati in 1856 and Lorenzo Ploner from Trieste in 1862, attempted to manufacture concertinas, but they only contributed to the statistics of the accordion's history, never managing to elevate the production of the instrument to an economic force to be reckoned with. The intuitive Signor Soprani, however, managed to revolutionize life in the Marche region, creating a new industry which in a short period of time succeeded in transforming the local economy from one based on agriculture, to an industrial one open to the international market.

A decisive role in the development of Soprani's new family business was played by the nearby town of Loreto, a religious, cultural and commercial centre, packed with visitors from far and wide. It may well have been in Loreto that Soprani bought the first Austrian or French accordion, and certainly the energetic nature of the town enabled him to promote and popularize the accordion. Thanks to excellent sales figures and the fact that orders were coming in from all over Italy, Soprani's brother Settimio, who until then had worked with his brother, decided to set up business alone and in 1872 opened his own workshop imitating Cesare Pancotti who in 1865 had started one of his own in Macerata.

During these years, both in Marche and the nearby region of Abruzzo, various workshops began to spring up, such as those of Sante Crucianelli in 1888, Giuseppe Janni from Giulianova in 1882, Pasquale Ficosecco from Loreto in 1889, Giovanni Chiusaroli from Recanati and Raffaele Pistelli from Teramo in 1886, all of whom produced what was essentially a product which was simple and cheap to manufacture: the "du botte" - or the two-bass diatonic accordion.

At this time there were two other centres of production; Stradella in Lombardy, and Vercelli in Piedmont, both important for the future development of the instrument. Mariano Dallape' who, as mentioned earlier on, was from Trento, began his activity in Stradella in 1876. In a brief space of time, he managed to improve the piano-accordion invented by Monsieur Buton in 1852.

During these years, the success and rise in popularity of the accordion in Italy was simply astonishing. So much so that the famous composer Giuseppe Verdi, - the president of the ministerial commission for the reform of musical conservatories during the 1870s - put forward a proposal for the study of the instrument to the Italian conservatory. Further innovations and improvements to the accordion were introduced during this time: firstly Mattia Berardi and then the Ranco family in Vercelli, improved the button-accordion. In 1890, the artisan Rosario Spadaro from Catania in Sicily registered a copyright for an accordion free-bass accordion, and Pasquale Ficosecco in Loreto, and subsequently in his workshop in Castelfidardo, was the first to create the box-accordion. In Stradella, artisans such as Ercole Maga and Renato Massoni, who worked for Dallape' subsequently set up their own workshops. Likewise, others in Castelfidardo such as Giacomo Antonio Busilacchio, Dario Dari, and Francesco Serenelli also started their own businesses.

Accordion production really took off at the end of the 19th century, as suggested by the data available from the time, and the number of employees within the industry, although data from this period was not always be reliable. The director of the regional exhibition of Marche's products in 1905, wrote that there were 500 workers within the accordion sector, although data from around this time speaks of 24 and 30 workers from the two largest production companies. Discrepancies of this nature can be explained by the fact that the fourteen official accordion factories used entire families within their labour force who worked from home. This enabled the accordion producers to remain competitive and increase flexibility in times of fluctuating demand. Significant data is given by the historian Olivelli who writes that in 1905, when "nothing was mass produced, but everything was handmade" Paolo Soprani produced a staggering 1200 accordions a month. During this time the majority of production was absorbed by the Italian market, as the official data explains that in 1907 only 690 accordion were exported. However, by 1913 the export figures had risen to 14365! Impressive data such as this can be explained by the important role played by the emigration of talented local artisans, workers and musicians who promoted their craft in accordion making within their adopted countries. They were aided in this by the high quality of the accordion made in Italy, which outclassed competition from France, Germany, Russia and Czechoslovakia.

Between 1899 and 1905, pioneers such as Americo Magliani, Enrico Guerrini, Pasquale Piatanesi, Francesco Serenelli, Adriano Picchietti, Paolo Guerrini and others managed to 'conquer' the overseas market such as those of the United States, Canada and South America. Enrico Guerrini and Colombo Piatanesi in San Francisco, and Egisto Pancotti in New York started overseas production units from the humble beginnings of workshops which originally only specialized in repairing accordion.

Italian emigrants did not only import and distribute the brand names from Castelfidardo, but also had the intuition to open musical schools dedicated to the teaching of accordion, employing talented teachers and musicians (including the Deiro brothers, Pietro Frosoni, Viaggio Biaggio, Quattro Ciocche etc). Experienced artisans from Castelfidardo also moved to other European countries, such as Nazzareno Piermaria who in 1922 opened a workshop in Rue de Charenton in Paris. Today the third generation of the Piermaria family still retains links with the birthplace of their great grandfather.

But to return to Castelfidardo. In the first half of the 1900s strong demand for the accordion pushed the Soprani family from making handmade instruments, into starting a fully integrated production line. In publishing a commemorative leaflet for the 50th anniversary of the battle of Castelfidardo, Cesare Romiti wrote; "the machinery for the fabrication of the reeds were put into action by the generated electricity….to the great advantage of the Soprani company, creating a strong economic base which allows the Italian factory to gain ground against the competition from abroad." The newly established production line therefore allowed the Soprani firm to substantially increase its profit margin. Testament to this success was the great building that Paolo Soprani erected adjacent to the town's centre between 1907 and 1909. However, work on a new huge factory complex, also undertaken during those years, was never completed.

The first sign of decline in the so far rapid, unstoppable growth of accordion production came in 1929 when Wall Street's Stock Exchange crashed - a crash which greatly affected the musical instrument sector. A drop from 26000 units exported in 1926, to 17000 in 1932 was of great consequence to the region's employment figures.

Ironically, it was the autarchic regime of fascism that helped rebuild the industry of the accordion. The propaganda of the time spoke of the accordion as a musical instrument invented in Italy, and as being "the pride of our industriousness and delight of the Italian people." (Review Varietas - Rassegna Nazionale dell'Autarchia 1941). In 1941 Benito Mussolini ordered that a quantity of 1000 accordions be distributed to the various troops fighting in the Second World War. Other initiatives to protect and increase production of the accordion were taken at this time. For example, with the patronage of the fascist regime, a consortium (with headquarters in Ancona) was set up in 1937 amongst all the Italian manufacturers of accordion and its accessories. The presidency went to the charismatic figure of Angelo Manaresi who was an MP, a junior minister and president of the Italian Alpine Club. Paolo Soprani, nephew and namesake of his pioneering uncle, was appointed as vice president.

The disastrous conflict of the Second World War (1939-1945) had a devastating effect on the accordion sector. Production went down from 51000 units in 1938, to 10077 in 1941, to a mere 500 in 1944. The armistice which marked the end of the war gave the Italian people new hope and a new enthusiasm for life. In Castelfidardo alone, between 1946 and 1948 nineteen new companies were founded for the production of accordion. Exports increased from 57523 units in 1947 to 192058 in 1953, heralding a boom period for the instrument. This small town in Marche, with a population of just 9000, gave employment to over 10000 workers in the musical instrument sector alone. These workers came mainly from the neighbouring towns of Loreto, Osimo and Recanati.

This was also a time of great mergers. The historic company of Settimio Soprani merged with the F.lli Scandalli from Camerano to create the colossal firm of Farfisa, the company Excelsior in New York opened a production line in Castelfidardo and new entrepreneurs, whose products are mainly sold in the United States, gave their companies names from the great Hollywood studios and cinema chains, such as Paramount Accordions, Universal Accordions, United Artists, Metropolitan, MGM, Iris, Minerva and Astra. A street in Castelfidardo, today called Marconi Street, was then called Dollar Street, due to the fact that most of the company directors of the time built their villas there.

Another crisis, however, was looming on the horizon. This time it was not connected to economic or war factors. Musical tastes changed forever during the 1960s. A more rhythmic style of music began to replace the older melodic style. Elvis Presley followed by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones become the new idols for the modern youth. Several entrepreneurs of the Marche region managed, during these years, to adapt their factories to the production of modern, more fashionable musical instruments such as electric guitars and keyboards. Unfortunately a large number of small family run businesses took the brunt of the crisis. Between 1960 and 1963 seventeen closures took place. It was therefore inevitable that attempts had to be made to incorporate new technology to the accordion. In 1962, a Farfisa technical team led by Gianfelice Fugazza, with the collaboration of the accordion virtuoso Gervasio Marcosignori put the first transistors into the accordion. The outcome was the "Cordovox", an instrument with plenty of potential, not out of place with the modern music of the day. But to promote the accordion as a modern musical instrument, the industry would have needed a different strategy. A list of factors impeded the accordion becoming a fashionable instrument; in those years, the entrepreneurs were often divided over how best to promote the accordion, inspirational accordion players never became role models as the artists were often more interested in demonstrating the instrument than being concerned with musical integrity. Furthermore very little attention was paid to the arrival of the television as an important vehicle to promote the instrument, while music schools were still anchored to old teaching methods.

Today there is a renewed enthusiasm for the accordion, with increased attention to custom made high quality instruments rather than the emphasis being on mass production. The study of the instrument has been included in some Italian musical conservatories, while several workshops have started the skillful production of Bajan style accordions. Furthermore there has been an emphasis on the attention to musical literature, while the idea that the accordion is exclusively a solo instrument is gradually changing, thanks to influential artists such as Richard Galliano and Marc Perrone in France, Gianni Coscia in Italy and Peter Soave in the USA. The production of accordion has therefore found a niche that all those who operate in this sector should try to build on. There are sixty companies operating throughout Italy today - thirty of which are in Castelfidardo. These companies will only have a future if they can correctly interpret market demands, as Paolo Soprani did in 1863.

Beniamino Bugiolacchi
Director, International Museum of Accordion Castelfidardo

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