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Accordion Verhasselt

aerophone

The accordion probably reached Belgium around 1830, shortly after its introduction in Paris. The oldest Belgian image showing an accordionist dates back to 1839. This is the portrait of a girl by the painter Prosper Dumortier (Tournai 1805 - Brussels 1879).  The little girl holds a very simple accordion on her lap, possibly a French-made instrument for children.

The history of the Belgian accordion really gets going in 1840. In January of this year La Revue musicale belge publishes the first of a series of advertisements announcing the lessons given by " Mr Verhasselt, tutor at the school of religious music, Petite rue des Dominicains, 22, in Brussels. (...) The teacher will provide accordion methods books and scores, as well as instruments". In March, the magazine announced that Mr Verhasselt had  just published his own method book. 22 (Petite) rue des Dominicains or rue des Prêcheurs - a street located a few steps from the Théâtre de la Monnaie - can therefore be seen as the cradle of the Belgian accordion. This is where the instrument presented here comes from.

On the label printed on the bellows, we read F. Verhasselt / Professeur. / Facteur d'instruments. / Rue des Dominicains 22, Bruxelles. A handwritten signature on the reed case gives the same information : Fr. Verhasselt, facteur et / professeur, rue des Dominicains 22 à Bruxelles. It is, therefore, one of the very first Belgian accordions. It is also the most refined of the three Verhasselt instruments kept at the Mim. Particularly noteworthy are the delicate copper alloy inlays and the mother-of-pearl lion heads on the melodic keys. The museum's other two Verhasselt accordions come from the same address (inv.1989.001) and from number 15 of the Vieille Halle aux Bleds (Blés), or Old Cornmarket, a little square in the heart of Brussels where Verhasselt settled in 1843 (inv.1991.067).

Verhasselt presented himself as a maker, which does not necessarily mean that he made his instruments entirely by himself. Like his Parisian colleagues, he probably assembled his accordions from parts purchased in specialized workshops. He also devoted himself to the construction of this other free reed instrument, new at the time: the expressive organ or harmonium. In addition, he sold all kinds of other instruments, whether or not manufactured or assembled in his workshop.

Just like all early accordions, this is a single action instrument. This means that each key gives two different sounds or chords : one when the bellows are pushed, the other when they are pulled. On these first instruments, the double row of melodic keys and the accompanying keys are on the same side of the bellows. There are two accompanying keys : one producing two low bass notes, the other two chords. On the other side of the bellows is only the air key. Unlike later accordions, these first instruments are not held upright on the knees, but with the keyboard upwards. The upper hand thus plays the melody and the accompaniment, while the lower hand  only operates the bellows and the air key.

These luxurious objects were played in the salons of the well-to-do. They were typically a gadget for dilettante music lovers. Only about forty years later, the accordion would become, in a more accessible version,  a real folk instrument (see the instrument of February 2015).

The Mim obtained this exceptional instrument in 2016. The other extant Verhasselt accordions have all been found in the Brussels region. Remarkably, this one comes, from a yard sale in the area of Saint-Jean-de-Soudain Isère department, France), the buyer's place of residence.

A thorough clean-up, as well as the reconstruction of some missing parts, restored the instrument to its original lustre.

Wim Bosmans

Bibliography

Hubert Boone,  Accordeon en voetbas in België.  Leuven: Peeters, 1990.

Hubert Boone, L'accordéon et la basse aux pieds en Belgique. Louvain, Peeters, 1993.

Paul Raspé, 'Verhasselt, François' in Malou Haine & Nicolas Meeùs (red.), Dictionnaire des facteurs d'instruments de musique en Wallonie et à Bruxelles du 9e siècle à nos jours. Liège/Bruxelles: Pierre Mardaga, 1986, p. 439-441.

La revue musicale belge, 1 (1840).

Media
Images: 
Prosper Dumortier, Jeune fille avec petit accordéon, 1839
Accordion, François Verhasselt, Brussels, 1840-1842
Accordion, François Verhasselt, Brussels, 1840-1842
Accordion, François Verhasselt, Brussels, 1840-1842 (before restoration)
Accordion, François Verhasselt, Brussels, 1840-1842 (before restoration)
Accordion, François Verhasselt, Brussels, 1840-1842 (before restoration)
Accordion, François Verhasselt, Brussels, 1840-1842 (before restoration)
Accordion, François Verhasselt, Brussels, 1840-1842 (before restoration)
Accordion, François Verhasselt, Brussels, 1840-1842 (before restoration)
Accordion, François Verhasselt, Brussels, 1840-1842 (after restoration)
Accordion, François Verhasselt, Brussels, 1840-1842 (after restoration)
Accordion, François Verhasselt, Brussels, 1840-1842 (after restoration)
Accordion, François Verhasselt, Brussels, 1840-1842 (after restoration)
Accordion, François Verhasselt, Brussels, 1840-1842 (after restoration)
Accordion, François Verhasselt, Brussels, 1840-1842 (after restoration)
Accordion, François Verhasselt, Brussels, 1840-1842 (after restoration)
Accordion, François Verhasselt, Brussels, 1840-1842 (after restoration)
Accordion, François Verhasselt, Brussels, 1840-1842 (after restoration)