The history of the saxophone

Once greeted with hostility, the saxophone has become an integral part of the music scene. Mervyn Cooke explores the early days.

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The history of the saxophone
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With their sleekly modern good looks, extraordinary expressive range, and inextricable relationship with jazz, the instruments of the saxophone family have become quintessentially associated with some of the most exciting musical developments of the 20th century.

 

Yet, by the time early jazz musicians first seriously got their hands on them in the 1920s, these instruments had already been in existence for around eight decades – and in the classical arena had suffered a prolonged, painful neglect orchestrated by influential figures who should have known better.

 

When he unleashed his new invention onto the Parisian scene in the early 1840s, Adolphe Sax immediately ran up against opposition from the manufacturers of orthodox wind instruments. Wagner hated it and infamously declared that it sounded like the made-up word Reckankreuzungsklankewerkzeuge.

 

 

Legal challenges, insolvency and the occasional death threat were some of the more serious consequences endured by Sax at the hands of his conservative opponents. And those who preferred not to sue, bankrupt or threaten to kill him plagiarised his designs, fully aware of their potential significance in the longer term.

 

As today, high-profile performers of traditional winds endorsed models made by their favourite manufacturers, and had the power to prevent the introduction of saxophones into established orchestras. Sax had designed one set specifically for use in classical orchestral music, and another (in different keys) with an eye towards their potential adoption by military bands.

 

It was the latter which came temporarily to his rescue when the French Government reformed its provision of military music in 1845 and the nation’s bands adopted saxophones into their ranks; but even then a powerful musical trade union attempted to prevent Sax from being granted a patent for his designs.

 

 

Helped by the patronage of Napoleon III, Sax established a saxophone class at the Paris Conservatoire in 1857, and this encouraged classical musicians to take it seriously. But the venture folded in 1870 after France was defeated by Prussia, and it was not until 1942 that the class resumed under the leadership of saxophonist Marcel Mule.

 

When (composed) ragtime fused with the (improvised) blues to create early jazz in the 1910s, the instrumentation of marching bands became crucial to the dissemination of the new music. Cornets, clarinets and trombones could all be cheaply acquired owing to a huge surplus of second-hand military instruments in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War in 1898; the saxophone fell into the same category, but was slower to establish itself as a leading voice in jazz, starting to come into its own in dance bands during the 1920s.

 

 

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of BBC Music Magazine. 

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