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Le Bayan

The bayan: from yesterday to nowadays…

Interview with Françoise Jallot (journalist of “Le magazine de l’Accordéon”) in “The musician letter”. What is bayan? Do you teach bayan or accordion? Can you describe us your bayan …

The creation of the first accordion course (taught by Max Bonnay) at the CNSM in Paris in 2002 is a symbolic date for the accordion in France. This is the witness of the early ages of accordion but also of the late acceptance of this instrument by the institutional teaching bodies. It seems that the popular connotation of accordion, a countryside instrument for dancing and singing, closed the doors of the national conservatories, more focused on the elitist practice of erudite music. From 1959, Alain Abbott (accordion player who won the Grand Prix in Roma in 1968) had already taken this matter seriously and presented in a recital, a sort of “uncluttered” accordion called “harmonéon”. Several years before, Pierre Monichon (musicologist and Alain Abbott’s teacher) and Busato (well known accordion builder), concerned with making accordion a great instrument for “noble music”, removed in 1948 the essential function of accordion, that is to say the  preconceived concords of the left keyboard. This is the birth of the harmonéon, an instrument with two identical and symmetrical keyboards on both sides of the bellows. The result was a simplified accordion, rid of its “popular burden” which lies in the use of preconceived concords on the left keyboard. This new instrument was supposed to “niche” itself in the CNSM of Paris. Unfortunately, scandals and controversies about the instrument that has been deprived of its history, took it far away from the important French musical spheres.

This is only since 1986, at the behest of Marcel Azzola, Frédéric Guérouet, Max Bonnay and Myriam Bonnin, that accordion was recognized by the ministry of culture and starts to carve its place into music schools and conservatories. With regard to its current growing success in conservatories, it seems eventually that the popular and multicultural dimension of accordion became an asset for its integration. However, even if accordion integrated the great places of erudite music teaching, the distinction is sometimes difficult for the novices. Because today, the specialist does not dare to call it accordion fearing to revive a connotation too popular and too rural: he uses the euphemism of “concert accordion”, “classic accordion” or even better “bayan”. In order to clarify this terminology, I will devote myself to trace the history of bayan, a Russian accordion that seems to have had a strong influence on the instrumental making and on the accordion teaching in France and Western Europe.

Russia is at the origin of a great impulsion in the development of accordion. In the middle of the XVII century, Johann Wilde already popularized the sheng (mouth organ, 3000 years before J.C) at the Court of St Petersburg. From 1770 to 1790, Kratzenstein, Kirsnik, and Vogler already worked on the elaboration of a free reeds instrument. Created in Austria in 1829 by Cyril Demian, the accordion achieved an immediate success. With a small size, packed in migrants’ luggage, he quickly conquered Europe and progressively the whole world. One year after its creation, it came to Russia at the Nijni-Novgorod Fair. Rebuilt and Russianized by Sizov, Tchouikov, Vorontsov and Emilianov, its production started in the city of Tula in 1830. Very popular, it took the name of “garmochka” and each region would create its own instrument. This is how were born the Khrômi, the tchérépachki, etc… At last, Bakanov, Beloborodov and Sterligov created an instrument with bass buttons and a keyboard (piano) for the right hand. The system, originally diatonic, (biresonant, with a tone when pulling and a tone when pushing), is abandoned for a chromatic system with two rows of buttons designed by N.I. Beloborodov in 1870. In 1883, P.I. Tchaïkowsky used four accordions in his Second Suite for symphonic orchestra. In 1907, in Ryazan, the accordion builder Sterligov and the accordion player Orlansky-Titarenko modernized the chromatic accordion: they created a unique model with four rows of buttons in the right side and left keyboard with six rows of free concords and basses. This type of accordion allows folk melodies as well as classical melodies. They will call this new instrument “bayan”. This word, inspired of the Russian legend of the Prince Igor (an evocation of the history of the ruthen principalities of the XIIth century telling the unfortunate expedition of Prince Igor), refers to “Boyan”, a poet, magician and troubadour that was singing historical and fantasy stories accompanying himself on his “Gouvsi” (a plucked stringed instrument).

In 1929, P.E Sterligov presented a new type of left keyboard: a system with a mechanic release. This new mecanique allows, just by pressing a button, to switch from the harmonic system with prepared concords (“standard basses”) to the chromatic keyboard system (one note per button, like on the right keyboard). This invention considerably improved the bayan performances.
Very soon, the bayan appeared in national folk music departments in the higher conservatories of Soviet Union: first in 1926 in St Petersburg, then in 1927 in Moscow and Kiev. After a recital performed by Gvozdev in St Petersburg in 1935, this chromatic accordion became a soloist instrument. Elevated in the thirties at the highest place within the concert instrument category, these composers started to write especially for the bayan. In 1937, at the St Petersburg Philarmony, Gvozdev plays the first concerto for bayan and symphonic orchestra written by Rubtsov and Sotnikov. In 1939, the first competition for bayan players in Soviet Union was born: the three prize winners were I. Panitsky, N. Rizol and M. Beletskaya. Among the great virtuosos of the time were Y. Orlansky-Titarenko, I.Gladkov, M.Makarov, A.Kuznetsov, Y.Popkov, I.Panitsky, I.Malinin and B.Tikhonov. After the Second World War, more and more concertists appeared. Their programs consisted of folk music as well as transcriptions from Borodine, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky or even Prokofiev. Composers will at that time write for soloist bayan. :  V. Zolotarev, A. Repnikov, S. Gubaidulina, A. Kusiakov, G. Shenderev, Y. Derbenko, V. Semyonov, S. Berinsky, … Well known soloists such as  M. Gelis, N. Rizol, V. Gorokhov, A. Onegin, P. Gvozdev et N. Tchaikin gave the impetus to a new generation of musicians such as Y. Kazakov, A. Belyaev, E. Mitchenko, V. Galdin, Y. Vostrelov, A. Sklyarov, V.V. Besfamilnov, F. Lips, V. Semyonov, … From 1966, the Soviets start to take part in international competitions of accordion (particularly in Klingenthal, in former RDA). Armed with their technique, their instruments and their repertory, their apparition is the subject of a real revelation and a great influence on the Western musical world. Hence, the bayan becomes the instrumental model for the greatest virtuosos of accordion.
The bayan always had a very strong reputation in Soviet Union, it was respected by musicians and represented the instrument of the national identity. It melted national folk music and classical music. The image of the bayan as a mirror of Russian technology and of Russian culture abroad, was so important for the Soviet government that the accordion making factory Jupiter was included into the experimental department of the Red Army. 
Since 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the secrets of bayan making and the Russian know how are shared with Western Europe who tried to forge bayans for a long time. Today, Italian instrument builders in Castlfidardo create bayan type models taking the specificities of the Russian instruments while keeping their Italian craft traditions. These high quality instruments are growing in French conservatories and are called “concert accordions”. Others prefer to call them bayan. Unlike the Italian model equipped with type C keyboard (with C on the first row), the Russian model has a type B keyboard (with the B on the first row, the C being on the third row). The difference also lies in the reeds: unlike the Italian model in which all the reeds are distinctive, either nailed down on individual plaques or stick with wax, the Russian reeds are all assembled on one metal plaque by wind chest.

This layout increases the sound spectrum of each reed since the resonance by sympathy is amplified. It results in a richer and brighter tone for the bayan but also more gentle and muffled for the Italian accordion. Little by little, the bayan expanded and standardised to become a five row right hand, with fifteen registers, chin rest and a range of more than six octaves.  If the bayan expanded across Europe, from Russia to Poland and East block countries, to Scandinavia, France, Spain and Portugal, it struggles a little to niche itself in countries like Australia, Italy, New Zealand and the USA, where the piano key accordion still encounters a strong popularity.

F.J.: And your accordion, bayan, « Appassionata »?

B.M.: I have played accordion since I am 6. After having learnt with Jean Marie Dazas and Frédéric Guérouet, the meeting with my master Vladimir Vladimirevitch Besfamilnov, between 1993 and 1997 at the conservatory in Kiev, was a determining revelation in the development of my musician and teaching life. I have learnt to manage the musical gesture, to communicate music, to play my instrument with my soul. I was astonished when my old teacher, about to stop his soloist career after an accident, permitted to me to play on extraordinary instrument “Appassionata”! Today, I have the privilege to play on two unique bayans Appassionata, made by the well known Russian craftsman, Vassilij Kolchin (nicknamed in Russia the Stradivari of bayans). I own the first model Appassionata (made in 1971) and the last one (made in 1989). The name Appassionata comes from the famous sonata from L.V Beethoven, Lenine’s favourite music. Designed and developed in close collaboration with Besfamilnov, these instruments are made to answer any solicitation of the musician. Among the new features of these unique instruments, the platinum mechanism of the left keyboard worth to be mentioned. The mechanism is wholly reinvented, resistant and silent, the new system of lean opening of the valves favours the intensity of the tone. The new position of the strip by half tone on the bases allows a gain of space and thus extends the tessitura of 9 tones for the left hand. The position of the trigger is located on the left side (for the thumb). The right keyboard has five voices, including two registers of piccolos (4 foot); one of them is located in the sound box, hence giving 19 registers for the right keyboard. Ten chin pieces allow, by replacement, the player to access 15 different registers. The left chromatic keyboard had three voices and the piccolo can be added to the voice of the prepared chords. It’s been 10 years I have played Russian bayan. Even if I had to learn again because of the chromatic keyboards (system “B”, with the C on the third row), my choice was to go further in the fields of expression, dynamism, richness of tones, extreme nuances. I never found the equivalent in any other instrument. During chamber music concerts as well as soloist concerts I play my bayan. However, like all my colleagues in France, I teach the traditional system at the conservatory (system “C”). Thanks to the presence of accordion in conservatories and to the development of accordion making in Italy and in Russia, we have today chromatic accordions with triggers for the whole curriculum of studies in music conservatories : small models for children from 6, intermediate models and professional models like Bayan for the other players. Some brands can be mentioned:  Pigini, Bugari, Mengascini, Ballone Burini, Victoria, Fisart, Zero Sette, Jupiter …

F.J.: Teaching and accordion: what is the culture of accordion?

B.M. : During recitals, in particular in villages, I realized that a concert of classic accordion, more than any other instrument, can attract audiences from diverse cultural backgrounds. However, I need to play a varied musical program mixing transcriptions and original music works written for our instrument. J.S.Bach and W.A.Mozart are, for example, references in terms of composers for the audience of « classical » concerts, because people can find the cultural landmarks they are expecting in an accordion concert. The original work for accordion (W.Zolotarev, V.Semyonov, T. Lundquist, O. Schmidt, B.Cavanna, L. Bério,) will interest and improve the knowledge of a neophyte audience. The accordion concert has the capacity to attract a wide audience used to other tones and styles. A good player will win over the audience if he succeeds in initiating him to other kinds of music. Thanks to its multicultural qualities, the accordion is a good way to bring together different audiences, isn’t it?
By the way, I would like to mention an anecdote concerning Mstislav Rostropovich: in May 1996, the well known violinist was surprised to discover that, during his concert tour with the accordion player (or bayan player) Yuri Kazakov sponsored by the Russian government, they were not invited to perform in big cities (Moscow, Kiev, St Petersburg…) but on the contrary they played in a hundred of small villages, in small theatres, private houses as well as in … barns ! They played folk music but also Bach, classical and even contemporary music. Rostropovitch said that often, people in the audience have never heard classical music and they welcomed the accordion of Kazakov because it was the link between the different styles and times.

To conclude, if we compare the evolution of accordion in Russia and in France, taking as a reference point the respective dates of creation of accordion courses in conservatories (1926 for Moscow and 2002 for Paris), we can see the huge lateness taken by France. Right from 1907 in Russia, the creation of bayan was the response to a demand coming from the composers and players themselves, worried to find a compromise between erudite music and popular music. This cultural diversity needs today to be considered as a great richness and if accordion was late to enter the great music schools in France, we can say that thanks to the influence of bayan, accordion established itself as a modern instrument. In this process, it is important to underline the work of Pascal Contet, French accordion player and international soloist. From the 1980s, inspired by the work of Mogens Ellegaard, his teacher, Pascal Contet gave the impulsion necessary to the emergence of accordion among contemporary creation. He is actively contributing to develop the contemporary repertory with composers such as Bernard Cavanna, Vinko Globokar, Jacques Rebotier, Jean-Pierre Drouet, Bruno Giner, Jean Françaix, etc.. In this hard period of globalisation and human fights, I am proud of teaching and playing this instrument that I call accordion because I think this is the instrument of sharing, of people and cultures reconciliation, of peace, freedom and hope. Accordion? Concert accordion? Bayan? You choose!! To fuel the addicted of nicknames, here are some : shoulder piano, pin box, piano of the poor, shiver box, « bouèze », button box, blower with pins, devil box, swing lung… »
Bruno Maurice, 17th of May 2006.