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Music Memories: Happy Birthday to the Saxophone!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Saxophone inventor, Adolphe Sax

On June 28, 1846, the saxophone was patented by its inventor, Adolphe Sax. He had been developing the instrument for several years before the patent was issued, but the patent is as close as we come to having an actual “birthday” for any musical instrument.

Sax was born in Belgium on November 6, 1814. He was a remarkably accident-prone child, and nearly died on several occasions. He was badly burned in a gunpowder explosion, and again when he fell onto a hot frying pan. He survived both a three-story fall and a near drowning; most bizarrely, he was almost suffocated by the fumes from varnished items that had been stored in his unventilated bedroom. Sax survived so many childhood mishaps that his neighbors referred to him as “the ghost.”

He got his interest in instrument building from his parents, instrument designers who made important improvements to the French horn. Sax was entering his own instruments into competition at the age of 15. He studied flute, clarinet, and voice at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, and received his first patent in 1838, for an improvement to the design of the bass clarinet.

In 1842, Sax moved to Paris and began focusing his attention on newly created instruments. His first success came with the saxhorn, a type of valved bugle that became popular with military bands, and influenced the development of the modern flugelhorn.

Sax had begun work on the saxophone in the mid-1830s. The saxophone combined the ease and agility of wind instruments with the volume of brass instruments. Sax designed the instrument in nine sizes; today, the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone are the most commonly heard, and those four make up a standard saxophone quartet. The smaller sopranino and sopranissimo do not have enough volume for most concert needs; and the larger bass, contrabass, and subcontrabass are too large to be practical. The SATB quartet of saxophones was quickly adopted by French and British military bands, and that success helped Sax to get a job in 1857 teaching at the Paris Conservatory.

Sax’s patent expired in 1866, and other manufacturers began making modifications and improvements to the design. The last significant changes to the saxophone came in the 1940s, and its design has been stable since then. Sax spent decades in a series of legal battles over patents for the saxophone, and was forced to declare bankruptcy three times. He died on February 7, 1894, in total poverty.

The saxophone made its way to the United States after the Civil War, and was popularized by bandleader Patrick Gilmore, who not only added a saxophone quartet to his band, but featured them in concerts as a solo ensemble. In the early 20th century, the saxophone became a standard part of vaudeville and ragtime bands, leading to its prominence as a staple of dance music and jazz.

3 classical music album covers

Today, though, we look at the lesser-known use of the saxophone as an instrument in classical music. Concert music for the saxophone was being written even before Sax patented the instrument. Most of that first generation of music was written by French and Belgian composers who were friends of Sax. Jean-Baptiste Singelée composed what is believed to be the first saxophone quartet in 1857.

The international breakthrough of the saxophone began in the late 1920s and early 1930s when Marcel Mule and Sigurd Raschèr became the instrument’s first important concert soloists. Their popularity inspired major composers to begin writing for the saxophone. More than 200 pieces are dedicated to Raschèr, including Alexander Glazunov’s Alto Saxophone Concerto, Paul Hindemith’s Konzertstück (Concert Piece) for two alto saxophones, and Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera.

Because the saxophone is more firmly established as a member of the concert band than as a member of the orchestra, many of the concertos written for it are written for band. The album Martyrs for the Faith features four American concertos for saxophone and band; those by Ingolf Dahl and Paul Creston are among the standard concert repertoire for the instrument, and the concertos by David Canfield (whose piece gives the album its name) and John Cheetham are newer works.

The saxophone has only occasionally been given a role in the orchestra, in part because its use in pop and jazz gave it a slightly tawdry reputation in the orchestral world. When Ralph Vaughan Williams used it in his Ninth Symphony of 1957, his program note called it a “beautiful and neglected instrument,” but noted that in brass bands “ is allowed to indulge in the bad habit of vibrato to its heart's content. While in the orchestra it will be obliged to sit up and play straight.” The saxophone has also been given an orchestral home by such composers as Maurice Ravel (Bolero; his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition), Sergei Rachmaninoff (Symphonic Dances), and John Adams (City Noir).

In addition to the pieces linked above, much more classical music featuring the saxophone—concertos, sonatas, quartets, and other chamber music—is available for streaming and download at Freegal.