Although, more or less, we think we know all the musical instruments, it’s not really like that. Throughout history there have been many, many, only a good part of them fell into disuse and were relegated to oblivion. But we are not referring only to other times but also to this one. In times as recent as the 19th century there was a Belgian musician who had the happy idea of replacing wood with brass and inventing new instruments, one of which made his fortune and survives to this day, the saxophone. Have you ever wondered why it is called that? Because of its creator, Adolphe Sax.
Antoine-Joseph Sax, which was his real name (Adolphe was just a nickname), was born in Dinant, a beautiful town on the banks of the Meuse River, in 1814. The same year that Goya painted his famous May 3rd Shootings, George Stephenson presented his locomotive and French troops left Spain, allowing Ferdinand VII to return, while Napoleon was exiled to Elba and Hispanic America was boiling in its first emancipation movements.
His parents, Charles and Marie-Joseph, were musical instrument makers, so it was they who instilled the hobby in their son who, by the way, was not unique because he would be the first-born of no less than ten siblings. Antoine-Joseph – Adolphe was only a nickname – started working in the workshop very soon and proved to be a worthy successor. The Sax had a certain prestige for having brought about some changes to the French horn, in addition to introducing new materials in manufacturing, such as brass. A dozen patents and several exhibitions supported this creativity.
Antoine-Joseph took his first steps in creation by devising a pair of flutes and a clarinet when he was still a teenager, as he had studied both at the conservatory and when playing he noticed certain imperfections that he strove to correct. Using ivory to make wind instruments, he discovered that they sounded better and this gave him early success at the Brussels Exhibition, giving him confidence to go on and redoubling his dynamism, which had already put him through many hardships.
As a child, he was on the verge of misfortune a few times, to the point that his own mother, who had lost seven of her children, was convinced that one day she would lose him too. No wonder, considering that he swallowed pins and crystals, was burned by an explosion, had to be rescued half-drowned from the waters of the Meuse and fell from a third floor, among other tremendous vicissitudes to which, obviously and surprisingly, he survived.
The fact is that so many vicissitudes must have stimulated him and, showing off that verve, at the age of twenty-four he registered his first patent, for a bass clarinet. Two years later he presented several instruments of his invention at a national exhibition that not only earned him unanimous applause but also a gold medal, which was not awarded because he was too young, and he was given the silver one; he angrily rejected it.
In that effervescent stage came 1841, a date that should be historic because he was working on a new type of brass instrument and it was in that context that he manufactured and publicly presented the saxophone, which he had already devised in 1838, patenting it in 1846. This line of work would not end in Belgium but in Paris, where he moved with his father when the family went through a financial rough patch. They set up their workshop in a modest place, a simple shed at 50 Rue Saint-Georges, where Antoine-Joseph brought out more models which were a considerable success among professional musicians and were generically known as saxhorns.
Saxhorns combined wind and metal and were characterized by one mouthpiece, three valves and a cup-shaped finish. They bore a certain resemblance to flugelhorns and euphoniums, being the predecessors of the current tubas and horns. Sax patented them in 1845 but other manufacturers claimed to have developed them earlier, which led to a long series of lawsuits and trials that made his life miserable and led to his bankruptcy three times, in 1852, 1873 and 1877. But he always got back on his feet and eventually won every case. A good example is how he transformed his humble workshop into a large company with a hundred employees.
Although saxhorns were designed for bands rather than orchestras and it was the famous Distin Quintet (a quintet composed by the British family of the same name) that popularized them, first on an European tour, then in the U.S., some composers were also seduced by their soft and novel tone. The most outstanding were Jacques Fromental Halévy and, above all, Hector Berlioz. The former was eager to incorporate the saxophone into the orchestra and it was he who recommended Berlioz, one of the great masters of musical Romanticism, to contact Sax. Indeed, they met and the next day the musician published a glowing press article about the saxophone. As it was signed by Berlioz, it had notable repercussions and the surname Sax became a reference in the sector.
Of course, the saxophone was not an only child, since it was accompanied by three other siblings: the saxhorn, the saxtuba and the saxotromba, which differed in the thickness of the piston valves and were patented between 1845 and 1852. This metal family had several variants -depending on the number of valves- but, in general, none of its members enjoyed such a wide acceptance as the saxophone or the saxhorn and hardly any original copies have been preserved. Although the orchestra of the Paris Opera used these instruments between 1847 and 1892, when Sax was its musical director, the military bands were the main users.
This was possible, in part, because the Ministry of War organized a band contest whose result was to determine whether to change the instrumentation to Sax models or to keep the old one. The event took place in the Champ de Mars in the spring of 1845, with Sax conducting some thirty musicians as opposed to the forty-five of his opponent, Michele Carafa, an Italian opera composer. The twenty thousand spectators acclaimed the first one and from then on the French army changed musically, just as later the British army did too.
That was the triumph of saxhorns that, together with the saxophone, entered the orchestras and Berlioz had a high degree of responsibility in this. The French composer incorporated them from 1844 in several concerts and in 1858 (parallel to the appointment of Sax as director of the Paris Conservatory) he premiered the opera Les troyens, in which the saxhorns play a prominent role, especially in the Marche troyenne. Wagner would also reserve some moments of The Ring of the Nibelung and The Gold of the Rhine for them.
However, although the saxophone became a common instrument, in 1870 it was banned from teaching and would not be recovered until the 1940s. In the meantime, Sax continued to invent instruments and to perfect those he had already made: application of keys and pistons to diversify the timbre of the brass ones, chromatization by means of cylinders… It is more surprising that his imaginative capacity was not limited to this field but extended to music in a broad sense (in diverse matters such as acoustics, notation, composition, etc.) and even outside it (an unprecedented system of cleaning public establishments).
In another of those misfortunes that had frightened his mother so much during his childhood, between 1853 and 1858 he suffered from lip cancer, which, of course, he managed to defeat; in fact, he had a long life of eighty years, something unusual at the time. In spite of his curriculum and his awards (including the Legion of Honour), he died in 1894, in poverty, and was buried in the Cemetery of Montmartre with his relatives. The company was left in the hands of his son Adolphe-Eduard and continues to exist today, although under a different name.
Sources: Adolphe Sax and his saxophone ( Leon Kochnitzky) / From the Clarinet D’Amour to the Contra Bass. A History of Large Size Clarinets 1740-1860 (Albert R. Rice) / The saxophone (Stephen Cottrell) / The history of the flugelhorn (Greg Brass en Greg’s Brass History Page) / Wikipedia