Adolphe Sax & His Saxophone

Jun 10, 2015

The history and origins of our modern instruments is the fascinating and huge topic we’ve been exploring over the last few weeks. Some, like the guitar, have a fairly clear heritage where the evolutionary steps are obviously moving towards our modern idea of the guitar. Others, like drums and other percussion instruments, have been with us, in every culture, since the damn of man, expanding rather than evolving. And yet others, like the piano you had lessons on as a child, are relatively new, sprouting something new from the mechanisms of other, only slightly similar devices. The instrument we will be exploring this week comes from that last group: the saxophone. While the saxophone was popularized during the big band, swing, and jazz eras of the 1920s and ’30s, its origin and evolution begin with the story of a man from Belgium, in the mid-1840s.

Born in 1814 in the city of Dinant-Sur-Meuse, Belgium, Adolphe Sax would grow up to create an instrument that would carry his name into history. With his father’s position as Belgium’s chief instrument maker, Adolphe was raised in a household where both his musical talent and inventive genius were nurtured and free to develop. In his youth, Adolphe attended the Brussels Conservatoire de Musique, where he studied the flute and clarinet under the watchful eye of masters, helping him to become a performer of incredible skill. However, Adolphe’s true passion was in mechanics, especially where it intersected with the art of music. By the age of 15 he had produced a clarinet and two flutes made of ivory, a feat thought impossible due to the difficulties of the material. A mere five years later, at 20, Adolphe had developed a new fingering system for the clarinet, and had completely reinvented the bass clarinet, turning what was a bland, awkward, and uninspired copy of the clarinet into the beautiful and majestic instrument we know today. His expertise wasn’t limited to woodwinds either; he is often credited as the father of the modern trumpet because he was the first to successfully integrate piston valves into what we would call the bugle.

As was custom for the time and place (and in line with his interests and talents), Adolphe followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a maker of musical instruments. In 1842 he moved to Paris, where he opened his own small workshop, and became intensely interested in the Opera. This interest led him to create the opera band, and in turn, design new and special instruments. It wasn’t long before his prowess as an instrument maker earned him a reputation as the best in all of Paris, which resulted in enlarging his living space and shop to accommodate all the orders we was receiving. It was during this boom in business that he put the finishing touches on his first saxophone.

Adolphe Sax had set his sights high when he first conceived of the instrument that would eventually carry his name. He set out to create a new instrument that had the power of the brass section, the grace and subtleties of the woodwinds, and the versatility of the strings. After some experimentation, he had his first working version in the early 1840s, initially calling it the bass horn. While Adolphe’s dream was that his new instrument would become a vital component of the orchestra, it would take a few years until it was even recognized by the musical community. In fact, it didn’t even receive its final name until a review of the instrument was published in the French paper Journal des Debats, calling it a “saxophone.” Finally, in 1846, after years of tinkering, Adolphe applied for, and was granted a 15 year patent which included an astounding 14 different versions of his saxophone, arranged into two sets of seven, one for the orchestra and one for military bands, each group ranging from the small soprano all the way to huge contrabass saxophone.

During the remainder of Adolphe’s lifetime, his prized creation enjoyed only limited popularity. A few composers, most of which were close friends of his, had begin to include saxophone parts in some of their orchestral compositions, but unfortunately Adolphe was destined to die well before he could see his creation help give rise to a musical revolution: Jazz.

While Mr. Sax’s ambition that his saxophone would become a key member of the orchestra still hasn’t been fully realized even today, he could never have imagined the impact this invention would eventually have on not just the musical community, but the culture of an entire country. By the end of the 1800s, regardless of the setbacks it had faced, the saxophone was becoming a staple for military bands and had begun to make appearences in mainstream popular entertainment when it started to show up at music halls and vaudeville shows. Even in the newly minted 20th century, it took a while for the saxophone to catch on, even through the advent of jazz in the ’10s and ’20s. At first, most jazz bands consisted mostly of brass instruments, like trumpets, cornets, and trombones, but as the 30s dawned, and a new wave of big jazz and swing bands came into the limelight, the saxophone finally found its place. People wanted to get up and dance, and during those years of jazz dance bands, the saxophone was perfect for those distinctive swing riffs and dense harmonies. Once the sax found its calling it quickly became the “face” of jazz, supercedeing the trumpet, cornet, and clarinet, and earning a standing that it still enjoys today.

One can only wonder what Adolphe Sax would think of where his creation has gone since his passing. The saxophone is often a part of modern orchestras, but unfortunately it still hasn’t achieved Adolphe’s ultimate wish. Despite that, the saxophone has come an astonishingly long way, from an idea in a young man’s head to the symbol of an entire musical movement. I for one think he can be proud of his accomplishment; it may not have achieved his goals, but it has certainly gone above and beyond anything anyone from the mid 19th century could have possibly imagined. Today the saxophone remains one of the most popular instruments in the Western world, and can be found making appearances in all kinds of musical genres, from classical orchestral pieces, to modern rock, pop, and hip-hop. You never know, it might only take a few saxophone lessons, and you could be the next step towards completing Adolphe Sax’s dream.