Posted 15 November 2007

The Victorian Concertina:
Some Issues Relating to Performance1

Allan W. Atlas

From the Introduction:

Present-day players of the ‘English’ concertina (see Fig. 1 [photographs of Victorian concertinas in the collection of the author] 2 ) must make a number of important decisions when delving into and performing the large repertory of art music that was written for the instrument in Victorian England.3 These decisions become especially critical for those who would perform the music in a manner that may at least approximate the way it may have sounded in the nineteenth century. Briefly, there are three basic decisions to be made. The first two concern the choice of instrument: (1) modern instrument or period (Victorian) instrument; and (2) if the latter, what kind of instrument in terms of reeds (type of metal), tuning, structure of the bellows and number of buttons. The third decision, on the other hand, has to do with a fundamental question of playing technique: should we use three or four fingers of each hand?

Before considering these issues, however, we should clear the air about two matters, the first of which concerns the name and nature of the instrument itself. The word ‘English’ in English concertina refers to two things: (1) the instrument’s place of origin and (2) the characteristics of the system by which it works, which distinguish it from other types of concertinas. Developed circa 1830 – thus during the quarter-century that saw the invention of a slew of free-reed instruments4 – by the soon-to-be-famous physicist Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802–1875),5 the English concertina is a fully chromatic instrument on which each button produces a single pitch regardless of the direction in which the bellows are moving. By the late 1840s, the most popular version of the instrument was a 48-button treble with a range of g–c′′′′, though tenor, baritone, and bass models – their lowest pitches being c, G, and C, respectively – were also available and were often used in concertina ensembles. Finally, with contributions to its repertory by the likes of George Alexander Macfarren, Julius Benedict, John Barnett and Bernhard Molique, the English concertina was the only type of concertina that found a home in Victorian art-music circles, both in the recital hall and in the drawing rooms and salons of the middle and upper classes.6

Clearing the air around the second matter will no doubt cause some readers to wonder why I’ve bothered to write this little essay in the first place. We can probably count the number of concertinists who cultivate the concertina’s Victorian art-music repertory on the fingers of – to err on the high side – two hands. Who, then, might find any of what I have to say interesting? In fact, I can imagine three groups of readers, each of which brings a different concertinarelated background to the topic: (1) those who have had the opportunity to hear snatches of the Victorian concertina repertory (surely the smallest of the three groups); (2) musicologists and others for whom the concertina – any kind of concertina – is an instrument associated mainly with pubs, street corners, village greens and whaling ships (surely the venues with which the concertina has generally been associated in both literature and films, usually – and sometimes quite inaccurately – in order to introduce a bit of ‘local colour’),7 and who might, therefore, find it interesting to learn that such questions even exist (as they have quite publicly for the more ‘canonic’ instruments); and (3) the many concertina players8 who, while most at home with hornpipes, Morris dances and sea shanties, are nevertheless interested in the history of the instrument and might find it worthwhile to mull over at least one person’s view about some of the decisions that go into the performance of its Victorian repertory.

Finally, to wrap up our discussion about concertina basics: though we shall not be dealing with the layout of the concertina’s button board until we reach our discussions about tuning and fingering, it is just as well to introduce it here. Figure 2 presents the layout of the standard 48-button treble. Three things are worthy of note: (1) all notes that appear on the lines or ledger lines of the staff are in the left hand, while those that fall in the spaces or between ledger lines are in the right hand; (2) the two inner vertical rows of each hand are equivalent to the white notes of the keyboard, whereas the two outer vertical rows provide the black notes; and (3) there are separate buttons for the enharmonic notes G# and Ab, on the one hand, and D# and Eb, on the other (except in the highest octave, where the right hand lacks a separate button for a′′′b); as we shall see, these duplicate buttons for notes that are enharmonic equivalents are a vestige of the period in which the concertina employed a mean-tone temperament with fourteen separate notes to the octave (see p. 48).

Continue reading the entire article:
allan-atlas-victorian-concertina-performance The Victorian Concertina:
Some Issues Related to Performance
by Allan W. Atlas
The article is a single PDF file which opens immediately in a browser. Click on the title or picture to open the document, or right-click and choose “Save Target As …” to save a personal copy of the entire file to your computer (file size is about 2.6 megabytes). 30 pages including photographs and musical examples. From Nineteenth-Century Music Review, 3/2 (2006), pages 33–62, published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
Posted 15 November 2007
» read full document (pp. 33–62) in pdf (or right-click to download)


1 My essay grows out of the lecture-recitals that I have given with pianist David Cannata and, more recently, with the New York Victorian Consort (with Julia Grella O’Connell, mezzo-soprano, and Francesco Izzo, pianist). I wish to express my thanks to a number of people for their help in connection with this essay: Mr Wim Wakker, Director of Concertina Connection (Helmond, NL) and himself an extraordinary concertinist, for having read an early draft and for the many years of stimulating discussion about the instrument and its music. Thanks also to Messrs Robert Gaskins (San Francisco) and Wes Williams (North Cadbury, Somerset), both of whom checked sources for me and shared information from their own research; in addition, Mr Gaskins also read an early draft of the essay. Finally, Messrs Alexander C. N. Mackenzie of Ord and Kenneth Mobbs (both of Bristol) were kind enough to read the section on tuning and temperaments (§2). [ Back to text ]

2 The dates for the instruments – whether of manufacture or first sale – are derived from two series of Wheatstone & Co. ledgers now housed at the Horniman Museum, London; the nineteenth-century ledgers form part of the Wayne Archive (hereafter HMWA), those from the twentieth century, part of the Dickinson Archive (HMDA). Both the latter series of five volumes (SD 01–05) and the twelve volumes in the Wayne Archive (C1046–1056 and C104a) are available online at the Horniman website: For a brief description of the nineteenth-century ledgers, see Stephen Chambers, ‘Some Notes on Lachenal Concertina Production and Serial Numbers’, Papers of the International Concertina Association, 1 (2004): 15–16, n. 4 (also online at and; I provide a fuller description in my ‘Ladies in the Wheatstone Ledgers: The Gendered Concertina in Victorian England, 1835–1870’, Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, 39 (2006), 1–234 (also online at [ Back to text ]

3 One can gain some idea of the size and nature of the repertory around the middle of the century from the Ewer & Co.’s Universal Circulating Music Library (London: Ewer & Co. 1860): 232–7, which lists 447 titles under ‘Music for the Concertina’ (Nos. 31395–842), though this includes multiple items within a single collection; see Allan W. Atlas, The Wheatstone English Concertina in Victorian England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996); on the Ewer Catalogue, see Nicholas Temperley, ‘Ballroom and Drawing-Room Music’, in The Romantic Age, 1800–1914, ed. Nicholas Temperley. The Athlone History of Music in Britain (London: The Athlone Press, 1981): 113. [ Back to text ]

4 Briefly, free-reed instruments have metal reeds that vibrate freely through an aperture in the frames in which they are mounted (see Fig. 3a, on p. 42); in addition to the various types of concertinas (see n. 6), such instruments include the harmonica (Christian F.L. Buschmann, 1821), accordion (Cyrillus Demian, 1829), harmonium (Alexander François Debain, 1842), and bandoneón (of tango fame – Heinrich Band, 1844), to name just a few that have continued to flourish up the present day, while Asian ancestors include the Chinese sheng, Japanese shô, and Lao-Thai khaen; see James Howarth, ‘Free-Reed Instruments’, in Musical Instruments through the Ages, ed. Anthony Baines (New York: Penguin Press, 1961); there is a comprehensive collection of essays about a wide range of free-reed instruments in Monika Lustig, ed., Harmonium und Handharmonika: 20. Musikinstrumentenbau-Symposium, Michaelstein, 19. bis 21. November 1999. Michaelsteiner Konferenzenberichte, 62 (Michaelstein: Stiftung Kloster Michaelstein, 2002); see also the four volumes of The Free-Reed Journal (1999–2002), published by Pendragon Press for The Center for the Study of Free-Reed Instruments at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York. [ Back to text ]

5 The most comprehensive biography of Wheatstone, who played a major role in the development of telegraphy (and after whom the so-called ‘Wheatstone Bridge’ – an electrical circuit that measures resistances – is named, though he did not invent it), is Brian Bowers, Sir Charles Wheatstone, FRS 1802–1875, rev. ed. Institution of Electrical Engineers History of Technology Series, 29 (London: Institution of Electrical Engineers, 2001); see also Sigalia Dostrovsky, ‘Wheatstone, Charles’, in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, ed. Charles Coulston Gillispie (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), xiv: 288–91; both of these deal with Wheatstone primarily as a physicist. [ Back to text ]

6 On the instrument’s Victorian repertory and critical reception, see Atlas, The Wheatstone English Concertina, 48–75; on its popularity in fashionable circles in particular, see Allan W. Atlas, ‘Who Bought Concertinas in the Winter of 1851? A Glimpse at the Sales Accounts of Wheatstone & Co.’, in Nineteenth-Century British Music Studies, 1, ed. Bennett Zon (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), 55–87, and ‘Ladies in the Wheatstone Ledgers’. The Victorians knew two other types of concertinas, both of which, like the English, continue to flourish today: (1) the ‘Anglo’ (more accurately, ‘Anglo-German’ or ‘Anglo Continental’), derived from the diatonic German Konzertina (once adopted in England it acquired chromatic capabilities), on which each button produces two pitches depending on the direction of the bellows; though initially identified mainly with street musicians, the ‘Anglo’ eventually became the concertina of choice among players of traditional music (it is, for example, the only concertina used in the Irish tradition); (2) the ‘Duet’, like the English, produces one pitch per button, but assigns its distinct treble and bass registers to separate hands in such a way as to promote the playing of a melody with a piano-like accompaniment; this concertina became particularly popular both in the music halls and with the street-corner Salvation Army bands. For surveys of the various types of concertinas, see Atlas, ‘Concertina’, in Grove Music Online, ed. Laura Macy ( accessed 14 July 2004, hereafter GMOL, with same date of accession); Maria Dunkel, ‘Harmonikainstrumente’, in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, rev. ed., ed. Ludwig Finscher (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1996), Sachteil, iv, cols 168–210; three important studies on the concertina’s role in traditional music are Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, ‘The Concertina in the Traditional Music of Clare’, PhD dissertation, Queen’s University of Belfast (1995), Stuart Eydmann, ‘The Concertina as an Emblem of the Folk Music Revival in the British Isles’, British Journal of Ethnomusicology, 4 (1995): 41–50 (also online at, and Dan Worrall, The Anglo Concertina Music of William Kimber (London: English Folk Dance and Song Society, 2005); on the music hall, see Percy Honri, Working the Halls: The Honris in One Hundred Years of British Music Hall (Farnborough: D.C. Heath, 1973); the German Konzertina receives thorough treatment in Maria Dunkel, Bandonion und Konzertina: Ein Beitrag zur Darstellung des Instrumententyps. Berliner musikwissenschaftliche Arbeiten, 30 (Munich and Salzburg: Katzbichler, 1987). [ Back to text ]

7 See Atlas, The Wheatstone English Concertina, vii; ‘George Gissing’s Concertina’, The Journal of Musicology, 17 (1999): 304–18 (the latter also online at A note on this fine website: developed by Robert Gaskins, it aims, among other things, to make available original documents pertaining to the history of the concertina (all types), ‘reprint’ recent articles (though there is even a dissertation) about the instrument that had appeared in scholarly journals that generally escape the attention of most concertinists (always with permission and always with a full citation of the original publication), post previously unpublished essays (carefully vetted), and highlight the life and career of John Hill MacCann, a noted player of the Duet concertina in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (about whom Mr Gaskins is writing a biography). [ Back to text ]

8 Though I cannot even begin to estimate their number, I can note that, as of March 2004, the lively website had 3,416 registered users (information from Mr Paul Schwartz, who developed the website). And since few concertinists will be reading this journal, the essay will – with the kind permission of Ashgate Publishing – eventually be posted online at [ Back to text ]


Allan W. Atlas ( ) teaches at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York, where he heads The Center for the Study of Free-Reed Instruments. Author of books and articles on both fifteenth-century music and Puccini, he currently focuses his research on the English concertina, especially its sociological role in Victorian society, with publications in this area including The Wheatstone English Concertina in Victorian England (Clarendon Press, 1996) and ‘George Gissing’s Concertina’, Journal of Musicology, 17 (1999), 304–18; his current projects include an edition of selected works for the instrument by Giulio Regondi (co-edited with Douglas Rogers) and an article on Arthur James Balfour and the concertina. He is also the founding editor of the PICA [Papers of the International Concertina Association]. An avid concertinist, he performs (together with Julia Grella O’Connell and and Francesco Izzo) with the New York Victorian Consort.

Allan Atlas performs with Victorian concertina
Allan Atlas performs at
“The Incredible Concertina”
concert, CUNY, April 2002


  • The Victorian Concertina: Some Issues Relating to Performance
  • Download as a single file
  • Introduction
  • 1. Modern or Period (Victorian) Instrument
    • Length and Hardness of Reed
    • Reeds and Frames
    • Baffles
  • 2. Choices among Period (Victorian) Instruments
    • Reeds and Metals
    • Tuning and Temperament
    • Structure of the Bellows
    • Number of Buttons
  • 3. Fingering
  • 4. Concluding Note
  • Postscript

The original version of this article appeared in Nineteenth-Century Music Review, 3/2 (2006), pages 33–62, published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
© 2006 Ashgate Publishing Ltd. and Allan W. Atlas.
Subscriptions to the journal and individual volumes are available from the Ashgate website.

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