Posted 22 December 2003

Signor Alsepti and “Regondi’s Golden Exercise”

Allan Atlas

The period from the mid-1840s to circa 1900 saw the publication of no fewer than forty-eight tutors for the English concertina.1 And among the hundreds of exercises (a conservative estimate) included in these manuals, there is hardly a better one for building technique in single-note playing than that which appears under the rubric “Regondi's Golden Exercise” in “Signor” James Alsepti’s The Modern English Concertina Method, published by Lachenal c. 1895.2

Before turning to the “Golden Exercise,” though, we should say something about the somewhat shadowy Signor Alsepti himself, about whom the following biographical details, if not widely known, have long been available (and see Postscript): (1) he was, as he tells us in the Method (p.38), a pupil of Giulio Regondi, from whom he learned the “Golden Exercise” directly; (2) in 1885, at which time he resided at 6 Mount Pleasant Road, Exeter, Alsepti and Richard Ballinger, the latter an employee of the firm of Lachenal, received a patent for the invention of their so-called “bowing valves” (called “relief” valves in the patent), which, situated near the thumb strap on each side of the instrument and raised and lowered with the thumb (thus operated somewhat like the modern air valve), were supposed to permit subtle gradations with respect to both dynamic levels and the manipulation of the bellows (Alsepti likened the latter feature to the use of the bow on string instruments);3 and (3) by the late 1880s, he had become something of the “house” concertinist for the publishers and instrument dealers Keith, Prowse, who describe his activities as follows in an advertisement of 1888 in which they pitch the virtues of Alsepti's “ several great improvements” to the English concertina:4

[Click on advert for a larger image; near the bottom it reads:]
“SIGNOR ALSEPTI (Pupil of the late Giulio Regondi) has been performing at Balls and playing solo parts at Concerts, to the unbounded delight of his audiences. Signor Alsepti GIVES LESSONS at 48, Cheapside, where also he can be HEARD PERFORMING DAILY on the CONCERTINA ALONE, and with PIANOFORTE accompaniment. Ladies and Gentlemen desirous of hearing these delightful and almost phenomenal performances will be admitted on presentation of their Cards at 48, Cheapside. Signor Alsepti can be ENGAGED for CONCERTS, DANCES, &c., on application to Keith, Prowse & Co., 48, Cheapside.”

Yet despite the “unbounded delight” of his audiences, Alsepti's reputation may have been somewhat more limited than Keith, Prowse would have us believe, for a search through the indices of Victorian music journals currently being issued by the Répertoire International de la Presse Musicale (RIPM) failed to turn up even a single citation to him.5

Finally, the name “Alsepti” itself raises a question: is it a real Italian name, or is it, in combination with the use of “Signor” in front of it, merely part of a facade? Was Alsepti simply posing as an Italian? The answers to the three queries seem to be no, yes, and yes, respectively. First, the name does not appear in Emidio De Felice's authoritative Dizionario dei cognomi italiani;6 and while De Felice's work makes no claim to being exhaustive (it contains just under 15,000 entries), the name is also absent from L'Italia dei cognomi/Surnames in Italy, which offers a data base of twenty million entries drawn from local Italian telephone books.7 In all, the name simply fails to ring true.

We can, however, do more than argue negatively from the silence of the two Italian data bases, for thanks to records preserved at the Devon Record Office, we can shed further light on the matter and also add some new tidbits to Alsepti's biography.8

  1. He is already recorded as residing at 6 Mt. Pleasant Road (St. Sidwell parish) in the 1881 Exeter census, where he is listed—in the transcribed index—as James “Alseph” (surely an incorrect rendering of “Alsepti,” as the original “-ti” is easily enough misread as “-h” if the dot over the “i” and the cross of the “t” are less than tidy and run into one another); in addition, he is said to be forty-four years old, born in Exeter, a “Professor,” and husband of Bessie “Alseph” (age forty-six and born in Middlesex).
  2. The same census index also contains an entry for Ellen “Alsept,” eleven years old, also born in Devon, resident in the same St. Sidwell parish as our concertinist, and living in the household of one Agnes Bolt. Could Ellen be related? Since she is living in another household, it seems unlikely that she would be the Alsepti's daughter, but we cannot rule out the possibility that she might be a niece. Moreover, it seems unlikely that “ Alsept” is a misreading.
  3. The transcribed index of the 1851 Exeter census (thus thirty years earlier) also has what must certainly be an entry for our concertinist, this time as James “Alsept,” resident at 27 John Street, age fifteen, living with his parents, and already listed as a musician. His father is also named James “Alsept,” age forty-three, a tailor, born in Cheriton Bishop (Devon); his mother is Ann “Alsept,” age forty-seven, employed as a charwoman, and born in Exeter; in addition, there is a brother, John T. “Alsept,” age five, as well as two babies with different surnames who are recorded as “visitors” (foster children).
  4. The Cheriton Bishop Church of England baptismal register contains an enticing entry: one James “Alsop,” son of Robert and Agnes Alsop, was baptized on 30 October 1806. Could this refer to James “Alsept,” senior, father of the concertinist, with whose age as recorded in the 1851 census—taken on 30 March of that year—the date of baptism squares perfectly?

In all, the four notices seem to tell us the following: (1) “Signor Alsepti” was born at Exeter in either 1836 or 1837, either year fitting nicely with his having been listed as fifteen and forty-four years old in the 1851 and 1881 census schedules, respectively (see Postscript); (2) “Alsepti” was almost certainly not his real name; more likely, the family name was “Alsept,” which, since that name appears in the indices of the schedules for both 1881 (in connection with Ellen) and 1851 (in connection with both the concertinist and his family), is unlikely to be either an error in the original schedules or a misreading on the part of a transcriber (as students of “textual criticism” would put it: it is unlikely that two different schedules, separated by thirty years, would have made the same error; nor is it likely that the transcriber(s) of the indices would land upon the same incorrect name coincidentally with one another, or, if only one transcriber is involved, on two different occasions); and (3) it is possible that “Alsept” itself was a spin-off of Alsop.

Finally, we might speculate about why the Exeter-born James Alsept erected his Italianate facade in the first place. No doubt, he was trying to cash in on what seems to have been a then-current (at least in some circles)—if rather off-the-mark—association between the English concertina, on the one hand, and Italians, on the other. After all, during the years in which the young concertinist was cutting his teeth on the instrument, it was Giulio Regondi—probably born at Genoa9—who reigned supreme on the instrument. And if that were not enough to fuel such an association, we may thank the novelist Wilkie Collins for stoking the flames: in his spectacularly popular The Woman in White (1860), Collins puts the instrument into the hands of the Italian Count Fosco—he plays a transcription of the famous “Largo al factotum” from Rossini's The Barber of Seville—surely the best-known and most highly cultivated villain in Victorian literature. Collins, too, it seems was riding the Regondi phenomenon.10

To turn to “Regondi's Golden Exercise” (see Example 1 at the end of the essay): Alsepti (to use his preferred version of the name) offers it with the following note of explanation:

“The following exercise, which has never before been published, was taught to Signor Alsepti by Regondi. It is very difficult for all instruments, especially the Concertina, and to th[o]roughly master it with the correct fingering &c. will enable the Pupil to play passages in all keys.” (Method, 38.)

What is it that makes the exercise so valuable? There are three features that stand out: (1) the chromaticism, as each arpeggio is answered immediately by one that is first a half-step higher and then, upon turning around at measure 16, a half-step lower; (2) the rapid alternation between ascending and descending patterns; and (3) the need to take full advantage of the English concertina's enharmonic tones (see below). In all, the exercise keeps us somewhat off balance, as it avoids the mechanical and repetitive patterns of one- note-in-one-hand/one-note-in -the-other-hand that tend to fall almost mindlessly beneath the fingers when playing in keys with but a few sharps or flats. And indeed, most of the exercises in tutors for the English concertina—whether from the Victorian period or our own—suffer from an acute case of “C-majorism.”11

Yet despite its praiseworthy features, the exercise, at least as offered by Alsepti, presents most of us with a major problem. Like Regondi and a number of other Victorian concertinists, Alsepti was a proponent of playing with four fingers of each hand, and his fingering calls for the fourth finger (the pinky) thirty-seven times. As he puts it in the section “On Holding the Concertina” (Method, p. 7; the italics in both this quotation and the next are Alsepti's): “As the fourth finger of each hand is to be used as frequently as the other fingers, the pupil should never use the metal plates. . .as a rest for that finger. These rests are only useful as a guide.” He continues (p. 7): “The first finger of each hand must cover the first (or top [that is, nearest the thumb strap]) row of keys, the second fingers must be held over the second row. The third fingers over the third row, and the fourth fingers over the fourth (or lowest) row of keys … .” 12

The problem, of course, is this: most present-day players of the “English” (myself included) use only three fingers of each hand, as we keep the fourth finger planted in the finger rest in order to help balance and support the instrument. We must, therefore, do some surgery on Alsepti's fingering, and I have done precisely that in Example 2, which appears at the end of the essay.

Unlike Alsepti, I have not fingered every note, as there are stretches during which the fingering should be perfectly self-evident. I have, however, entered fingerings for all instances in which there is a choice between the enharmonic notes D♯/E♭ and G♯/A♭, adding an asterisk in those instances in which, for instance, I suggest that a G♯ be played instead of a notated A♭. In addition, I have signaled the obvious use of F (natural) and G (natural) for E♯ and Fx (double sharp), respectively, simply as a reminder to those who seldom venture into keys that require such enharmonics.

Now, fingering is a very personal thing: what one player finds comfortable, another finds downright clumsy.13 I should, however, “justify” what I have done. Briefly, my bottom-line rules-of-thumb (and they are nothing more than that) for fingering are these: (1) avoid using the same finger on two successive notes (this is the “rule” that most of us are least likely to break); (2) avoid, if possible, using adjacent fingers—whether 1-2 or 2-3—successively if they must skip over a vertical row (I find the fork-in-the-road-like lateral stretch uncomfortable); and (3) try to divide the work between the two hands as evenly as possible. Thus it is the combination of these last two guidelines that led me to use RH 1 and the enharmonic g♯ (in place of the notated a♭) at the end of measure 1, as this gets around the problem of having to play six successive notes in LH and having to use LH 2-1 on a-c♯' .

Otherwise, virtually everything having to do with fingering (and now my remarks go beyond just “Regondi's Golden Exercise”) depends upon context: (1) phrasing and articulation (are we playing legato or with some degree of detachment, and are we going to articulate a pair of reiterated notes by playing them twice with the same finger, or by changing fingers on them, or by keeping the button depressed and changing the direction of the bellows?); (2) tempo (simply put, one can “cheat” at a slow tempo); (3) direction of the bellows (I find some fingerings more comfortable with the bellows going in one direction than in the other, though this may well be a purely personal idiosyncracy); (4) depth of thumb in thumb strap (because I place my thumbs in the straps as far as they will go and keep the straps rather tight—the better to control the bellows, at least to my way of thinking—I am often uncomfortable using RH 1 on the low g and, in some contexts, on the d' right above it; thus I often use RH 2 on these notes, and sometimes even bring RH 3 across for the g); (5) strength of individual fingers (for example, I always try to play trills in the same hand with 1-2, no matter which rows the notes may be in); and most important (6) where are we coming from and where are going? This last question is paramount, and it often leads to fingering the same passage in different ways depending upon what comes immediately before and after. A good example of this in my fingering for the “Golden Exercise” occurs in measures 15-16, where I suggest two different fingerings for two ascending B-major arpeggios.

In the end, “Regondi's Golden Exercise” makes us think: about ourselves as players and about the capabilities and idiosyncracies of the English concertina. And only when we have thought about both of these matters long and hard, do we and the instrument truly become one.


Shortly after submitting this essay, I had occasion to speak to Douglas Rogers, who kindly reminded me of two other pieces of biographical information concerning Alsepti: According to an article that appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette for 2 February 1889, Alsepti (1) was blind and wore dark spectacles; (2) belonged to the Franciscan Brothers; (3) performed Beethoven's “Kreutzer” Sonata;14 (4) had spent time concertizing and giving lessons in the industrial north; (5) was still associated with Keith, Prowse (see the 1888 advertisement cited above); and (6) had been successful in passing himself off both as an Italian and as the inheritor of the Regondi legacy.

Finally, Alsepti's death certificate, registered on 9 March 1897 in the district of Greenwich (subdistrict Deptford South), states that Alsepti, a “Professor” of music, died the previous day (8 March) of acute bronchitis at the age of fifty-nine; at the time of his death, he was living at 107 St. John's Road. Given this statement about his age, we can now determine his date of birth as 1837.

Needless to say, I am extremely grateful to Douglas for sharing this information with me.


1 For a comprehensive list of 180 tutors—from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day—for all types of concertinas (English, Anglo, and Duet), see Randall C. Merris, “Instruction Manuals for the English, Anglo, and Duet Concertina: An Annotated Bibliography,” The Free-Reed Journal 4 (2002), 85-118; this is now available on- line: [ Back to text ]

2 The British Library, Music Division, preserves an original edition under the shelf-number h.261.f.(5.); there are photocopies at both The Horniman Museum, London, and The Center for the Study of Free-Reed Instruments, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York. [ Back to text ]

3 The patent, No. 8290, is dated 8 July 1885; my thanks to Randall Merris for sharing his copy of the patent with me. Alsepti describes the bowing valves at some length in The Modern English Concertina Method, 7-8. [ Back to text ]

4 The advertisement fills the back cover of John Hill Maccann's The Concertinist's Guide (London: Howard, 1888), an original copy of which exists at Oxford University, Bodleian Library, 17426.e.3(2). Thanks to the enterprising work of Mr. Robert Gaskins, Maccann's Guide can be read on-line: On Keith, Prowse as purveyors of concertinas, see Neil Wayne, “The Wheatstone Story: Final Edit” (unpublished manuscript); about their activities as publishers and, eventually, agents for concert and theater tickets, see D.W. Krummel and Stanley Sadie, Music Printing and Publishing. Norton/Grove Handbooks in Music (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), 307. [ Back to text ]

5 RIPM, which appears under the auspices of the International Musicological Society and the International Association of Music Libraries, Archives, and Documentation Centers (under the general editorship of H. Robert Cohen of the University of Maryland), has as its goal the indexing of the contents of nineteenth-century music journals; indices have already appeared for the following journals from the Victorian period proper: The Musical Examiner (1842-1844), The Musical Times (1844-1900—this journal is still in existence), The Musical Standard (1862-1871), and The Musical World (1836-1865). In addition, there are indices for two slightly earlier journals: The Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review (1818-1828) and The Harmonicon (1823-1833), the latter in particular with interesting notices about free-reed instruments and the initial appearances of Giulio Regondi—as a child-prodigy guitarist—in England.

We should place the lack of citations for Alsepti into perspective: (1) the RIPM indices do not claim to be exhaustive, as the editor of each index exercises his/her own judgment about what to include; thus a passing reference in a journal might go unindexed on the grounds that it is not of major import; (2) the journals that RIPM indexes are concerned primarily with “art” music and, with respect to the Victorian journals, tend to center (at least up to now) around the middle of the century; Alsepti, however, seems to have reached the apex of his career only later in the century, by which point RIPM coverage becomes thinner and the English concertina had begun what might politely be called its “social decline,” so that the journals would have been less inclined to pay attention to him (or to any other concertinist); (3) a tally of the references in the RIPM indices to other prominent players of the English concertina who are cited in Maccann's Concertinist's Guide of 1888 (p. 3) turns up the following results: Giulio Regondi (d. 1872) = 26; Richard Blagrove = 21; the Messers Chidley = 2 (cited as publishers, in Musical World 31 [12 March and 27 August 1853], 163, 550); John Charles Ward = 0 (though he was the organist for the well-known Henry Leslie Choir, and contributed a short essay on the concertina to The Musical News 25 [21 August 1891], which, however, has not been indexed by RIPM); George Roe = 1 (in connection with his Solo brillante for flute/piccolo and piano, in Musical Times 14 [1 October 1869], 246-47); Henry Roe = 0; and Madame Debenham = 0. In all, it is probably fair to say that, from the 1870s on, neither Alsepti nor any other concertinist managed to impress the art-music critics as Regondi had during the 1830s-1860s.

For new biographical information on Regondi, see my article, “Giulio Regondi: Two Recently Discovered Letters,” The Free-Reed Journal 4 (2002),70-84 (available on-line: For a fine introduction to the musical press in Victorian England, see Leanne Langley, “The Musical Press in Nineteenth-Century England,” Music Library Association Notes 46/3 (1990), 583-608; James Coover, “Victorian Periodicals for the Music Trade,” ibid., 609-21. [ Back to text ]

6 I consulted the second edition (Milan: Arnaldo Mondadori, 1979). [ Back to text ]

7 This is available on the web: De Felice's Dizionario was also based on local phone books. Both data bases offer information about the demographic distribution of the names. [ Back to text ]

8 I am extremely grateful to Ms. Jan Wood, Archivist, Devon Record Office, Exeter, who provided me with the information in a communication of 28 March 2002. I offer the information with the following caveat: it is based, as Ms. Wood noted in her communication, upon indices that contain transcriptions (!) of the original census enumerators' schedules, and these are subject to misreadings of the frequently difficult-to-read orthography of the original documents. Obviously, only a study of the original schedules themselves, preserved on microfilm at the Devon Record Office (and therefore not easily available to me), can settle matters once and for all. [ Back to text ]

9 There is more than a little confusion about Regondi's birthplace: Genoa (Genova in Italian) or Geneva. I summarize the situation in The Wheatstone English Concertina in Victorian England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 48-49, n. 4. We might note that, while the heaviest concentration of the name Regondi in modern-day Italy is in and around Milan, the name does linger on in the region of Liguria, of which Genoa is the main city; see the data base at the website L'Italia dei cognomi (cited in note 7). [ Back to text ]

10 See my article, “Collins, Count Fosco, and the Concertina,” Wilkie Collins Society Journal, new ser., 2 (1999 ), 56-60; on-line: [ Back to text ]

11 I address this problem and try to compensate for it in my tutor, Contemplating the Concertina: An Historically-Informed Tutor for the English Concertina (Amherst, MA: The Button Box, 2003). Available from The Button Box. [ Back to text ]

12 To be sure, Alsepti often disregards his own advice. Thus already in measure 1, he uses right hand (RH) 1 on the low g (his rule calls for RH 2) and left hand (LH) 3 for the e♭' (his rule requires LH 4). Clearly he skirts his rules in order to prepare RH 2 for the d' and LH 4 for the a♭ that follow. In other words, Alsepti prefers not to use the same finger successively on two different notes in the same hand even when those notes are separated by another note in the other hand. Surely this is the only possible explanation for the otherwise bewildering use of LH 2 on the g♯ in measure 4; nor can I see any ready explanation—given Alsepti's own rules—for RH 3 on the c♯'' in that same measure. In all, Alsepti breaks with his own rules no fewer than sixty-seven times (out of a possible 237 notes). [ Back to text ]

13 For example, when providing fingering for two successive notes in the same vertical row (I refer specifically to row 2, that is, the RH row that ascends g-d'-a'-e'' etc., and the LH row that ascends c'-g'-d''-a'' etc., the Victorian tutors generally suggest that the lower note be played with the first finger, the higher note with the second. My own “default,” however, is to go precisely the opposite way: the second finger on the lower note, the first on the higher one, as I find it more comfortable to tuck 2 under 1 than crossing it over 1. [ Back to text ]

14 Both Regondi and Blagrove also included Beethoven violin sonatas in their repertories. [ Back to text ]

Example 1.
The Golden Exercise in Alsepti’s Tutor

Example 2.
The Golden Exercise with Modern Fingering

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The Golden Exercise
"very difficult for all instruments,
especially the concertina."


This original version of this article appeared in Concertina World 426 supplement (2003) pp. 1-8.
© 2003 Allan Atlas.

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