The saxophone: a story that will take your breath away!

The saxophone is unquestionably one of the most popular instruments of the 20th century. Maurice Ravel, John Coltrane, and even les Beatles: everyone has fallen under its spell!

The saxophone: a story that will take your breath away!
The saxophone: a story that will take your breath away!, © Getty / Jawcam

"It's rich, mellow, and vibrant, with enormous strength": these are the words chosen by the composer Hector Berlioz to describe the sound of the saxophone, in the Journal des Débats, on 12 June 1842.

The sax, as it is often nicknamed by musicians, was not born with the arrival of jazz music. It appeared much earlier, during the 19th century, originally intended by its creator Adolphe Sax as a powerful orchestral instrument.

From the ambition of its creator to the instrument's adoption by not only the jazz community but other groups such as Pink Floyd and The Beatles, here is the story of the saxophone, an instrument with a thousand faces!

The sax, nothing but hot air!

It's not because the saxophone is made of brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) or silver that it is automatically a brass instrument!

The saxophone is in fact a member of the woodwind family due to the reed in its mouthpiece which, under the effect of the air blown by the musician, begins to vibrate, thus creating a sound.

Bec d'un saxophone ténor, avec anche simple.
Bec d'un saxophone ténor, avec anche simple., © Getty / Dorling Kindersley

Adolphe, father of Sax

Louis de Béchameil was the inventor of the legendary sauce, the Jacuzzi family developed a therapeutic heated bath, and Jules Léotard invented the leotard… Unsurprisingly, Adolphe Sax created the saxophone.

Son of a musical instrument maker, Adolphe Sax constantly researched and experimented in the hope of improving and perfecting the instruments produced by the family enterprise… Thus was born in the 1940s a new instrument: the saxophon (the e came later).

Portrait d'Adolphe Sax. Collection de la Philharmonie de Paris.
Portrait d'Adolphe Sax. Collection de la Philharmonie de Paris., © Getty

At the heart of the industrial revolution

In 1841, Mr Sax presented his saxophon to the jury of the Exposition de l'industrie belge (Belgian Industry Exhibition). Sax chose an industrial exhibition rather than a concert or musical salon due to the fact that his invention well and truly belonged to the great technical innovations of the century.

During the 19th century, the European production of musical instrument underwent an important change. Makerswere inspired by the latest mechanical advances (the steam engine, for example) and began using different materials (such as metal for the flute), resulting in the creation of new instruments, such as the French horn, the tuba and... the saxophone!

It is written in the report of the 1841 Exposition de l’industrie belge that "the first Belgian instrument maker to succeed in this industrial emancipation was Mr Sax." Adolphe Sax, the pride of his nation's industry. But the inventor soon packed his bags and headed for Paris...

Mr Sax in Paris

In the 19th century, the best instrument makers were in Paris, watched closely and with keen interest by the composer and music critic Hector Berlioz. In the second edition of his Traité d’instrumentation published in 1855, he took care to mention the nouveaux instruments [new instruments] of his time, those of Monsieur Sax in particular.

With regards to the saxophone, Berlioz was extremely enthusiastic. This was enough encouragement for Adolphe Sax to move to Paris. He founded his own workshop in the rue Neuve-Saint-Georges, rivalling the well-established Parisian instrument makers, wary of this ambitious "stranger".

A saxophone in the orchestra

"These new voices given to the orchestra possess most rare and precious qualities", wrote Berlioz when discussing the instruments of Mr Sax.

You read that correctly: Adolphe Sax's new instrument was given "to the orchestra". Though the saxophone was first (and mostly) used by military brass bands, it was also adopted by many great composers of "serious" music.

Hector Berlioz was the first to call upon the sonorities of Sax's new instrument in 1844, in his Chant sacré. Georges Bizet soon followed with his Arlésienne, and also Jules Massenet in his opera Werther. The widespread fascination for the instrument showed no signs of slowing down: in the 20th century, the saxophone also inspired Claude Debussy (Rhapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone), Maurice Ravel (in the famous Boléro), Sergei Prokofiev (for his ballet Roméo et Juliette) and countless others.

Gold Men Sax

Though classical composer displayed great enthusiasm for Sax's new invention, it was the jazzmen who elevated the saxophone to its highest possible state, transforming it into a formidable solo instrument.

Why such enthusiasm?  There are potentially as many answers as there are saxophone players, but it would seem that jazz artists found in this unique instrument an unlimited source of sound, an expression close to the human voice, and a richly nuanced sonority. Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet (and his unique vibrato), Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Maceo Parker: it is hard to keep track of the countless kings of the saxophone...

The saxophone's wide appeal was also due to its "marginality". Though warmly welcomed amongst the other orchestral instruments, it was always shunned by the great solos of the classical repertoire. In France, it was only in 1942 that the Conservatoire National de Paris finally began offering a class dedicated to the saxophone, managed by a certain Marcel Mule…

Marcel, the prince of the wind instruments

One cannot discuss the saxophone without citing one of its greatest masters: Marcel Mule. Born in 1901, Mule died exactly 100 years later. The son of a saxophonist in the local brass band, he was to become a teacher, according to his father's wishes. Marcel initially obeyed, but Marcel was not only stubborn as a Mule but a passionate saxophone player, and eventually joined the orchestra of the French Republican Guard.

Marcel Mule quickly became one of the most important French saxophone players of the 20th century, and notably performed for the premiere of the Boléro by Ravel in 1928, and taught the saxophone at  the Conservatoire de Paris for 26 years. Thus, Marcel Mule contributed to the rise of an entire generation of world-renowned saxophonists, ensuring a bright future for Adolphe Sax's creation.

Sax Pop!

Throughout the 20th century, beyond the worlds of jazz and classical music, the saxophone inspired countless composers, notably those of contemporary music including Luciano Berio, Philip Glass, John Adams… Each one explored in his own way the different nuances and facets of the saxophone.

As for pop and rock music, the saxophone won the hearts of listeners largely through its potential for legendary solos: The Beatles's Lady Madonna (1968), Pink Floyd's Money (1973) and Supertramp's The Logical Song (1979) to name but a few memorable songs...