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To the Heights of Parnassus Obituary: Marcel Azzola died on January 21st

Mar 2

Written by: Del Meyer
03/02/2019 6:06 AM 

France’s most doughty champion of the accordion was 91

The Economist | Print edition | Obituary | January 26th 2019

THE HISTORY of the accordion is not a happy one. For decades serious musicians have mocked it as the discordant, breathy, vulgar voice of peasants, clowns and fairground hucksters: an endlessly jovial or sentimental repertoire of folksy tunes. The wheeze of this “piano with braces” has become the sound people dread to hear in restaurants or at railway stations, accompanied by the hopeful chink of coins in a hat. So when Marcel Azzola was asked, in September 1968, to play his accordion to accompany Jacques Brel, the great Belgian chansonnier, at a recording of his song “Vesoul” (listen here), he was hardly surprised by a line in the lyrics: “I can’t stand accordions.”

But of course he played, because he liked Brel, with whom he sometimes drank a beer or two after recordings. And he unleashed such a torrent of notes, at such speed, to illustrate the potential of his own instrument to dazzle as well as annoy, that Brel was astonished. “Chauffe, Marcel, Chauffe!” he cried, in that voice raddled with ennui and four packs of cigarettes a day. Hot it up, take it away. The phrase passed into the language, and after that Mr Azzola, to his surprise, found himself famous.

He had always been a great player, but in the background way of many accordionists, in concerts or in film. His playing accompanied Edith Piaf in “Sous le Ciel de Paris”, especially in “L’Accordéoniste”, where “this strange little guy” with his “long wiry fingers” got under the singer’s skin; and Jacques Tati, as Mr Hulot, riding his Solex in “Mon Oncle”. His sound, therefore, had already woven itself into the consciousness of France. But apart from “Vesoul”, which he later turned into a solo concert piece, he was not a grandstanding player. His style was modest, impulsive and intense, full of concentration, but also touched with wonder, as though the instrument he played every day could still surprise him. He was less fond of its festive, glittery mood than of its quieter register. Although he was friends for 60 years with André Verchuren, “the king of the accordion” in its street guise, that sharp, discordant quality, “anti-musical” to his ears, did not truly appeal to him. His aim was to take the accordion very much higher up the slopes of Parnassus, towards serious respect.

“Noble” was a good word: the noble tradition, since the 19th century, of Italian immigrants settling in France, bringing their accordions with them and setting up workshops to make more. His own family were immigrants, from a village near Bergamo. His father, a builder, was also a once-a-week mandolin-player, and put young Marcel on the violin first, like his sisters. But accordions were plentiful in the mean streets of the 20th arrondissement, and he soon switched over. Some of his favourite instruments, Crosios and Cavalognos, came from the old workshops. His teachers, too, Attilio Bonhommi and Médard Ferrero, were Italian émigrés. Ferrero’s method for accordionists was as celebrated as Czerny’s for the piano, and he found in him all the seriousness of classical musicianship, even without a classical repertoire. Ferrero dedicated to him his “Mazurka du Diable”, as if he already anticipated breathtaking turns from him.

Nonetheless, the main point of a young man learning the accordion (as his father kept telling him) was to earn a living, and this he just about did round the brasseries and dancings of Paris, becoming a player of the people’s accordion despite himself. He grew expert at transposing favourite classical pieces to the accordion, as drunken customers requested them. For years his recordings on the Barclay label were of popular tunes and chansons; his producers told him that customers expected only that from his box of bellows and reeds. But he never ceased taking in other, more fascinating styles. From the jazz clubs he frequented he soaked up bebop, swing and a whole new universe of improvisation for the accordion, until he was playing for Django Reinhardt and with Stéphane Grappelli. A stand-in gig led to a chance encounter with tango, which so enchanted him that he bought a bandoneon, though he could barely afford it, to study it himself.

The accordion and its variants, he often pointed out, were honoured more in Argentina than anywhere else in the world. But he fought his corner in France, and it paid off. As a professor for 20 years at the national music school in Orsay, he campaigned mightily for accordion to be included as a course at the Paris Conservatoire. He had the delight not only of achieving that, in 2002, but of sitting on the jury that chose the first prof d’accordéon.

Rosewood and gold

If anyone felt that was not quite right and proper, he had only to show them his collection. He possessed dozens of accordions, many rich and rare. Most came from Parisian antique shops, some were presents; one, a small Crosio, was given to him by a taxi driver who would take it to play while he waited for customers. He displayed them in brass-framed glass cabinets, and online he gave virtual tours. All the latent nobility of the instrument was on display there: its ancient lineage, from Laotian and Chinese metal-reed pipes, and its aristocratic birth in the early 19th century, as an instrument for fashionable drawing rooms. These accordions had bodies of rosewood, tortoiseshell and walnut, inlaid with ivory, copper and gold; they bore mythical scenes and bas-reliefs of great composers. He would walk among them marvelling, stroke them, play them carefully, overjoyed and moved to make music on them. . .

On Brel’s last sea-tinged album, “Les Marquises”, Mr Azzola played again, this time in a different mode. His accordion could still sting, but was often softer, naturally taking its place within and alongside the woodwinds and the strings. And that was as it should be.

This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the headline “To Parnassus”

Categories: In Memoriam

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