in From the Archives

Art music for the accordion

by Harri Kuusisaari

Instead of struggling to defend the accordion, Mika Väyrynen is now raising its status by commissioning compositions.

In just a short space of time a generation of professional accordion players has emerged in Finland that has made the instrument a force to be reckoned with in the world of art music. Mika Väyrynen has become that generation’s leading figure. He thinks the best way to promote accordion music culture is to commission new works.

I would like to stop struggling to defend the status of the accordion once and for all, and concentrate more on the instrument itself,” says Mika Väyrynen wearily. ”I am tired of having to apologise for my instrument the whole time. After all, the instrument is a minor consideration: it’s the music that’s most important.”

Professional accordionists in Finland have had to make enormous efforts to break down prejudices, and it has taken a long time for the accordion, which is mainly associated with popular entertainment, to become a respected art music instrument.


Matti Rantanen’s work as the first accordion teacher at the Sibelius Academy played a major part in this. Mika Väyrynen is one of the first accordionists there to have obtained a doctorate in the subject. He continued his studies in Paris under Max Bontany, and also became acquainted with Russian accordion culture on courses he took with quite a number of teachers there.

Technically virtuosic accordion music reached its zenith in the Soviet Union, where the instrument was highly regarded. A lot of new works were written for the accordion there too, works which are underrated now,” says Väyrynen.

In France, on the other hand, the accordion tradition has been very different. It has always been a kind of subculture. The accordion was only recently accepted as a subject for study at the Paris Conservatoire,” he points out.

Väyrynen’s international career was given a boost when he won first prize in the Coupe Mondiale competition in Lucerne in 1989. He has been awarded prizes in international competitions eight times in all, and has sometimes given up to around 70 concerts a year.

Now Väyrynen has slowed down a little, partly owing to the fact that he has three small children, but also because he wants to concentrate on quality rather than quantity. Commissions and first performances have been an important feature of his artistic life,

A larger repertoire

Accordionists obviously cannot avoid playing arrangements, as there is no original music written for the instrument before the 20th century, but in my opinion we rely on them too much. So why not try and increase the instrument’s own authentic repertoire at the same time?”

Väyrynen has had pieces composed for and dedicated to him by Jouni Kaipainen, Tuomas Kantelinen, Olli Kortekangas, Timo-Juhani Kyllönen, Petri Makkonen, Matti Murto, Juhani Nuorvala and Leif Segerstam. He is giving first public performances of solo works by Kirmo Lintinen and Jouni Kaipainen at the beginning of next year [2004]. Pehr Henrik Nordgren is writing an accordion concerto commissioned by Yleisradio. A new work by the young, Tampere-based composer Paavo Korpijaakko, will be heard at the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival in a couple of years’ time, and Väyrynen has also discussed collaborations with the Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür and Aulis Sallinen, among others.

The biggest problem with commissioning new works is the continual search for the funding, but I’ve been lucky enough to get grants for good causes from various foundations and institutions. More often than not, collaborations start off with me giving the composer an hour-long lecture on what the accordion can and cannot do, and then I leave it up to him or her.”

Old habits die hard

The accordion is young in terms of being an ‘art’ instrument, and there is much yet to be discovered in its powers of expression. But who has the more important role in developing these, composers or musicians?

I would say that the composer’s creative imagination is the start of everythin, and the musician’s job is to find the best way to realise the new ideas. The most stimulating ideas often come from composers who are completely without any practical experience of the instrument”, says Väyrynen.

The composers I have worked with have found quite different ways of relating to the accordion. Jouni Kaipainen wrote a piece that is extremely demanding both musically and technically. Juhani Nuorvala got interested in both the minimalist and grotesque aspects of the instrument. Tuomas Kantelinen treated it like a string trio in the Romantic period.”

As examples of works well suited to the accordion but which differ considerably in terms of style Väyrynen mentions Magnus Lindberg‘s Jeux d’anches and Sofia Gubaidulina‘s classic work for the instrument, De Profundis.

Learning from arrangements

Although I too have been critical of arrangements I have to admit that they teach you what the accordion can do in general. I don’t believe there is anything really new to discover anymore when it comes to ways of playing the instrument. At one stage the accordion was being treated like an organ, but fortunately that idea was soon abandoned. We cannot compete with other instruments: we have to discover the accordion’s own distinctive sound on a scale ranging from intimate chamber music to the rich textures of a full orchestra.”

Väyrynen is a master of this sound world, as his recently issued disc of accordion arrangements for Naxos demonstrates. He used to avoid playing the music of J. S. Bach because he felt Bach sounded better on other keyboard instruments. Now, however, he has got to grips with a huge project, Bach’s Goldberg variations. He will be playing this colossus of a work in various cities and recording it for Alba Records.

It is his opinion that accordionists are no less ‘authentic’ in interpreting the Goldberg variations than pianists. What kind of things, then, does the accordion reveal in the work compared to the versions for piano and harpsichord?

At least one of the accordion’s strengths is its ability to sustain sound. The very mechanics of piano or harpsichord often defines the tempo, which means you cannot conceive of playing the music very slowly because notes can’t be sustained for very long. Notes and chords can be held longer on the accordion and I’m not afraid of exploiting this. I also aim for clear articulation. The accordion is suited to polyphonic structures too: the two manuals make for much criss-crossing of voices and lines,” says Väyrynen.

Crossover with precaution

The crossover phenomenon is something the accordionist cannot avoid. Mika Väyrynen has been wary of it, however. He belonged to the Tango for Four ensemble, whose other players were Jaakko Kuusisto, Kalle Elkomaa and Jaan Wessman. He has also recorded works by Argentinian Astor Piazzolla with the Kuopio Symphony Orchestra.

Quite a few people these days are jumping on the Piazzolla bandwagon without taking a closer look at what his music is really about. Behind the music there is a very precisely drawn figure, a tough guy who loves and hates with a passion. The combination of unruliness and romance is what I find fascinating about his music,” he says.

Väyrynen is only just now becoming acquainted with the original instrument associated with Piazzolla, the bandoneon. Its primitive quality enthrals him, although he believes the bandoneon is no guarantee of authenticity in interpreting Piazzolla’s music. ”The modern accordion can produce the same effects in terms of sound and it is more versatile and better designed ergonomically.”

Is there anything in the pop history of the accordion that the classical player could be inspired by? ”Sometimes I feel I would like to forget the instrument’s whole painful history, with its TV competitions and ensemble playing,” Väyrynen confesses. ”I’ve had enough of trying to prove that there is a lot else it can do.”

Translation: Spencer Allman

This article was first published in FMQ 3/2003.