Reviews of Celebrated Polkas by Pietro Deiro


JOURNAL OF THE SOCIETY FOR AMERICAN MUSIC (2009) Volume 3, Number 1, pp. 119-121.

    To many people the pairing of the words “accordion” and “polka” evokes images of men in lederhosen performing at Midwestern beer halls. The names that we recall of the people who helped the accordion (and the polka) take root in every mid-twentieth-century American living room are often limited to the overexposed Lawrence Welk and his younger colleague Dick Contino (he of “Lady of Spain” fame). Thankfully, a recent compact disc recording by Henry Doktorski will draw public attention to the origins of the accordion’s “Golden Age” in the 1910s and 1920s. The composer featured on this album, Pietro Deiro (1888-1954), was a founding father of the piano accordion in America and one of the first to perform that instrument in public—the self-proclaimed “daddy of the accordion.” Yet he remains unfamiliar to all but students and aficionados of the accordion. Although the polka is familiar to most people, Deiro’s compositions in the genre reflect a style and sensibility that is likely to sound exotic to a modern listener. The titles of these pieces, “Twinkle Toe Polka,” “Polka Bohemienne,” “Pasta Fagioli,” and “Vivacity Polka,” immediately evoke the forgotten pleasures of turn-of-the-century musical Americana, suppressed in the postmodern cultural memory. This music may seem dated, but its aim was instant gratification, and it still delivers.

    Celebrated Polkas is the creation of accordionist Henry Doktorski, a concert accordionist and instructor of accordion at Duquesne University. He is also the founder of The Classical Free-Reed, Inc., a journal and web site devoted to the accordion in which he has published articles and reviews. As this CD is the first of a series of recordings of Deiro’s repertoire, we can look forward to future volumes of waltzes, marches, foxtrots, mazurkas, pasodobles, rumbas, Spanish dances, boleros, characteristic dances, preludes, six grandes etudes de concert, six overtures and three concerti. Doktorski’s success in generating interest in the works of Pietro Deiro’s equally famous brother and rival, Guido (1886-1950) and the early history of the piano accordion in America can also be measured by Doktorski’s recordings of Guido Deiro’s music and a six-CD set he issued on the Italian label Bella Musica, containing the original 78 rpm recordings of Pietro Deiro’s works.

    The accordion Deiro played on the 78s would have sounded much different from the modern piano accordions. The older accordions had no tone chamber, and they were equipped only with low and middle reeds. There were no piccolo reeds (the high reeds used in many modern accordion models). The older accordions were “dry-tuned,” in contracts to the “wet” tuning of the musette accordions, with their distinctive vibrato resulting from pairs of reeds tuned a microtone apart. These features of early accordions would have given Deiro’s instrument a lighter, brighter sound. Those accustomed to the sound of the accordion in French or Italian music will therefore be surprised at what they hear in this album. Although Doktorski plays a modern Victoria Emperor accordion, he succeeds in re-creating the style and feeling of early accordion music. The present-day associations of the accordion were once (and, where I live in upstate New York, are still) with bands, dance halls, and state fairs, a visible and wholesome expression of communal American values. The moral virtues of accordion playing were stressed in the overwhelmingly successful advertising and door-to-door marketing campaigns of accordion manufacturers in partnership with accordion studios throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. It is the accordion’s potential to be a highbrow, classical instrument and its symphonic, indoor concert-ready character that Deiro (and Doktorski) aim to establish.

    This recording focuses on a single type of piece, the polka, as interpreted by a Euro-American musician at a particular moment in American culture. One is struck, however, by the variety of moods and ideas that can come across in up-tempo duple meter, from the sunny and cheerful “Caresse Polka” and the lyrical “Celestina Polka” to the humorous “Mother’s Clock Polka” and the all-too-short “Rhapsody Polka.” Several of the pieces come from Pietro Deiro’s method books: The Master Method for the Piano Accordion (1937), Bellow Shake for the Accordion (1937), and The Little Accordionist, vol. 3 (1937).

    Celebrated Polkas will be especially appealing to American music scholars, both for the emphasis on the polka and for the liner notes by Doktorski himself. Doktorski reminds us of Deiro’s significance, first, in the vaudeville and theater circuit and, later, in a more elevated role, contributing to the growing reputation of the accordion in classical musical circles. An interested listener would appreciate a more detailed booklet with more information about the sheet music as well as the types of techniques, such as the bellow shake used by Deiro (and other pioneering accordionists) for the accordion and for this style of music in particular. Photographs and a list of sources pointing the reader to the growing discography and bibliography on Deiro also would have been welcome. Given the rarity with which these polkas are heard, an average performance would have been worthwhile. Yet Doktorski plays with outstanding precision and polish, depth of sound, and a theatrical flair that remain without peer in the accordion field. The recordings approximate perfection, with an excellent balance of deep bass and bright treble that is difficult to achieve when recording the accordion.

    In the 1940s a rear guard of professional accordionists (including Deiro himself) waged ward against “inferior” music (singling out the “Beer Barrel Polka”) and stated their mission to “elevate” the accordion. Their weapons were quality arrangements, compositions, and recordings such as Deiro’s polkas. They continued in their mission until the rock ’n’ roll revolution changed the American musical landscape forever. However, the accordion is once again in the public eye, and so perhaps other musicians and listeners will soon discover this trove of once-ubiquitous and still delightful music. By reintroducing us to classical polkas, and encouraging others to play them on accordions, Doktorski has not only entertained us but “elevated” us as well.

Marion S. Jacobson
Assistant Professor
Department of Arts and Sciences
Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences
Albany, New York


    I must admit that when I returned to the accordion after being away from it for almost 40 years, I thought I would never play a polka. I felt that the polka limited both the image and the potential of the accordion. Before long, though, I found myself playing polkas because they are fun.

    The polkas presented here by Doktorski are both interesting and fun. Each has its own personality, and Henry brings all of his classical training and finesse into play to bring their personalities to life.

    I must admit that my favorite is the Celestina Polka. Someone once said that nobody has done for the polka what Astor Piazzolla did for the tango. While that is true, I think that Henry's interpretation of the Celestina Polka is a step in that direction. People complained that one could not dance to a Piazzolla tango. Well, one could not dance to the Celestina Polka either. It plays—in fact toys—with the tempo and breaks the polka mold.

    As mentioned above, Doktorski brings his classical training to the interpretation of these polkas. His phrasing is a delight and his choice of registrations add variety to the selections. I look forward to the release of The Complete Works of Pietro Deiro Volume 2.

Robert Stead
Detroit, Michigan


    When I began accordion lessons my grandfather called the accordion a squeezebox and my early renditions of polka melodies were often done without music charts and usually in the key of “C.”

    Using the term squeezebox when writing about Henry Doktorski’s latest CD, The Complete Works of Pietro Deiro, Volume 1: Celebrated Polkas, is almost sacrilegious. Doktorski’s mastery of the instruments, dedication to musical perfection, and complexity of melody and bass interpretations makes me appreciate my uncle’s (my accordion teacher) work trying to make me a true accordionist.

    Doktorski’s interpretation of this 21 track collection of Pietro Deiro produces everything from a march tempo on Forbidden Polka, to the magical fingering of Rhapsody Polka, to the short and simple lines of Polish Polka.

    Pyramid Polka highlights Doktorski’s combination of bass and right-hand combinations to give the song its own identity and demonstrates both quality of timing and excellence of musicianship. In several selections the listener can revel in the unique aspect of a stand-alone performance, reminiscent of a time when accordionists would be on a theater stage as a solo act, amazing the audience with their music and skill.

    Henry Doktorski’s career accomplishments fill pages. . . . With all this and more to his credit, there is one basic concept that surfaces after listening to this recording by this accordion great. Henry Doktorski loves music and enjoys sharing it with you, the listener, his audience.

Steve Litwin
Polka Editor/Associate Editor
Polish American Journal
World Concertina Congress Hall of Fame inductee - 2004
Buffalo, New York


    Hello Henry:

    I received your CD and played it on my LIVE show last night. I wanted to let you know that I had quite a response from my listeners. I’ll be more than happy to play any future releases you send me.

Jim Kucharski
Program Director


    All I can say is WOW!!!

Andy Citkowicz
Host of "Polka Party"


    Henry, very impressive performance and CD. I will feature it and two other new releases on my Monday evening 9 p.m. Eastern time program, next Monday March 27. Very nice music. Thanks for sending it to me. I’m sure our audience will enjoy it.

Ray Zalokar
Program Director

Halland, Sweden

    Your playing is really very clear and you really make a fine contribution to preserving the old accordionmasters. I am looking forward to future volumes of Pietro’s playing.

(Nephew of Carmen Carrozza)
Chappaqua, New York

    I am immensely enjoying your Guido and Pietro Deiro CDs! Bravo!

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