A small tribute to Adolphe Sax

A brilliant (and mildly eccentric) Belgian inventor and instrument maker, Sax has had an impact on the history of musical instrument development that is rivaled perhaps only by flute innovator Theobald Boehm. After moving to Paris in his twenties from his native Dinant, Belgium, the young Sax impressed many notables (including Berlioz, Donizetti, Meyerbeer, and even French King Louis-Phillippe and Emperor Napoleon II) with his instruments.
In his lifetime, his bass clarinet and his family of valved bugles (called saxhorns) were more successful than were the saxophones . Saxhorns are the direct ancestors of many of today's brass instruments, including the alto horn (Eb alto saxhorn), baritone horn (Bb tenor saxhorn), and flugelhorn (Bb soprano saxhorn). The modern tuba is a German equivalent of Sax's bass/contrabass saxhorn. Though others had attempted to make a bass clarinet, Sax created the first successful such instrument by the time he was twenty years old! The modern bass clarinet has changed very little in basic design from Sax's model. He also contributed design improvements to the design of the clarinet, the bassoon, and the timpani, patented the first steam calliope (powered by a train locomotive!), collaborated with Louis Pasteur on an aromatherapy box, and patented an improved train whistle. Sax's friend, the renowned composer and author Hector Berlioz, called Sax "A man of lucid mind; far-seeing, tenacious, steadfast and skilled beyond words... He is a calculator, an acoustician, and when required, a smelter, a turner and, if need be, at the same time an embosser. He can think and act. He invents, and he accomplishes."

Today, Sax's name and memory most famously live on in the saxophone family, which was introduced in Paris in the early 1840's. The saxophone was invented initially to create a better orchestral bass reed instrument, and to provide a matched family of wind instruments that would combine the power of brasses, the agility of woodwinds, the sonority of strings, the range of a keyboard, and the flexibility of the human voice.

Above is a bass saxophone (the original type of saxophone)
in C from the workshop of Adolphe Sax.

The bass saxophone was the first saxophone completed, and it recieved immediate praise. Berlioz wrote an article in the June 12, 1842 Journal des Débats describing the new instrument. An excerpt:

"Its sound is of such rare quality that, to my knowledge,
there is not a bass instrument in use nowadays that could be compared to
the saxophone. It is full, soft, vibrating, extremely powerful, and easy
to lower in intensity. As far as I am concerned, I find it very superior
to the lower tones of the ophicleide, in accuracy as well as in the
stability of the sound. But the character of its tone is absolutely new,
and does not resemble any of the timbres heard up till now in our
orchestras with the sole exception of the bass clarinet's lower E and F.
Owing to its reed, it can increase or diminish the intensity of its
sounds. The notes of the higher compass vibrate so intensively that they
may be applied with success to melodic expression."

Sadly, the saxophone was largely shunned by the orchestras of Europe for political reasons, (the talented Sax had many jealous enemies) but it was accepted with open arms by military and community bands. In the USA, Sousa and Gilmore's bands included saxophone sections, which introduced the instrument to many thousands of people. (For several years Sousa's band reportedly had a 12-piece sax section that included soprano through contrabass!) Just prior to the dawn of the recording era, the saxophone was popularized by vaudeville acts such as the Six Brown Brothers and early virtuosi like Eduard LeFebre and Rudy Weidoft. There was an explosion in home sales of saxophones for amateur music makers, and it was inevitable that this flexible and readily available instrument would soon be incorporated into the burgeoning jazz scene. In the 1930's and 1940's widespread interest was reawakened in the instrument's classical potential in solo and quartet compositions through the performances, commissions, and teaching of Marcel Mule in France and Sigurd Raschèr in the USA. The saxophone family's popularity has only grown since, and we are now witnessing ever-increasing interest in the full range of the saxophone family, from piccolo through subcontrabass.

Here's the original patent for the saxophone family- I have inserted comments in Italics:

French Patent #3226: Saxophone

Descriptive report deposited in support of a request for a fifteen year patent of invention. Mr. Antoine-Joseph (called Adolphe) Sax, musical instrument maker residing in Paris at rue neuve Saint-Georges No. 10 has presented his patent application at the office of Mr. Perigna, patent attorney, 10 rue neuve St. Augustin, for a new System of wind instruments called Saxophones.

Explanation - We know that in general, wind instruments are either too harsh or too weak in sonority; one or the other of these faults is most especially perceptible in the basses. The Ophicleide (a bass keyed bugle- Berlioz uses them to good effect in his Symphonie Fantastique), for example, which reinforces the trombones, produces a sound so disagreeable that it must be kept out of resonant halls because of its inability to be played softly. The bassoon, to the contrary, has such a feeble sound that it can be used only for accompanying and filling parts; yet for specific forte effects in orchestration it is absolutely useless. One should note that the bassoon is the only instrument of this type which blends well with string instruments. Only brass wind instruments produce a satisfying effect in outside performance. Bands comprised of these instruments are the only kind of ensembles which can be used in these circumstances. Everyone knows that for outside performance the effect of stringed instruments is null. Because of the weakness of their timbre, their use is almost impossible under such conditions. Struck by these different drawbacks, I have looked for a means of remedying these situations by creating an instrument, which by the character of its voice can be reconciled with the stringed instruments, but which possesses more force and intensity than the strings. This instrument is the Saxophone. The Saxophone is able to change the volume of its sounds better than any other instrument. I have made it of brass and in the form of a parabolic cone to produce the qualities which were just mentioned and to keep a perfect quality throughout its entire range. The Saxophone embouchure uses a mouthpiece with a single reed whose interior is very wide and which becomes narrower at the part which is fitted to the body of the instrument. (This is in contrast to almost all mouthpieces in use today, which tend to have wider tip openings and much more constricted internal dimensions than Sax specified. This results in greater projection, and a brighter, louder tone.)

click on drawing for larger version


Description and nomenclature of the different members of the Saxophone family.

No. 1. Saxophone in Eb - tenor, fundamental note: B in written pitch is D in concert pitch. (Now called baritone, usually extended to low written A. Most saxophones are keyed to low Bb, though many 19th century instruments were made to low B to reduce expense and weight for marching.)

No. 2. Saxophone in C - descending to Bb in its key. The same instrument can also be made in the key of Bb - it consequently descends to concert Ab which is Bb in its written key. (This is the bass saxophone- a few were made in C in the 19th century, but all modern basses are in Bb.)

No. 3. Contrabass saxophone in F - it can also be made in Eb. (No contrabass in F has been built , though Kastner wrote a part for one in his Sextuor of the mid 1840's)

No. 4. Bourdon saxophone in C, it can also be made in Bb (one tone lower). (This subcontrabass saxophone has finally been built by Benedikt Eppelsheim of Munich. It has a smaller bore than this sketch for more air efficiency, but has a marvelous tone and is very responsive. It is a larger version of his Tubax- For details, see the description below, and visit my subcontrabass saxophone page.)

The saxophones No. 5, 6, 7 and 8 are in the same keys as the preceding instruments at the octave (and fifteenth) higher. (5. is the alto, 6. is tenor, 7. is sopranino, and 8. soprano.)

No. 9 is a sketch of a bass saxophone mouthpiece.



This is a prospectus from a Sax catalogue of 1850.

click on drawing for larger version


I find it interesting that the original patent drawing for the soprano has a curved neck, a concept which has recently been revived by many makers. Also, the original bass saxophone as shown in the patent drawing has a shape much like an ophicleide, rather than the familiar saxophone shape. This also applies to the contrabass and sub-contra designs, which are rather more efficient and practical than the current contrabass design. (N.B.- This concept has been lately revisited by Benedikt Eppelsheim of Munich, Germany - he is now making a type of contrabass saxophone called Tubax. It has a narrow bore which in diameter is about like a baritone saxophone, but is twice as long and wraps around multiple times like a contrabassoon or sarrusophone. It gains in convenience and ease of response what it may lose in breadth and warmth of tone. The Tubax has also now been made in C and Bb below the standard contrabass sax, thus realizing Sax's idea of a "Saxophone Bourdon.")

At right is a photo of a 19th-century baritone saxophone which, according to scholar Robert Howe was made by Pelisson Freres who called it a "Georgeophone". They were made in Eb baritone and Bb bass models and were intended for use on horseback, which I find completely delightful.

Below is a picture of an ophicleide from America's Shrine to Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota.


Sax was dedicated to ensuring the success and lasting survival of his invention, so much so that after his class as the Paris Conservatoire was cancelled due to lack of funding because of political upheaval, he offered to keep teaching for free, despite the fact he was seventy years old and in dire finacial straits. Sax knew that unless someone trained performers to use all the saxphones that the family would likely dwindle to the few already in common use. Sadly, that is exactly what happened, and only recently have there been signs of renewed interest in the "other" saxophones. Here are some excerpts from an 1883 letter from a frustrated Mr. Sax to Ambrose Thomas:

"The family of the saxophone does not consist only of the four types known and popularized by military music. It consists of up to sixteen members and the professor should accustom his students to play if not on all of them at least on several types."
"The force of habit is such that saxophonists who refuse to play another instrument than the one they are used have been able to oppose the wishes of composers...
" The saxophone in F appeared to me as the true type which should be adopted for the symphony. Some time ago I had the occasion to play this instrument separately for two of our young masters, Mr. Massanet and Mr. Saint-Saëns. They were so impressed by the timbre, the penetrating charm, and the extraordinary novelty of this orchestral voice that they at once conceived the project of using it (as Meyerbeer had done at the beginning of L'Etoil du Nord.) Mr. Massanet introduced it in one of his symphonic pieces; Mr. Saint-Saëns at once composed a solo for Henry VIII. However, both composers clashed with the ill-will or inability of a saxophonist who was used to his saxophone in E-flat, and both of them were forced to retreat, and entrust their solos to other instruments; Mr. Massanet to the clarinet, and Mr. Saint-Saëns to the oboe.

These are the fruits of blind habit: to be able to deprive the inspiration and inventiveness of composers of new resources, and to present impassable obstacles."

This quartet of saxophones was built in Sax's workshop in the 1860s.

After his death in 1894, Sax's sons carried on his business. In the 1920's his saxophone manufacturing operation was sold to the Henri Selmer company. Selmer has continued to make high quality saxophones to this day.

As Adolphe Sax conceived of his instruments in famililes, here is a sound sample of a full classical saxophone ensemble In tribute to this ideal:

mp3 San Diego Sax Orchestra: Portals (Carl Anton Wirth)

Sax's birthday is November 6th.

Recommended further reading:

  • Adolphe Sax-His Life and Legacy-- Wally Horwood
  • Celebrating the Saxophone-- Paul Lindermeyer
  • The Cambridge Companion to the Saxophone-- ed. Richard Ingham
  • The Early History of the Saxophone--Fred Hemke, DMA dissertation
  • Woodwind Instruments and Their History-- Anthony Baines

This essay © Jay Easton