ADOLPHE SAX AND HIS SAXOPHONE
by Léon Kochnitzky
Belgian Government Information Center ( New York, NY 1964)
the Meuse, against a high cliff surmounted by a ruined fortress. Invasions
and wars have more than once swept through the town. And successive
generations are never given time to quite forget the horrors witnessed by
people rebuilt their town. There it stands now, as it stood before 1914,
with its bulbous steeple that reminds us of a chess-pawn, or maybe some
strange musical instrument.
hammered plate of yellow copper, called divanderie, that was the principal
source of the city's great wealth; and the couques de Dinant, kind of hard
and crisp ginger-bread, made out of great-barley flour and honey, and
molded into various shapes. Both dimmderies and couques were bright,
flaming, shining things. Would it require on the part of a conjurer more
than a touch of his wand to change these exquisite forms into sonorous,
fiery, caressing brass instruments? Some transmutation of that kind
musical instruments by the name of Charles Joseph Sax lived in Dinant. On
November 6, 1814. Antoine-Joseph, who was to be known as Adolphe, the
first of his eleven children, was born. During the next year, after the
battle of Waterloo, Charles Joseph established himself in Brussels. King
William I of the Lowlands appointed him his music instrument manufacturer
and commissioned him to make the band instruments for the newly created
army of his "new-fangled" kingdom.
fine arts and in the field of music, hereditary dispositions are often to
be found, and the names of Brueghel and Raphael, of Bach and Mozart come
instantly to one's mind. In the handicrafts. such inherited gifts have
still greater possibilities of developing. Without indulging in psyche:
analytical considerations, we can take it as a fact that the imitation of
the father's craft is the child's favorite game. No wonder that little
Adolph Sax should have been, from his early years on, familiarized with
the shape and structure of all kinds of brass and woodwind instruments. At
six he was able to drill a clarinet's body properly and to twirl the cup
of a horn. While still an apprentice in his father's workshop, young
Adolph, Sax was a pupil of the Brussels Conservatory and soon became an
excellent flutist. He was taught to play the clarinet by Bender, conductor
of a famous Belgian military band. At the age of fifteen, in 1830, he sent
two flutes and a clarinet made of ivory to the Brussels Industrial
Exhibition that were considered extremely fine specimens. He was twenty
when he invented the bass-clarinet. Such instruments already existed, but
their sound was defective, and they were altogether unreliable.
The incident that took place at the Brussels Grande Harmonie is perfectly
characteristic of many similar happenings in the stormy career of Sax. A
jealous artist, who played on the ancient bass-clarinet, threatened to
quit the orchestra if it adopted the instrument built by Sax. The young
inventor, who was also an excellent performer, acted as did the Virgilian
shepherds and the medieval troubadours: he challenged his antagonist to a
musical duel; both played in turn anti the result was a triumph for Sax
and his bass-clarinet. The famous French conductor Habeneck, during his
stay in Belgium the same year, was delighted by the sound of the new
instrument. And Jacques Fromental Halévy, the illustrious composer of La
Juive, was profoundly interested in the young inventor's research.
well known in the principal musical centers of Europe. But the young man
dreamt of a Paris success, a Parisian consecration. When in 1841, the jury
of the Belgian national exhibition refused to grant him a first prize, on
the ground that he was too young and that no higher award could be given
him later on, he decided to leave Brussels. He arrived in Paris a few
months later, in 1841, with very little money and great ambitions. But his
reputation among musicians was already solidly established. No better
proof of this fact can be given than the following letter from Halévy,
that he had received a few weeks before his arrival in the French Capital:
return to Brussels to ask you about the instruments that you had requested
me to hear, and that you are now busy perfecting. I hope you will reach
your aim. Your efforts should excite the interest of every composer. You
enlarge the number and the power of orchestral effects. At the Paris
Conservatory, we have already had the opportunity to try out your new and
excellent combinations of tones. I hope you will speedily terminate the
construction of your new instrument group. It will be of great help to the
poor composers seeking for innovations and to the public that demands
them, even were there nothing new on earth,
A thousand compliments,
standing, and the fact that it was entrusted to the Belgian violinist
Vieuxtemps, after Paganini, the most celebrated virtuoso in those days, is
sufficient to show in what esteem Sax was held by the foremost musical
personalities. All the same, he was very poor when he arrived in Paris in
the spring of 1841.
began for Sax; a prodigious, tormented existence, darkened by dire
experiences, and upheld with courage and fortitude. The young inventor
--he was now twenty-eight -- had to pay the ransom for his genial
creativeness: he had to face the envy and jealousy, the wrath and hatred
of his rivals and colleagues; he underwent all kinds of misery, suffering
and afflictions. Glory was to be his reward, later, much later, in the
course of his long career
the victim of crooks and slanderers, of money-lenders, of jealous
competitors, of venomous critics and mediocre musicians. It is also true
that he was often deceived by the friends he had helped, and disavowed by
those very protectors, who, like Habeneck, had been among the first to
give praise and recognize him. In his tribulations, there was also a kind
of fatality that dragged him into quarrels and conflicts, into lawsuits
and polemics. Sax -- like Beaumarchais in the 18th century, like Whistler
in the late 19th century -- had exceptional gifts for the gentle art of
making enemies. It would be too easy to accuse fate: when during a long
lifetime a man is constantly involved in the same kind of turmoil, the
natural conclusion is that he is himself to be held responsible for most
of his trouble. A disposition inherent in his character led Sax to clash
with his fellow men. He sought strife and struggling and wrangling. And
yet, he always found friends and admirers, partisans and even devotees.
Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Rossini, King Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III were
among his constant supporters. He triumphed over his enemies; he was
honored with medals and decorations. And more than once, he won his
lawsuits of which he was never rid.
hand with case decisions and appeals that kept lawyers and jurists busy
several decades after the inventor's death.
struggle all his life to defend his inventions and to protect himself
against the "foolish tricks" of his enemies. And we will not follow Oscar
Convertaut, author of an extremely laudatory and voluminous work on Sax,
by describing the financial difficulties, the ferocious polemics, the
slanders, the menaces of bankruptcy, and the endless lawsuits that were
Sax's lot: an undeniable consequence of his enemies' wickedness and
perhaps also a result of his arrogance and difficult temper. The reader
interested in such tribulations will find them described at length (at
least for the period 1842 -- 186o) in the book by Convertant. During the
spring of 1839, Adolphe Sax had made a short trip to Paris. It was at that
time that he met Habeneck, Meyerbeer and Halévy, who all complimented him
on his instruments. What instruments did the young inventor show to these
masters? Certainly his bass-clarinet, his clarinets, and probably also
some of his brass instruments. But evidently not the saxophone.
year of the saxophone's invention. This common error may arise from the
fact that Adolphe Sax obtained the patent for his new instrument on June
28, 1846. Dr. Rosenkaimer goes on to prove that the saxophone was
exhibited, demonstrated and played on several occasions during the year
1844. We think Sax invented his instrument at a somewhat earlier date. The
composer and theorist (Georges Kastner in his book on Military Bands
published in 1837, relates the following anecdote: Sax bad sent the
saxophone to the Brussels exhibition in 1841. It lay wrapped up in green
when somebody malevolently kicked the package, damaging the instrument so
badly that it was impossible for Sax to exhibit it.
really was the saxophone. But we find a very accurate description of the
saxophone --the very first one, we believe -- in an article by Hector
Berlioz, published on June 12, 1842, in the Paris Journal des Débats. At
the same time, this article gives us proof that Sax was already in Paris
in the spring of 1842. All authors dealing with Sax and his inventions
tell us that the inventor arrived in Paris by the end of that year, and
that Berlioz some weeks later, wrote an encouraging article in the Débats
that drew attention to the creativeness of the Belgian constructor. But,
with one exception. it would seem that none of them had read the article.
Of course, it was never reprinted in any of Berlioz' books, and as
Berlioz, during the following years, often mentioned the name of Sax, some
confusion may have arisen, and the famous article was never placed exactly
in the mass of the great composer's columns (or feuilletons) in the
]ournal des Débats. However, it is mentioned in time and place in J. G.
Prodhomme's Bibliographie Berliozienne, and about fifteen lines of it are
quoted in Henri Radiguer's article ( L`Orphéon,) in Lavignac's Musical
well known musicians and famous composers had given him tokens of their
esteem. Good words and kind letters poured on him. But now, for the first
time, he received the Parisian consecration he had sought for. The ]ournal
des Débats was the intellectual paper par excellence. Already, for five
years. Berlioz had been its brilliant columnist. He devoted the third part
of his monthly article to Sax. This, for Monsieur Sax, de Bruxelles meant
glory, or at least renown and recognition. From this day on. all informed
persons in Paris, knew his name and something of his inventions.
Hector Berlioz was thirty-nine years old then. His works were discussed
and severely criticized by the more conservative musicians. But his
authority as a critic and as a musicologist was fully recognized. His
position in the musical world could be compared to that of Robert Schumann
at about the same period; or, to borrow a worthy example from our
contemporary life, to that of Mr. Virgil Thomson nowadays in New York
seeking new paths and aesthetic discoveries, was immediately struck by the
young Belgian inventor's talent.
and temper: the same qualities of enthusiasm, of romantic pathos, of
combativity; the same defects also: both were quarrelsome, conceited and
suspicious of their neighbors' intentions. The two men took a liking to
each other, and from the day of their first meeting, became friends.
The Berlioz article of June 12, 1842 represents a crucial point in the
life of Sax. As it is not found in the published works of Berlioz, and as
it contains the birth-certificate of the saxophone, we have translated it
for the convenience of the reader:
An abuse of musical instruments is made nowadays; they are employed
indiscriminately, with no restraint or competence. Everybody knows the
quality of the beautiful effects they can produce, and both the public and
the musicians arc fatally drawn to seek such effects, and even to demand
them from any new production. This art of instrumentation, as it
developed, necessarily promoted and improved the construction of
instruments. One can appreciate the immense progress achieved if one
compares, for instance, the pianos of Erard and Pape, with the
harpsichords of the last century; or the flute employed in the days of
Devienne with the modern flute of Boehm; or the ancient clarinets with
those constructed nowadays by Mr. Adolphe Sax, and the horrible and
shapeless "serpent" used in our cathedrals with the magnificent and
profound instrument recently invented by this young talented craftsman.
String instruments are far from having followed the same trend; none of
the violin-makers of our time can be compared with the Amati, the
Stradivarius of yore, this is inherent in the nature of their craft, that
from the beginning attained a high degree of perfection. On the contrary,
the making of brass and woodwind instruments had never left its state of
infancy, but today it has taken a road that cannot fail to lead it towards
whose work we have just examined strongly contributes to it. A man of
lucid mind, far-seeing, tenacious, steadfast and skilled beyond words, he
is ever prepared to replace the workers incapable of understanding his
projects or realizing them, whatever their specialties. 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. Before describing his new instrument, let us mention
the improvement that he has brought to the group of the clarinets.
By stretching somewhat towards the bell the tube of the soprano clarinet,
he added to its compass a semitone in the lower scale so that now that
clarinet can play the E flat. In the medium scale, the B flat that had a
wrong sound on the ancient clarinet, is one of the best notes of the new
one. The trills from B flat to B natural or B flat to C in the medium
scale, those from A to B in the lower scale, those from E to F sharp, the
arpeggios in octaves from F to F and many other impracticable passages,
are from now on easily played and produce an excellent sound effect. It is
a well known fact that the notes of the extreme acute compass were a
nightmare for composers and performers, who rarely dared to use them, and
then only with great caution. By fixing a small key under the clarinet
mouthpiece, Mr. Sax rendered these notes as pure, as soft, and as easy to
play as those of the medium. The B flat in alt, that nobody dared to
write, can be played with no preparation and with no effort on the part of
the performer. It can be played pianissimo without the slightest danger
and its sound is as least as soft as the same note on the flute.
played, or was in use for too long a time, dryness or humidity rendered
the wooden mouthpiece difficult to use. Mr. Sax, by giving the instrument
a gilt mouthpiece that increases the brilliancy of its sound, has done
away with these inconveniences. The metallic mouthpiece is not subject to
change like the wooden one. The clarinet has a greater compass, is more
equal in tone facility, and precision than the ancient one; the fingerings
remains unchanged, except for a few instances where it has been
with the old one. In this new instrument, the holes have been abolished
and replaced with keys adapted to the points corresponding to the core of
the vibrations. The new bass-clarinet has twenty-two keys and is
remarkable for its perfect tome accuracy and uniform temperaments in all
the degrees of the chromatic scale. Its greater diameter increases the
volume of the sound, without preventing or hindering the performance of
octaves and fifths. This advantage is due to a key drilled near the
instrument's, mouthpiece. Its compass is three octaves and a sixth. But
there is something more important than this huge extension, for it is
obvious that the bass-clarinet is not supposed to range among the upper
register of the orchestra. It is for the beauty of its lower notes that we
appreciate it so much. As the tube is a very long one, when the performer
stands, the bell of the instrument is very close to the ground. Hence a
very unpleasant dulling of the sound would have existed, had not the
skilled craftsman prevented it by adding a concave metallic reflector
fixed under the bell, that not only prevents the sound from being lost,
but directs it in the proper direction, increasing its volume at the same
instrument with nineteen keys, whose shape is rather similar to that of
the ophicleide. Its mouthpiece, unlike those of most brass instruments, is
similar to the mouthpiece of the bass~clarinet. Thus the Saxophone becomes
the head of a new group, that of the brass instruments with reed. it has a
compass of three octaves beginning from the lower B flat under the staff
(bass clef); its fingering is akin to that of the flute or the second part
of the clarinet. 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
solidity of the sound. But the character of such sound 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. Naturally, this
instrument will never be suitable for rapid passages, for complicated
arpeggios; but the bass instruments are not destined to execute light
evolutions. Instead of complaining, we must rejoice that it is impossible
to misuse the saxophone and thus to destroy its majestic nature by forcing
it to render mere musical h~uht~¢,
are generally employed. If he perseveres, he will meet with the support of
all friends of music.
he calls le Saxophon (instead of le Saxophone). It seems likely that the
new group of instruments that he mentioned was not vet completed in the
spring of 1842. And it is even possible that Sax later built the Alto,
tenor, and soprano saxophones in response to Berlioz's remark concerning
the impossibility of playing rapid passages and complicated arpeggios with
a saxophone. In later years, Sax decided to reduce by seven semitones the
compass of his saxophones, because of the unsatisfactory sonoritv of the
success at the Conservatoire, where he demonstrated his instruments and
played some of them in the presence of such musicians as Auber, Halévy,
Habeneck, Ed..Monnais, who all praised him greatly.
Rue Saint-Georges, he set to work, and his method of working was a new
cause of scandal and protest to the people of the trade, because he wanted
to see every part of each instrument built under his own eyes, and not, as
had been the custom, by specialized craftsmen, each of them working on his
own and bringing a piece ready to be adjusted to the whole.
displeased both constructors and musicians who were accustomed to the
piston system. However, he found a powerful protector in the person of
General de Rumigny, King Louis-Philippe's aide-de-camp, who. had met him
in Brussels where his brother, the Marquis de Rumigny, was the French
Minister to the Belgian Court. General de Rumigny gave our inventor
invaluable material and moral help and his protection extended through
patents. But the more recognition he received, the more was he made the
target of his competitors' attacks and slanders.
Musical en Allemagne was to appear in a series of eleven articles in the
]ournal de Débats (August 1843--January 1844). Of course the composer was
back in Paris when the articles were published. He was aware of Sax's
troubles and, in nearly every article, he tried to help and encourage his
friend. It is interesting to quote these passages: they bring light on the
dire struggle Sax had tp sustain in the early days of his Paris
The horns with cylinders (or chromatics) are the only ones used in
Stuttgart. The skilled constructor Adolphe Sax, who has established
himself in Paris, has abundantly demonstrated the superiority of this
system over the piston system, practically abandoned in the whole of
Germany, where cylinders are generally applied to horns, trumpets,
bombardons, and bass-tubas.
The Military band is excellent, even the drummers are real musicians; but
the reed instruments that I heard did not seem to me entirely
satisfactory; they are lacking in accuracy, and the band conductors of
these regiments ought to ask our incomparable constructor Adolphe Sax for
some of his clarinets.
As a matter of fact, in France, we are not lacking in instruments with
cylinders; Adolphe Sax is a present constructing large and small trumpets
with cylinders, in every possible tonality, the average as well as the
unusual ones, and their sonority and perfection are beyond reproach. It is
really unbelievable that this young and gifted artist should meet with
such hardships in his efforts to gain recognition and to find his place in
Paris. He is persecuted in a way that would seem to belong to the dark
ages, recalling to mind the proceedings employed by the enemies of
Benvenuto (Cellini), the Florentine carver. His workmen are enticed away
from him, his plans are stolen, he is accused of being insane, lawsuits
are set up against him. A little more and he would be murdered. Such is
the hatred stirred against real inventors by their competitors, incapable
of inventing anything. Luckily for him, the skilled inventor has been
constantly honored by the protection and friendship of General dc Rumigny.
This has enabled him up to now to resist in the desperate struggle. But
will it always suffice? ... The War Minister should give a man so useful
in his rare specialty a position worthy of his talent, his tenacity, and
his efforts. Our military bands have not as yet trumpets with cylinders
nor bass-tubas (the finest of the bass instruments). The construction on a
large scale of the said instruments will become imperative to put the
French military bands on the level of those of Prussia and Austria. A
commission from the War Department to Mr. Sax for three hundred trumpets
and a hundred bass-tubas would save the inventor.
The bass-tuba, invented and advocated in Prussia by Wieprecht (sic), is
also manufactured in Paris now by Adolphe Sax.
ordeal: at the height of his fame, Donizetti, in the score of his opera
Dom Sébastien, presented at the Opera in November 1843, had written a part
for the bass-clarinet. The rehearsals began, but no musician would agree
to play on Sax's bass-clarinet. Donizetti was desperate. Sax proposed m
play the instrument himself in the orchestra. But all the other musicians
protested. "If Mr. Sax sets foot in the orchestra," they said, "we shall
all walk out." The composer had to give in. He dropped the bass-clarinet
part from the score.
first \reeks of 1844. The cheerful exclamation of the great master on his
first encounter with the saxophone must have brought some comfort to the
harassed inventor. Some time later, Rossini had the Sax instruments
adopted by the Conservatory of Bologna. And he sent his personal friend,
the clarinet player and teacher Liverani, to Paris with a letter for Sax.
But it is Berlioz once more whom we meet as the obstinate and faithful
supporter of the Belgian inventor.
on February 3, 1844, the program contained two first performances: the
Carnaval Romain, Overture, and a transcription, "for new instruments of
Sax," of a vocal hymn for six different voices, that had been already sung
been able to retrace the date or the program of the Marseilles concert.
However, it seems likely that the vocal piece utilized for the
transcription was one of the Tristia (op. 18) composed in 1831, most
probably No. 1, a "religious meditation" for a six part choir, with words
translated into French prose from a poem by Thomas Moore.
horn, a bugel, a clarinet, a bass-clarinet, and finally a saxophone played
by Sax himself. We know that the inventor was busy until the last moment
building and improving his saxophone; he went to the performance with an
instrument hastily arranged, some parts of it fixed with string and
the next day Théophile Gautier wrote in La Presse how highly impressed he
had been by the effect of the loud and magnificent sonority
Sax, in spite of his bold and quarrelsome temper, had all unusual flair
for public relations and even for showmanship. In these same months of
1844, he began to invite musical, literary and social personalities to
visit his workshop. On each of these occasions, he improvised a concert
and t he new born instruments were heard.
containing the famous air "Amour sacré de la patrie" which had been the
signal for the Belgian Revolution when it was performed in Brussels on
September 21, 1830), heard the saxophone for the first time, he could not
hide his enthusiasm: "What a lovely tone," he said, "and what advantage
could be derived from this instrument combined with the human voice."
His over-whelming difficulties did not prevent Sax from being ever ready
to help his fellow artists. During that season of 1844, a man named
Distin, who was the father of four sons, all playing brass instruments,
arrived in Paris from his native England, and gave a disastrous
performance that was as hissed by the public and vilified by the critics.
The Distins sought out Sax, who comforted them, gave them new instruments
of his own making, taught them the use of his saxhorns, and when on April
6, 1944, Berlioz conducted his second concert at the Opera Comique, the
five Distins had a real triumph when they played on their saxhorns
(soprano, alto, baritone, bass, and counter-bass,), a fantasy on Robert de
Diable. From this day on, their luck changed. The Distins had many
engagements in France and in England, where they also became commercial
agents for Sax. In later years, one of the younger brothers, Henry, came
to America and founded a factory for the manufacture of brass instruments
and reproduced in an article of the English Music Review, the Distin
family appears with its "saxhorns." Curiously enough, four of these
"saxhorns" take the shape of trumpets, the fifth being a Viennese
Flügelhorn. The author of the article, Adam Carse, explains this strange
fact by saying " that Sax designed his saxhorns in at least two models in
their first few years."
Exhibition during the summer of 1844. Most probably at the suggestion of
his aide-de-camp, General de Rumigny, King Louis-Philippe, together with
Queen Marie-Amelie and two of their sons, stayed a long time in front of
the inventor's stand. The Distins were all present at Sax's side. And
together they improvised a little concert in honor of the royal visitors,
who expressed their great satisfaction and invited the whole group to play
Georges Kasner (1802-- 1872), an excellent musicologist and philosopher,
although a rather poor composer, tells us in his book, already mentioned,
on military bands: "The first saxophone constructed belonged to the bass
compass. I was the first to make use of it in the score of my grand opera,
The Last King of Juda, performed at the Paris Conservatory on December 1,
already said that there was no end to the inventor's struggles and
quarrels. But during that year, he won his greatest battles and gained the
necessary strength to resist further attacks. The principal accusation was
that he was by no means an inventor and that he just designed instruments
that already existed abroad. But his detractors could never--in spite of
their incessant efforts--exhibit an instrument that could have served as a
model for the so-called counterfeit by Sax. All sorts of tricks were
employed against the poor inventor, one of them consisting in sending a
Sax instrument to Germany, and having it returned to Paris after the name
of the Belgian constructor had been carefully erased. When this plot
failed, Sax's enemies had recourse to a more psychological contrivance;
they decided to stir up the nationalistic feelings of some German
constructors in order to confound Sax and ruin him.
seen with what enthusiasm such prominent musical personalities as Halévy,
Fetis, and Berlioz--who all knew what was happening in the European
musical world--had saluted Sax's new instrument, "that had only the name
in common with the ancient one." But when Sax gave his name to the group
of saxhorns, the Germans protested vehemently.
10th Army Corps, felt it was his duty "to defend the name and honor" of
the German inventors Stölzel and Blühmel. ''For many years now,'' writes
August Killbrenner, Wieprecht's biographer, "brass instruments with rotary
valves (ventil-Blechinstrumenten) have been in use in German bands. And
Sax has no right to claim the inventions as his own".
were built in Germany, but the instruments conceived by Adolphe Sax were
different and also better. As we have seen, Berlioz repeatedly stated in
Voyage Musical, both that brasses with cylinders were used in Germany and
that Sax constructed instruments in Paris that were as good or even
better. Nevertheless, Wieprecht. an excellent musician and himself the
inventor of the bass--tuba, decided to go to Paris to avenge German honor.
But a strange and surprising thing happened.
the banks of the Rhine. Prominent musicians converged from all parts of
Europe upon Bonn, where the statue of Beethoven was unveiled in the
presence of the Prussian Royal family, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert,
as well as several other members of royalty and a great number of
dignitaries, academic, literary and artistic. Meyerbeer arid Liszt were
the most famous German musicians present (as a matter of fact, neither of
the two was a "real" German but, in those days, discrimination was as yet
unknown). Among the French visitors were Jules Janin, the editor of in
lournal des Débats, with his musical critic Berlioz, the director of the
Lyons Conservatory and Madame Viardot-Garcia, the famous singer.
Beethoven who had died in Vienna eighteen years earlier, in poverty and
loneliness. There was a Cantata specially composed by Spohr. There was a
splendid reception at the castle of Brühl, where the bands of the Prussian
army, conducted by Wieprecht. came to serenade the British Queen. In the
esplanade, twelve hundred soldiers bearing torches displayed a huge square
of light, while other torchbearers were gathered inside the square so as
to form an immense V for Victoria. Between the branches of the V the bands
conducted by Wieprecht gave a concert. The trumpets alone amounted to
twelve hundred, the drums to three hundred.
assist it a court concert at which Jenny Lind, the Swedish nightingale,
was heard. (in the very morning of this concert, a strange scene took
place in Liszts apartment at the Coblenz hotel. The genial Hungarian was
in his room with several friends when Wieprecht was announced. Liszt gave
a sharp knock on the wall and Sax immediately left his room appeared upon
the scene. We have two versions of what followed: one given by Wieprecht,
the other by Fiorentino, the correspondent of the Paris Constitutionel.
I think that the best I can do is to translate brietly the German text of
Wieprecht and the French text of Fiorentino.
and clasped ills hand in the real German manner. His first words were
'Wieprecht, Sax has just arrived. Whereupon he introduced me to him.
Besides Liszt, there was Lefebvre from Cologne, the Musikdirecttor Kompfer
from Coblenz and a Frenchman whose name I did not know. It seemed that we
had nothing better to do than to compare our respective instruments. and
let the audience decide."
pupil of the Paris Conservatory."
Wieprecht then proceeds to enumerate the saxhorns and cornets shown by
Sax, and their -- according to him -- German counterparts and equivalents.
He goes on to praise the virtuosity of Sax and Arban. He cannot but
acknowledge the originality of the bass-clarinet, remarking the while that
for military hands its bulk would constitute a serious impediment beim
marscbieren, during a military parade. He describes at length the Batyphon
an instrument which he had invented some years ago, together with the
Hof-Instrumentenmacher Skorra. Although the saxophone is not to be seen,
Wieprecht contends that it is merely an elaboration of his own Batyphon.
He ends up by hypocritical compliments with which he endeavors to envelop
a perfidious distinguo between improvement and invention.
"Let us hope that Mr. Sax will not weaken the eminent services he has
rendered to the cause of art, by a petty amour-propre which would incite
him to claim as an invention what is merely an improvement (zu verwecbseln
was Erfinden und was Verbessern ist). After having met Mr. Sax at Coblenz,
I have changed my plan about going to Paris..."
"...the two antagonists advanced toward each other smilingly. After a
moment I heard Sax say:
-- Really, do you know anything about my instruments?
-- I know everything, answered Mr. Wieprecht modestly.
-- The saxophone also?
-- And my bass-clarinet?
-- And could you play on it?
Sax went to fetch his clarinet and handed it to Wieprecht. The latter took
hold of it gingerly, like a recruit grasping a rifle by the butt. Then he
did his best to sound a few notes. After two or three unsuccessful
attempts, he was obliged to concede that he knew nothing about the
clarinet, less about the saxhorn; as for the saxophone, that was a
complete mystery. He frankly acknowledged the facts and apologized
profusely. He ended by inviting Sax to come and hear the Prussian
instruments in a large hall nearby, and asked him to try our his own
instruments in the presence of a few military musicians. And very
courteously he invited both Liszt and myself to assist at his interesting
the saxhorns and the clarinet. I shall never forget the envious and
covetous looks that those men cast on the new instruments. Surrounding
their leader, all talking at tie same time they seemed to say: 'if we
could have had such working-stock what a serenade we could have given the
Queen of England! As for Mr. Wieprecht, he could not hide his enthusiasm.
Embracing his rival he vowed he would come to see Sax in his Paris
workshop to make amends
not on good turns. And now you see the Tuba and the Saxophone going off
arm in arm.' Liszt smiled and answered: 'I fear they won't remain in tune
(d' accords) very long.' I said no more. Franz Liszt had made a pun."
Sax won the day. Nor only the day, but we may say, the century. The
short-lived Batyphon, in spite of its beautiful Greek name, emitted a
series of squeaking noises, while the saxophone went on slowly and surely
to conquer its place in the field of music. This victory was shared by the
saxhorns. Up to the present, they have retained their name of SAXhorn,
even in Germany.
definitely set him on his feet in Paris. The military hands in France had
been in a pitiful state for years. Musicians were badly trained, badly
paid; there was little or no consideration for them in the army and their
leaders did not even have the rank of petty officer. Moreover, their
instruments were bad and inadequately grouped. It is quite natural that
Sax, disposing of such perfect and appropriate working-stock, should have
wished to remedy this state of affairs, and to secure at the same time
regular and frequent orders for his work- shop. But the enterprise was far
from being an easy one. None of the musical, industrial and military
routines were favorable to his plans, the more so as he was a foreigner.
Nevertheless he set to work by the end of 1844 and, for eight months, he
struggled hard till he finally won his cause. He sent a long memoir to the
War Minister, Marshal Soult, a survivor of the Napoleonic regime. In it he
analyzed and criticized the composition of military bands. Some of their
instruments he wrote, especially the horns and the bassoons, were not
fitted for open-air performances. The sounds of the musical units were
lacking in homogeneity; the high pitched piccolo and the clarinets gave
out squeaky sounds, while the ophicleides snorted and shouted. And most of
the intermediary instruments were squeezed between these two extremes and
their sound could hardly be perceived. Sax proposed to make large use of
his bugles with valves, or saxhorns. And he insisted upon the advantage of
employing a group of instruments of the same family, which would permit
the melodic line to pass smoothly from one instrument to another as it
does in the string quartet, or as it passes from one voice to another as
it does in a well trained choir.
makers, band leaders, and military brass-hats were indignant. That Belgian
charlatan overrated his capacity: he even dared to intrude into the holy
precinct of the French Army, insisting that the conductors of military
bands should henceforth become ranking officers. But Sax had powerful
protectors. There had been too much talk about his inventions. It was
impossible to shelve his memoir and dismiss hi8m lightly. So the
Government named a Commission.The members, who had their first meeting in
February 1845, had been chosen among France's foremost composers:
Spontini, Auber, Haévy, Adam, Onslow, Carafa, and Kastner. Experts on
acoustics and mechanics, all from the army, had been added to the group of
musicians. General de Rumigny was to be president, with Georges Kastner as
acting secretary.Among the persons named, we recognized several friends
and supporters of Sax, as well as his bitter opponent, Carafa, who
enjoyed, in those days, a great reputation as a composer and, besides, was
the director of the Gymnase de Musique Militaire where most musicians of
the army came from.
declined the proposition, thinking he could not act as judge and defendant
at the same time.
War, which did not bring noticeable changes in the composition of the
bands. The Commission now had to make a choice between Carafa and Sax.
A first experiment, which was held in the Ministry of War, brought about
no definite results. Sax was accompanied by a group of nine musicians.
whereas Carafa's orchestra was composed of thirty-two performers.The
Commission took a wise resolution: that of having the two systems tried in
their natural surroundings, the open air, and of calling the whole
population to decide between the two rivals. The place chosen for the
challenge was the Champ-de-Mars -- today a group of beautiful gardens
surrounding the Eiffel Tower but, in 1845, a wide drill ground bordering
the Ecoile Militaire. I was decided that each group should perform in turn
a piece chosen by the jury, followed by one of their own choice. The
compulsory was as an yet unpublished excerpt from Le Diable à Quatre, a
ballet by Adolphe Adam, himself a member of the Commission. Destiny played
him a strange trick: if all the operas, operas-comiques, and other
pretentious works composed by Adolphe Adam -- a very highly thought after
musician driving his lifetime -- the only page that has survived is his
cheerful French Cancan, still very often performed by European and
American bands.When the date and the conditions of the musical duel were
fixed, both sides went into a fever of excitement, recruiting partisans
anf supporters. No wonder that Berlioz immediately ranged himself on the
side of his friend. He wrote a long article on "The Reorganization of
Military Bands, " that published in the Journal des Débats on April 1,
1845; an article never reprinted in his books. But it is not as original
as the one written the preceding year. To help the cause of Sax, Berlioz
made most of the inventor's statements his own: bassoons, oboes and horns
were to be discarded from the bands which should only make use of
long-ranging instruments (á longue portée). After describing the saxhorns,
he also attempts to vindicate Sax with respect to the Tuba, an undeniable
German invention. "He brought the Tuba from Berlin," wrote Berlioz, ''and
improved it by modifying its mechanism in order to give it a little more
extent in the lower notes of its compass." - The composer goes on to
anticipate the result of the Champ-de-Mars challenge: if anyone proposes
an organization of the bands superior to the one advocated by Sax, may he
be the winner.
Parisians had gathered at noon on the Champ-de-Mars. The two "hostile"
groups stood in a single line, one next to the other. In front of them
stood the members of the Commission. Carafa was leading his own band. Sax
had passed the baton to his friend Fessy. Seven of his men did not turn
up, perhaps led astray by the "enemy." And Sax himself was late. At last
he appeared. carrying two instruments on which he intended to play
alternately, thus replacing two of the missing musicians. After the first
part of the concert, there was no hesitation whatsoever on the part of the
audience. The members of the Commission both civilian and military,
musicians arid laymen, and the thousands of Parisians that crowded the
field agreed: the band of Sax was by far superior to that of Carafa. The
test had proved that theoretical discussions could but anticipate and
deduce. Sax's victory was overwhelming. The sensation in Paris was
enormous. For several days, Sax was the talk of the town. The humoristic
weekly LE CHARIVARI (the model and precursor of London's PUNCH) printed
''A modern Bulletin to be added to those of Napoleons Great Army, on the
battle fought between Les Saxons and Les Carafons." After describing the
successive phases of the battle in military style, Lee Charivari ended by
trowing the vanquished Carafons flashing through the field to collect
their dead, ''pour ramasser leurs cors morts,'' making a doubtful pun on
corps ( corpse) and cors (horns).In order to get a less fanciful approach
to that memorable ''battle'' and to allow musicians to understand the true
nature of the reorganization advocated by Sax, it is interesting to
compare the composition of the two bands, as it was originally planned by
their leaders. It was slightly modified, due to the various contingencies,
on the day of the Chamvs-de-Mars performance. The normal consequences of
Sax's victory should have been the immediate approval of his plan by the
Ministry of War. But several months were to elapse before the official
publication of the decree confirming his success.
cast down by their Champ-de-Mars disaster, founded an association,
regularly constituted, with a president, a secretary, periodical
contributions and a legal residence at 11, Rue Serpente, Paris. Moreover,
the law-suits against him were multiplying. His rivals' aim was to prove
that he was by no means an inventor, and that the patents granted to him
should be nullified. When he asked for a new patent for the saxophone,
they all claimed that it was no new invention and that it had been known
in Germany for many years. Sax wanted to give them a fair deal. He offered
his calumniators one whole year, saying that if they could bring him the
equivalent of a saxophone, at any time during these twelve months, he
would agree to renounce his patent.
closely, that Sax accompanied Berlioz, as we have seen, to the Beethoven
celebration, at the end of August 1845.
was printed in the Moniteur de L'Anmée.
The enemies of Sax have all been dead for a long time, but the enemies of
his saxophone are very much alive. They will be delighted to know that,
during one of the lawsuits against Sax in 1845, a distinguished French
jurist Maitre Marie, acting as counselor for the Association of the United
Instrument Makers, made a statement in court, according to which, "the
saxophone had never existed, could not possibly exist, and was to be
considered as a mere quack's trick (acte de charlatanisme) on the part of
saxophone -- that nonexistent, mythical invention -- was granted to
pursue their voyage around the world. For nearly half a century more, Sax
continued to struggle against ruthless opponents, to defend his
inventions, his position, his honor. He fought his fight with alternatives
of success and defeat. We will simply record the principal events of his
career, after his most important inventions had been realized.
resuts, On July 26, a military festival took place at the Franconi
Hippodrome, a kind of arena with an open roof, where 1800 musicians
performed a very eclectic program in front of a brilliant audience
presided over by the Duke of Montpensact.
most probably would shock a modern concert-goer who, if he could condone
"the great phantasy on Spontini's Fernand Cortez," could not admit Fessy's
arrangement of Gluck's chorus from Armida for this huge crowd of wind
instruments and percussion. But the hit of the concert, according to
Kastner, was the Berlioz transcription ''for Sax instruments" of the
Apothéose from the Symphonie Funébre et Triomphale, "an audacious
conception begot by power and genius; no other work could have better
crowned such a splendid festival." It was a real triumph for Sax. And I'
Illustration reviewed it very favorably, stating that "the major advantage
of Sax's system consists in the unity achieved by the brass instruments in
the whole compass.'' Berlioz himself declared in his feuilleton (July 29)
that this immense gathering created an image of what "le fétes antiques"
(Greek and Roman celebrations) might have been.
February 14, 1847, he announces that the "teaching of this precious
instrument has begun at the Gymnase Musical." Meanwhile Sax had opened a
small concert ball with no more than 400 seats. It was badly needed in
Paris, comments the composer. On October 12, he announces that first and
second prizes were awarded by the Gymnase to five students of the
saxophone class. History has not brought down to us the names of these
pioneers, the first ones to employ this new means of tormenting their
person. -- The band if the Infantry regiment played recently in Neuilly
during the King's domain . His Majesty was very taken by the charm of an
instrument, the sound of which was absolutely unknown to him. It was the
saxophone, recently introduced into the band. The King, desiring to hear
it again, asked the musicians to perform once more the piece in which the
fine instrument played a solo."
dethroned in February 1848. The Republic, headed by Lamarrine, for some
reason or other, did not like Sax and on March 21 proclaimed a
"Counter-Reformation" of the bands. The decree of 1845 was revoked.
The next year, at the Industrial Exhibition, Sax won the gold medal. Two
years later, he 2as granted the Grande Médaille d'Honneur at the
International Exhibition (1851).
Viardot sang the only woman's role of the opera, and the Rédowa of the
Skaters was danced and directed by the illustrious Petipa. Berlioz pays a
tribute to those celebrities, ending his article thus: "I must add a word
of praise for the bass-clarinet, that plays a wonderful part in several
episodes of the last two acts. This marvelous instrument was manufactured
in the workshop of Sax."
had not been acquainted with the saxophone early enough to write a part
for it in his score.
The military bands once more adopted his instruments, that now were known
all over the world. In the summer of 1849, the Distin family toured the
United States with their Saxhorns. In the Spring of 1854, a Monsieur
Soualle, after giving saxophone concerts in London, came back to Paris and
appeared in several musical evenings given by fashionable hostesses. Later
in the same year, Sax published his Saxhorn Method. Meanwhile he was
creating new instruments and completing the "families" of the groups he
had already built up.
made six silver trumpets for the Cent Gardes, the emperor's guard of
honor. One year later, he was appointed "Imperial Instrument-maker"
(facteur de la maison militaire de l'Emperor). He became director of stage
music at the Opera, and a saxophone class was created at the Paris
Conservatory, under his personal direction. He taught there thirteen
years. After the disasters of 1870, the French Government suppressed this
class. It was re-established at the end of the century.
slanders, always of the verge of ruin, and always winning his lawsuits,
and receiving the highest awards in all exhibitions, Sax lived to the age
of eighty. During his last years, he was very poor and lived on a modest
pension that was donated to him by the French Government, at the request
of Henry Roujon, the director of the Fine Arts Department.
His instruments outlive his fame.