Published: December 4, 2020
The Irish accordion first found its way into Irish traditional music in the late 19th century and has continued to evolve in style and popularity ever since.
The 1940s and 1950s saw a surge in traditional Irish accordion playing. One of the most popular accordions to emerge from this golden age was crafted by the iconic Italian accordion maker, Paolo Soprani.
Paolo Soprani accordions have been deemed as the reigning champion ever since.
How and why did traditional Irish musicians fall in love with these beautiful Italian instruments? Keep reading to find out why Paolo Soprani have captured so many hearts, and what makes them stand out to this day as the Rolls Royce of the accordion.
When the accordion first arrived in Ireland around 1831, it was an instrument exclusively for the wealthy upper classes. Over the following decades however, prices gradually decreased until accordions were accessible to the working and rural class. As a result, they gradually found their way into traditional Irish music.
What caused these declining prices? The simpler answer is increased production levels.
While originally a German invention, the Italian accordion maker Paolo Soprani first began making accordions in 1863 and quickly became the most popular and prolific accordion maker in Europe. How?
By 1905, though still making accordions by hand, Paolo Soprani was producing 1200 accordions a month. By 1913 the company was exporting thousands of accordions a year. By the 1950s, due to a large expansion of the company and its production line, the number of exports had increased to 200,000.
As a result, the market was flooded with high quality Italian accordions which found their way to the heart of the traditional Irish music world. But how did they find their way to Ireland? And what made them so popular in the world of traditional Irish music?
From Italian to Irish
By the early decades of the 20th century, accordions were readily available and in plentiful supply. Yet, up until the 1940s, the one row, 10 button melodeon was the most common ‘accordion’ found in traditional Irish music.
From the 1940s onwards however, the two row button accordion became the standard. Relatives visiting or returning home from the US and the UK arrived with these exciting new instruments in tow.
Two makes of accordion dominated the market at the time – the German Hohner and the Italian Paolo Soprani. It was Paolo Soprani however that became the favourite, for a number of reasons:
Handmade with High Quality
In the 1940s Paolo Soprani accordions were still handmade. This offered high quality production that was unrivalled by few other companies. It also offered consistency in the standard of the instruments being produced as they were handcrafted by expert makers rather than mass produced by machine.
These high quality accordions offered a strong tone and plenty of volume. This was ideal for accompanying Irish set dancers at house dances and céilís. The accordion became a firm favourite with dancers because of its powerful sound. Accordion players were in high demand and even those with just a few tunes under their belt were often called upon to play.
Fit For Purpose
Paolo Soprani recognised the popularity of the semitone tuning (B/C and C#/D in particular) in Ireland and Britain and crafted instruments designed for this market.
Playing an accordion designed for the needs of traditional Irish music is a much easier feat than attempting to navigate an instrument designed for a different style of playing.
While other European accordion makers were catering to the needs of classical button accordion players, or continental folk music styles, this Italian company saw the potential of the traditional Irish music scene and happily embraced it.
It may sound daft, but we know well that once something becomes popular it becomes propelled by its own popularity. In other words, all the greatest Irish accordion players of the time were playing Paolo Soprani accordions, so everyone else wanted to play one too.
Sonny Brogan, the grandfather of the Irish accordion and one of the earliest advocates of the B/C style of playing, played a Paolo Soprani. Paddy O’Brien another great early proponent of B/C accordion playing also favoured a Paolo Soprani. Joe Burke, Bobby Gardiner and Finbarr Dwyer are just a few more from a long list of iconic Irish accordion players who all owned Paolo Soprani accordions.
Naturally, those inspired by these great musicians wanted to emulate their playing and so, also favoured their instrument of choice. You can see one of these legends, Joe Burke, in action on his beloved Paolo Soprani box, below:
The Most Popular Button Accordion in Traditional Irish Music
In the 1940s the grey Paolo Soprani, as it’s commonly known, became the standard instrument in Ireland. This was the predecessor to the modern day Jubilee.
This 23 button, four voice accordion produced great volume and a full, rich tone.
By the 1950s, the red Paolo Soprani – the precursor to the modern day Elite model – had taken over. Its smooth, powerful tone and fast reed response made it the preferred model.
Some traditional Irish accordion players will argue that the earlier grey is a superior instrument while others will argue in favour of the red. It’s widely accepted however that both models are prime examples of the pinnacle of Paolo Soprani’s Irish button accordion production.
Both boxes offered a strong tone and ease of playability. Despite being relatively heavy, the powerful sound and volume produced by these accordions more than compensated. The streamlined eye-catching design also lent itself to their popularity. The only thing better than an instrument that sounds good is one that looks good too.
The Decline of Paolo Soprani
By the 1970s and 1980s, the golden era of Paolo Soprani began to decline. Some will argue there was a decline in production standards around this time, but it’s tough to know which came first – the drop in quality or the lack of demand.
Popularity waned for a number of reasons, but mostly due to changing tastes. The heavy, wet, tremolo sound typically associated with Paolo Soprani was going out of fashion. Irish accordion players began to favour dry or swing tuning instead for a crisper, brighter tone.
If a decline in standards did occur, it was most likely during the ‘80s and 90’s when others took over the reigns as alas, Paolo Soprani was to be no more.
The Very Best Vintage Paolo Soprani Accordions
The Paolo Soprani company ceased production in 1983. Though the name was sold on and licensed by other makers, the original Paolo Soprani company is no more. As a result, there is a thriving second hand market for their older instruments. Many accordion players will pay huge money to get their hands on one of these classic Irish button accordions.
If you’re seeking a second hand Paolo Soprani, models from the 1950’s and 1960’s are the most sought after. These accordions typically have lower-set buttons and a lighter action which makes them easier to play at speed. You’d be lucky to get your hands on one of these for less than €2500.
It’s worth noting that when you buy a second hand accordion you also inherit any problems that exist with that instrument. Depending on the condition of the instrument, reeds may need to be replaced and it may need to be re-tuned. It’s important to keep this in mind when buying a vintage accordion. Make sure it’s actually worth the price you pay.
New Paolo Soprani Accordions – What’s The Difference?
Okay, yes, if you’re being pedantic you could argue that new Paolo Soprani accordions aren’t actually Paolo Soprani accordions at all. By that logic however, as Paolo himself passed away in 1918, you could also argue that nothing produced since then would count as an original Paolo Soprani accordion. So let’s not dive down that rabbit hole.
Though Paolo Soprani potentially had a few years of questionable output, the accordions currently being produced are a return to form. The newly revamped Jubilee and Elite models are quality instruments. In fact, I’m so impressed with the new Jubilee that it’s even made its way into my Top Five Button Accordions for Irish Music.
These new accordions are lighter and more compact than their predecessors, making them easier to play. The bellows, in my opinion, also offer freer movement than some of the older Paolo Soprani accordions.
In addition to the size and weight, one of the main differences between the new and old models is the soundboard.
Vintage Paolo Soprani accordions were built with wooden soundboards, while their modern counterparts feature a metal soundboard. Wooden soundboards work better with wet tuning than metal.
As a result, the new Jubilee and Elite button accordions favour a drier tuning. While still creating a powerful sound, the tone is brighter. This is more in line with the sound of modern Irish accordion playing.
Pricing for the new Paolo Soprani Elite starts around €2,500 while the Jubilee IV costs upwards of €3,000. These newer models, while worthy investments will set you back a hefty amount. They can cost more than the highly coveted vintage models themselves.
If you’re looking for something a little more budget-friendly however, read on.
Luxury On A Budget
I’m not arguing it’s the equivalent of a Paolo Soprani. It might not be considered the ‘Rolls Royce’ of the Irish accordion world, but our McNeela Premium Wooden Button Accordion is a budget friendly alternative that will tide you over until you can get your hands on a coveted vintage Paolo Soprani. It will set you back just €1,250.
Though lower in price, the McNeela 3 Voice Premium Accordion doesn’t compromise on playability or sound quality. It’s designed with playability and affordability in mind.
This is a 3 voice, 23 button accordion that’s slightly smaller than the older Paolo Soprani models, and weighs less. It’s a well balanced instrument that’s easy to play. It features high quality Czech Tipo a Mano dural reeds which produce a strong, clear, bright tone and fast response.
Like any Paolo Soprani model it produces plenty of volume. The fingerboard and buttons also offer fast action and good responsiveness. The 8 button bass layout follows the Paolo Soprani layout – a tried and tested layout approved by the greats themselves.
A Different Aesthetic
While most people associate Paolo Soprani with their iconic grey or red pearlescent finish, this box is modelled instead on the popular modern Italian wooden accordions. It’s definitely a different aesthetic to the beloved Paolo Soprani, but the cherrywood frame is ornately decorated with intricate fretwork, making it a very handsome instrument indeed.
While it’s no vintage Paolo Soprani, the McNeela 3 Voice Button Accordion is a worthy investment, suitable for intermediate and advanced players alike. So why not try one today and see if it can impress you as much as our favourite Italian maker.