Hello everyone! I am back! I handed in my Part IIB Project today and am free as a bird until my final presentation next week. So I thought that I would indulge myself by writing a blog post, and as it happens I have a genuinely riveting topic to talk about. Yes, it is indeed, the third instalment of “Inside and Out”, the blog series for melodeon nerds and pretty much nobody else, and today’s topic is the Schwyzerörgeli.
The Schwyzerörgeli (or Schwyzerorgeli or even Schwyzeroergeli if you are searching for it on google with an English keyboard) is a type of button accordion from Switzerland. Most Schwyzerörgelis are bisonoric and diatonic, like the melodeon. That’s different on push and pull and based around diatonic scales, for people who aren’t down with the lingo. They are rare in the UK, but Ian Cruikshanks, noted BCC# player and band leader from Scotland has one and has been kind enough to answer my questions and take lots of photographs.
The Schwyzerörgeli is the latest in a number of generations of Swiss accordion. They started off, like most accordion traditions, with a simple one row melodeon, and from this developed a three row box and then to the current instrument. I might talk about this evolution in a later post, so stay tuned.
Eagle-eyed viewers will have noticed that there is a trend in these articles for miniaturisation. My first post was on my own Super-Preciosa (arguably the smallest 2.5 row 2 voice), the next was on Malcolm Woods’ Sibylla Brand (arguably the smallest 3 row 2 voice) and we now have the Schwyzerörgeli, which I would put to you, hypothetical reader, is a contender for the smallest 3 row 3 voice.
This particular example has bellows dimensions of 28cm by 19cm. This is small, as high as a pokerwork and only 4cm wider. And it has three reeds for every note, laid out MHH. This is part of its secret – it is tiny because it is an octave above most British three voice boxes (although it is also a fourth lower in pitch, so this isn’t as painful as you might think). The tuning is A/D/accidentals, as demonstrated by this diagram.
Proceeding as usual then, let us first look at the exterior. The first thing to note is that the 4cm extra width from the pokerwork is really quite obvious. This is a wide box and some might not like this. I suspect that you notice this a lot less when you are actually playing, partly because of the second thing to note. This is that the fingerboard is placed part way up the treble fondo, presumably to improve ergonomics. The problem with this is that there will be some reeds whose sound will be obscured by the fingerboard, making their sound muted compared to the rest. The degree to which this would happen depends on which reeds they are. But this is a problem in other instruments – the best three row boxes, such as the Shand Morino (which I would love to have a play on) have three rows of buttons in two rows of pallets to avoid a muted inner row.
There are 18 bass buttons, arranged in two columns, bass and major chord, with the notes upside down from the way that they would be on a standard Stradella box (i.e. descending fifths rather than descending fourths). The plane of the bass buttons is very different from the convention. Most accordions (as opposed to concertinas) have the buttons acting downwards, i.e. perpendicular to the action of the bellows. Indeed, that it is a definition of the accordion as opposed to the concertina. Instead however, this instrument has a rake of around 30 degrees from the vertical. I think that this would be a more comfortable hand position for the bass end, as lots of people (especially those with smaller hands) find dealing with the angle of buttons on the standard melodeon an issue. Obviously though it would result in a completely different mechanism and sure enough, it is.
It took me a little while to work out what was going on here, but basically it is a reed sharing mechanism on a completely different basis to the standard Stradella mechanism. Firstly, note the wooden plate at the bottom of the photo. This hides a rack of 12 axles, one for each note. Each axle has a lever arm attached to it which operates a pallet, which may be opened directly by the chord lever, as the photograph on the right might show if you look carefully. In addition, each axle has at least one additional lever which is activated by another chord lever.Each chord lever lifts up three pallets, two directly and one by an additional lever. The reeds are arranged in descending fifths, meaning that the additional lever activates the thirds reed.
The bass lever firstly directly activates the bass pallet, but also links to the chord reed. This is mechanical linked bass, the same concept as in the Preciosa. I think that this mechanism is really rather pretty, especially the view on the left, with the sculpted lever arms. However, I hear you cry, what is on the other side of that fondo? Well, the prettiness doesn’t stop here.
The reeds are arranged in lines of 12, which can be seen from the mechanism. Unusually though, the reed layout consists of two flat reed pans and two angled pans (I’m calling them pans because they are constructed like pans, not blocks). These pans appear to be glued to the fondo. From left to right in the photo on the right, we have the bass reeds, the tersette, the medium and the high. Note that each of these pairs of reeds is activated by a single pallet – meaning that each bass button activates four reeds (with the linking) and each chord button activates six. This gives the instrument a punchy and powerful bass. I think that this reed layout is the prettiest that I have ever seen and I would expect it to work exceptionally well. The hook in the middle by the way is the gravity operated bellows lock. The other part of this is attached to the bellows frame on the other side, see here for a picture. This is an elegant solution, albeit not quite as elegant as that of the Preciosa.
Now when I saw the picture of the treble reed layout I’ll admit that my mouth dropped open. I hadn’t and still haven’t seen anything else like it. Rather than blocks and pans, what we have here is a “reed box”, essentially a number of pans mounted perpendicular to one another to form a closed box. This is frankly amazing, not least because it appears to work! No beautifully graduated chamber sizes here, they appear to be regular, rectangular and shallow, like harmonium chambers.
That isn’t the strangest thing though. Oh no. The strangest thing is that on this 10/11/10, three voice instrument, there are 88 reeds organised into 6 ranks of flat mounted reeds, three of 11 reed plates, one of 12, one of 13 and three of 10. Eighty-eight reeds by three is not divisible, nor indeed by 31. There are, in fact, 5 reeds missing. Basically, none of the sums add up on this instrument. And things just get worse when we open it up. Now we get a look at the mechanism, which it turns out fills the entirety of the inside of the reed box.
Cool, huh? This looks pretty well indecipherable, but I think I’ve got to the bottom of it. This is the inside of the reed box, which shows how small the chambers are and incidentally, how small the pallets are. Much more like concertina pallets than melodeon ones. Quite pretty really. The top of the picture on the right corresponds to the long edge of the box furthest away from the body, to get you orientated. The two axles, with the black spacers, are the two main axles of the action. The round headed pallets are opened by the red wheels pressing down on the free end of the lever. If you look carefully, the levers attached to the red wheels have a sculpted arm bending upwards (click on the image for a larger version). This opens the pallets for the topmost pan. We can therefore conclude that the round headed pallets control the air to both of the side pans (meaning that the two ranks on the side pan share a single chamber?), and that pressing one button causes the side pans and the topmost flat mounted pan to receive air. Since there are 11 reeds on this row, we can conclude that these reeds correspond to the middle row of the instrument.
A similar argument works for the lower axle and pallets. These pallets are larger, perhaps to compensate for the muted quality which the offset fingerboard will bring. Again they have an arm bending down, one which I presume activates a pallet in a similar way to the red wheels inside the box. Since there are 10 reeds on these ranks, I conclude that these reeds correspond to the outermost row of buttons (since that is the most important row out of the two remaining).
Finally, we can look at the two flat mounted ranks on the top of the box. There are 25 of these in total, for 10 buttons unaccounted for (remember that we were missing 5 reeds?) and they are activated by the sheathed levers that jut out into the middle of the box, on the same axle as the round pallets. It doesn’t take much to appreciate the simplicity in this mechanism, as it is a simple straight lever.
The photo above shows the pallets for the topmost ranks. Note that the pallet on the right (the lowest note) and the four pallets on the left (the four highest notes), deliver air to two reeds, whereas the remainder deliver air to three. So here are our missing 5 reeds, the lowest and the four highest notes of the inner row. By the look of things they are MM, but I am by no means sure of that. Getting this thing in the right orientation from the pictures is a bit of a nightmare.
The photo to the right is of one of my famous Engineering Diagrams, undecipherable to all but a chosen few. It shows how I think that this mechanism works. Hopefully one or two of you will be able to interpret it! Click for a larger view.
So what can we conclude? This is an amazing instrument, no doubt about that. It is innovative in the extreme in the way that it mounts reeds, on both ends. Its mechanisms are pretty and elegant. It is small, distinctive and I think rather cute. So the final question is: What about the sound?
Appropriately, it has a sound quite unlike any other box I’ve ever come across. Judge it for yourself. This is a video of this very instrument in the capable hands of Ian, who I’d like to thank again for patiently photographing it for me so many times.
EDIT: Ian has posted another recording on soundcloud, which gives a better idea of the sound of this instrument. It is two Orgelis multitracked, together with the bass+MIDI of a Shand Morino.
If you are interested in this instrument, then many more pictures may be found here. If you think that you can add something to this post then please do get in touch. I hope that I am now up and running again with this blog, so please do keep an eye on it. Updates roughly once a week on whatever is buzzing round in my brain. I have a few ideas for this series, there are at least three more in it, but again, if you have an interesting instrument that you would like to see here then please do get in touch using the contact page.
p.s. I am playing at Loughton Folk Club tonight, that is Thursday 31st May. Hope to see lots of you there, please do come and introduce yourselves.
p.p.s If you have read this far down, here is a reward, a video of the construction of these instruments.