Word Origins Antoine Joseph Sax & the Saxophone

About the history and biography of Antoine Joseph Sax the man who invented and became the namesake for the saxophone.



saxophone ('sak-se-,fon) n. A wind instrument having a single-reed mouthpiece, a usually curved conical metal bore, and finger keys, and made in a variety of sizes.

Antoine Joseph (known as Adolphe) Sax grew up with his 10 brothers and sisters in the paternal workshop in Brussels, where even as a child he worked side by side with his father making wind instruments. The bass clarinet was his particular interest, and while trying to improve its tone, he invented the saxophone, which he first thought of as a bass instrument. Only later did he realize its potential for all registers.

While still in Brussels, Sax met Berlioz, and it was no doubt the composer who persuaded him to try his luck in Paris. He arrived with 30 francs to his name, a few specimens of his instruments, and monumental determination. He established a workshop with borrowed capital and began turning out wind instruments. But in spite of having such influential friends as Meyerbeer, Halevy, Donizetti, and of course Berlioz, Sax could not break into the Paris market. Men who had been supplying the opera and other orchestras for generations took a dim view of the young Belgian upstart who believed his instruments to be on a par with their own. The musicians in these orchestras, many of whom were business partners of instrument makers, were scarcely more sympathetic. Meyerbeer and Donizetti were obliged to abandon their plans to include certain of Sax's instruments in their opera scores.

Sax next invited musicians to little performances to stimulate their interest in his instruments. One such occasion was organized for Feb. 3, 1844, at the Salle Herz and was to include a piece specially written by Berlioz for Sax's instruments. Featured were to be a B-flat trumpet, a cornet, an "improved bugle" (saxhorn), a clarinet, a bass clarinet, and a saxophone. The saxophone was unfortunately not quite finished when the appointed day arrived, and had to be patched together with string and sealing wax. Each instrument had its moment in Berlioz's little composition-last of all the saxophone, which had never been heard publicly in Paris. Sax was so preoccupied with whether or not his instrument would hold out that he temporarily forgot the score and was forced to sustain a single note at great length and with many delicate nuances of tone until his memory returned. The audience was delighted with the display, and the saxophone solo brought great applause.

Sax's aim was to secure the monopoly of furnishing musical instruments to the French army. His friend General de Rumigny, aide-de-camp to Louis Philippe, was an invaluable aid, and certain newspaper writers were his staunch supporters. At a special competition organized between the French military band and a band equipped with Sax's instruments, the latter proved clearly superior. Sax got the army trade, and immediately all horns, oboes, and bassoons disappeared from the military bands.

Monetary success was now at his fingertips, and the entries he made in various international exhibitions throughout the rest of his life seldom brought him less than the gold medal. But Sax was no man of business; he twice went bankrupt and gradually subsided into comparative obscurity.

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