Click on photos to enlarge.
Nikolai Beloborodov ran a dye business in Tula. His father had been the manager of a rich man’s estate. His mother came from a family that had made its living working in the famous Tula armory factory. None of this gives us a hint as to why we remember Beloborodov today – which is because, in the first half of the 1870s, he invented the first accordion (button box, squeeze box) that was equipped with half-tones.
A paragraph on a very nice Tula-based website tells the story with both brevity and interesting detail:
“At the age of 11 he became fascinated with playing the accordion, for which endeavor he independently learned to read music. Possessing extraordinary abilities, he achieved notable success in his mastery of the instrument, but the primitiveness of the harmonies existing at the time severely limited his performing abilities. Therefore, in 1875 (according to other sources, in 1870) he commissioned a fundamentally new instrument from the renowned Tula master Leonty Alexeevich Chulkov. The novelty of the instrument consisted in the construction of a right-hand keyboard consisting of 23 keys, which included all 12 sounds of the chromatic scale.”
Still, apparently, the difficulties of the new instrument were such that it required further development. Beloborodov, who was now fascinated by new plans and ideas, did not continue work on the new instrument. At first his thoughts were occupied with the idea of putting together the first accordion trio – which he found relatively easy to do, since he took up one of the places, while his daughters Maria (Kuvaldina by marriage) and Sofya Beloborodova took up the other two places. Then he was inspired to create an entire orchestra of accordions. He gathered amateur musicians (for the notion of a “professional” accordionist was ahead of its time) and rehearsed them at his home on Sunday afternoons and evenings. All of them played on the new-fangled chromatic-scale accordions.
Ah, but our hero was not even close to being finished. Presumably somewhat taken aback by the roar of an entire orchestra of identical accordions – no matter how many half-notes they could play – Beloborodov began to realize that a whole array of different accordions was needed. As such, he commissioned the creation of a series of accordions “of different ranges and timbres: piccolo-accordion, prima-accordion, alto-accordion, cello-accordion, bass-accordion, and double bass-accordion” (I’m quoting from the same site). Even I, as I sit here and write 150 years later, can hear the drastic changes taking place in Beloborodov’s living room as he gathers each week with his musician friends. All of a sudden a monotonous wall of sound begins morphing into a nuanced pattern of sounds that begins to sound like sophisticated music.
And yet, and yet… Beloborodov was not done. Now that he had put together such a versatile combination of accordions, he began commissioning works written or adapted specifically for accordion or an accordion orchestra. Thus his orchestra was able to play not only sophisticated versions of folk music, but it could also play popular classical works by Mikhail Glinka, Franz von Suppé, Johann Strauss and others. When this greatly enlarged repertoire was not enough to satisfy Beloborodov, he began writing his own works. His “Fantasia” polka, “The Hunt” quadrille and his Waltz were, therefore, the first works ever written for chromatic scale accordion. If that wasn’t enough, Beloborodov also wrote the first instruction manual for this new instrument.
Once again, that Tula website provides a nice description of the orchestra’s activities:
“The orchestra’s first performance took place in the hall of the Tula Assembly of the Nobility in 1897. Further, the collective repeatedly demonstrated its skills not only in Tula, but also in Kaluga, Serpukhov, Aleksin, and Yefremov. Great events in the life of the orchestra were a concert at the Moscow Conservatory, a recording session, and, in the summer of 1893, a performance for Leo Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana, where the orchestra presented the great Russian writer with an honorary address and a membership card at the Tula Society of Music and Dramatic Artists.”
Beloborodov was born February 27, 1828 and he died December 28, 1912. He lived his entire life in Tula. His mother died shortly after he was born; his father wanted his son to be educated, but not too educated. He saw to it that a priest taught Nikolai to read in Old Church Slavonic, but one the pupil began making progress at that, the father stopped his education. He considered that that was enough to get him through life. His father also died when he was relatively young, and the young man set up his dye business in his home. It brought him precious little money and he and his family were often short of necessary funds.
The point here, of course, is the extraordinary nature of Beloborodov’s fascination with, and dedication to, his chosen – it was never really a profession for him, but rather more an obsession.
The plaque at the top of this post reads: “Nikolai Ivanovich Beloborodov (1828-1912), the inventor of the chromatic scale accordion, and the organizer of the world’s first accordion orchestra, lived in this building.”
This building, located at 16 Lenin Prospekt, was turned into a museum commemorating Beloborodov’s life and work in 1995.