Paolo Soprani (1844 - 1918) - Grandfather of the Irish Box ?

(by Seán Quinn   (   The text and a few of the photos were first published in the November 2004 issue of the Comhaltas magazine Treoir)
Text only file HERE

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.

P.Soprani - portrait

Above: Signor Paolo Soprani, mayor of Castelfidardo and founder of the Italian Accordion industry.
(Commune of Castelfidardo)

The Legend
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.

The pilgrim carried with him a "music box", an example of the akkordion patented on June 6th 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.     NEXT >>

Demian Accordion

Demian's original accordion


Old Soprani melodeon
(Commune of Castelfidardo)