No instrument is more associated to the Jazz than the saxophone. It
is a relatively new instrument that was invented by Adolphe Sax in 1942. The Jazz is one of the new music
expression of the 20th century, so no wonder that the Jazz musicians has adopted it unanimously.
Although made of brass, the saxophone is a member of the woodwind family and as
a single reed instrument it is closely related to the clarinet.
Most of the clarinet players are doublers and the saxophone entered the Klezmer bands and orchestras
as an alternative or a companion to the clarinet. The saxophone may thus have a place of honor in a clarinet and
Klezmer dedicated site. Versatility, eclecticism and pragmatism are qualities that can apply to many topics.
Clarinet klezmer is no exception
The saxophone is named after his inventor, Adolphe Sax. Few people in the world
history had their name universally recognized. That is the fate of this genius man born in
Dinant , a lovely little town in the south of Belgium.
Here is the story:
The History Of The Saxophone-The Life Of Adolphe
Dinant is among other things known for its characteristic product, the hammered plate of yellow
copper, named "Dinanderie", molded into various shapes.
A man was needed to make the delicate alchemy and metamorphose those artistic pieces of metal
into a sonorous and aesthetic curved musical instrument.
In the beginning of the 19th century, Charles-Joseph Sax, lived in Dinant and was a well known
manufacturer of brass and woodwind instrument. After the Battle of Waterloo (1915) he took his family and
established his trade in Brussels, the capital.
Antoine-Joseph (Adolphe) Sax was born in Dinant on November sixth 1814, the
first of 11 children.The little boy was very gifted and as the apprentice of his father he learned very quickly his
father's craft. Soon he was familiarised with the woodwind and brass instruments. He studied at the Brussels's
conservatory, became a very good flautist and clarinetist. As an adolescent he already manufactured some nice
instruments, like flutes and clarinet made of ivory. At the age of 20 he invented the bass clarinet as it is known
nowadays. He developed this new bass clarinet after the M?ller clarinet using the Boehm
moveable rings system.
Although the young Adolphe Sax had already a well established reputation amongst fellow musicians,
Belgium was too small for his ambition, and he left Brussels for Paris, the capital of the European culture.
The path to glory for the genial inventor was not paved with roses, like every great man he had to
confront jealousy, envy, wrath, rivalry, critics, indignation and even hatred from his colleagues who saw in his
genial creativeness a threat for their personal career.
And unfortunately, he also had the gift of putting himself into trouble and make unnecessary enemies.
Years after his death, lawyers and jurists were still in court trying to solve the juridic imbroglio he bequeathed.
Even as a child he managed to tumble down the stairs, bump his head on a stone, swallow a pin and drink in poison
instead of milk. He escaped the death on many occasions.
The first patent for the saxophone was registered on 21 March 1846, but it is
reasonable to think that Sax invented the saxophone quite earlier, circa 1842.
Hector Berlioz, the French composer, became a good friend of Sax, and no doubt that
he was a great support. The article Berlioz wrote about the Sax invention was a real turning point in the Belgian
The two men met in Paris. Sax exposed to Hector Berlioz all his ideas and concepts about his invention and his
plans. Berlioz listened to the presentation but did not say a word. At the end of the conference he murmured to Sax
"tomorrow I will let you know what I think about your invention"
The famous Berlioz's article on the saxophone family of instruments was published on 12 June 1842, in "Le
Journal Des Debats" and it was a pleasant surprise for Sax to read the dithyrambic an eulogistic article that the
great composer wrote over a number of columns.
The music of Hector berlioz was sometimes the subject of polemic and criticism but as far as musicology and
musical knowledge was concerned , he was an indisputable authorithy This was for the inventor the beginning of a
new and prolific life. However as we already mentionned the path to glory was not paved with roses and he lived a
quite tormented life having to defend his inventions and protect himself against the trickeries of his numerous
Adolphe Sax, the multi-faceted man, the genial inventor, the inspired composer, the talented performer was
finally introduced throughout the musical circles and met all the great composers of the 19th century.
On June 22, 1846, the patent for the construction of the saxophone was finally granted to Sax after years of
struggle against calomny, and denegation. Thirty-five patents were granted to Sax during his life, some for
improvements of existing instruments and some for the creation of new family of instruments.
On April 13,1851 Berlioz wrote about the saxophone:
"The Sax's masterpiece, the saxophone, possesses incomparably expressive qualities;
the accurity and the beauty of his sound -when played by a skilled musician- are such that it can, in slow
movements, compare with the best singers. The saxophone sighs, moans and dreams. it can render a crescendo and at
the same moment can weaken its voice to a dim whisper like a distant echo.In a few years, when the saxophone will
become an accomplished fact among performers, composers will be able to produce, thanks to this admirable
instrument, effects unknown until now."
About Sax himself Berlioz wrote:
"C'est un homme d'un esprit p?n?trant, lucide, obstin?, d'une pers?v?rance ? toute
?preuve, d'une grande adresse, (...) ? la fois calculateur, acousticien, et au besoin fondeur, tourneur et
ciseleur. Il sait penser et agir; il invente et il ex?cute. "
As one may think, Sax is the inventors of four family of musical instruments.
The saxophone family has seven members: sopranino,soprano,alto,tenor,baritone,bass and double bass. Some of
them are nowadays obsolete.
The saxophone is in fact a kind of marriage between brass and wood, the genius of Sax was to imagine a parabolic
cone brass horn whose sound will be produced by the vibrations of a reed, creating a loud but sweet sound,
imitating a deep bowed instrument, bringing timbre unknown until then.
The saxophone, an hybrid betwen woodwinds and brasses is the instrument that was needed to balance the tonal
disparity between the wind instruments and the string instruments. In fact, the strings and the woodwinds were
being overwhelmed by the brasses.
The solution was to adapt the body of a brass intrument with the mouthpiece of a woodwind instrument. Sax set
his idea one step further adopting a parabolic cone which according to the accoustic laws defined the
characteristic timbre of the instrument.
I quote the words of Sax (in French), an excerpt of the patent description:" un
instrument qui par le caract?re de sa voix peut se rapprocher des instruments ? cordes, mais qui poss?de plus de
force et d'intensit? que ces derniers"
It took time for the saxophone to be fully accepted and for its musical potential to be fully exploited by the
composers of those days. I can mention a few great composers who contributed to its renown, Berlioz of course,
Halevy who was a close friend of Sax, Meyerbeer who founded the "Great Opera" in Paris, Bizet,
Donizzetti, Massenet, Wagner, Delibes, Puccini, Glazunov, R.Strauss, Ravel, Debussy,
Tchaikovsky, Charpentier....Pierre Boulez...Bill Clinton! and many others, the classical saxophone repertoire
is vast and rich in musical treasures.
We know very little about Sax private's life. We have no record of a marriage but we know for sure that he had a
companion, Louise-Adele Maor who died at the very young age of thirthy. She gave him five children, among them was
Adolphe-Edouard who contined his father's business "Adophe SAX et Cie" until it was taking over by Selmer in
Aside from a few adjustments and improvements the present saxophone is like Sax has conceived it. It is an
ergonomically well designed instrument which suits all kinds of music, all cultures and people sensibilities. Its
universality reflects the humanity of its creator. It is an instrument with an human voice, the voice of an
anticonformist man who fought against the odds to establish his beliefs and convictions.
After having escaped the death a countless time, after a life of struggle and hard work, a life of artistic
creativity, genial inventions and invaluable contribution to the music, Adolphe Sax died in Paris 0n 7 February
1894. He rests now in peace in the Montmartre cemetery.