Since the saxophone was invented and patented by a young man from French-speaking Dinant, in Belgium’s Walloon Region, American musicians have paid credit to the instrument by producing memorable performances which include John Coltrane’s “Love Supreme,” Dino Soldo’s smooth jazz solos, or Clarence Clemons’s relentless drive.
Over time, the sax has found its way into almost every genre of music with one exception. The saxophone is not part of the orchestral repertoire. It was and remains a rogue instrument.
Born into a family of professional craftsmen, Adolphe Sax was trained by his father Charles who was Musical Instrument Maker to the Belgian King. Sax Sr. made instruments for the purpose of retail sales, Adolphe was responsible for experimental design and invention. At the same time, he studied flute and clarinet at the Brussels Conservatory.
Sax started work on improving the bass clarinet, patenting the results in 1838. He strove to improve the orchestra’s lower voices by refining the blend of woodwind instruments. Having developed the contrabass clarinet by 1840, he devised an entirely new instrument. He first took out a patent for the saxophone in 1846.
In June 1842, Sax traveled to Paris and gave his first concert at the Paris Conservatory where he introduced his instruments to professionals and critics. Having met many distinguished musicians in Paris, he struck an immediate friendship with Hector Berlioz. In October that same year he settled in the capital and founded the Adolphe Sax Musical Instrument Factory at no. 10 Rue Neuve-Saint-Georges in the 9th arrondissement (known for its theaters).
In 1847, he opened a 400-seat concert hall adjacent to the workshop where he himself and others regularly performed on his instruments to promote their quality. Early versions of the saxophone were applauded for their timbre and tone. In order to create a standard repertoire, Sax also ran a publishing house.
Many orchestral composers praised the unique qualities of the new instrument; few of them used the saxophone in their compositions. They shunned the saxophone. What motivated this reluctance?
Battle of the Bands
Invitations were sent to all instrument manufacturers to submit ideas. In his contribution, Sax proposed the inclusion of saxhorns, valve bugles, and bass saxophones.
A commission of composers was requested to report to the government. In order to make an informed decision, a public contest was called for to take place in April 1845 at the Champ-de-Mars (now the site of the Eiffel Tower). The Battle of the Bands was staged before an estimated 20,000 people. The crowd favored the power of Sax’s band. The commission agreed.
As a consequence, the government declared Sax the winner, mandating the use of his instruments. The contract handed to this “outsider” enraged traditional instrument makers in Paris and sparked a bitter trade war.
The saxophone became the focus of animosity which harmed its reputation. There were lengthy quarrels about patents, claims about stolen trade secrets, bribes to composers not to incorporate the saxophone in any of their compositions, and a boycott of Sax’s instruments by Parisian musicians. Twice an attempt was made to murder the inventor.
Sax’s opponents may have blocked the acceptance of the instrument as an addition to the modern orchestra, but the instrument was fully implemented into military bands. The original decree of 1845 was supplemented by a second Imperial decision in March 1855, prescribing that all major army and infantry bands include a double quartet of saxophones. Influenced by their French counterparts, military bands all over Europe began to include the saxophone as part of their standard instrumentation.
The Gymnase Musical Militaire was the first school to offer saxophone instruction in 1846. In 1857, a Professorship was created for Sax at the Paris Conservatory to teach his instrument. Since training at these institutions was restricted to military personnel, it produced a relatively small number of performers.
Louis-Antoine Jullien was the son of a military bandsman and a soldier himself. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire, but left early to pursue a career in more popular forms of music. By 1838 he led an orchestra at the Jardin Turc (Turkish Garden), a celebrated café and music garden in the Boulevard du Temple. He created a sensation by concocting a quadrille based on tunes from Meyerbeer’s popular opera Les Huguenots accompanied by gas flares, alarm bells, and musketry. Jullien liked a bit of fun.
By 1839 he had fled to England to escape his creditors. Over the next two decades, he monopolized the London concert scene with his eclectic band of musicians. From June 1840 to early 1859 he conducted winter and summer seasons in leading London theaters involving huge ensembles. Jullien effectively created the promenade concert in England.
Most of the summer season concerts were held at the Surrey Zoological Gardens. The first of his “Concerts monstres” was organized to celebrate Queen Victoria’s accession. As a finale, an audience of some 12,000 people joined in to sing a version of “God Save the Queen” whereby each bar was punctuated by cannon.
Jullien was a showman, not just in his dress sense and accessories (he conducted Beethoven with a jeweled baton), but above all in his selection of musicians and instruments. He was the first conductor to showcase the saxophone. Belgian soloist Henri Wuille was encouraged to display his virtuosic abilities (later in his career he would teach saxophone at the Conservatoire de Strasbourg). After their intensive touring in the 1850s and 1860s, Europe associated the saxophone with flamboyant performances.
Traditionalists who preferred to enjoy their music in a “stylish” symphonic concert hall frowned upon this development. They steered clear of the saxophone.
Crazy for Sax
In August 1853, Jullien traveled to New York with twenty-seven instrumental soloists to which he added more than sixty local musicians. He began his tour, which included a performance of his new American Quadrille, with forty-eight concerts at New York’s Castle Garden and Metropolitan Hall.
After performing in Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and other centers, he ended the tour with a concert at New York’s Crystal Palace (built for the 1853 World Exhibition) produced by Phineas T. Barnum. The spectacle culminated in Night, or the Fireman’s Quadrille which included the arrival of three companies to extinguish a real fire with real water.
Music critics praised the ensemble’s repertory, standards, and extraordinary soloists. They agreed that this was the best orchestra Americans had enjoyed listening to up to that time. Henri Wuille was the first saxophone soloist ever heard in the United States.
Two decades later, in 1872, an eighteen-day extravaganza was organized in Boston to celebrate the ending of the Franco-Prussian War. The organizers of the World’s Peace Jubilee and International Musical Festival invited many bands and soloists from Europe. Musical director of the event was Patrick Gilmore. The promoters went all out and built a hall that held an audience of 100,000.
From France, the Garde Républicaine band with its eight-piece saxophone section made its presence felt (the military band gave thirty-two concerts during a three-month stay in the States). Gilmore was overwhelmed. He would be the first conductor to include saxophones in his 22nd Infantry Regiment Band (New York), featuring Dutch-born “Saxophone King” Edward Abraham Lefebre as soloist.
Thrilled by Gilmore’s popular band, America adopted the saxophone and gave it a new home. In 1866, Sax’s French patent ran out. Soon after, Parisian makers were mass manufacturing saxophones. In the United States, Gus Buescher’s Band Instrument Company produced a first prototype in 1885. The saxophone’s lasting association with vaudeville and jazz permanently broke any previous link with classical music. The “saxophone craze” began around 1914. From 1919 to 1925, American companies alone manufactured and sold over 500,000 saxophones.
PS to BS
Sadly, few people now remember the name of Sax. Collective forgetfulness may be the trouble of our era, but in 2022 it will be 150 years ago that trailblazer Patrick Gilmore introduced the saxophone into his New York military band. Plenty of time to organize a grand American tribute to Alphonse.
With his Low Countries ancestry, one person has all the credentials and the perfect profile to present such an event. Bruce, if you have got some time to spare ….
Illustrations, from above: bronze statue of Adolphe Sax by Jean-Marie Mathot outside ‘La Maison de Monsieur Sax’ in Dinant; Adolphe Sax’s workshop at Rue Neuve-Saint-Georges, Paris, 1842; Alto saxophone in E-flat produced by Alphonse Sax (Metropolitan Museum of Art); caricature of Louis-Antoine Jullien by Benjamin Roubaud; Dutch-born Edward Abraham Lefebre; and New York Crystal Palace, frontispiece to New York Crystal Palace: Illustrated Description of the Building (1854).