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New York City
December 2003

Adolphe Sax & the Saxophone

Adolphe Sax, born in November 1814 in Dinant on the river Meuse in Belgium, became a prolific inventor whose inventions included the saxophone, patented in Paris in 1846. It is one of the most instantly recognizable of all musical instruments and has for many years been inextricably linked to the jazz genre. The history of Sax and the origin of his invention provide an interesting story.

Adolphe's father, Charles Sax, at the age of fifteen, became an apprentice cabinetmaker in Brussels, and at this time he played a serpent (a now obsolete large wooden S-shaped bass wind instrument) in a local musical society. A serpent was an expensive instrument so Charles Sax made his own; a skill he would return to.

The advent of the machine age brought about a surge in the Belgian textile industry and Charles Sax took a job in a factory making cotton-spinning machines. Following Wellington's defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 the Belgian economy and the textile industry slumped, leading to the closure of factories and the loss of Charles Sax's job.

Charles Sax then returned to his previously honed skills and began to make musical instruments including serpents, flutes, and subsequently bassoons, clarinets and brass instruments. He even began making string instruments including pianos, violins, harps and guitars.

His son Adolphe therefore grew and developed in this environment of musical instrument manufacture. He began to be increasingly involved in his father's business and developed both as a craftsman and as a player of the flute and clarinet. He attended the Royal School of Singing in Brussels where he developed his playing abilities to a very high proficiency, particularly on the clarinet.

There are various theories as to why and how the saxophone originated. One belief is that Sax discerned a tonal gap in the Symphony Orchestra between the cellos and the brass section. It is possible to appreciate the success of bridging this gap when hearing the tenor saxophone solo line in Ravel's Bolero. Or perhaps it was Sax's efforts to find a bridge between the woodwind and bridge in a Military band. Another theory surrounds a search for a brass instrument with stronger volume dynamics than the wooden clarinet family. Whichever of all the theories is correct one thing seems certain; Sax was searching for a previously undiscovered sound either in timbre and or volume dynamics. No doubt he experimented with a number of different ideas but it is thought he finally combined an ophicleide (a euphonium-like sounding instrument) with a bass clarinet mouthpiece. The ophicleide, from the Greek "serpent and key," was invented in 1817. It superseded the serpent, and Sax had access to ophicleides in his father's workshop. The ophicleide was basically a bass keyed bugle and was a conical brass instrument with the brass cupped mouthpiece and replaced it with the single reed mouthpiece of a bass clarinet thereby creating a conical bore brass instrument with a single reed. The saxophone was born!

The first saxophone was a bass and subsequent models followed-eight models were patented in 1846. Now the following are available: sopranino and soprano (both usually straight but can also be curved), alto, tenor, baritone and bass. In 1857 Sax was appointed instructor of the saxophone at the Paris Conservatory.

Sax also made major changes to the keys and articulation of the bass clarinet much of which lasts to this day. He also manufactured brass instruments including the Saxhorn for Military bands and won large contracts for French Army Regiments. He was so successful, a number of attempts were made by rivals to spike his instruments prior to crucial military band competitions in the Tuilerie Gardens in Paris, and there were also assassination attempts, which gladly he escaped. However, he suffered multiple lawsuits from rivals who tried to steal his patents and towards the end of his life was in abject poverty. Chabrier, Massenet and Saint-Saens petitioned the Fine Arts Minister to come to his aid. He died in Paris in February 1894.

Adolphe Sax will always be remembered for his wonderful invention-the Saxophone. So, but for the Battle of Waterloo-where would Jazz be?#

Rodney Croft is a Consultant General and Vascular Surgeon in London, England. He is also a professional saxophonist.


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