LXII: Let’s Talk About Sax

Many musical instruments in popular use today can trace their roots back hundreds, even thousands of years to their earliest known form. Drums, flutes, and trumpets, are some of the oldest in existence, while other popular instruments such as the piano are products of the Renaissance. One of the most well-known and widely used is also one of the newest: the saxophone.

The saxophone was invented in 1846 by Adolphe Sax. Born Antoine-Joseph Sax in Belgium in 1814, he was interested in music from a very young age. He was trained as a flautist and clarinetist and at the age of 15, he entered his modified designs for those two instruments into an instrument design contest. He took a lot of inspiration from his parents, who had had made some significant contributions to the French horn as we know it.

Sax’s first major undertaking in instrument design was his attempt at improving the bass clarinet. After patenting his new bass clarinet design in 1838, he moved to Paris and began work on a series of valved bugles. The valved bugle — a curved brass instrument with a conical bore whose pitch was controlled by three valves — was a new concept that would eventually reinvented the trumpet, and Sax’s valved bugles were so successful that a new family of instruments was named after him: the saxhorns. The seven saxhorns he invented were quite similar to existing cornets and tubas, but the flugelhorn would take a lot of inspiration from the saxhorn. To combat rampant lawsuits resulting from his claims to have invented the valved bugle, Sax created a new family of saxhorns in 1845 with much narrower bores and longer bells, calling these instruments the saxotrombas and defining them as “intermediate between the saxhorn and the cylinder trumpet.” Despite copyright claims, the saxhorns were wildly popular. The British were incredibly fond of them and developed bands formed entirely of saxhorns. Few (if any) changes have been made to the design of the saxhorn valve since its invention.

As the 1840s drew on, Sax returned to his early work on creating low-pitched clarinets. He invented the clarinette-bourdon, a very unsuccessful first draft of a contrabass clarinet, and while attempting to improve the tone of the bass clarinet by curving the bell into a “J” shape and molding it out of metal to bridge the gab between woodwind and brass, he created an entirely new instrument — the saxophone.

The saxophone is a single-reeded woodwind instrument pitched in B♭and E♭ which when overblown rises in pitch by an octave, unlike the clarinet which rises a twelfth. Sax designed a full range of seven saxophones, from sopranino to subcontrabass. When his patent expired in 1866, a number of other instrument makers made alterations to the saxophone. Thanks to these alterations to the saxophone by others without crediting Sax and Sax’s alterations to existing instruments without crediting the proper inventors, a number of lawsuits arose, and by 1856, Sax was bankrupt and suffering from mouth cancer.

In 1857, luck turned back on his side when he was offered a job teaching saxophone at the Paris Conservancy and his cancer was in remission. He suffered another bout of mouth cancer in 1858 and went bankrupt a second time in 1873, but raging popularity of the saxophone, despite being the most expensive woodwind instrument of its day, refused to die.

Sax, however, passed away in 1894 at the ripe old age of 79, and to this day, his name and the name he gave to his musical invention is famous worldwide.

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