Paolo Soprani (1844 - 1918) – Grandfather of the Irish Box ?
by Seán Ó Cuinn, Glinnte Aontroma CCÉ
I‟ve played the accordion almost all my life. I started on a wee Hohner black-dot button-box, but I
didn‟t seem able to make much progress on that, so moved on to the piano box which I found easier and contented myself with that for many years. Listening to Irish accordion music live, recorded
and broadcast, I always preferred the music of 2-row button-box players and I did my best to adapt
their arrangements to the piano-box as best I could.
I noticed that all of the button-accordion players whom I admired down the years played Paolo
Soprani accordions, so when I decided a few years ago to try my hand again at the 2-row box, I
went after a Paolo for myself. I got the benefit of classes and workshops from the likes of Adrian
Scahill, Caroline Judge and PJ Hernon, so I can now rattle out a few tunes on the button-box also.
Enjoying playing my own „Paolo‟ I began to wonder: What‟s in a name? Why are these instruments
so much sought after, why do there seem to be so many different models, and who was Paolo
Soprani anyway? I went looking for answers and this is what I found out.
Things sometimes happen that change not only the life of a man, but a city and a region. Such a
thing happened back in 1863 in Italy, which had the makings of a legend, and was the source of
developing an industry now famous all over the world: the industry of the accordion. It happened in
a village near Castelfidardo, a town in the beautiful Musone valley in Italy‟s eastern Marche region.
An Austrian pilgrim returning from the shrine of the „Black Madonna‟ at neighbouring Loreto
received hospitality from one Antonio Soprani who lived there with his wife Lucia and their sons,
Settimio, Paolo, Paschal and Nicholas.
th The pilgrim carried with him a “music box”, an example of the akkordion patented on June 6
1829 in Paris by the Viennese Cyril Demian ( a month before Sir Charles Wheatstone patented the
concertina). The sound of this instrument probably pleased all the Soprani family, but it fell to
nineteen-year-old Paolo, a boy cut out for the life of a tradesman, strong and probably talented
musically, to snatch the secret of that "box " that the others didn‟t fuss over. Initially it seemed
unimportant that the instrument ended up in the hands of Paul: some say that the pilgrim donated it
in thanks for the their hospitality, or they may have bought it from him, but whatever happened, in
no time, while the rest of the household slept, the lad took apart the „instrument‟ and studied it. This was a bit like modern industrial espionage! The fact is that from what he found out, it didn‟t
take long for this peasant to start the Italian accordion industry. (In Italy they don‟t actually call it
an accordion – they call the piano-accordion a fisarmonica and the diatonic button box organetto.)
The intuitive Signor Soprani managed to revolutionise life in the Marche region, transforming the
local economy from one based on agriculture to an industrial one with an international market.
In 1864, with the help of his brothers, Paolo started an accordion workshop in the wine cellar of his
own homestead, then later, needing more space, they moved to a small outhouse hoping to recruit
some more workers. The first accordions were sold in the fairs and the markets of the nearby
regions, especially in Loreto, directly from the efforts of the enterprising Paolo (he took his
products there on horseback), and he was the first to leave the family group. He was familiar with
the busy centre of Castelfidardo and opened a factory there in Piazzetta Garibaldi: that was in 1872.
Earlier pioneers such as Giacomo Aluni in Umbria in 1850, Giacomo Cingolani of Recanati in1856
and Lorenzo Ploner from Trieste in 1862 started making concertinas, but they never became the
economic force that Soprani was to achieve in Castelfidardo. In 1876 Mariano Dallape started to produce considerable quantities of accordions at Stradella, near Pavia, in 1886 Giovanni Chiusaroli at Recanati and Sante Crucianelli again at Castelfidardo in 1888 followed on. The last decade of the th19 century saw an extraordinary growth of new workshops including the Scandalli brothers at Camerano and Antonio Ranco at Vercelli, whose brands remain among the best today.
Of Paolo‟s brothers, Settimio opened up a workshop in Via Cavour, Castelfidardo. Paschal, instead, moved to Recanati which remains today another major centre for accordion manufacture. The first true centre responsible for the spread of the instrument in Italy, was most likely, as I have said, Loreto, which was a meeting place of pilgrims, travellers and traders. The instrument was received with lively interest by the people and its sound cheered their spirits most of all at the popular festive dances, and so the accordion became established as a favourite instrument for traditional dance music. As soon it was distributed to other regions the demand multiplied. The accordion was introduced to Sardinia when Soprani visited that island, where he was received with great honours. They began to receive orders also from France and other countries, and in particular from the Americas where the sound of the exported Italian accordion created great nostalgia for the thfar-off homeland, just as the fiddle or pipes did for the Irish. Towards the end of the 19 century
they began the export of the accordions to other continents.
The accordion is an instrument very close to the heart of generations of Italians and has become so too for the Irish. The modern instrument is a masterpiece of fine mechanics and of fluid dynamics, consisting of some hundreds of pieces built from a variety of materials including fir, maple, mahogany and walnut woods, metals such as steel, hard aluminium and brass as well as felt and cloth, lamb‟s hide, kid and leather, celluloid, rubber and virgin wax.
In order to satisfy the increasing number of orders, both local and distant, it was necessary to increase the work force, to carry out a business plan of the work system and source more
components as required by increased production. Paolo, with his own sons Luigi and Achille, decided to open a new factory in the tree-lined Avenue Umberto, at Castelfidardo. In 1900 the
company had a great triumph at the Paris Exhibition, the pioneer Sopranis becoming members of the Academy of Inventors of Brussels and Paris, and being received at the Elysee Palace by the
French President, Loubet.
From Manufacturer to Public Administrator: On 2nd August 1905, Paolo Soprani was elected
mayor of Castelfidardo. He remained in office for approximately 9 years, until the 28 July 1914, when he was 70 years old. During his term he dedicated himself constantly to public administration, pushing for the improvement of the living conditions of the people and for building development in the town. He is credited with building a huge park in memory of one General Cialdini and the self-educated Soprani dedicated himself with passion to the study of economic and social problems. Over the years he also found time to become, not surprisingly, a very competent player of the button-box or organetto.
He was also seriously interested in agricultural issues, not surprising in view how much he had connection with the world of farming, and he foresaw the need for legislation in the field of the professional education of young people. The testimony of the versatility of Soprani, can be seen in a pamphlet printed by Brillarelli in September of 1915, entitled "For Economic and Moral Regeneration of Italy", which defines his spiritual legacy. A man ahead of his time, Paolo Soprani, continued working hard until he died in his large house in the tree-lined Umberto Avenue on 20 February 1918, at the age of 73 years. He was succeed by his sons Luigi and Achille . Today Paolo Soprani is universally recognised as the founder of the Italian accordion industry. Many consider
him the true inventor of the modern instrument. In support of that, the Government reporter from the Academy of Industrial and Exhibiting inventors in May 1899, wrote of Soprani:
"The factory of the Signor Paolo Soprani and Sons was founded in 1864. Its customers restricted before to the province of Ancona, have little by little increased and today are scattered all over the world. The accordions of Soprani are sold in Africa, in Asia and in America, France and Germany. The accordion has been late to achieve acceptance in polite society because of its noisy and slightly discordant sound and, perhaps, because it was looked at too much as an instrument of the working class. But thanks to the continuous studies and perseverance of Sr. Soprani and his sons, this instrument has developed to such degree of perfection that anyone with a little study can play most sophisticated pieces for you. The mechanical developments that Sr. Soprani and Figli apply to their accordions, render this the sweetest and most harmonious instrument, although it emits powerful and strong sounds, even like a church organ: all the sounds can be regulated as required. Thanks to the efforts and support from their colleagues the many craftsmen and producers as well as good distributors, their accordions have found acceptance in the best houses and with who knows how many aristocrats in many countries, being found suitable to accompany the pianoforte or violin, especially for dance music.
Finally the Soprani accordion is today as fashionable as the pianoforte or the other instruments of the greatest craftsmen, but that will not amaze our friends and readers when they know that our colleagues Sr. Paolo Soprani and Figli employs more than 400 workers, men and women, and that the export of the products of this company, whose marketplace is the world the, provides all the wealth of Castelfidardo alone ".
1953 was undoubtedly the year of the largest expansion of accordion production and marketing. The instruments exported during that year from Italy totalled 200,000, and a similar quantity was exported from Germany. Today the instrument has thousands of fans all over the world and has become acceptable at all levels of society.
The Irish Box
The Paolo Soprani 2-row button boxes came to dominate the Irish traditional music scene after WW2. Previous to that, a popular brand among traditional players seems to have been the Baldoni. Many pre-war boxes were really melodeons, and even when 2-row instruments began to be more widespread, they were commonly played melodeon style “from the outside row in” and were tuned e.g. D/C# (Joe Derrane) or D/D# (Johnny Leary). There were also boxes tuned to G/G# and C/C#. The common tunings nowadays are B/C and C#/D, with the higher range being on the inside row. Paddy O‟Brien (Nenagh) is credited with popularising the B/C instrument and his uniquely smooth ornamental style of playing, from “inside row out”, became almost a national standard for many
years. Paddy is supposed to have started on the B/C about 1937, before which he probably played a G/G# box. The C#/D tuning has been favoured by players from the South-West of Ireland, particularly for the slides and polkas to which this type of tuning gives a special dynamic (“punchy”) sound compared to the more flowing style which the B/C makes possible).
Apart from Paddy O‟Brien, early popularisers of the two-row accordion in traditional music were
Bill Harte, Sonny Brogan (B/C) Joe Cooley (D/D#) to be followed on by the likes of Joe Burke, Kevin Keegan, Kieran Kelly, George Ross, Martin & Brendan Mulhaire, sure the list is endless…….but they have all played Paolo Sopranis at some stage.
The Soprani company of Castelfidardo happily fed the demand for 21 and 23-button Irish boxes of whatever tuning and a number of different models have appeared down through the years, all with 8 bass buttons (see photos). There were a succession of grille designs and logo changes which help
to date the approximate year of manufacture. They also supplied very adequate piano accordions in
the sizes 34 to 41 piano keys with between 72 and 120 basses The original factory sound was a
strong tremolo/musette (the „wet‟ sound) achieved by tuning some sets of reeds slightly „off‟. The
„low‟ or „heavy‟ reeds on a 4-voice box and one of the „middle‟ or „light‟ sets of reeds are normally
tuned to standard concert pitch. The other middle reeds are then tuned one slightly higher than
concert and one slightly lower. The amount of „off tuning‟ is commonly measured in cents
(hundredths of a tone) and about 12-15 cents would give what is called “swing” tuning, whereas
20-25 cents off would result in a really “wet” musette sound. Interesting variations in tone can be
achieved by tuning the higher set a slightly different amount “off” from standard compared to the
lower set. The reeds are set in blocks of wood which rest on the „soundboard‟. In the earlier boxes
this soundboard was made of wood, more recently they used metal soundboards. It is thought by
some players that the wooden soundboards could handle a wetter tuning better than the metal ones,
which is one reason why there has been a move towards a “drier” sound in recent years.
Many modern players of Paolo Soprani accordions have their boxes re-tuned for a drier sound, with
hardly any off-tuning, which also reduces the volume and makes the instruments less dominant in
sessions….which is good or bad depending on whether you like accordions or not ! The most
popular Paolo Soprani button box for Irish players has been the 2-coupler, 4-voice/3voice “Elite” model, which provides the best compromise of weight v power with a choice of two sounds, low or
high-pitched. There are 3-voice no-coupler models and also 4-voice 9-coupler models which some
players deem to be the most solidly-constructed of the range, but heavy to play. While the most
common colour was red, there are also grey, blue and black examples in circulation. In recent
years the new instrument market has been dominated by lighter, drier-sounding boxes from the
likes of Castagnari, Saltarelle, Serenellini, Mengascini, Bertrand Gaillard and Irish makers: Cairdín
(Pat Clancy) and Kincora (Martin Connolly). Irish-American box-player Jim Coogan has been
importing into the US from Italy, a custom-made Paolo Soprani look-alike accordion under the
brand name “Boxeen”, which has found favour with players who prefer an older-style box. In 2004
the Dublin accordion dealer Sean Garvey introduced a replica 1950‟s aluminium grill Paolo Soprani which is being sold as the “Jubilee Model”. The jury is still out as to the reletive merits of
these re-incarnations of the classic boxes.
The German Hohner black-dot 2-voice and 3-voice boxes cater more for the beginner‟s end of the
market, although some experienced players favour „souped up‟ Hohners which have had some
modification to the button action and the tuning, for a light lively box. Newer Hohners are
produced in China and some players think them not to be quite so robust as the older German-made
Paolo Soprani Today
Demand for the Soprani company‟s products declined in the late 1970‟s, production dropped off
and some say quality started to suffer. From 1982 or thereabouts their boxes were made under
licence by Dino Bafetti, who also markets good button-boxes under his own name, and by
Menghini. Baffetti originally bought the Soprani brand name, but later sold it - not to Menghini but
to another company SEM, who have their instruments made by Menghini. Recently SEM was
absorbed into CEMEX (Excelsior) who now own the brand names Soprani and Scandalli and who
will now be the only accordion factory in Italy who can produce a whole top-class accordion in-
house. It is expected that bodies for other „Italian‟ accordions will be sourced in China from now on.
The industry is serviced by specialist reed-makers who use imported Swedish steel and hardly any
accordion factories have an in-house reed maker or even a tuner. Reeds are at the heart of a good
instrument and they come in various grades: hand-made (mano – the best), tipo-a-mano (hand-finished or second-grade) and “export” (basic quality). Unfortunately the quality varies from one
workshop to another and one man‟s tipo-a-mano may be another‟s mano. There are still many good
Italian accordion factories but they must all now rely on outside suppliers for some of the semi-
finished and finished parts and assemblies that they use in their products…….all the „boxperts‟ say,
especially regarding Paolos: “If you want a good one, look for an old one”
The original Paolo Soprani company which breathed life into Castelfidardo and gave us the classic
Irish button-box is no more. There is thus a thriving second-hand market, and good older
instruments fetch big prices out of all proportion to their original cost. Models from the 1950‟s and
1960‟s are the most sought after as some types have lower-set buttons and a lighter action making them easier to play fast. I personally know of several which changed hands for over $1500 in the
past year. As you will see at any pub session, céilí or Fleadh, the button accordion in its many st Century and in spite of the variety of forms is still at the heart of Irish traditional music in the 21
new makes now available, for many box players an old Paolo is still the instrument of choice.
Thanks to all those who supplied me with inspiration, information and illustrations for this article
including James McElheran (Antrim), John McGurran (Belfast), Pat Diamond (Derry), Jim Coogan
& John Nolan (USA), Han Speek (Netherlands), the Commune of Castelfidardo, the International
Accordion Museum, Accordions Worldwide, and members of the IrishBox Internet Group. All
illustrations used with permission.
Some Internet Sources of accordion information:
Accordion Museum: www.comune.castelfidardo.an.it/Visitatori/ Fisarmonica/fisa_index.htm
Han Speek‟s Irish Squeezebox: http://www.xs4all.nl/~hspeek/irishbox/
Jim Coogan‟s Box Office: http://members.aol.com/jimattheboxofc/
Chris Moran‟s Button Accordion: http://www.buttonaccordion.com/ Gerard Dole‟s Accordion History: http://membres.lycos.fr/accordionstory/
The Button Box: http://www.buttonbox.com/
Urs & Monique Nydegger‟s Swiss Folkmusic: www.folkmusic.ch/ Irish Box Discussion Group: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/irishbox/
Accordions Worldwide: http://www.accordions.com/museum
Seán Garvey: http://www.allaboutaccordions.com
Accordion Internet Links: http://www.accordionlinks.com/
Seán Quinn, Glens of Antrim CCÉ, Sept 2004