Many instruments evolved over centuries, their names changing in tandem with their timbre. The lute became the guitar, the viol progressed to the violin and the sackbut got transformed into the trombone. Just occasionally, however, an inventor introduces a brand new kid onto the block and, naturally enough, gives it the family name.
The most widely recognised example is probably that of Adolphe Sax, the son of a Belgian musical instrument maker. Born 200 years ago he went on to cultivate a new instrument, the saxophone, which in turn cultivated numerous enemies (including Adolf Hitler, the Pope and many business competitors). His perseverance with his craft, however, significantly influenced the face of both classical and jazz music, and gave countless amateurs an easy entrée into performance groups. Think Bill Clinton.
The saxophone wasn’t his only invention (researching the complete, zany list is well worth the effort), but it’s his most enduring achievement. The instrument comes in a neat family pack with different sizes capable of an impressive overall pitch range featuring, among others, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass models.
Sax originally intended his brainchild for military bands, but he probably never envisaged that it would climb through the ranks to produce a piece such as Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Wind Band (8.572889), written in 2006. Here’s what the composer has to say about Sax’s family:
“I have always been struck by the range of power and beauty that comes from saxophones. I have seen a saxophone quartet bring a large school room filled with hundreds of children to a complete halt with one tutti note. Many people don’t realize just how much power exists in this group of instruments, and often they may not realize the potential for beauty. The soprano saxophone in particular produces a tone of warmth and a real agility that allows it to sing like none of the other instruments in this group.”
You can hear what she means by listening to this extract from her concerto.
Following Sax’s death in 1894, it took a while for the instrument to become an accepted part of any composer’s sound palette, but it was initially aided by the enthusiastic badgering of an American saxophonist, Mrs Richard J. Hall. In 1895, she commissioned a work from Debussy, who tinkered with what was to become his Rhapsody for Orchestra and Saxophone (8.509002) for many years; the final version, completed by Roger-Ducasse, was finally handed over to Mrs Hall by Debussy’s widow in 1919. After attending a Paris concert at which Mrs Richard J. Hall performed the Choral varié that Vincent D’Indy had written for her in 1903, Debussy exclaimed how ridiculous it was to behold such a clumsy instrument being played by a lady in a pink frock. Having now put that image in your mind, try and forget it as you listen to this extract from the Debussy work!
It was Debussy’s student, Maurice Ravel who gave the instrument a significant leg-up by including it in his orchestration for Bolero (8.550173), completed in 1928, giving a boost to its standing. Listening to this extract recalls that coming of age.
In the 1940s, jazz musicians in the US were developing new styles that broke away from the big band sound. Several saxophonists were among the setters of this new trend, notable Charlie Parker, who also set a new benchmark with displays of his technical skills during solos. Here’s an example of his playing at the start of the 1950s, in a recording of I’m in the Mood for Love (8.120700) featuring orchestral strings smooching up to him and cementing the growing acceptance of the saxophone into the general musical scene.
Nowadays, the saxophone family is well established in the most respectable circles, with American composers Philip Glass, John Adams and William Bolcom all contributing to the concerto repertoire for the instrument—little did Mrs Richard J. Hall know what she started. Bolcom’s work actually features four saxophones in his Concerto Grosso for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra, written in 2000. Saxophone quartets, in Britain at least, saw their popularity rise with the appearance of four young ladies in the 1980s, possessed of physical as well as musical allure, who appropriately called themselves The Fairer Sax. Believe it or not, they sometimes wore pink frocks, too!
Let’s end by sampling that medium in an extract from David Sampson’s Breathing Lessons (8.559627): here are the closing bars of the first movement, Maggie and Ira Doran, A Trip to Deer Lick, played by the New Hudson Saxophone Quartet.