The invention of the saxophone by the great Adolphe Sax

L'invention du saxophone par le génial Adolphe Sax
Perceived as the missing link between string, brass and woodwind instruments, the saxophone was born in the 1840’s. Adolphe Sax patented a range of eight saxophones in 1846 and in doing so introduced a unique instrument for use in both orchestras and concert bands. Despite immediate interest expressed by some of the greatest traditional composers of the early 20th century such as Berlioz and Rossini, it proved a great many years before his inventions truly hit the limelight.

The age of inventions

The 19th century was a time of landmark inventions in a number of sectors. In industry, technological audacity resulted in spectacular feats of engineering, not the least of which was the construction of the Eiffel Tower built for the World Exhibition of 1889. After the ‘century of lights’, the ‘century of progress’ bore witness to considerable technical development, particularly in the field of wind instruments. For example, the invention of the valve by Blühmel and Stolzel in 1813 –which was progressively applied to all brass winds – became the new mechanism that Théobald Boehm adapted for flutes in 1832. This mechanism was used again for the clarinet in 1839, and this inspired Adolphe Sax’s new family of saxophones, since the fingering which he worked out resulted directly from those of the flute and the clarinet.


Newcomer in the woodwinds

In 1840, Adolphe Sax (born Dinant, Belgium, November 6, 1814; died Paris, February 7, 1894) built an instrument with a low register that he named “Saxophon” that he planned to present in 1841 to the Commission of the Belgian Exhibition of Industry Products in Brussels. The bass saxophone is mentioned for the first time in the official catalogue of this same exhibition, but unfortunately Adolphe Sax did not have time to finish it. It would seem, however, that some version of Sax’s instrument was heard at this exhibition.

Later, during the French Exhibition of Industry Products, held May 1 to June 30, 1844, Sax again organized a presentation of his instrument. The instrument in question was the bass saxophone in Bb (which also exists in C), described as No 2 of the eight saxophones in patent No 3226 of 21 March, 1846.

The new saxophone of Adolphe Sax had a bore with a parabolic cone and a mouthpiece with a simple reed which, by making it smaller, had just been adapted into the body of the instrument. However, he did not content himself with just inventing the saxophone, nor did he restrict himself to only one instrument. He was always interested in developing a broader family, generally from six to seven members. His goal was to cover the largest number of registers and to encourage the incorporation of his instruments within orchestras. In 1843, he filed patents for a collection of six valved horns –better known as the saxhorns–, while in 1845 he patented seven designs for a class of instruments known as the saxtrombas. This was followed, in 1846, by his submission for patent of a full range of saxophones including eight members, and then, in 1849, the family of the saxtubas. In total, Adolphe Sax patented 46 inventions.



Adolphe Sax in Paris

In the autumn of 1842, Adolphe Sax settled in rue Neuve-Saint-Georges, Paris, in  small workshop which held up to 191 workmen in 1848, and which produced some 20,000 instruments during the period from 1843 to 1860. He very quickly made the acquaintance of Hector Berlioz, who was unstinting in his support and praise for Sax’s new instrumental ideas.

Berlioz, as the music critic for the Journal des débats, heralded Sax’s arrival by devoting an entire article to him, on June 12, 1842, in which he wrote:

“He is a man of penetrating mind; lucid, tenacious, with a perseverance against all trials, and of exceptional skill… He is at the same time a calculator, acoustician, and as necessary, smelter, turner and engraver. He can think and act; he invents and he accomplishes.”

One can rightly wonder why Adolphe Sax waited so long to register the French patent for his new family of saxophones. In fact, the patent was the fruit of many years work during which he was involved in the conception of different instruments, systems and adaptations applicable to the bugle: for example, the rotary valve.

This initial family of eight saxophones established by Adolphe Sax was to be recentred on seven saxophones by Georges Kastner, in his “General handbook of military music for use of the French Armies”, published in 1848. At the bottom of plate XXV of his work, the author specifies the nomenclature of the family of the saxophones:

“There exists a whole family: the sopranino Saxophone in F or Eb, the soprano Saxophone in C or Bb, the alto Saxophone in Eb. The Saxophone alto-tenor in Bb. The Saxophone tenor-baritone in Eb. The Saxophone bass in C or B flat, the saxophone contrabass in F or Eb.”

Although present in theory in Sax’s patent submission and initially envisaged by Ravel for his Bolero, the Sopranino in F was never made. Its part is traditionally handled by the Bb Soprano. While saxophones in the key of C or F initially seemed more suitable for use in symphony orchestras, the failure of this incorporation led to these models being abandoned.

Today, the saxophone family is still composed of seven members and remains very close to that which Kastner described :

  • E♭ sopranino,
  • B♭ soprano,
  • E♭ alto,
  • B♭ tenor,
  • E♭ baritone
  • B♭ bass,
  • E♭ contrebass.


The saxophone at the Paris Conservatoire

A saxophone class was created at the Paris Conservatoire in 1857 and quite naturally it was Adolphe Sax who was placed in charge. Sax was responsible for training approximately 130 saxophonists on the various instruments of the quartet. He was nevertheless vexed to see that composers primarily stuck to the exploration of the timbres of his alto saxophone.

This did not prevent him from continuing his search and taking out a second patent on the saxophone (No 70894 of March 19, 1866), in which he specified:

“A first improvement consists in lengthening the instrument without lowering its register, i.e., by maintaining the same degree between the existing notes. This new arrangement gives me a greater reach with the low register and allows an increase in the breadth of the octave harmonics, and at the same time, adds to it some of the harmonics of the twelfth, i.e., giving to the saxophone the range of the clarinet and a share of the resources particular to that instrument, without removing any of its richness and without changing its fingering.”

“A second improvement consists of a change to the arrangement of the mechanism of the saxophone; in particular, to the part operated by the left hand. This modification, while rendering the fingering easier and more regular, principally results in the simplification of execution and creates a higher quality sound with greater accuracy…”

The first saxophones of Adolphe Sax were manufactured from brass. Their fingering borrowed as much from the flute as from the clarinet, both of which were, from this point on, using the new Théobald Boehm mechanism. Sax focused on the keywork, emphasizing ergonomics and improved tuning balance. He continued to attempt to improve the bore of his instruments; while the saxophone’s first bore was shaped like a parabolic cone, he also tried both straight and concave cones. The parabolic bore still prevails today.


Notable improvements after 1870

After the war in 1870, the Paris Conservatoire unfortunately suspended the saxophone class. However, this did not discourage Adolphe Sax, who never stopped improving his saxophones, from taking out a third patent on November 27, 1880.

Extracts of patent No 139 884, from November 27, 1880 :

“No 1 the alto saxophone in E♭, the most favorable key for military music, and the most widely used, representing the part of alto in the quartet, finds itself too short by a tone to reach the furthest limit of the violin’s lowest register. I lengthened the tube in order to gain two half tones, that being B♭ and A, which represents, as regards concert pitch, D♭ and C.” “No 2 Extending an analogous operation similarly to the high register, I placed two new keys to obtain F# and high G, where F# is taken by the right hand and G by the left hand. One could with the remainder, if it is preferred, employ other combinations.”

Sax specifies thus just after that :

“to facilitate the blowing of high notes, I have used a fourth octave key which is not used by the thumb, but is well placed so as to be brought into play by the keys themselves. This same operation can be used for all the high note keys.”


The first manufacturers

When Adolphe Sax died on February 7, 1894, his son Adolphe-Édouard (1859-1945), who had been a brass band leader at the Opera of Paris since 1888, took his place as the head of manufacturing at Sax. Thereafter the saxophone suffered from a lack of popular performance, since it was primarily confined to use within military music. By the end of the First World War, French manufacturers of wind instruments had lost close to two thirds of their specialized workforce. The United States, suffering from a shortage of French instruments during this period, began to develop their own domestic instrument production.

In 1921, thirty six years after its creation (1885), Selmer Paris began manufacturing saxophones. By adopting the principle of the drawn-out tone holes and no longer welding them onto the body of the instruments, Selmer revolutionized the workmanship of the saxophone. This process was already used in the United States for the flute, and saved a considerable amount of time during manufacture. The reliability, esthetics and lightness of the instrument were also improved. Selmer set about its conquest of the American market, just as the birth of jazz and a new way of living were contributing to the passion for the saxophone.

In 1929, Selmer Paris made the historic acquisition of the Sax workshops, thus becoming the sole legatee of the saxophone’s invention and of the Sax spirit.


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