The inventor of the predecessor to the modern chemnitzer concertina was Carl Friedrich Uhlig. Uhlig was born in April, 1789 in Chemnitz, Germany. He was an accomplished button accordion musician who modified that instrument’s design to construct what he called a ‘concertina’. These first models had hexagonal or octagonal shapes with five treble buttons and five bass buttons, two tones on each button, for a total of 20 tones or keys.
Henrich Band, a music teacher and bandmaster in Germany, played one of Uhlig’s concertinas in his town band in the 1840s. By this time, Uhlig had evolved the concertina into a square instrument with 28 buttons, or 56 keys.
In 1850, Carl Zimmerman from Carlsfeldt, Germany, manufactured 56-key concertinas for export to the United States. The musicians who played these instruments typically arranged their own music, and without standard sheet music available the popularity of the concertina spread very slowly.
The first chemnitzer keyboard and notation were developed in 1854 by a committee chaired by Carl Uhlig. It is thought that the group adopted a system that was originally developed by Henrich Band in 1846.
By 1875 the chemnitzer concertina keyboard had been modified to 38 buttons or 76 keys. By extending the instrument’s range it could be used in bands as well as played solo. Gradually the keyboard was expanded to 94 keys, and by the end of the 19th century the 102-key concertina had been developed. Eventually, the keyboard was expanded to 104 keys, and this became the most popular model of chemnitzer concertina used in the United States. Other keyboard systems, such as Albert Nechanicky’s 130-key design, are seldom used today.
The Chemnitz area in Saxony, Germany lies close to Poland and Czechoslovakia. Musicians from these countries spread the chemnitzer concertina and its music among their friends and neighbors. In the early American history of the chemnitzer, the instrument was played primarily by people with Polish, German, and Czech heritage. As these musicians moved to other parts of the country they extended the instrument’s popularity nationwide.