Adolphe Sax (1814-1894) Inventor of the Saxophone
Historical Excerpts from
ADOLPHE SAX AND HIS SAXOPHONE
by Léon Kochnitzky
Belgian Government Information Center ( New York, NY 1964)
It all began in Dinant, a tiny Belgian city, nestled on the right bank of the Meuse, against a high cliff surmounted by a ruined fortress. Invasions and wars have more than once swept through the town. And successive generations are never given time to quite forget the horrors witnessed by their forefathers.
Nevertheless, after each disaster and each massacre, the tenacious Belgian people rebuilt their town. There it stands now, as it stood before 1914, with its bulbous steeple that reminds us of a chess-pawn, or maybe some strange musical instrument.
Dinant through the ages was famous for the characteristic products: the hammered plate of yellow copper, called divanderie, that was the principal source of the city’s great wealth; and the couques de Dinant, kind of hard and crisp ginger-bread, made out of great-barley flour and honey, and
molded into various shapes. Both dimmderies and couques were bright, flaming, shining things. Would it require on the part of a conjurer more than a touch of his wand to change these exquisite forms into sonorous,fiery, caressing brass instruments? Some transmutation of that kind probably happened.
At the beginning of the 19th century, a manufacturer of brass at woodwind musical instruments by the name of Charles Joseph Sax lived in Dinant. On November 6, 1814. Antoine-Joseph, who was to be known as Adolphe, the first of his eleven children, was born. During the next year, after the battle of Waterloo, Charles Joseph established himself in Brussels. King William I of the Lowlands appointed him his music instrument manufacturer and commissioned him to make the band instruments for the newly created army of his “new-fangled” kingdom.
It is very common for a son to follow in the steps of his father. In the fine arts and in the field of music, hereditary dispositions are often to
be found, and the names of Brueghel and Raphael, of Bach and Mozart come instantly to one’s mind. In the handicrafts. such inherited gifts have still greater possibilities of developing. Without indulging in psyche: analytical considerations, we can take it as a fact that the imitation of
the father’s craft is the child’s favorite game. No wonder that little Adolph Sax should have been, from his early years on, familiarized with the shape and structure of all kinds of brass and woodwind instruments. At six he was able to drill a clarinet’s body properly and to twirl the cup of a horn. While still an apprentice in his father’s workshop, young Adolph, Sax was a pupil of the Brussels Conservatory and soon became an excellent flutist. He was taught to play the clarinet by Bender, conductor of a famous Belgian military band. At the age of fifteen, in 1830, he sent two flutes and a clarinet made of ivory to the Brussels Industrial Exhibition that were considered extremely fine specimens. He was twenty when he invented the bass-clarinet. Such instruments already existed, but their sound was defective, and they were altogether unreliable.
With Sax, the bass-clarinet became a standard part of the woodwind group. The incident that took place at the Brussels Grande Harmonie is perfectly characteristic of many similar happenings in the stormy career of Sax. A jealous artist, who played on the ancient bass-clarinet, threatened to quit the orchestra if it adopted the instrument built by Sax. The young inventor, who was also an excellent performer, acted as did the Virgilian shepherds and the medieval troubadours: he challenged his antagonist to a musical duel; both played in turn anti the result was a triumph for Sax and his bass-clarinet. The famous French conductor Habeneck, during his stay in Belgium the same year, was delighted by the sound of the new instrument. And Jacques Fromental Halévy, the illustrious composer of La Juive, was profoundly interested in the young inventor’s research.
Although the center of his activity was still Brussels, Adolphe Sax became well known in the principal musical centers of Europe. But the young man dreamt of a Paris success, a Parisian consecration. When in 1841, the jury of the Belgian national exhibition refused to grant him a first prize, on the ground that he was too young and that no higher award could be given him later on, he decided to leave Brussels. He arrived in Paris a few months later, in 1841, with very little money and great ambitions. But his reputation among musicians was already solidly established. No better proof of this fact can be given than the following letter from Halévy, that he had received a few weeks before his arrival in the French Capital:
I take the opportunity of M. Vieuxtemps’ stay in Paris and his imminent return to Brussels to ask you about the instruments that you had requested me to hear, and that you are now busy perfecting. I hope you will reach your aim. Your efforts should excite the interest of every composer. You enlarge the number and the power of orchestral effects. At the Paris Conservatory, we have already had the opportunity to try out your new and excellent combinations of tones. I hope you will speedily terminate the construction of your new instrument group. It will be of great help to the poor composers seeking for innovations and to the public that demands them, even were there nothing new on earth,
A thousand compliments,
The friendly tone of this letter, coming from a composer of Halévy’s standing, and the fact that it was entrusted to the Belgian violinist Vieuxtemps, after Paganini, the most celebrated virtuoso in those days, is sufficient to show in what esteem Sax was held by the foremost musicalpersonalities. All the same, he was very poor when he arrived in Paris in the spring of 1841.
In Paris, as one of his biographers, Albert Remy, puts it, a strange life began for Sax; a prodigious, tormented existence, darkened by dire experiences, and upheld with courage and fortitude. The young inventor –he was now twenty-eight — had to pay the ransom for his genial creativeness: he had to face the envy and jealousy, the wrath and hatred of his rivals and colleagues; he underwent all kinds of misery, suffering and afflictions. Glory was to be his reward, later, much later, in the course of his long career
It is true that Sax was assailed by every kind of difficulty, that he was the victim of crooks and slanderers, of money-lenders, of jealous competitors, of venomous critics and mediocre musicians. It is also true that he was often deceived by the friends he had helped, and disavowed by those very protectors, who, like Habeneck, had been among the first to give praise and recognize him. In his tribulations, there was also a kind of fatality that dragged him into quarrels and conflicts, into lawsuits and polemics. Sax — like Beaumarchais in the 18th century, like Whistler in the late 19th century — had exceptional gifts for the gentle art of making enemies. It would be too easy to accuse fate: when during a long lifetime a man is constantly involved in the same kind of turmoil, the natural conclusion is that he is himself to be held responsible for most of his trouble. A disposition inherent in his character led Sax to clash with his fellow men. He sought strife and struggling and wrangling. And yet, he always found friends and admirers, partisans and even devotees. Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Rossini, King Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III were among his constant supporters. He triumphed over his enemies; he was honored with medals and decorations. And more than once, he won his lawsuits of which he was never rid.
And when he died in Paris, on February 4, 1894, several courts were at hand with case decisions and appeals that kept lawyers and jurists busy several decades after the inventor’s death.
For all these reasons, we must take it for granted that Sax had to struggle all his life to defend his inventions and to protect himself against the “foolish tricks” of his enemies. And we will not follow Oscar Convertaut, author of an extremely laudatory and voluminous work on Sax, by describing the financial difficulties, the ferocious polemics, the slanders, the menaces of bankruptcy, and the endless lawsuits that were Sax’s lot: an undeniable consequence of his enemies’ wickedness and perhaps also a result of his arrogance and difficult temper. The reader interested in such tribulations will find them described at length (at least for the period 1842 — 186o) in the book by Convertant. During the spring of 1839, Adolphe Sax had made a short trip to Paris. It was at that time that he met Habeneck, Meyerbeer and Halévy, who all complimented him on his instruments. What instruments did the young inventor show to these masters? Certainly his bass-clarinet, his clarinets, and probably also some of his brass instruments. But evidently not the saxophone.
As Dr. Eugen Rosenkaimer puts it, the year 1846 is always given as the year of the saxophone’s invention. This common error may arise from the fact that Adolphe Sax obtained the patent for his new instrument on June 28, 1846. Dr. Rosenkaimer goes on to prove that the saxophone was exhibited, demonstrated and played on several occasions during the year 1844. We think Sax invented his instrument at a somewhat earlier date. The composer and theorist (Georges Kastner in his book on Military Bands published in 1837, relates the following anecdote: Sax bad sent the saxophone to the Brussels exhibition in 1841. It lay wrapped up in green when somebody malevolently kicked the package, damaging the instrument so badly that it was impossible for Sax to exhibit it.
The story is far from clear and does not prove that Sax’s new instrument really was the saxophone. But we find a very accurate description of the saxophone –the very first one, we believe — in an article by Hector Berlioz, published on June 12, 1842, in the Paris Journal des Débats. At the same time, this article gives us proof that Sax was already in Paris in the spring of 1842. All authors dealing with Sax and his inventions tell us that the inventor arrived in Paris by the end of that year, and that Berlioz some weeks later, wrote an encouraging article in the Débats that drew attention to the creativeness of the Belgian constructor. But,
with one exception. it would seem that none of them had read the article. Of course, it was never reprinted in any of Berlioz’ books, and as Berlioz, during the following years, often mentioned the name of Sax, some confusion may have arisen, and the famous article was never placed exactly in the mass of the great composer’s columns (or feuilletons) in the ]ournal des Débats. However, it is mentioned in time and place in J. G. Prodhomme’s Bibliographie Berliozienne, and about fifteen lines of it are quoted in Henri Radiguer’s article ( L`Orphéon,) in Lavignac’s Musical Encyclopedia.
For us, the Berlioz article marks the turning point of Sax’s career. Other well known musicians and famous composers had given him tokens of their esteem. Good words and kind letters poured on him. But now, for the first time, he received the Parisian consecration he had sought for. The ]ournal des Débats was the intellectual paper par excellence. Already, for five years. Berlioz had been its brilliant columnist. He devoted the third part of his monthly article to Sax. This, for Monsieur Sax, de Bruxelles meant
glory, or at least renown and recognition. From this day on. all informed persons in Paris, knew his name and something of his inventions. Hector Berlioz was thirty-nine years old then. His works were discussed and severely criticized by the more conservative musicians. But his authority as a critic and as a musicologist was fully recognized. His position in the musical world could be compared to that of Robert Schumann at about the same period; or, to borrow a worthy example from our contemporary life, to that of Mr. Virgil Thomson nowadays in New York City.
Sax, newcomer to Paris, met Berlioz. The Romantic vanguard master, always seeking new paths and aesthetic discoveries, was immediately struck by the young Belgian inventor’s talent.
Between Berlioz and Sax, one could detect many resemblances in character and temper: the same qualities of enthusiasm, of romantic pathos, of combativity; the same defects also: both were quarrelsome, conceited and suspicious of their neighbors’ intentions. The two men took a liking to each other, and from the day of their first meeting, became friends. The Berlioz article of June 12, 1842 represents a crucial point in the life of Sax. As it is not found in the published works of Berlioz, and as it contains the birth-certificate of the saxophone, we have translated it for the convenience of the reader:
ADOLPHE SAX’S MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
An abuse of musical instruments is made nowadays; they are employed indiscriminately, with no restraint or competence. Everybody knows the quality of the beautiful effects they can produce, and both the public and the musicians arc fatally drawn to seek such effects, and even to demand them from any new production. This art of instrumentation, as it developed, necessarily promoted and improved the construction of instruments. One can appreciate the immense progress achieved if one compares, for instance, the pianos of Erard and Pape, with the harpsichords of the last century; or the flute employed in the days of Devienne with the modern flute of Boehm; or the ancient clarinets with those constructed nowadays by Mr. Adolphe Sax, and the horrible and shapeless “serpent” used in our cathedrals with the magnificent and profound instrument recently invented by this young talented craftsman. String instruments are far from having followed the same trend; none of the violin-makers of our time can be compared with the Amati, the Stradivarius of yore, this is inherent in the nature of their craft, that from the beginning attained a high degree of perfection. On the contrary, the making of brass and woodwind instruments had never left its state of infancy, but today it has taken a road that cannot fail to lead it towards splendid achievements.
A revolution is in the making and Monsieur Adolphe Sax from Brussels, whose work we have just examined strongly contributes to it. A man of lucid mind, far-seeing, tenacious, steadfast and skilled beyond words, he is ever prepared to replace the workers incapable of understanding his projects or realizing them, whatever their specialties. He is a calculator, an acoustician, and when required, a smelter, a turner and, if need be, at the same time an embosser. He can think and act. He invents, and he accomplishes. Before describing his new instrument, let us mention the improvement that he has brought to the group of the clarinets. By stretching somewhat towards the bell the tube of the soprano clarinet, he added to its compass a semitone in the lower scale so that now that clarinet can play the E flat. In the medium scale, the B flat that had a wrong sound on the ancient clarinet, is one of the best notes of the new one. The trills from B flat to B natural or B flat to C in the medium scale, those from A to B in the lower scale, those from E to F sharp, the arpeggios in octaves from F to F and many other impracticable passages, are from now on easily played and produce an excellent sound effect. It is a well known fact that the notes of the extreme acute compass were a nightmare for composers and performers, who rarely dared to use them, and then only with great caution. By fixing a small key under the clarinet mouthpiece, Mr. Sax rendered these notes as pure, as soft, and as easy to play as those of the medium. The B flat in alt, that nobody dared to write, can be played with no preparation and with no effort on the part of the performer. It can be played pianissimo without the slightest danger and its sound is as least as soft as the same note on the flute.
If for any reason a clarinet were to remain for a few days without being played, or was in use for too long a time, dryness or humidity rendered the wooden mouthpiece difficult to use. Mr. Sax, by giving the instrument a gilt mouthpiece that increases the brilliancy of its sound, has done away with these inconveniences. The metallic mouthpiece is not subject to change like the wooden one. The clarinet has a greater compass, is more equal in tone facility, and precision than the ancient one; the fingerings
remains unchanged, except for a few instances where it has been simplified.
The new bass-clarinet built by Mr. Sax has nothing but the name in common with the old one. In this new instrument, the holes have been abolished and replaced with keys adapted to the points corresponding to the core of the vibrations. The new bass-clarinet has twenty-two keys and is remarkable for its perfect tome accuracy and uniform temperaments in all the degrees of th chromatic scale. Its greater diameter increases the volume of the sound, without preventing or hindering the performance of ctaves and fifths. This advantage is due to a key drilled near the instrument’s, mouthpiece. Its compass is three octaves and a sixth. But there is something more important than this huge extension, for it is obvious that the bass-clarinet is not supposed to range among the upper register of the orchestra. It is for the beauty of its lower notes that we appreciate it so much. As the tube is a very long one, when the performer stands, the bell of the instrument is very close to the ground. Hence a very unpleasant dulling of the sound would have existed, had not the skilled craftsman prevented it by adding a concave metallic reflector fixed under the bell, that not only prevents the sound from being lost, but directs it in the proper direction, increasing its volume at the same time.
The Saxophone (Le Saxophon), named after its inventor. is a brass instrument with nineteen keys, whose shape is rather similar to that of the ophicleide. Its mouthpiece, unlike those 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 (bass clef); 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 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 tones 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 timbres 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 suitable 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 h~uht~¢,
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.
The description given by Berlioz is that of the barytone saxophone, which he calls le Saxophon (instead of le Saxophone). It seems likely that the new group of instruments that he mentioned was not vet completed in the spring of 1842. And it is even possible that Sax later built the Alto, tenor, and soprano saxophones in response to Berlioz’s remark concerning the impossibility of playing rapid passages and complicated arpeggios with a saxophone. In later years, Sax decided to reduce by seven semitones the compass of his saxophones, because of the unsatisfactory sonoritv of the higher notes.
Shortly after the publication of the Berlioz article, Sax had great success at the Conservatoire, where he demonstrated his instruments and played some of them in the presence of such musicians as Auber, Halévy, Habeneck, Ed..Monnais, who all praised him greatly.
Sax now established his workshop in Paris. In a broken down shed at No. 10 Rue Saint-Georges, he set to work, and his method of working was a new cause of scandal and protest to the people of the trade, because he wanted to see every part of each instrument built under his own eyes, and not, as had been the custom, by specialized craftsmen, each of them working on his own and bringing a piece ready to be adjusted to the whole.
Advocating the use of rotary valves instead of pistons, he shocked and displeased both constructors and musicians who were accustomed to the piston system. However, he found a powerful protector in the person of General de Rumigny, King Louis-Philippe’s aide-de-camp, who. had met him in Brussels where his brother, the Marquis de Rumigny, was the French Minister to the Belgian Court. General de Rumigny gave our inventor invaluable material and moral help and his protection extended through many years.
On the 17th and 21st of June 1843, Sax was granted his first two French patents. But the more recognition he received, the more was he made the target of his competitors’ attacks and slanders.
During the spring of 1843, Berlioz was traveling in Germany. His Voyage Musical en Allemagne was to appear in a series of eleven articles in the ]ournal de Débats (August 1843–January 1844). Of course the composer was back in Paris when the articles were published. He was aware of Sax’s troubles and, in nearly every article, he tried to help and encourage his friend. It is interesting to quote these passages: they bring light on the dire struggle Sax had tp sustain in the early days of his Paris establishment.
August 20, 1843–Stuttgart –
The horns with cylinders (or chromatics) are the only ones used in Stuttgart. The skilled constructor Adolphe Sax, who has established himself in Paris, has abundantly demonstrated the superiority of this system over the piston system, practically abandoned in the whole of Germany, where cylinders are generally applied to horns, trumpets, bombardons, and bass-tubas.
September 12, 1843 – Dresden -
The Military band is excellent, even the drummers are real musicians; but the reed instruments that I heard did not seem to me entirely satisfactory; they are lacking in accuracy, and the band conductors of these regiments ought to ask our incomparable constructor Adolphe Sax for some of his clarinets.
October 8, 1843 – Berlin -
As a matter of fact, in France, we are not lacking in instruments with cylinders; Adolphe Sax is a present constructing large and small trumpets with cylinders, in every possible tonality, the average as well as the unusual ones, and their sonority and perfection are beyond reproach. It is really unbelievable that this young and gifted artist should meet with such hardships in his efforts to gain recognition and to find his place in Paris. He is persecuted in a way that would seem to belong to the dark ages, recalling to mind the proceedings employed by the enemies of Benvenuto (Cellini), the Florentine carver. His workmen are enticed away from him, his plans are stolen, he is accused of being insane, lawsuits are set up against him. A little more and he would be murdered. Such is the hatred stirred against real inventors by their competitors, incapable of inventing anything. Luckily for him, the skilled inventor has been constantly honored by the protection and friendship of General dc Rumigny. This has enabled him up to now to resist in the desperate struggle. But will it always suffice? … The War Minister should give a man so useful in his rare specialty a position worthy of his talent, his tenacity, and his efforts. Our military bands have not as yet trumpets with cylinders nor bass-tubas (the finest of the bass instruments). The construction on a large scale of the said instruments will become imperative to put the French military bands on the level of those of Prussia and Austria. A commission from the War Department to Mr. Sax for three hundred trumpets and a hundred bass-tubas would save the inventor.
November 8, 1843 – Berlin -
The bass-tuba, invented and advocated in Prussia by Wieprecht (sic), is also manufactured in Paris now by Adolphe Sax.
While Berlioz was defending his friend so efficiently, Sax met with a new ordeal: at the height of his fame, Donizetti, in the score of his opera Dom Sébastien, presented at the Opera in November 1843, had written a part for the bass-clarinet. The rehearsals began, but no musician would agree to play on Sax’s bass-clarinet. Donizetti was desperate. Sax proposed play the instrument himself in the orchestra. But all the other musicians protested. “If Mr. Sax sets foot in the orchestra,” they said, “we shall all walk out.” The composer had to give in. He dropped the bass-clarinet part from the score.
The visit Rossini paid to Sax’s workshop must have taken place during the first \reeks of 1844. The cheerful exclamation of the great master on his first encounter with the saxophone must have brought some comfort to the harassed inventor. Some time later, Rossini had the Sax instruments adopted by the Conservatory of Bologna. And he sent his personal friend, the clarinet player and teacher Liverani, to Paris with a letter for Sax. But it is Berlioz once more whom we meet as the obstinate and faithful supporter of the Belgian inventor.
In the concert of his own works that Berlioz conducted at the Salle Herz, on February 3, 1844, the program contained two first performances: the Carnaval Romain, Overture, and a transcription, “for new instruments of Sax,” of a vocal hymn for six different voices, that had been already sung in Marseilles.
As far as I know, this transcription has never been published. I have not been able to retrace the date or the program of the Marseilles concert. However, it seems likely that the vocal piece utilized for the transcription was one of the Tristia (op. 18) composed in 1831, most probably No. 1, a “religious meditation” for a six part choir, with words translated into French prose from a poem by Thomas Moore.
The six “new instruments” were: a high trumpet in B flat, a “new kind of horn, a bugel, a clarinet, a bass-clarinet, and finally a saxophone played by Sax himself. We know that the inventor was busy until the last moment building and improving his saxophone; he went to the performance with an instrument hastily arranged, some parts of it fixed with string and sealing wax.
The concert, if not a material success, was a moral victory for Sax. And the next day Théophile Gautier wrote in La Presse how highly impressed he had been by the effect of the loud and magnificent sonority Sax, in spite of his bold and quarrelsome temper, had all unusual flair for public relations and even for showmanship. In these same months of 1844, he began to invite musical, literary and social personalities to visit his workshop. On each of these occasions, he improvised a concert and the new born instruments were heard.
When Auber, the glorious composer of La Muette de Portici (the opera containing the famous air “Amour sacré de la patrie” which had been the signal for the Belgian Revolution when it was performed in Brussels on September 21, 1830), heard the saxophone for the first time, he could not hide his enthusiasm: “What a lovely tone,” he said, “and what advantage could be derived from this instrument combined with the human voice.” His over-whelming difficulties did not prevent Sax from being ever ready to help his fellow artists. During that season of 1844, a man named Distin, who was the father of four sons, all playing brass instruments,
arrived in Paris from his native England, and gave a disastrous performance that was as hissed by the public and vilified by the critics. The Distins sought out Sax, who comforted them, gave them new instruments of his own making, taught them the use of his saxhorns, and when on April 6, 1944, Berlioz conducted his second concert at the Opera Comique, the five Distins had a real triumph when they played on their saxhorns (soprano, alto, baritone, bass, and counter-bass,), a fantasy on Robert de Diable. From this day on, their luck changed. The Distins had many engagements in France and in England, where they also became commercial agents for Sax. In later years, one of the younger brothers, Henry, came to America and founded a factory for the manufacture of brass instruments
On the lithograph made after a drawing by the Belgian painter Beaugreut, and reproduced in an article of the English Music Review, the Distin family appears with its “saxhorns.” Curiously enough, four of these “saxhorns” take the shape of trumpets, the fifth being a Viennese Flügelhorn. The author of the article, Adam Carse, explains this strange fact by saying ” that Sax designed his saxhorns in at least two models in their first few years.”
The saxophone was shown for the first time at the Paris Industrial Exhibition during the summer of 1844. Most probably at the suggestion of his aide-de-camp, General de Rumigny, King Louis-Philippe, together with Queen Marie-Amelie and two of their sons, stayed a long time in front of the inventor’s stand. The Distins were all present at Sax’s side. And together they improvised a little concert in honor of the royal visitors, who expressed their great satisfaction and invited the whole group to play
The following December, the saxophone made its debut in the orchestra. Georges Kasner (1802– 1872), an excellent musicologist and philosopher, although a rather poor composer, tells us in his book, already mentioned, on military bands: “The first saxophone constructed belonged to the bass compass. I was the first to make use of it in the score of my grand opera, The Last King of Juda, performed at the Paris Conservatory on December 1, 1844.
The year 1845 was to he decisive in the life of Sax, now 31. We have already said that there was no end to the inventor’s struggles and quarrels. But during that year, he won his greatest battles and gained the necessary strength to resist further attacks. The principal accusation was that he was by no means an inventor and that he just designed instruments that already existed abroad. But his detractors could never–in spite of their incessant efforts–exhibit an instrument that could have served as a model for the so-called counterfeit by Sax. All sorts of tricks were employed against the poor inventor, one of them consisting in sending a Sax instrument to Germany, and having it returned to Paris after the name of the Belgian constructor had been carefully erased. When this plot failed, Sax’s enemies had recourse to a more psychological contrivance; they decided to stir up the nationalistic feelings of some German constructors in order to confound Sax and ruin him.
No dispute was possible in the case of the bass-clarinet. We have already seen with what enthusiasm such prominent musical personalities as Halévy, Fetis, and Berlioz–who all knew what was happening in the European musical world–had saluted Sax’s new instrument, “that had only the name in common with the ancient one.” But when Sax gave his name to the group of saxhorns, the Germans protested vehemently.
Wilhelm Wieprecht, the famous Musikdirektor of the German Confederation 10th Army Corps, felt it was his duty “to defend the name and honor” of the German inventors Stölzel and Blühmel. ”For many years now,” writes August Killbrenner, Wieprecht’s biographer, “brass instruments with rotary valves (ventil-Blechinstrumenten) have been in use in German bands. And Sax has no right to claim the inventions as his own”.
Now Sax never made such a claim. Everybody knew that bugles with cylinders were built in Germany, but the instruments conceived by Adolphe Sax were different and also better. As we have seen, Berlioz repeatedly stated in Voyage Musical, both that brasses with cylinders were used in Germany and that Sax constructed instruments in Paris that were as good or even better. Nevertheless, Wieprecht. an excellent musician and himself the inventor of the bass–tuba, decided to go to Paris to avenge German honor.
But a strange and surprising thing happened.
In the peaceful summer of 1845, great musical celebrations took place on the banks of the Rhine. Prominent musicians converged from all parts of Europe upon Bonn, where the statue of Beethoven was unveiled in the presence of the Prussian Royal family, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, as well as several other members of royalty and a great number of dignitaries, academic, literary and artistic. Meyerbeer arid Liszt were the most famous German musicians present (as a matter of fact, neither of the two was a “real” German but, in those days, discrimination was as yet unknown). Among the French visitors were Jules Janin, the editor of in
lournal des Débats, with his musical critic Berlioz, the director of the Lyons Conservatory and Madame Viardot-Garcia, the famous singer.
Many ceremonies, both musical and oratorical, were organized to honor Beethoven who had died in Vienna eighteen years earlier, in poverty and loneliness. There was a Cantata specially composed by Spohr. There was a splendid reception at the castle of Brühl, where the bands of the Prussian army, conducted by Wieprecht. came to serenade the British Queen. In the esplanade, twelve hundred soldiers bearing torches displayed a huge square of light, while other torchbearers were gathered inside the square so as to form an immense V for Victoria. Between the branches of the V the bands conducted by Wieprecht gave a concert. The trumpets alone amounted to
twelve hundred, the drums to three hundred.
A few days later, all the distinguished guests gathered in Coblenz, to assist it a court concert at which Jenny Lind, the Swedish nightingale, was heard. (in the very morning of this concert, a strange scene took place in Liszts apartment at the Coblenz hotel. The genial Hungarian was in his room with several friends when Wieprecht was announced. Liszt gave a sharp knock on the wall and Sax immediately left his room appeared upon the scene. We have two versions of what followed: one given by Wieprecht, the other by Fiorentino, the correspondent of the Paris Constitutionel. I think that the best I can do is to translate brietly the German text of
Wieprecht and the French text of Fiorentino.
“When I entered the room,” writes Wieprecht, “Liszt took me in his arms and clasped ills hand in the real German manner. His first words were ‘Wieprecht, Sax has just arrived. Whereupon he introduced me to him. Besides Liszt, there was Lefebvre from Cologne, the Musikdirecttor Kompfer from Coblenz and a Frenchman whose name I did not know. It seemed that we had nothing better to do than to compare our respective instruments. and let the audience decide.”
Mr. Sax had brought with him a talented young cornet player Mr Arban, a pupil of the Paris Conservatory.” Wieprecht then proceeds to enumerate the saxhorns and cornets shown by Sax, and their — according to him — German counterparts and equivalents. He goes on to praise the virtuosity of Sax and Arban. He cannot but acknowledge the originality of the bass-clarinet, remarking the while that
for military hands its bulk would constitute a serious impediment beim marscbieren, during a military parade. He describes at length the Batyphon an instrument which he had invented some years ago, together with the Hof-Instrumentenmacher Skorra. Although the saxophone is not to be seen, Wieprecht contends that it is merely an elaboration of his own Batyphon. He ends up by hypocritical compliments with which he endeavors to envelop a perfidious distinguo between improvement and invention.
“Let us hope that Mr. Sax will not weaken the eminent services he has rendered to the cause of art, by a petty amour-propre which would incite him to claim as an invention what is merely an improvement (zu verwecbseln was Erfinden und was Verbessern ist). After having met Mr. Sax at Coblenz, I have changed my plan about going to Paris…”
This is now Fiorentinos version of what took place:
“…the two antagonists advanced toward each other smilingly. After a moment I heard Sax say:
– Really, do you know anything about my instruments?
– I know everything, answered Mr. Wieprecht modestly.
– The saxophone also?
– And my bass-clarinet?
– And could you play on it?
Sax went to fetch his clarinet and handed it to Wieprecht. The latter took hold of it gingerly, like a recruit grasping a rifle by the butt. Then he did his best to sound a few notes. After two or three unsuccessful attempts, he was obliged to concede that he knew nothing about the clarinet, less about the saxhorn; as for the saxophone, that was a complete mystery. He frankly acknowledged the facts and apologized profusely. He ended by inviting Sax to come and hear the Prussian instruments in a large hall nearby, and asked him to try our his own instruments in the presence of a few military musicians. And very courteously he invited both Liszt and myself to assist at his interesting challenge.
The Prussian musicians began. Then Sax and Arban in their turn played on the saxhorns and the clarinet. I shall never forget the envious and covetous looks that those men cast on the new instruments. Surrounding their leader, all talking at tie same time they seemed to say: ‘if we could have had such working-stock what a serenade we could have given the Queen of England! As for Mr. Wieprecht, he could not hide his enthusiasm. Embracing his rival he vowed he would come to see Sax in his Paris workshop to make amends
Upon this I said to Liszt, ‘I thought you told me Sax and Wiepreeht were not on good turns. And now you see the Tuba and the Saxophone going off arm in arm.’ Liszt smiled and answered: ‘I fear they won’t remain in tune (d’ accords) very long.’ I said no more. Franz Liszt had made a pun.” Sax won the day. Nor only the day, but we may say, the century. The short-lived Batyphon, in spite of its beautiful Greek name, emitted a series of squeaking noises, while the saxophone went on slowly and surely to conquer its place in the field of music. This victory was shared by the saxhorns. Up to the present, they have retained their name of SAXhorn, even in Germany.
That same year, 1845 Sax was the hero of another important contest that definitely set him on his feet in Paris. The military hands in France had been in a pitiful state for years. Musicians were badly trained, badly paid; there was little or no consideration for them in the army and their leaders did not even have the rank of petty officer. Moreover, their instruments were bad and inadequately grouped. It is quite natural that Sax, disposing of such perfect and appropriate working-stock, should have
wished to remedy this state of affairs, and to secure at the same time regular and frequent orders for his work- shop. But the enterprise was far from being an easy one. None of the musical, industrial and military routines were favorable to his plans, the more so as he was a foreigner. Nevertheless he set to work by the end of 1844 and, for eight months, he struggled hard till he finally won his cause. He sent a long memoir to the War Minister, Marshal Soult, a survivor of the Napoleonic regime. In it he
analyzed and criticized the composition of military bands. Some of their instruments he wrote, especially the horns and the bassoons, were not fitted for open-air performances. The sounds of the musical units were lacking in homogeneity; the high pitched piccolo and the clarinets gave out squeaky sounds, while the ophicleides snorted and shouted. And most of the intermediary instruments were squeezed between these two extremes and their sound could hardly be perceived. Sax proposed to make large use of
his bugles with valves, or saxhorns. And he insisted upon the advantage of employing a group of instruments of the same family, which would permit the melodic line to pass smoothly from one instrument to another as it does in the string quartet, or as it passes from one voice to another as it does in a well trained choir.
The reform advocated by Sax was a radical one. Musicians, instrument makers, band leaders, and military brass-hats were indignant. That Belgian charlatan overrated his capacity: he even dared to intrude into the holy precinct of the French Army, insisting that the conductors of military bands should henceforth become ranking officers. But Sax had powerful protectors. There had been too much talk about his inventions. It was impossible to shelve his memoir and dismiss hi8m lightly. So the Government named a Commission.The members, who had their first meeting in February 1845, had been chosen among France’s foremost composers: Spontini, Auber, Haévy, Adam, Onslow, Carafa, and Kastner. Experts on acoustics and mechanics, all from the army, had been added to the group of musicians. General de Rumigny was to be president, with Georges Kastner as acting secretary.Among the persons named, we recognized several friends and supporters of Sax, as well as his bitter opponent, Carafa, who enjoyed, in those days, a great reputation as a composer and, besides, was the director of the Gymnase de Musique Militaire where most musicians of the army came from.
Sax himself had been offered a seat in the Commission. However, he declined the proposition, thinking he could not act as judge and defendant at the same time.
Meanwhile, Carafa had submitted a project of his own to the Ministry of War, which did not bring noticeable changes in the composition of the bands. The Commission now had to make a choice between Carafa and Sax. A first experiment, which was held in the Ministry of War, brought about no definite results. Sax was accompanied by a group of nine musicians. whereas Carafa’s orchestra was composed of thirty-two performers.The Commission took a wise resolution: that of having the two systems tried in their natural surroundings, the open air, and of calling the whole population to decide between the two rivals. The place chosen for the
challenge was the Champ-de-Mars — today a group of beautiful gardens surrounding the Eiffel Tower but, in 1845, a wide drill ground bordering the Ecoile Militaire. I was decided that each group should perform in turn a piece chosen by the jury, followed by one of their own choice. The compulsory was as an yet unpublished excerpt from Le Diable à Quatre, a ballet by Adolphe Adam, himself a member of the Commission. Destiny played him a strange trick: if all the operas, operas-comiques, and other pretentious works composed by Adolphe Adam — a very highly thought after musician driving his lifetime — the only page that has survived is his
cheerful French Cancan, still very often performed by European and American bands.When the date and the conditions of the musical duel were fixed, both sides went into a fever of excitement, recruiting partisans and supporters. No wonder that Berlioz immediately ranged himself on the side of his friend. He wrote a long article on “The Reorganization of Military Bands, ” that published in the Journal des Débats on April 1, 845; an article never reprinted in his books. But it is not as original as the one written the preceding year. To help the cause of Sax, Berlioz made most of the inventor’s statements his own: bassoons, oboes and horns were to be discarded from the bands which should only make use of long-ranging instruments (á longue portée). After describing the saxhorns,
he also attempts to vindicate Sax with respect to the Tuba, an undeniable German invention. “He brought the Tuba from Berlin,” wrote Berlioz, ”and improved it by modifying its mechanism in order to give it a little more extent in the lower notes of its compass.” – The composer goes on to anticipate the result of the Champ-de-Mars challenge: if anyone proposes an organization of the bands superior to the one advocated by Sax, may he be the winner.
The 22nd of April was a lovely spring day. More than twenty thousand Parisians had gathered at noon on the Champ-de-Mars. The two “hostile” groups stood in a single line, one next to the other. In front of them stood the members of the Commission. Carafa was leading his own band. Sax had passed the baton to his friend Fessy. Seven of his men did not turn up, perhaps led astray by the “enemy.” And Sax himself was late. At last he appeared. carrying two instruments on which he intended to play alternately, thus replacing two of the missing musicians. After the first part of the concert, there was no hesitation whatsoever on the part of the
audience. The members of the Commission both civilian and military, musicians arid laymen, and the thousands of Parisians that crowded the field agreed: the band of Sax was by far superior to that of Carafa. The test had proved that theoretical discussions could but anticipate and deduce. Sax’s victory was overwhelming. The sensation in Paris was enormous. For several days, Sax was the talk of the town. The humoristic weekly LE CHARIVARI (the model and precursor of London’s PUNCH) printed ”A modern Bulletin to be added to those of Napoleons Great Army, on the battle fought between Les Saxons and Les Carafons.” After describing the successive phases of the battle in military style, Lee Charivari ended by trowing the vanquished Carafons flashing through the field to collect
their dead, ”pour ramasser leurs cors morts,” making a doubtful pun on corps ( corpse) and cors (horns).In order to get a less fanciful approach to that memorable ”battle” and to allow musicians to understand the true nature of the reorganization advocated by Sax, it is interesting to compare the composition of the two bands, as it was originally planned by their leaders. It was slightly modified, due to the various contingencies, on the day of the Chamvs-de-Mars performance. The normal consequences of
Sax’s victory should have been the immediate approval of his plan by the Ministry of War. But several months were to elapse before the official publication of the decree confirming his success.
Meanwhile, Sax was to undergo another ordeal. His enemies, far from being cast down by their Champ-de-Mars disaster, founded an association, regularly constituted, with a president, a secretary, periodical contributions and a legal residence at 11, Rue Serpente, Paris. Moreover, the law-suits against him were multiplying. His rivals’ aim was to prove that he was by no means an inventor, and that the patents granted to him should be nullified. When he asked for a new patent for the saxophone, they all claimed that it was no new invention and that it had been known in Germany for many years. Sax wanted to give them a fair deal. He offered his calumniators one whole year, saying that if they could bring him the equivalent of a saxophone, at any time during these twelve months, he would agree to renounce his patent.
It is more than likely that it was in order to investigate the matter more closely, that Sax accompanied Berlioz, as we have seen, to the Beethoven celebration, at the end of August 1845.
On the 9th of August, the decree on the reorganization of Military Bands was printed in the Moniteur de L’Anmée. The enemies of Sax have all been dead for a long time, but the enemies of his saxophone are very much alive. They will be delighted to know that,
during one of the lawsuits against Sax in 1845, a distinguished French jurist Maitre Marie, acting as counselor for the Association of the United Instrument Makers, made a statement in court, according to which, “the saxophone had never existed, could not possibly exist, and was to be considered as a mere quack’s trick (acte de charlatanisme) on the part of Sax.”
Nevertheless, on June 22, 1846, the patent for the construction of the saxophone — that nonexistent, mythical invention — was granted to Adolphe Sax.
From then on, the inventor and his instruments were recognized and could pursue their voyage around the world. For nearly half a century more, Sax continued to struggle against ruthless opponents, to defend his inventions, his position, his honor. He fought his fight with alternatives of success and defeat. We will simply record the principal events of his career, after his most important inventions had been realized.
It was in 1846 that the new organization of military bands began to show resuts, On July 26, a military festival took place at the Franconi Hippodrome, a kind of arena with an open roof, where 1800 musicians performed a very eclectic program in front of a brilliant audience presided over by the Duke of Montpensact.
Kastner has left us a vivid description of this unusual festival, that most probably would shock a modern concert-goer who, if he could condone “the great phantasy on Spontini’s Fernand Cortez,” could not admit Fessy’s arrangement of Gluck’s chorus from Armida for this huge crowd of wind instruments and percussion. But the hit of the concert, according to Kastner, was the Berlioz transcription ”for Sax instruments” of the Apothéose from the Symphonie Funébre et Triomphale, “an audacious conception begot by power and genius; no other work could have better crowned such a splendid festival.” It was a real triumph for Sax. And I’
Illustration reviewed it very favorably, stating that “the major advantage of Sax’s system consists in the unity achieved by the brass instruments in the whole compass.” Berlioz himself declared in his feuilleton (July 29) that this immense gathering created an image of what “le fétes antiques” (Greek and Roman celebrations) might have been.
The progress of the saxophone can he followed in Berlioz’ column: on February 14, 1847, he announces that the “teaching of this precious instrument has begun at the Gymnase Musical.” Meanwhile Sax had opened a small concert ball with no more than 400 seats. It was badly needed in Paris, comments the composer. On October 12, he announces that first and second prizes were awarded by the Gymnase to five students of the saxophone class. History has not brought down to us the names of these pioneers, the first ones to employ this new means of tormenting their neighbors.
Next We come to a resolute admirer of the saxophone, the French King in person. — The band if the Infantry regiment played recently in Neuilly during the King’s domain . His Majesty was very taken by the charm of an nstrument, the sound of which was absolutely unknown to him. It was the saxophone, recently introduced into the band. The King, desiring to hear it again, asked the musicians to perform once more the piece in which the fine instrument played a solo.”
However, reverses soon follow triumphs in Sax’s career. Louis-Philippe was dethroned in February 1848. The Republic, headed by Lamarrine, for some reason or other, did not like Sax and on March 21 proclaimed a “Counter-Reformation” of the bands. The decree of 1845 was revoked. The next year, at the Industrial Exhibition, Sax won the gold medal. Two years later, he 2as granted the Grande Médaille d’Honneur at the International Exhibition (1851).
Meyerbeer’s Le Prophéte had opened in Paris in April, 1849. Pauline Viardot sang the only woman’s role of the opera, and the Rédowa of the Skaters was danced and directed by the illustrious Petipa. Berlioz pays a tribute to those celebrities, ending his article thus: “I must add a word of praise for the bass-clarinet, that plays a wonderful part in several episodes of the last two acts. This marvelous instrument was manufactured in the workshop of Sax.”
Meyerbeer wrote a long letter to our inventor, deploring the fact that he had not been acquainted with the saxophone early enough to write a part for it in his score.
With the reign of Napoleon III, Sax returned to favor with the Government. The military bands once more adopted his instruments, that now were known all over the world. In the summer of 1849, the Distin family toured the United States with their Saxhorns. In the Spring of 1854, a Monsieur Soualle, after giving saxophone concerts in London, came back to Paris and appeared in several musical evenings given by fashionable hostesses. Later in the same year, Sax published his Saxhorn Method. Meanwhile he was
creating new instruments and completing the “families” of the groups he had already built up.
On one occasion, Napoleon III saved him from bankruptcy . In 1857, Sax made six silver trumpets for the Cent Gardes, the emperor’s guard of honor. One year later, he was appointed “Imperial Instrument-maker” (facteur de la maison militaire de l’Emperor). He became director of stage music at the Opera, and a saxophone class was created at the Paris Conservatory, under his personal direction. He taught there thirteen years. After the disasters of 1870, the French Government suppressed this class. It was re-established at the end of the century.
Thus, making new inventions and defending then against sarcasm and slanders, always of the verge of ruin, and always winning his lawsuits, and receiving the highest awards in all exhibitions, Sax lived to the age of eighty. During his last years, he was very poor and lived on a modest pension that was donated to him by the French Government, at the request of Henry Roujon, the director of the Fine Arts Department.
A definitively different and unique individual. And a character. His instruments outlive his fame.