Notes that flow from a saxophone – brooding at times, sensual at others, but always soulful – owe their beauty to Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax. His tumultuous life was punctuated by dramatic highs and lows and could be portrayed by the most lavish musical composition that his renowned invention can execute.
Sax was born in 1814, in Dinant, Belgium. His parents were accomplished woodworkers-turned-musical instrument designers who discovered their new skill after being commissioned by William the First, Prince of Orange, to create a range of woodwind instruments for the army. Growing up in an innovative atmosphere with the best facilities at his disposal, Sax put his own inherent skills to good use and developed into something of a child prodigy. By the age of fourteen, he had devised a way to proportion the central bore of a wind instrument and strategically place the holes to produce the desired timbre. On the basis of this tenet, he created an improved clarinet.
He whittled two flutes and a clarinet from ivory, an unmatched accomplishment at the time. He exhibited those inventions, and at the age of twenty, a 24-key clarinet and an improved design for a bass clarinet. The latter earned him great admiration from Francois Antoine Habeneck, the conductor of the Paris Opera Orchestra, who was visiting Brussels.
Sax studied flute and clarinet at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. At the age of twenty-six, he exhibited nine of his musical inventions at the 1840 Belgian industrial fair. In all probability, he deserved the gold medal, which he was denied due to his youth. He was awarded the vermeil, or gilded silver medal instead, which he refused.
This might have been the watershed moment that prompted him to take his skills and ambitions to friendlier shores. He was interested in an incipient form of the saxophone by the French opera composer Fromental Halevy and so he left for Paris, the music capital of the region at the time, with a meager thirty francs in his possession.
In Paris, while he lived in financially difficult circumstances, Halevy introduced him to Hector Berlioz, a well-known music critic, and composer. Sax demonstrated his novel invention to him – a metal instrument with the power of a brass instrument and the timbre of a woodwind instrument, with the strings giving it range – which Sax had designed in a successful blend of art and engineering while attempting to improve the tone of the bass clarinet. Berlioz heaped glowing praise on Sax’s gift for acoustic engineering and creative talent in the Journal de Debats, a widely circulated Parisian art publication. Berlioz was the first to christen the instrument the “saxophone”.
After this widespread recognition, Sax went on to design a family of seven saxophones from sopranino to subcontrabass. He based his inventions on the basic principle that the shape and width of the bore created a specific timbre and so, playing with those variables can help develop a range of instruments. Parisian composers, including Berlioz, started reserving parts in their arrangements for Sax’s instruments. His subsequent inventions included the saxhorn, which he developed from the bugle, and from which, the flugelhorn was born. He also designed the saxtuba and the saxotromba. For a few years, his instruments found a home in Paris orchestras, but their sheer power ensured them a more lasting and lucrative place in the post-revolution French military bands. He patented the saxophone in 1846. In 1857 he was appointed as the saxophone instructor at the Paris Conservatory.
As Sax’s reputation grew, another reversal of fortune awaited him in the form of rival German instrumentalists vying for credit for his inventions. He spent his later years battling a slew of lawsuits contesting his patents, and despite support from many of his long-standing influential friends from the Parisian music world, he was driven into penury. His troubles also included about with lip cancer, which he survived. His workshop sold close to twenty thousand instruments over two decades, but although he was a brilliant acoustician, he lacked financial management skills. He had to file for bankruptcy three times and was saved from a fourth by Emperor Napolean the Third.
In a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, he died almost impoverished at the age of eighty, unaware of the true impact that the saxophone would go on to make in the world outside band music. Military bandsmen returning from the Spanish-American war in 1900 brought the saxophone to the United States, where it soon became entrenched in New Orleans jazz. From there, its pervasive influence spread to other sub-genres of jazz and continued to permeate surprising corners of the music world like 1980s pop, with many of its hit songs featuring mellifluous saxophone solos. Today it is a ubiquitous instrument in classical, jazz, pop and many new forms of western music.
In Hector Berlioz’s eloquent homage to the sound of the saxophone, he describes it to be: “like the mysterious vibrations of a bell, long after it has been struck; there does not exist another musical instrument that I know of that possesses this strange resonance, which is situated at the edge of silence.”