Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:


The concertina, a portable instrument of the reed organ family with two hexagonal casings connected by a bellows, each with a small button keyboard (not a keyboard in the sense that the piano or accordion has one) was invented by the scientist Charles Wheatstone (1802-75). There were English and German types. Wheatstone's first instrument (1829) was mouth-blown, a precursor of the harmonica or mouth organ, which has acquired fame in classical music in the past two generations with virtuoso exponents like Larry Adler and Tommy Reilly persuading notable composers to write for it. Wheatstone's true bellows blown concertina was patented in 1844. It was developed so that a full chromatic scale could be played on each hand and was made in three later four sizes - treble, tenor-treble, baritone and contra-bass - enabling quartets or quintets to be played. Virtuosi of the concertina appeared, notably Richard Blagrove and Alexander Prince, who was able to play Wagner's Tannhauser Overture convincingly. Largely as a result of their efforts, serious composers turned their attention to it, English based ones being G A MacFarren, J F Barnett, Julius Benedict and Edward Silas. A good deal of lighter salon type music for the instrument also appeared.

The instrument's popularity waned, according to the New Grove, during the early part of the present century, due to the emergence of the larger accordion, which found a place in many light orchestras and attracted the attention of serious as well as popular composers though not as frequently as in Russia or the United States. However the concertina remained popular in folk music, the music hall and, as I can testify, in some Salvation Army citadels up to the present time. Percy Grainger used it from time to time - for example one of this orchestral settings of Shepherd's Hey includes a part for concertina. Joseph Holbrooke's choral tone poem The Bells Opus 50 is scored for "unlimited" concertinas and its premiere under Richter at Birmingham Festival of 1903 included at least one. A concertina was specified in two of Holbrooke's operas, The Stranger (1923, originally titled Pierrot and Pierrette in 1908) and The Sailor's Arms which was never professionally produced.

Concertina bands continued to exist after 1918 and to compete against each other. One such was the Mexborough (S Yorks) Concertina Band, which traced its origin back to 1884, and which had during the 1890s and later maintained a strength of 20-24 players. It won first prize at the Crystal Palace in 1906, conducted by Joe Tyas and for many years remained one of the country's top four concertina ensembles. Edwin Purshouse was the conductor in 1n the 1920s, when prizes were won at Belle Vue, Manchester in 1922, 1923 and 1924. The Band gave many concerts for charity both in early days and during the 1930s by which time competitions for concertina bands had gradually disappeared. Willis Watson conducted the band until 1939, when 16 were still playing and he broadcast with it three times, in 1931, 1935 and on 27 November 1937, when twenty players performed a 20 minute "slot" comprising Rossini's Tancredi overture, the march Death or Glory (R B Hall) and the waltz Unrequited Love (Paul Lincke), Other major items in the band's repertoire in inter-war years included the Semiramide (Rossini) Overture and an extended selection from Wagner's Rienzi. The composers and arrangers for concertina band generally seem to have been much the same as those for brass band: Ord Hume, William Rimmer and others. It would appear that much brass band repertoire was adapted for concertina band. The surviving members of the Mexborough Band continued to play until 1978, five of them, all over sixty by that time, broadcasting on local radio in 1971. More recently still a new Mexborough band was formed to give concerts and make a recording.

Philip Scowcroft

Return to Index

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: