The accordion was the stalwart staple of spiritualist encounters in Victorian London. Introduced into séances by the Scottish American Daniel Dunglas Home (1833–86), the most celebrated medium of the era, the instrument was typically used to produce music without the visible aid of a performer (what I call the “spirit accordian”). This article seeks to explain why the accordion came to capture the imagination of the nineteenth-century spiritualist community. It does so by reconstructing the auditory culture in which the instrument was embedded, relying on scientific writings, the popular press, and the sonic experiences of both the spiritualists, who heard the spirit accordion as emitting the ethereal tones of other worlds, and the skeptics, who described the same sounds as grating squeaks. Linking the instrument and its role in the séance to eighteenth-century theories of neurophysiology, the article traces the spirit accordion’s various musical predecessors, arguing that Home’s canny selection of the instrument to represent the next world reflected the intersection of specific cultural signifiers.
Séances, “Sperrits,” and Self-Playing Accordions: Musical Instruments in Victorian Spiritualism
Carmel Raz leads the research group “Histories of Music, Mind, and Body” at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Music Theory, 19th-Century Music, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Current Musicology, Journal of Sound Studies, and SMT-V.
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Carmel Raz; Séances, “Sperrits,” and Self-Playing Accordions: Musical Instruments in Victorian Spiritualism. Journal of Musicology 1 April 2021; 38 (2): 230–259. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/jm.2021.38.2.230
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