November 6, 2014

Happy Birthday Adolphe Sax

Adolphe Sax
A few weeks ago I was chatting about music in a small circle of classical musicians. I happened to mention that the saxophone is one of the few instruments that was actually invented by one person, as opposed to an evolution over the years. One person commented, “yes, and we’ve been cursing Adolphe Sax’s name since its invention.”
This comment was only partly in jest. The saxophone has its lovers and its detractors, but it is indeed one of the few instruments we can cite as an invention. Most instruments evolve over decades and even centuries. The flute used to be made of wood. The piano came from a long line of keyboard evolutions including the harpsichord and the clavichord. And the trumpets lived without valves for a long time.
Today, November 6, we note the 200th birthday of Adolphe Sax. Mr. Sax was born in 1814 in the town of Dinart which was part of France, later annexed by the Netherlands. It was common at the time to follow in your father’s footsteps as far as a trade. Adolphe’s father was a cabinetmaker and inventive enough to provide musical instruments for a Dutch army band when ordered to do so. Adolphe took to the business of instrument making, eventually producing a new and improved bass clarinet and exhibiting nine music related inventions at the 1840 Belgian Industrial Fair Exhibition.
Paris was the capital of musical life in France and Adolphe moved there to seek his fortune. His idea to combine the fluency of a woodwind instrument with the power of a brass instrument was met with encouragement by the composer Berlios, also a music critic. This stamp of approval encouraged Adolphe to pursue production of seven different sizes of saxophones and the instrument gained popularity in opera orchestras as well as military bands. The rest of Adolphe’s life was not happy in a storybook fashion. He spent most of his energies defending himself from lawsuits from other instrument inventors who claimed they conceived of the saxophone first.
One of his sons, Adolphe-Edouard, followed him into the business and maintained his instrument making workshop, which was eventually bought by the Selmer company. To this day Selmer still has the highest reputation for their saxophone manufacturing.
Adolphe Sax received his patent for the saxophone in 1846, making it the youngest of the wind instruments and far too late to have been written for by the great Baroque, Classical and Romantic composers. Adolphe never knew that the saxophone would become the most popular of jazz instruments on another continent and be the first choice of many young musicians in the fourth and fifth grades.
The seven sizes of the saxophone have been whittled down to mostly the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. But if you would like to hear the whole gamut of the instrument, including the bass and the massive contrabass, I suggest looking for the album by Scott Robinson, a multi-instrumentalist who played every size of saxophone when he recorded “Thinking Big” on Arbors Records in 1997. Mr. Robinson’s obsession with saxophones, especially the contrabass, is well known in music circles. When I interviewed him in 1997 he related how the story of his frantic search to acquire a contrabass ended with success:
Scott Robinson
MR:    You have an album coming out with a contrabass?
SR:    Yeah. That instrument I never even dreamed of getting, because there’s so few in the world, there’s like a dozen in the world. But I did happen to meet somebody in Rome, I told them I was looking for old instruments, and he says, “oh there’s this giant saxophone in an antique shop.” And I really didn’t believe him, because people say, “oh yeah, it’s like higher than that door.” And then you go look at it and it’s a baritone. That kind of thing happens all the time. But this guy was for real. His name was Enrico. And he was for real with this. And he sent me pictures of it. And I was out of my mind, you know I couldn’t sleep. But there again, the guy didn’t want to sell it. But he had it just standing up in his antique furniture shop, and he had canes and umbrellas and stuff down inside it. And that took two and a half years. Finally the guy parted with it and my friend brought it over in a big box the size of a phone booth. I picked him up at the airport and we brought the thing home, and it’s just unbelievable. And the amazing thing is how small the bass sax looks next to this. The bass saxophone just — I busted out laughing. We dragged them both out in the yard and we stood them up and the contrabass and then the bass sax is just down here.
MR:    So this is an octave below a baritone sax?
SR:    Yeah. But it seems proportionately larger somehow than what you would think. I mean it’s at least twice the size of the bass sax. Amazing. Taller than me and I’m six-four nearly.
You might want to view Mr. Robinson playing the contrabass in this story on CNN.
When rock & roll entered the scene in the 50s, many wind instruments were replaced by the electric guitar. Perhaps because of its ability to convey intense emotion, the saxophone survived and is often featured in many rock & roll instrumentals. Our previous blog detailing more about the instrument, “The Saxophone Survives,” can be read here.
In addition to its popularity, the saxophone also must be the most misspelled instrument. Please note the O in the middle, not an A, as I have seen countless times.
Happy Birthday Adolphe Sax.