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by Tedd Griepentrog

The author with original Saxophones at the Musical Instrument Museum
in Brussels, Belgium
Sax alto.jpeg
An original Adolphe Sax alto saxophone, Brussels
Sax soprano.jpeg
An original Adolphe Sax soprano saxophone, Brussels
Garde Republicaine Band.jpeg
Band of the Republican Guard
Sax factory exterior 1850.jpeg
The Sax factory, 1850
Sax factory interior 1863.jpeg
The Sax factory, 1862
E. A. Lefebre (1834–1911)
Six Brown Brothers
Vaudeville troupe
Rudy Wiedoeft (1893–1940)
Adolphe Sax (1814–1894)

The saxophone, one of the most recent inventions in the musical world, has fought off tradition and prejudice to find a place for itself in the wind band. First introduced into the French military bands through the efforts of Hector Berlioz and Adolphe Sax himself, this family of instruments has matured rapidly, and is now a vital part of the contemporary concert band and wind ensemble. 


The exact date of the invention of the saxophone is not known. Composer, author, theorist, and historian Georges Kastner indicates that, as early as 1841, Adolphe Sax sent a saxophone to the Brussels exhibition. However, someone maliciously kicked the package, damaging the instrument so badly that it was impossible to exhibit it.[1]


The official “birth certificate” of the saxophone was recorded in an article by Hector Berlioz in the Paris Journal des Débats on June 12, 1842:


The saxophone, named after its inventor, is a brass instrument with nineteen keys, whose shape is rather similar to that of the ophicleide. Its mouthpiece, unlike that of most brass instruments, is similar to the mouthpiece of the bass clarinet. Thus, the Saxophone becomes the head of a new group, that of the brass instruments with reed. It has a compass of three octaves beginning from the lower B-flat under the staff; its fingering is akin to that of the flute or the second part of the clarinet. Its sound is of such rare quality that, to my knowledge, there is not a bass instrument in use nowadays that could be compared to the (bass) Saxophone. It is full, soft, vibrating, extremely powerful, and easy to lower in intensity. As far as I am concerned, I find it very superior to the lower notes of the ophicleide, in accuracy as well as in the solidity of the sound. But the character of such sound is absolutely new, and does not resemble any of the timbers heard up till now in our orchestras, with the sole exception of the bass clarinet’s lower E and F. Owing to its reed, it can increase or diminish the intensity of its sounds. The notes of the higher compass vibrate so intensively that they may be applied with success to melodic expression. Naturally, this instrument will never be suited for rapid passages, for complicated arpeggios; but the bass instruments are not destined to execute light evolutions. Instead of complaining, we must rejoice that it is impossible to misuse the Saxophone and thus to destroy its majestic nature by forcing it to render mere musical futilities. 

The composers will be very indebted to Mr. Sax when his new instruments are generally employed. If he perseveres, he will meet with the support of all friends of music.[2]

The public premier of the saxophone was in a piece written by Hector Berlioz and performed at Hertz Hall on February 3, 1844. In this initial performance of the sextet, Hymne Sacré, Adolphe Sax himself played the saxophone part. Its orchestral debut followed in December of the same year with Georges Kastner’s opera, The Last King of Judah, performed at the Paris Conservatory.[3] Kastner’s Method Complete et Raisonnee de Saxophone, the first book of its kind, soon followed. 

The official patent for the saxophone was issued in Paris in 1846, after a lengthy dispute over its legitimacy. A number of other musical instrument makers, led by Wilhelm Wieprecht, tried to lay claim to the origins of the saxophone. However, after all evidence was presented in court, it was agreed that the concept of the saxophone was indeed the result of Adolphe Sax alone. The patent decree was granted, and the saxophone was on its way to revolutionizing wind music. 

From the time of its invention, the saxophone was supported by a number of Sax’s famous contemporaries. In addition to Berlioz and Kastner, such composers as William Henry Fry, Gioachino Rossini, and Georges Bizet were quick to include saxophone parts in their scores and to encourage others to write for the instrument.

As a result of this promotion and thus the need for trained saxophonists, the teaching of the saxophone was begun early in many major music institutions. In 1847, Berlioz announced the teaching of saxophone at the Gymnase Musical in France. On October 12th of the same year, the first five students graduated with honors.[4] Adolphe Sax himself taught a similar course at the Paris Conservatory from 1857. However, it was discontinued in 1870 as the result of a budget cutback.[5] In Belgium, Nazaire Beeckman taught saxophone at the Brussels Conservatory from 1867 until his death in 1900.[6]


In 1844, at the request of the French government, Adolphe Sax began the reorganization of the French military bands. By July 1845, a proclamation of standard instrumentation was issued. This decree included, among other new instruments, the introduction of two saxophones and a family of saxhorns into the bands However, as a result of the 1848 revolution, the decree was never put into effect.[7]

Sax’s influence prompted another decree in 1854. This time, two soprano saxophones, two alto saxophones, two tenor saxophones, and two baritone saxophones were added to the Band of the Republican Guard. Soon every band throughout the French military boasted a complete family of saxophones.[8]

The success of these bands soon became known throughout Europe. In England, the Royal Artillery Band had added four saxophones as early as 1857[9] and the Grenadier Guards Band followed suit in 1858.[10] Belgium also was quick to follow the example of France. The popularity of the saxophone has remained constant in these countries to the present. 

Germany, however, experienced an unusually slow acceptance of the saxophone. According to Sir George Grove:


Throughout Germany for many years the saxophone won little regard, and very few players took it up. In part this may have been due to the ingrained German prejudice against Boehm fingerings, and Heckel, recognizing this, brought out his Heckel-Clarina about 1890. The new product was for all intents and purposes a saxophone adapted to the “old” system of fingering for the right hand, and it incorporated automatic octave mechanism which was patented in Germany…Today the Heckel-Clarina may be regarded as obsolete for, as long ago as 1933, W. H. Heckel, the present head of the firm, observed that it no longer had any special value at a time when “jazz had made the usual finger of the saxophone familiar to all and sundry.”[11]


The actual breakthrough of the saxophone into German military bands did not occur until World War II. The New York Times of August 4, 1935, recorded the following account:


The saxophone, once reviled by Nazis as an “African Negro instrument because of its use in jazz bands, has now been rehabilitated in the Third Reich, and it has made a triumphant entry into German military music. It is being adopted by bands created by General Hermann Goering, Air Minister for the Reich German air fleet, as being in keeping with the lightness of the new German army. General Goering has repeatedly announced his willingness to use any important invention, even if it was invented by a Jew. He has adopted the same unorthodox view regarding the saxophone.[12]


In America, the saxophone has received its greatest advancement, beginning with the premiere of the saxophone solo in William Henry Fry’s Santa Claus Symphony in 1853. This piece was first performed in New York by the orchestra of Antoine Jullian, who had to “import” E. A. Lefebre from France to play the part.[13]

Harvey B. Dodsworth is credited with introducing the saxophone into the American bands sometime around 1860. His influence also resulted in the bass clarinet and BBb tuba becoming a part of the standard band instrumentation.[14]

Patrick S. Gilmore, born in County Galway, Ireland, formed a band in Boston in 1859. Lefebre, previously saxophone soloist with Jullien, became one of his featured performers. In 1872, Gilmore took command of the 22nd Regiment Band of the New York Militia. The instrumentation included a family of saxophones from soprano to baritone. Gilmore brought with him a number of fine players from his old band in Boston, including Lefebre, now renowned as a saxophone virtuoso. Lefebre remained as a featured saxophonist with this band until Gilmore retired in 1892.[15]

In the late 1880s began a boom of professional touring bands which was to continue into the early part of the 20th century. Alessandro Liberati, who formed a band in 1883, employed F. A. Maginel, “who was to become one of America’s star performers on the saxophone.” The Great Band of Frederick N. Innes, organized in 1887, often included a saxophone quintet on the programs. On the West Coast, R. E. Trognitz became well-known as the saxophone soloist of the City Guard Band of San Diego about 1890.[16]

John Philip Sousa, having recently resigned as leader of the United States Marine Band in Washington, D.C., formed his own band in 1892. His premier saxophone section included E. A. Lefebre, Thomas Shannon, and Stanley Lawton.[17]

While with Sousa, Lefebre continued to build his reputation as an outstanding soloist. By the turn of the century, he was considered the greatest saxophonist in the world and was known as the “Saxophone King.” H. Benne Henton, a later soloist with Sousa, was referred to as the “Saxophone Prince.”[18] Lefebre later became a consultant for C. G. Conn, who produced saxophones at such an astounding rate that, by 1935, Americans were buying more saxophones in one week than Adolphe Sax had ever dreamed would be bought in one year.[19]

H. Benne Henton’s playing was so remarkable that Richard Strauss, when he toured America, chose him to head the saxophone quartet in the performances of his Domestic Symphony (1904).[20] Even after 1920, when he opened a music store in Philadelphia, Henton continued to play with various bands throughout the country. On programs with the Patrick Conway Band, “Henton was often called on to play a solo entitled, Eleven O’Clock. One of the features of his rendition of this solo was an almost impossible cadenza which Henton created. This cadenza soars away above the conventional range of the instrument. Only his phenomenal embouchure enabled him to perform this flight into the saxophone stratosphere, for it ascends beyond the limits of the keys on the instrument.”[21]

Sousa continued to turn up fine saxophonists. Throughout its span of over the decades, the Sousa Band saxophone section included such players as Rudolph Becker, Franck Sullivan, and Ben Vereecken. At one time, the Great Lakes Battalion Band, which Sousa led, included an amazing sixteen saxophonists.[22]


From 1919 to 1925, a “saxophone craze” occurred in America. In the peak years of 1923 and 1924, sales of American-made saxophones totaled over 100,000. This phenomenal amount of sales was not due to the saxophone’s prominence in touring bands, but to an increased usage in popular music. 

On the vaudeville stage, the saxophone became a featured instrument. Such novelty acts as Tom Brown’s famous saxophone troupe, “the Six Brown Brothers,” and “The Five Nosses, were imitated throughout the 1920s. These groups were noted for squawks, squeaks, and other effects associated with early jazz.[23] While this type of playing made the saxophone an easily recognizable instrument to the general public, few became aware of its concert potential. 

In response to this adverse publicity, The New York Times issued the following statement on April 7, 1929:


The saxophone is the most abused of all instruments, says Edwin Franko Goldman, bandmaster. “The saxophone is a most useful instrument,” he said. “It gives the band or orchestra a precise tone and quality that is not furnished by any other instrument. It is as definitely a part of orchestras and bands as the cornet or trombone. Of course, the reason for the saxophone being the butt of 5,00,000 jokes is the fact the fingering is fairly easy to master and causes so many to take it up. I believe it safe to say, though, that out of every 100 saxophone players, professional or amateur, only 10 are masters of the instrument. Good saxophone players are a rare commodity.”[24]


However, good saxophonists did arise. As a result of the “saxophone craze,” an increasing number of people became interested in promoting the saxophone as a legitimate instrument. This era spawned such notable European players as Sigurd Rascher and Marcel Mule, two of the finest saxophonists in history. To date, their influence is felt, not only with the particular school of playing each developed, but by the numerous compositions each commissioned and premiered. 

Perhaps the most famous saxophonist of the era, popularized by Edison’s newly invented phonograph, was Rudy Wiedoeft. Throughout the 1920s, such hit recordings as Saxophobia, Waltz Llewellyn, and Saxarella made Wiedoeft’s a household name. The Metronome reports of his unprecedented Aolian Hall recital on April 17, 1926:


To the music lover it marked the first complete and satisfying appearance of the saxophone and saxophone ensemble in the legitimate concert field—an offering untinged by any of the so-called “jazz” effects of the present day dance combinations, yet a refreshing diversion from other offerings in the concert field…It remained for this concert to conclusively bear out his contention that the saxophone is not only eminently suitable as a solo instrument, but presents a family of instruments whose rendition of true classics not only requires no apology, but permits a completeness of tone pictures and tone coloring of pleasing uniqueness.[25]

Throughout the 20th century, the saxophone continued to progress, finding a home in the concert bands and wind ensembles prominent throughout the world. Its use in the wind band literature has been extensive, with a minimum of two alto saxophones, one tenor saxophone, and one baritone saxophone becoming standard instrumentation. Beginning with compositions for military band by the English traditionalists, through the works of contemporary American composers, the saxophone has developed into a vital voice in wind music. 

The early works of Gustav Holst, noted for their charming settings of English folksongs, helped promote the use of the saxophone. First Suite for Military Band (1909) demanded the inclusion a minimum of two saxophones. His successive compositions, Second Suite for Military Band in F and Hammersmith: Prelude and Scherzo, also include important solo passages for saxophone. 


Perhaps the most enthusiastic promoter of the saxophone was Percy Aldridge Grainger, who chose, among other interests, “to practice the saxophone, more to learn about the whole family of instruments than to endeavor to become a 90-day wonder on the Bb soprano. He never ceased to praise its beauty of tone and splendid lyric quality, or to register his strong if questionable belief that the whole family of saxophones was superior to that of the clarinet.”[26]

Grainger stressed the inclusion of the entire family of saxophones in almost all his band compositions. Irish Tune from County Derry, Shepherd’s Hey, Molly on the Shore, Hill Song No. 2, Children’s March, and Lincolnshire Posy each contain significant solo lines for all saxophones from soprano to baritone. 

In an article entitled “The Saxophone’s Business in the Band,” Grainger offers the following philosophy:


To the deepening and beautifying of the band’s message, the saxophone family (with its yearning voices, its exquisitely balanced harmonies, its heart-throb sonorities) has most valuably contributed. This, in my opinion, is the main office of the saxophone family in the military band: To refine our emotional susceptibilities, thereby making music-lovers (perhaps mankind in general) more receptive to all those delicate stirs that make for world-peace and for a gentler and happier life on this globe.[27]


Many prominent composers have created masterworks that include important saxophone parts. Paul Hindemith, in his virtuosic Symphony in Bb for Band, and Ingolf Dahl, with his challenging Sinfonietta, have emphasized the soloistic potential of the saxophone. Vaclav Nelhybel and Karel Husa, noted for rhythmicity and intense emotionalism, also employ the saxophone extensively. Others, such as Warren Benson, Vincent Persichetti, Joseph Schwanter, Leslie Bassett, and Norman Dello Joio, use the saxophone as a welcome addition to their palette of tonal colors. 

In reviewing the standard wind band literature, it becomes obvious that the saxophone has indeed earned a permanent place for itself in this medium. In regard to its future use, Frederick Fennell, the father of the wind ensemble movement, offers this summarizing comment:


The saxophone, in spite of its proven success as a new wind sonority, and in spite of its existence and general acceptance in the period of over a century since its invention, is still subjected to a curious snobbism in the general art of music. The utter necessity for saxophones in the modern wind band may help to dispel this prejudice against them if and when the general musical art finally accepts the wind band. That they are the utter quintessence of jazz has thus far provided them with a source for unlimited technical development. That they are subject to fad seems not to alter the value of Sax’s invention, but rather to enhance it.[28]




[1] Leon Kochnitzky, Adophe Sax and His Saxophone (World Saxophone Congress, 1972), pp. 9-10.

[2] Ibid., p. 13.

[3] Ibid., p. 19.

[4] Ibid., p. 30.

[5] Jean-Marie Londeix, 125 Years of Music for Saxophone (Paris: Leduc, 1971), p. 6. 

[6] Paul Raspé, “Instrument Problem—the Saxophone” World Saxophone Congress Newsletter (World Saxophone Congress, 1974) Volume IV, Number 3, p. 13.

[7] Henry George Farmer, The Rise and Development of Military Music (Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1912, reprint 1970), pp. 110-111.

[8] Ibid., pp. 111-112.

[9] Ibid., p. 127.

[10 Harold C. Hind, “The British Wind Band,” Waits–Wind Band–Horn  (London: Hinrichsen Edition Ltd., 1952), p. 189. 

[11] George Grove, Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th Edition (New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 1954) p. 432.

[12] New York Times (August 4, 1935; reprinted in the Saxophone Sheet, number 11, Fall 1976, p. 9).

[13] Anthony Alduino, “The Early Use of the Saxophone in American Music,” Saxophone Symposium, Winter 1979, Volume 4, Number 1, p. 14. 

[14] H. W. Schwartz, Bands of America (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957), p. 78.

[15] Ibid., pp. 84, 94, 104.

[16] Ibid., pp. 113, 125, 127.

[17] William Carter White, A History of Military Music in America (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1944), 147-150.

[18] Alduino, p. 14.

[19] Mervin N. Lysing, “Development of the Saxophone,” The School Musician, April 1966, p. 75.

[20] Alduino, p. 14.

[21] Schwartz, pp. 280, 236, 279.

[22] Ibid. p. 266.

[23] Lysing, p. 75.

[24] New York Times (April 7, 1929; reprinted in the Saxophone Sheet, number 12, Winter 1977, p. 6).

[25] “Rudy Wiedoeft Sets Precedent in Aeolian Hall Concert,” The Metronome,” May 1, 1926, (reprint: World Saxophone Congress Newsletter, 1974, Number, 3, p. 4).  

[26] Frederick Fennell, “Percy Grainger’s Irish Tune from County Derry and Shepherd’s Hey,” The Instrumentalist, September 1978, p. 18. 

[27] Percy Aldridge Grainger, “The Saxophone’s Business in the Band,” The Instrumentalist, September-October 1949, p. 7.

[28] Frederick Fennell, Time and the Winds (Kenosha, Wis.: Leblanc Publications, Inc., 1954), p. 21.

Copyright © 1991 Tedd Griepentrog

Published in the September 1991 Instrumentalist

Reprinted with Permission. All Rights Reserved. 

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