You can discover the curious yet wonderful Bandoneon on Saturday.. but what is it?

When Tango Siempre come to Bath on 22 October, one of the star performers will bandoneonist Julian Rowlands.

Nicholas Keyworth investigates this curious yet wonderful instrument

Julian Rowlands

Julian Rowlands

The origins of the bandoneon can be traced back to mid C19 Germany with the dealer, Heinrich Band and its development from the older concertina for religious and popular music of the day.

German and Italian emigrants brought the instrument to Argentina in the 1870s where is was readily adopted into use within tango music.

By 1910 bandoneons were being produced in great numbers for the Argentine and Uruguayan markets, with 25,000 shipping to Argentina in 1930 alone. However, World War II disrupted German manufacturing which signalled the end of bandoneon mass-production.

So what’s the difference between a concertina and a bandoneon?

Both instruments are held between both hands and the pushing and pulling motion forces air through its bellows, which is routed through reeds by pressing its buttons.

The button keyboard layout is designed to facilitate playing chords rather than scale passages of single-notes. This is because its original purpose was to support singers of religious music in small churches with no organ or harmonium

But unlike the concertina, the bandoneon‘s buttons produce different notes on the push and the pull. So each keyboard actually has two layouts: one for opening notes, and one for closing notes. Since the right and left hand layouts are also different, a musician must learn four different keyboard layouts to play the instrument!

The Argentinian bandleader, composer, arranger, and tango performer Aníbal Troilo was one of the first proponents of the bandoneon. But it was Astor Piazzolla who rose to be the undoubted master of the bandoneon with his dazzling solos and compositions for the instrument. His grounding in classical music combined with traditional Argentinian tango formed nuevo tango, a fresh new interpretation of the genre which has become popularised across the globe.

Piazzolla and the bandoneon

Piazzolla and the bandoneon

See and hear the bandoneon in action on Saturday 22 October with Tango Siempre’s concert at the Old Theatre Royal.