|My very own Anglo- German
concertina from a music shop
in Dublin, Ireland, given
to me by a good friend
By Adrian McGrath
You might have seen a classic film which had old time sailing ships in it, a film like Mutiny on the Bounty or Moby Dick. Among the various items on board these ships -- along with sails and lines, capstans, anchors, bad food, and many salty sailors -- you might have seen a musical instrument.
It could have been a fiddle, a fife, a tin whistle, an accordion, or one of those strange little squeezebox things that a seafaring musician swings around. That little squeezebox thing is called a concertina.
The concertina was a great instrument for seaborne musicians because unlike the accordion, they were compact and easy to carry and stow away. And there was very limited space on most sailing ships.
|Sailing ships in olden days, hunting the whale.
Concertinas would likely have been on board
after the 1830s. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Unlike the fiddle, the concertina is self-contained, not needing extra strings and rosin, etc. And it sounds louder than a fiddle. Unlike the fife it has more versatility and more power. All in all, the concertina was a great instrument for the romantic days of sail.
Music was a boost to a sailor's morale and was helpful even when doing work. Sea shanties, for example, were played or sung when the crew would haul in lines and weigh anchor.
|Sailors using a capstan to haul a heavy object.
They often did this work to the music of a sea shanty
sometimes played on a concertina, or a fife,
or just sung aloud. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
The concertina, however, was (and is still) used for more than sailing ships. It is a popular instrument for Irish music. It is great for most types of Irish dances -- jigs and reels, hornpipes, waltzes, slip jigs, slides, polkas, and marches. It is great for songs and ballads too either for the melody or as an accompanying instrument.
|An old time dance, possibly a
polka. Concertinas are good for this
type of dance. Photo from
Wikimedia Commons, circa 1840.
There are two main types of concertinas -- the English and the Anglo-German. The main difference is in the way the instruments play notes. On the English, a push-in and a pull-out of the bellows plays the same note. On the Anglo-German the pull-out plays a different note from the push-in, much like the way a different note is played on a harmonica. The Anglo-German makes for a more jaunty, bouncy style than the English, making the Anglo-German better for Irish music.
Most Irish folk tunes are played in the key of D and sometimes G.
The typical 30 button Anglo-German concertina comes in the keys of C and G with scatted, extra notes in the top of three rows. With the scattered notes, we can play in the key of D.
|Sir Charles Wheatstone, inventor of the
English version of the concertina
Photo from Wikimedia Commons, circa 1868.
The concertina was invented almost simultaneously -- and without mutual knowledge -- by two men, one English and the other German. Sir Charles Wheatstone developed the English concertina in 1829, and in 1834 Carl Friedrich Uhlig invented the German concertina which evolved into the more popular Anglo-German version. The Anglo-German added a few elements from the English to the German, including the famous hexagonal shape and smaller size.
|Carl Friedrich Uhlig,
inventor of the German version
of the concertina. Photo from
Overtime the concertina, especially the Anglo-German, became popular with Irish music.
You can learn much more about the concertina at the website for the
Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, Ireland. The website is here or see https://www.itma.ie/ This is a research organization for Irish music and culture.
The concertina is known as a free-reed instrument and is related to the accordion and the harmonica. It is larger and more powerful than a harmonica, but it is not as big and bulky as an accordion. So, the concertina is really just the right combination of power and size.
More portable than an accordion, louder than a fiddle, flute, or tin whistle, an old-time musical instrument with a pleasing and unique sound, as suitable for the Irish Dance as for sailing on the high seas -- that is what the concertina is.
The Anglo-German concertina is, by the way, my favorite instrument for traditional Irish music.
Sources and further reading: Website for Irish Traditional Music Archive; a book about learning the concertina The Anglo Concertina Demystified by Bertram Levy, 1985; McNeela Instruments in Dublin, Ireland; and Wikipedia.com's article on concertina here.