Adolphe Sax and the Saxophone Revisited


The sound of a saxophone playing should be music to the ears of any jazz lover throughout the world. That’s because the saxophone has been one of the key instruments used in almost all major variations of jazz that are prevalent as of now, apart from also being a key accompaniment in Western classical music concerts. Commonly referred to as the Sax, this musical instrument that has been classified under the ‘Woodwind instruments’ category was originally designed for military and concert bands. It continues to be highly popular among these groups to this very day. Coming back to jazz, the saxophone attained prominence as a must-have instrument for the Big Bands that were responsible for a distinct form of jazz known as Swing.

The man who started it all

The saxophone was invented in the year 1840 by Adolphe Sax (1814-1894) who was of Belgian origin and a maker of musical instruments. Incidentally, Sax was also an accomplished clarinetist and flautist, apart from being the inventor of the once-popular ophicleide that basically resembled a woodwind musical instrument. Developing the saxophone was part of his constant effort to make a number of improvements to the bass clarinet. These improvements mainly centered on keywork and acoustics and efforts to extend the instrument’s lower range.That again led him to develop the required skills and technological expertise that went into making the first batch of saxophones. At the time Adolphe Sax created the saxophone, it had a conical brass body which was similar to that of an ophicliede while having acoustic properties that were similar to that of the clarinet and the French horn.

Adolphe Sax developed saxophones in a variety of sizes and even went ahead to secure a patent covering them in 1846 that was applicable for 15 years. The patent encompassed as many as 14 versions of the basic design of the saxophone under the contrabass and sopranino categories. Once Sax’s patent expired at the end of its term, however, a number of instrument makers and saxophonists made their own improvements and modifications based on the design and the keywork itself. One of the popular modifications to this effect and one that is prevalent in all modern designs of the saxophone involved slightly extending the bell and adding an extra key to it. Other modifications included adding extra keys to enable musicians to play the saxophone easily using alternate fingerings. These alternate fingerlings have since then proved to be effective for various functions while playing such as big interval jumps and trilling.

The advancements and modifications in saxophone keywork continued to happen over a significant period of time after its invention and some of them have been incorporated in all modern varieties of the instrument. Out of these revisions, a particular one worth mentioning was made by a certain M. Houvenaghel in the 1950s that completely changed the mechanics of the saxophone keywork.

A multifaceted instrument indeed

The saxophone is an instrument that is available in diverse varieties with the alto and tenor variations being in highest demand among music composers worldwide. However, other varieties of saxophones continue to be used, particularly in Western classical music. At the same time, the saxophone has remained as an ever-popular accompaniment for military bands all over the world which anyway was the category it was originally designed for. Here again, the alto and the tenor varieties of saxophones tended to gain prominence. The military bands were later followed by concert bands that also made extensive use of saxophones. Chamber music comprised another area where saxophones became a universal favorite and where the concept of the saxophone quartet comes into focus.

In the realm of classical music, the saxophone quartet comprises the alto, tenor, soprano and baritone varieties of saxophones. The h2 quartet, Aurelia Saxophone Quartet, New Century Saxophone Quartet and the Mana Quartet are just some of the notable classical saxophone quartets. But when we talk about it as a musical instrument, the saxophone actually belongs to the reed quintet. This typically comprises a clarinet, a saxophone, an oboe, a bassoon and a bass clarinet.

No matter whether you love it or not, the saxophone has been a quintessential favorite for musicians and music lovers all over the world. It can truly be called a mascot of American music and its sound seems to have a sophisticated yet erotic tone that has helped it to attain a prominent place in modern nightclub circles and jazz clubs globally.