In the first fully comprehensive study of one of the world’s most iconic musical instruments, Stephen Cottrell examines the saxophone’s various social, historical, and cultural trajectories, and illustrates how and why this instrument, with its idiosyncratic shape and sound, became important for so many different music-makers around the world.
After considering what led inventor Adolphe Sax to develop this new musical wind instrument, Cottrell explores changes in saxophone design since the 1840s before examining the instrument's role in a variety of contexts: in the military bands that contributed so much to the saxophone's global dissemination during the nineteenth century; as part of the rapid expansion of American popular music around the turn of the twentieth century; in classical and contemporary art music; in world and popular music; and, of course, in jazz, a musical style with which the saxophone has become closely identified.
About the Author
Stephen Cottrell is a saxophonist and professor of music at City University London.
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By Stephen Cottrell
Yale University PressCopyright © 2012 Stephen Cottrell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe life and times of Adolphe Sax
Dinant and Brussels
The small Belgian town of Dinant lies some 60 miles south-east of Brussels on the banks of the River Meuse. Nestling in the foothills of the Ardennes forest it is an attractive but unremarkable town with a long history of metalwork craftsmanship, having achieved a reputation in the Middle Ages for the production of what became known as dinanderie: fire irons, candlesticks and similar, and ecclesiastical objects such as fonts and lecterns. At the peak of its manufacturing success in the fifteenth century the town's population may have reached as many as 60,000, although today it numbers some 13,000 inhabitants. But its place in the cultural history of Europe is assured perhaps less through its mercantile past, and instead because it is the ancestral home of one of the most remarkable and innovative families involved with instrument manufacturing. Just as the later names of Sousa or Martenot live on at least in part through the names of the instruments in which they are incorporated, so too the name of the Sax family remains in the public consciousness through the several types of instrument for which it acts as a prefix: the saxhorn, the saxotromba, and above all the saxophone.
The head of the family, Charles-Joseph Sax, was born in Dinant on 1 February 1790. Like many in Dinant he was a craftsman, apprenticed to a cabinet maker in Brussels at the age of fifteen, and his occupation on his eldest son's birth certificate is listed as 'Joiner and Cabinet Maker'. He was also a keen amateur musician, taking part in the Dinant Société d'Harmonie (a wind band) in which he played the serpent, an S-shaped wooden instrument with a cup-shaped mouthpiece similar to that of the trombone. Rather than purchase a serpent he decided to use his carpentry skills to make his own, modelling it on an instrument by another Belgian maker. It is probable that this was the first of several such instruments, and that he developed some self-taught skills as an instrument maker over the following years, in addition to his formal apprenticeship.
In his late teens Charles-Joseph took a job in a local factory making spinning machines, and in 1813, aged 23, he married a local girl, Marie-Joseph Masson. Almost exactly a year later their first child was born, a son, on 6 November 1814. He was christened Antoine-Joseph, the same name as Charles-Joseph's father, although he appears from a young age to have been accorded the moniker by which he was to become more widely known: Adolphe. He was to be the first of eleven children born to Charles-Joseph and Marie Sax, five girls and six boys, although only three would survive past their thirtieth birthday.
Adolphe was the only one of these many siblings to be born in Dinant as Charles-Joseph moved the family to Brussels in 1815. The fall of Napoleon after the battle of Waterloo and the subsequent demise of the First French Empire had led to the closure of the factory in which he worked, and he now found himself unemployed. Turning instead to his skills as an instrument maker he established a small business in the Belgian capital. Although his initial output was confined to serpents and flutes the operation flourished, and he gradually expanded to produce clarinets, bassoons and brass instruments. The birth and death certificates of subsequent children show numerous different addresses, from which it can be inferred that his successful and expanding business was frequently outgrowing its working premises.
In Charles-Joseph's personality and attitude to his work we can see a number of characteristics that his eldest son would inherit. He was inquisitive, restlessly seeking improvements to the instruments he manufactured. He was extremely perseverant but could also be obstinate to a fault. He was keen to learn more about the acoustic principles underlying instrument design. He explored how the positions of finger holes might be calculated more scientifically, determining in advance where the holes should be rather than relying on trial and error or the ergonomics of the hand, and he was one of the first designers to work in this way. He took out a number of patents to protect inventions and innovations across a wide range of instruments, including the piano, the guitar, and particularly the horn. His posthumous reputation as an instrument maker rests in large part on his 1824 invention of the cor omnitonique (omnitonic horn). This instrument incorporated all the crooks into the horn itself, which more easily facilitated chromatic passages that had previously required the interchange of such crooks during appropriately placed rests in the music; it was ultimately made redundant by the invention of the valve, which was developed around the same time.
According to Sax's first biographer, Oscar Comettant, Adolphe was an accident-prone child. Comettant's account of Sax's life is often romanticised and not entirely reliable, but the list of calamities he attributes to the infant inventor is striking: he tumbled down three flights of stairs and cracked his head on a stone floor; he drank a mixture of vitriol and water, mistaking it for milk; he was burned in a gunpowder explosion, and then again when a frying pan was knocked over; a falling roof-stone caused a lifelong scar on his head; he once went to bed in a room where newly-varnished objects were drying, but was discovered before he had expired through inhaling the noxious fumes. If true, his fortitude in surviving such a litany of potential disasters was a characteristic that was to resurface frequently in later life, if only because it was to be much called upon.
Unsurprisingly, given the predispositions of their father, both Adolphe and his brothers were musically well educated. Adolphe enrolled in 1828 at the Royal School of Music, a precursor to the Royal Brussels Conservatoire, the latter not being established until 1832. Here he studied flute, in addition to solfège and harmony. He took private lessons on the clarinet with Valentin Bender, who was later Director of the Musique Royale des Guides, and became something of a virtuoso on the instrument. The visiting German composer Joseph Küffner was sufficiently impressed by Sax's abilities that he dedicated a work for two clarinets to the young performer in 1834. Had Sax's life taken a different route, or his inclinations been otherwise, he might have made a successful career as a virtuoso clarinettist. But the lure of the family workshop and the environment of innovation and enquiry that surrounded him at home had already shaped his future trajectory. Following the patrilineal conventions that characterised many craft families of the time, Adolphe and several of his brothers chose to make careers as instrument makers themselves, with varying degrees of success.
Given Adolphe's expertise as a clarinettist it is unsurprising that his first forays as a designer and manufacturer were with that instrument; his own practical experience would obviously have given him particular insights into whatever deficiencies he might have felt the instrument to have. Even so, Sax fils made a precocious start to his manufacturing career, allegedly exhibiting his first designs while still only fifteen. These were shown at the Brussels Industrial Exhibition of 1830 and, according to Comettant, consisted of two flutes and a clarinet crafted in ivory. However, there is no mention of Adolphe's name in the official catalogue, and it is probable that his father still had a considerable hand in the making of these instruments, since Adolphe was effectively a foreman in his father's workshops at this time.
More significant is the later exhibition of 1835, in which Sax père displayed 25 brass instruments and 16 woodwind instruments, including, according to the exhibition catalogue, 'a boxwood clarinet with 24 keys, invented and perfected by Sax fils'. It was later suggested that Sax had received an honourable mention for this instrument, but there is again no evidence for this in the official list of awards made at the exhibition. Nevertheless, the instrument attracted considerable approval from many who saw it, with explicit attention drawn to it in the report of the Exhibition the following year; it was also praised by Sax's clarinet professor, Bender.
Over the next few years Sax devoted much of his energy to improving the bass clarinet. At this time the bass version of the clarinet family was a rather unsatisfactory instrument, notwithstanding that attempts had been made to improve it by Heinrich Grenser in 1793, Desfontenelles in 1807, and Georg Streitwolf in 1828. Sax, drawing on his father's knowledge of bore sizes and acoustic theory, produced a much improved model with a larger bore and toneholes in the correct places, the latter being closed by means of covered cups. He also added a second speaker key to aid sound production in the top register. The final result was an instrument producing a much richer sound as well as being better in tune and more easily facilitating rapid passagework. The new instrument was patented in 1838, and its success established Sax's reputation as an instrument designer and innovator, bringing him to the attention of musical circles in both Brussels and Paris. In 1842 Berlioz wrote that 'the new bass clarinet of M. Sax preserves nothing of the old one except the name [...]. What distinguishes it above all is its perfect intonation and its uniform temperament in all degrees of the chromatic scale.'
In 1839 Sax made a brief trip to Paris in order to promote this new bass clarinet, and used the opportunity to become acquainted with composers such as Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Halévy and Kastner. Brussels was considerably less significant as a musical centre than the French capital, and it is likely that Sax was already beginning to feel torn between his family ties in Belgium and the possibilities offered by one of the major centres of mid-nineteenth-century European music-making, less than 200 miles away.
By the time of the Belgian Industrial Exhibition of August 1841 Sax was established as an inventor and manufacturer in his own right. His name is listed separately from that of his father among the official exhibitors. The Exhibition catalogue indicates that Sax displayed a number of instruments and accessories, including his new bass clarinet, several other clarinets, and 'a bass saxophone in brass'. This is an intriguing entry, and it is the first record we have of Sax using the word saxophone. But it is not entirely clear whether the saxophone was actually displayed at this time, or indeed if it was even ready for display; these issues are dealt with in more detail in Chapter 2.
The reception given to Sax's display at this exhibition was apparently controversial. The official report notes the quality of Sax's work, the considerable progress he had made in making woodwind instruments, and the fact that he was awarded a silver medal for his exhibits. However, two of Sax's contemporaries recount that the examining jury relating to musical instruments at the Exhibition recommended Sax for the gold medal, but that the central jury overruled them on the grounds that Sax was too young, and that if he were awarded the gold medal this year there would be nothing to give him on subsequent occasions. Sax's response was, allegedly, 'if I am too young for the gold medal, then I am too old for the silver'. This is an engaging story and one that suggests something of Sax's fiery temperament, a trait that was to become a feature of his dealings with others. But Sax's early biographers were also some of his most ardent supporters. They were often guilty of embellishing the facts in order to put the case more strongly for Sax's abilities, and there is no independent documentary evidence to support this anecdote.
If Sax had been slighted in this way by the Exhibition's central jury it may have contributed to his plans to move to Paris. These intentions were further reinforced by a visit from a high-ranking officer in the French army, Lieutenant-General Marie-Théodore Gueilly, Comte de Rumigny. De Rumigny was concerned at the poor state of France's military bands, and made it his business to visit Sax's workshops in Brussels in the summer of 1842. Enthused by what he saw, he became convinced that Sax and his instruments could play an important role in raising the standard of French military music, and his encouragement of the young inventor no doubt reinforced in Sax's mind the idea of a permanent move to the French capital. With a contact such as de Rumigny, Sax probably foresaw the possibility of a financially rewarding relationship with the French military establishment, enabling his business to grow well beyond what was possible in Brussels.
Paris the early years
The period from the Revolution of 1789 to the fall of the Second Empire in 1870 was a time of considerable social ferment and political insecurity in France. The Revolution itself had at first a negative impact on Parisian cultural life, but the establishment of the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique in 1795 provided salaries and prestige for certain more fortunate musicians, and this helped in part to reinvigorate the capital's musical life. The advances of the first decades of the nineteenth century in areas such as manufacturing, transportation, and science and technology particularly in relation to the development of steam-driven engines led to fortunes being made by industrialists, bankers and others. All this, together with a trend towards urbanisation and the rise of an affluent middle class, made Paris a wealthy city. This in turn generated greater musical patronage, and figures such as Berlioz, Chopin and Liszt would soon benefit from the largesse of the newly-monied middle classes, either through direct employment in salons and concert halls or through private teaching.
In 1814 Napoleon I abdicated and the Bourbon monarchy was restored, first with the weak Louis XVIII and then in 1824 with the repressive Charles X. The latter's more draconian and right-wing policies led to a further revolution in 1830, resulting in the so-called 'July Monarchy' of Louis-Philippe, which lasted until 1848. Louis-Philippe's encouragement of middle-class business and commerce provided a fertile environment for aspiring merchants such as Sax. It was therefore a matter of concern to such businessmen when the monarchy was again overthrown in 1848, and Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon I, was installed as President, eventually proclaiming himself Emperor Napoleon III in 1852. This Second Empire lasted until 1870. As will become apparent, the ebb and flow of these political tides were to impact on Sax's own fortunes to a considerable degree.
There were two other discrete yet related parts of Paris's social landscape that would influence Sax's fortunes over the coming decades. The first comprised those significant musical figures who formed part of the musical oligarchy in the French capital, but who were favourably disposed towards the ideas of the Belgian inventor. Foremost among these was Hector Berlioz, now remembered as one of the most important French composers of the nineteenth century but also a highly influential writer and music critic. Also notable were Jean-Georges Kastner, a composer and theorist who was one of Sax's most ardent supporters and who is credited with first using a saxophone in his opera Le Dernier Roi de Juda (1844); and Oscar Comettant, a critic who became an enthusiastic advocate for Sax, as well as writing the 1860 biography. Other composers such as Adam, Halévy, Donizetti, Meyerbeer, Thomas and Rossini also supported Sax by scoring for some of his instruments, and by making public statements in his favour. François-Joseph Fétis, a Belgian composer and writer who, like Sax, had established himself in Paris, also wrote an extensive and important biography of his compatriot. When the Revue et Gazette des Théâtres reproduced a collection of different letters commending Sax's work in 1843, it was no surprise that they bore the signatures of many of these individuals.
The support of such figures was essential to Sax because it helped counter the opposition he faced from more hostile elements in Paris, particularly from the instrument makers with whom he was in direct competition. Some of these were very influential in France's expanding market, with long-established and lucrative businesses. Sax most likely realised before he moved to Paris that he would face significant opposition from those keen to protect their interests. As early as 1841 a letter appeared in the RGMP claiming that Sax had copied innovations already devised by one M. Lefèvre, an oboist in Nantes, and had claimed them as his own. Similar accusations would become a familiar feature of Sax's later career.
But the generally positive responses Sax received on his visits to Paris must have removed any lingering doubts he had about moving there, and after a brief trip to Berlin to study German methods of instrument manufacture, he moved permanently to Paris in October 1842. He established his first workshop, in a modest building at 10 rue Neuve-Saint-Georges in July 1843. But his business grew quickly. That same year he filed his first French patent (an improved generic system for closing keys on wind or metal instruments) and by 1844 he was already exporting instruments to Germany, Belgium, Holland and England; Rossini was also advocating the adoption of his instruments by the Conservatory in Bologna.
Excerpted from The Saxophone by Stephen Cottrell Copyright © 2012 by Stephen Cottrell. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
List of illustrations, music examples and tables viii
Abbreviations and conventions xxi
Introduction: Saxophone essentials 1
1 The life and times of Adolphe Sax 10
2 The saxophone family 38
3 The saxophone in the nineteenth century 92
4 Early twentieth-century light and popular music 133
5 The saxophone in jazz 183
6 The classical saxophone 228
7 Modernism and postmodernism 264
8 The saxophone as symbol and icon 306
Appendix: Adolphe Sax's 1846 saxophone patent 343