Debussy had to be dragged kicking and screaming into completing the commission for saxophone he’d accepted from the American player Elisa Hall in 1903. After much procrastination, the composer sent Hall a draft of his Rapsodie in 1911… but with large gaps in it. He left it still unfinished at his death in 1918, at which point Jean Roger-Ducasse completed the ten-minute work for its debut the following year.
MusorgskyPictures at an Exhibition(orch. Ravel, 1922)
In ‘The Old Castle’, the second of the Viktor Hartmann pictures in Musorgsky’s famous 1874 work for solo piano, a troubadour sings his mournful song in front of said castle. When Ravel arranged the work for orchestra in 1922, he allotted the role of the troubadour to the alto sax. Brilliantly imaginative, it captures the music’s mood to perfection.
As with Elisa Hall, persistence paid off for saxophonist Sigurd Raschèr, who badgered Glazunov to write him a concerto. The Russian composer relented and the result – three short, pleasingly lyrical movements – was premiered by Raschèr himself in Sweden in November 1934. Glazunov himself almost certainly never heard it played in concert.
Little surprise that Prokofiev, a composer who was never averse to exploring the orchestra’s full range of colours, introduced the saxophone to its ranks on a few occasions. One was in his 1934 film score for Lieutenant Kijé, but the more famous instance is when, in the ballet Romeo and Juliet, a tenor sax is heard taking up the main tune of the ‘Dance of the Knights’, giving it a lighter, jauntier touch.
A couple of minutes into the third movement of the Sixth Symphony – one of Vaughan Williams’s most snarlingly aggressive – a sinuous tenor sax is played against an accompaniment of snare drum and scurrying strings. It seems almost jazzy at first, but as its motif is repeated again and again before being taken up by the full orchestra, it starts to sound deeply unsettling.