The Bandoneon is a free reed instrument that is renowned for the beauty of its sound, and for its remarkable expressive range and flexibility. It was developed in Germany during the 19th century but found its home in Argentina where it became the distinctive voice and soul of the tango: in the words of the poet Homero Manzi “My whole life, brother bandoneon, is concealed within your keyboard”.
The composer Astor Piazzolla was a notable performer on the instrument. His compositions, which include three concertos as well as orchestral, chamber and solo works, introduced the bandoneon to concert audiences.
More recently the sound of the bandoneon has become familiar to the public through the work of Gotan Project and other electro-tango ensembles.
The main difference between the bandoneon and accordion is one of sound. Accordion makers aim for a degree of homogeneity in the sound of individual registers and variety is provided by changing registers (varying the number and tuning of reeds selected by means of switches). Bandoneons do not have register switches but the timbre of the instrument is constantly changing, depending on the air pressure, direction of the bellows and choice of keyboard for the melody and accompaniment. In addition, the playing position allows for much stronger accentuation than is possible on the accordion, and sound control techniques such as vibrato. The accentuation characteristic of tango is created by the way the reeds “overblow”, producing an edge to the note that cannot be reproduced on other free reed instruments.
Q. What is a bandoneon?
Bandoneons (or bandonions) are bellows driven free reed instruments – squeezeboxes – that were developed in Germany from the middle of the nineteenth century. Like concertinas, bandoneons have buttons rather than piano keys, and the bass buttons play single notes rather than chords as on some accordions. The name bandonion is believed to derive from a Heinrich Band who marketed the original instruments. The spelling “bandoneon” with an “e” comes from the Spanish and French versions of the word.
Q. What do they look like?
Bandoneons are rectangular with buttons at each end, and are normally played resting on one or both knees, unlike accordions which hang on straps from the player’s shoulders.
Q. Are there different sorts of bandoneon?
Yes. A number of different keyboard layouts appeared in Germany and France. Some are unisonoric (make the same notes opening and closing); others are bisonoric (make different notes opening and closing). They also vary in the number of notes (range), and the number of reeds per note and hence the timbre. Unlike accordions, most bandoneons do not have multiple registers (switches to change the sonority of a keyboard).
Q. What is a tango bandoneon?
The tango bandoneon is a 71 button (142 voice) bisonoric instrument with two reeds per note tuned in octaves. The keyboards are a development of the 65 button layout known as “Rheinische Lage” that was in use in germany in the late nineteenth century; the extra six buttons were added to meet the requirements of tango musicians. The core of the layout is similar to the Anglo or German concertina. The tango bandoneon has a chromatic range of just under five octaves from the C two octaves below middle C. These instruments were exported in large numbers from Germany to Argentina and Uruguay from 1911 onwards and became the essential voice of the tango.
Fig. 1 – The range of the Tango Bandoneon: both keyboards are fully chromatic opening and closing except where indicated.
The range of the right hand (treble) is from A below middle C to the A three octaves higher, with the addition of top B opening (but no B flat.) The Left hand (bass) extends from A a sixth above middle C down to C two octaves below middle C (cello C string), with the addition of top B closing. The bottom third (C-E flat) doesn’t have all notes in both directions, but apart from that it is fully chromatic opening and closing.
Q. Where can I find out more about bandoneons?
A lot of information can be found on the Bandoneon Page