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by Tedd Griepentrog

The house where Adolphe Sax was born in Dinant, Belgium
"The Bridge of Saxophones"
in Dinant, Belgium
Original saxophones at the Musical Instrument Museum
in Brussels, Belgium

On November 6th, wind musicians around the world celebrate the birthday of Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax. This day is a traditional favorite for recitals, performances, and concerts featuring the instruments he developed. But who was this man—now remembered largely because he was arrogant enough to name a newly designed instrument after himself?


Adolphe Sax was born on November 6, 1814, in Dinant, Belgium. He was the first son of eleven children born to Charles Joseph Sax, an already-established manufacturer of brass and woodwind instruments. Young Adolphe followed in the family business, soon eclipsing his father’s accomplishments. 


By the age of 20, Adolphe had made the first of many changes he would bring to wind instruments. The bass clarinet had been invented in 1807 by Desfontenelles, but was rarely used due to its primitive and ill-focused tone quality. By adding an upturned bell to project its sound and using a closed key mechanism to cover the tone holes, Sax effectively reinvented the bass clarinet. 


1841 was a frustrating year for Sax, who was then 27. Although his wind instruments were recognized as superior to others shown at the Belgian Industrial Exhibition, the jury refused to grant him a prize. Their reason? He was too young to be awarded a prize so high that none higher could be given in the future. 


Records from the same year indicate that Adolphe was unable to display his most recent invention at the exhibition. A prototype of his latest mutation—an instrument that combined the body and strong sonorities of the brasses with the woodwind key mechanisms and a single-reed mouthpiece—was damaged when kicked while still in its shipping package. The saxophone was yet to be unveiled. 


Sax was discouraged by these incidents and moved to Paris in 1842. There, in the European hub of the arts, he was soon befriended by the eminent composer, author and critic, Hector Berlioz. Shortly thereafter, Berlioz published a column, now thought of as the “birth certificate” of the saxophone, in the June 12, 1842, issue of the Paris Journal des Débats. Along with glowing praise for Adolphe Sax and his work, Berlioz made the first public mention of the saxophone, and a new family of instruments was born. Rival instrument makers and stodgy critics were quick to ridicule Sax’s invention, but they could not diminish the popularity it enjoyed. 


Following this success, Sax turned his attention to the brass family. He was eager to create a unified design, timbre, and fingering system that would enable performers to switch easily between instruments. Because the many previous variations of brass instruments were incapable of such versatility, Adolphe Sax’s invention of an entirely new brass family, the saxhorns, became increasingly popular. Saxhorns were built in all sizes from a soprano (similar to a keyed bugle) to a bass in the tuba range. With these instruments, Sax developed and promoted the use of cylindrical valves, replacing the inferior pistons of the day. 


Sax made further improvements on the other established instruments as well. His revised placement of the clarinet’s register key helped clear the poor quality of its throat tones. In addition, he designed right-hand trill keys that enabled easier trilling across the break. These mechanism designs, though modified and improved over the years, are essentially retained on present-day clarinets. 


He also addressed the problems encountered by clarinetists with the wooden mouthpieces then in use. With changes in heat and humidity, these mouthpieces often warped or cracked, and playing was inconsistent from day to day. Adolphe Sax had an answer. Without access to hard rubber or plastic compounds, he turned to a material that was readily available in instrument manufacturing and was the first to utilize metal mouthpieces for clarinets as well as saxophones. 


Sax’s contributions as an inventor were not confined to woodwind and brass instruments. In 1841 he designed an organ powered by steam from a locomotive engine. This first calliope, as this version came to be known, soon found a home with travelling circuses. Other patents filed by Sax include an improved railway engine whistle and the glass insulators used to attach telegraph wires to poles. 


The diverse accomplishments, improvements, and inventions of Adolphe sax are indeed remarkable. He revolutionized instrument manufacturing and has influenced the history of music for well over a century. Without question, his contributions will be heard and appreciated for many years to come. 


So, what can we say to a man who immortalized himself by “arrogantly” naming an invention after himself?  On November 6th, try a simple “Happy birthday, Adolphe Sax!” 

Copyright © 1990 Tedd Griepentrog

Published in the August 1990 Leblanc Bell

Reprinted with Permission. All Rights Reserved. 

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