Saturday, 17 March 2012

Garmoshka meets Schwyzerörgeli

Some subjects, even when you think you know them well, keep throwing surprises at you; and this surprise was two accordion variants I'd never heard of.

At the beginning of December, the Guardian's Eyewitness series carried an excellent photo of electoral officials visiting villagers - Eyewitness: Gryaz, Russia (5 December 2011, Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters - see zoom) - with a gentleman playing accordion in the foreground.

Angela Williams of Literary Places sent me a link to the Reuters Photographers Blog, An accordion for Ablogin, which tells of an unexpected spinoff to the photo. Maddalena Bucher, in Britain, noticed the shabby state of the accordion (the player's name is Vladimir Ablogin) and contacted Reuters to arrange to send him her late husband's accordion, a "Schwyzerörgeli" button accordion. It's an immensely kind gesture, and a good story.

However, there is a telling line in the Reuters account ...

the new instrument which he has yet to learn to play with the same virtuosity as his old Russian garmoshka

... and the pictures reveal the likely reason. Although both the garmoshka and Schwyzerörgeli are superficially similar button-key accordions, they have a very different configuration: Mr Ablogin's garmoshka has a two-row diatonic system right-hand keyboard, and the Schwyzerörgeli is three-row, with a fingering like the "club system". The order of the bass buttons of the Schwyzerörgeli is also the reverse of the usual Stradella setup on accordions.

It sounds a monstrous learning curve to switch between the two. I found switching from piano accordion to chromatic button-key accordion bad enough, but at least it had the advantages that the bass configuration was the same, and the right hand work was a clean break: the new keyboard bore little relation to the old. Then again, I do know musicians who seem capable of switching between different configurations of instrument (for instance, between bisonic and unisonic accordions). I really do hope Mr Ablogin gets on with the Schwyzerörgeli, because it does look (and sound) a very nice instrument.

"Garmoshka", by the way, is a diminutive of гармон ("garmon") / гармоника ("garmonika"); as with the Finnish "harmonikka", the Russian "garmonika" means accordion, not harmonica (an example of a linguistic false friend). "Schwyzerörgeli" means "Swiss accordion" ("örgeli" - accordion - is the diminutive of "örgel" - organ).

Addendum: This is a very difficult situation to analyse. Is this a very imperfect outcome being spun by Reuters as a feelgood story? Is it so good-intentioned a gesture that I should ignore the very real practical problems? (I do feel very churlish pointing them out). Is Mr Ablogin so poor that the generosity of the gift blows him away despite the downside that he most likely can't play the thing? I don't know.

- Ray


  1. I don't know Mr. Ablogin's financial status, but if the instrument he had been playing was in a "shabby stat", it would be to his advantage to obtain another instrument to play. Repairing these instruments is nearly as costly as buying a new one - $3-4000.

  2. It's my dream to someday obtain a Schwyzerörgeli. I would be the last one to ever turn down a donated one. They are nearly impossible to find outside of Switzerland where they originated in thetown of Schwyz.