Research Profile: Stuart Eydmann on the Concertina in Scotland

Soundyngs’ last post discussed the importance of ‘big box’ accordions to Scottish dance music and called for more writing on this instrument family in all its sizes. Here, we return to the free-reed instruments and feature Stuart Eydmann, whose research we signposted in Further Reading last week, and whose doctoral dissertation (1995) was on the ‘wee box’ – the ‘concertina’.  Dr Eydmann’s thesis – augmented with some subsequent research – is available on the extensive website (see Further Reading below)., the online Scottish audio archive he curates, features recordings of Scottish players of the instrument. As both a player and an academic, the author’s work combines deep knowledge of the history and technical capabilities of the instrument along with extensive knowledge of its adoption into Scottish music culture.

Featured Image: English Concertina made by Wheatstone & Co c1920, Danny Chapman @ Enghlish Wikipedia, Licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

As its nickname suggests, the concertina is the (much) smaller cousin of the accordion, and it emerged as a particularly English response to the wave of musical instrument invention in the 1820s that also saw the first accordions in Germany. The creators of both worked to develop new, small, and portable instruments exploiting the technology of the first bellow-blown free-reed organs and harmoniums that were beginning to take hold. There are a number of types of concertina, but typically, most differ from the accordion with its separate melody and bass manuals, by having buttons on hexagonal or octagonal ends arranged in ways that sees the melody played across both hands.

The English concertina was originally conceived as a serious concert instrument and attracted outstanding virtuosi as of the nineteenth century progresses. These instruments were highly sophisticated and expensive. Cheaper, less versatile instruments were also made in both England and Germany and these soon found a place in popular and traditional music making. As the interest in the expensive English concertina waned these instruments too became popular among the working classes. The instrument was found extensively Victorian domestic spaces, where it was a favourite of women players, as well as in pubs and taverns.  The Salvation Army, when not making music in brass bands, used concertinas in its missionary work to accompany sacred song, as did other branches of evangelical Christianity across the British Isles and beyond.  Community ‘concertina bands’ operated in many towns alongside other forms of communal instrumental music making.  In urban Scotland in the 20th century, as is clear from Eydmann’s extensive archival and interview-based evidence, many urban working-class Scots knew at least one friend with a concertina.  All this paved the way to the youthful folk revival of 1950s and 1960s Scotland, when the concertina was rediscovered and rehabilitated as an instrument of the people.

By the latter decades of the nineteenth-century, the concertina had found a new group of professional adherents.  Chapter 7 of Eydmann’s thesis draws attention to those in music hall and variety theatre acts using the instrument. Operating across Scotland and England such highly commercial entertainment spaces featured professional programmes of songs, sketches and comedy routines.  Linked with these were other seasonal entertainment venues: summer seaside resorts (even in Scotland), and in winter, pantomimes.  In these contexts, the concertina was used by singers to self-accompany their acts, both serious and comedic.  Performers included highly skilled solo artists such as Scotsman Alexander Prince (born Sutherland), and virtuosic touring concertina ensembles such as The Fayre Four Sisters and The Royal Bartle Quartet (Eydmann, 1995, p.112).  Musical illustrations show how Scottish national song often featured strongly in this professional repertoire, although not necessarily in a ‘traditional’ manner.  In published sheet music we find, for instance, Scottish songs such as ‘Caller Herrin’ rearranged with chordal textures reflecting the capacity of the concertina; and, at times, the solo concertina was even called upon to imitate bagpipes.  The capacity of quick-note changes using buttons also allowed melodies to imitate the grace-note ornaments of bagpiping, as has been exploited by more recent players in the folk scene.

This fascinated and beautifully illustrated work shows Eydmann’s burning enthusiasm for the instrument and supports his hope that it might find a future as well as a past place in Scotland’s traditional music scene.

Biographical Note

Stuart Eydmann has taught the history of popular music at The Open University and historical studies in traditional music at RCS. He is a graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, has been a post-doctoral research fellow and traditional artist in residence at the University of Edinburgh and continues his association there as a tutor at Edinburgh College of Art.  He has been a long-standing member of the folk-group The Whistlebinkies, playing both fiddle and concertina.

Further Reading and Listening

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