1814 - 2015

Celebrating the Saxes: presented by the National Music Museum, Vermillion, South Dakota

National Music Museum, University of South Dakota

Celebrating the ingenuity and creativity of the Sax family on the occasion of the 201st anniversary of Adolphe Sax's birth
Alto saxophone in E-flat by Adolphe Sax, Paris, 1860.

For most people, the name “Sax” is synonymous with Adolphe Sax's most popular invention--the saxophone (left).  But, Adolphe Sax (1814-1894) also patented other instruments.  Have you ever heard of the saxhorn or the saxotromba? He also developed instruments with multiple bells and six independent valves. He learned his craft from his father, Charles-Joseph (1790-1865).  And he passed on his business to his youngest son, Adolphe Edouard (1859-1945), the 3rd--and last-- generation of the Sax Dynasty!

Charles-Joseph Sax


Keyed bugle in B-flat by Charles-Joseph Sax, Brussels, Belgium, 1842.  With original case.

According to Adolphe Sax's birth certificate, his father, Charles-Joseph, was a joiner and cabinet maker in addition to being a prolific musical instrument maker.  It is likely that he made not only instruments, but also their cases, such as the ornately inlaid one shown at the left.  Adolphe apprenticed with his father in his Brussels workshop.

Cornet by Charles-Joseph Sax, Brussels, 1845.
Orchestral horn by Charles-Joseph Sax, 1845.

Adolphe Sax


Although Adolphe Sax started making musical instruments in Brussels, he was upset after being passed over for a first prize at the Brussels Exhibition in 1841. So he moved to Paris in 1842 where he opened his own workshop in 1843.  It was there that he developed and patented his saxhorns, saxotrombas, and saxophones.

However, Adolphe was a controversial person and for more than 20 years was embroiled in legal disputes with his competitors. Enduring three bankruptcies, Adolphe died destitute in 1894.

Cornet by Adolphe Sax, Paris, ca. 1850.  Berlin piston valves.

Adolphe Sax's instruments: some early brasses used keys to change pitches, like the keyed bugles and ophicleides.  In 1814--the same year as Adolphe Sax's birth--valves were invented to alter the tube length to change the pitch while playing.

You may have seen brass instruments with three or four or even five piston valves, but have you ever seen one with six valves? Adolphe Sax devised a system of six independent piston valves that he patented in 1859.  With six independent valves, it was possible to play all the notes more easily in tune.  But, these instruments were very heavy and difficult to make.  Players had to learn different fingerings to play them.  So, six-valved instruments never gained long-term acceptance.

Each independent valve on this Sax trumpet in F (made in 1869) activates a shorter length of tubing and raises the pitch by a semitone (half-step).  This system was inspired by the seven positions of a trombone, but Sax used the same principle on saxhorns and trumpets.

Alto saxhorn with 6 valves and rotating bell by Adolphe Sax, Paris, 1867.

Adolphe Sax proposed reforms to make the French military bands the best in Europe--a proposal that would ultimately benefit his own bottom line.  The Minister of War adopted Sax's plan, which essentially gave Sax a monopoly on the manufacture of certain military instruments, such as his saxhorns and saxotrombas. Competition between instrument makers was fierce, but Sax was eventually awarded the Grand Prix at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1867--the highest prize  awarded to the 486 participating makers.

In his 1845 patent, Adolphe Sax defined the saxotromba as an alto or baritone-sized instrument with an upright bell.  They were originally designed for use by cavalry musicians, to help them avoid hitting the heads of their horses with the bells of their instruments.  Conceived of as a family of instruments, both the narrow-bore saxotrombas and the large-bore saxhorns were meant to be played together. Eventually, all instruments with upright bells became commonly known as saxhorns.

Alto saxhorn (saxotromba) in E-flat by Adolphe Sax, ca. 1848.
Soprano ophicleide by Adolphe Sax, Paris, ca. 1842-1845.

Imagine this:  one day Adolphe Sax is in his workshop.  He's fine tuning a keyed ophicleide he just made, like the one to the left.  Not happy with the sound, he takes the brass cup-shaped mouthpiece off and puts on a bass clarinet mouthpiece instead.  The new sound is not quite brass-like, but it doesn't sound like a clarinet either.  That is probably how the first saxophone was made.  A member of the woodwind family, the saxophone has almost always been made from metal.  Adolphe patented this new family of instruments in 1846.

Alto saxophone by Adolphe Sax, Paris, 1860.

For many years, Adolphe Sax was the director of the stage band at the Paris Opera House, where he introduced several new instruments of his own design. The grand parade trumpet in G (right) was one of the instruments used in Sax's band and is stamped OPERA / 19 on the bell. For performances, a banner was attached to the two small loops on the trumpet.  Sax's band played in several different operas including Meyerbeer's “Robert le Diable,” Verdi's “Aida” and “Rigoletto,” as well as Wagner's “Tannhauser” and “Lohengrin,” to name just a few.

Grand parade trumpet (also commonly called an Aida trumpet) by Adolphe Sax, Paris, 1877.  Trumpet is 58-11/16 inches long (1490mm).

Adolphe Edouard Sax


Adolphe Sax had five children.  His youngest son, Adolphe Edouard, was born in 1859.  After his father's death in 1894, Adolphe Edouard took over the Sax workshop in Paris.  The great Sax dynasty finally came to an end in 1928 with the sale of Adolphe Edouard's business to Henri Selmer.

Flugelhorn (contralto saxhorn) by Adolphe Edouard Sax, Paris, ca. 1907-1928.

Hear a recent conversation with NPR's Renee Montagne and music commentator Miles Hoffman, and hear the sound of some of Adolphe Sax's many saxophones played by Professor C.J. Coker of the University of South Dakota, Department of Music.   

Follow this link to the program.

“Happy Birthday, Mr. Sax.” NPR Morning Edition radio program, November 6, 2014


Credits: Story

Curator — Dr. Margaret Downie Banks, Senior Curator of Musical Instruments
Curator — Dr. Sabine K. Klaus, Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Curator of Brass Instruments
Curator — Dr. Deborah Check Reeves, Curator of Education and Woodwind Instruments
Photographer — Mark Olencki
Photographer — Bill Willroth, Sr.
Temporary Exhibit — "Celebrating the Saxes," was an exhibit shown at the National Music Museum from May 23-September 1, 2014.
NPR program — “Happy Birthday, Mr. Sax.” Morning Edition radio program, November 6, 2014

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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