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The Ultimate Classical Works for Saxophone

Saxophone Repertoire
Saxophone Repertoire

Invented by Belgian Adolphe Sax in the 1840s, the saxophone is a relative newcomer in the classical music world. The instruments have also experienced a good deal of prejudice over the years (check out this article here for more on this ). Whilst these factors meant many composers ignored their potential, some great figures did choose to write for these marvellous instruments. Here are the pieces every saxophonist should know!

Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition (1874)

Mussorgsky’s piece is a series of 10 musical vignettes, each of which depict a different picture at an exhibition by Russian artist Viktor Hartmann. Originally written for piano solo, Ravel later orchestrated the work, in the process choosing to feature the saxophone in the second picture ‘Il vecchio castello’ (The Old Castle). Sepulchral in atmosphere, it is also a great example of the instrument’s lyrical and melancholic side.

Maurice Ravel - Bolero (1928)

Ravel’s Bolero calls for a large orchestra that includes two saxophone players, one of whom switches between soprano and tenor saxophone, the other playing exclusively sopranino, (though this is usually also played on soprano). They have consecutive solos—tenor followed by soprano—early in the piece, as well as featuring prominently elsewhere:

George Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue (1931)

Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in Blue in a feverishly creative five weeks in 1931. The original scoring was made for two pianos, being worked up to a version for piano and jazz band by the arranger Ferde Grofé. He later made the version most familiar today, for piano and orchestra. This shows its jazz roots by including two alto saxophones and a tenor saxophone in its line-up. The most famous part of the piece, however, is the opening clarinet solo with its low trill followed by a monumental upward glissando that leads into the work’s main theme. This solo has been found to work so well on saxophone that is has often been played on that instrument, hence its honourable mention here.

Jules Demersseman - Fantasie sur un thème original (1866)

French flautist and composer Jules Demersseman was one of the first of his generation to write for Adolphe Sax’s new instruments. Sadly he only lived to the age of 33, completing this work two years before this death. Wistfully charming it is also not insubstantial in its expressive impact.

Debussy Rapsodie for Saxophone and Orchestra (1911)

Debussy wrote his 10 minute Rapsodie at the invitation of saxophonist Elise Hall in 1901. Not being enthusiastic about the commission, it took him ten years to complete, though that hesitation is not remotely apparent in the music. Debussy’s version was for piano and saxophone, the orchestration being made by Jean Roger-Ducasse in 1919 after the composer’s death the previous year. It was premiered by Pierre Mayeur, Elise Hall having by that time become completely deaf.

Alexander Glazunov - Concerto in Eb for Alto Saxophone (1934)

Glazunov's concerto was written at the request of renowned saxophonist Sigurd Raschèr. Though Glazaunov was certainly attracted to the instrument, having already written a marvellous saxophone quartet, Raschèr had to hound him to begin work on the piece. It was finished just two years before the composer’s death, meaning that he likely did not hear a full performance of the work during his lifetime.

The work is considered a cornerstone of the saxophone repertoire. It is written in one span lasting about 15 minutes, which can be approximately divided into four sections: exposition, development, transition and conclusion. It is romantic in style, lyrical and melodic whilst requiring plenty of virtuosic technique.

Heitor Villa-Lobos - Fantasia for Soprano Saxophone (1948)

Though the saxophone features prominently in his output, Villa-Lobos only wrote one solo work for the instrument. As a clarinetist himself, it is perhaps not surprising that he chose to feature the soprano saxophone, the family member that lies closest in range and technique to the clarinet. The work is scored for a string orchestra and three horns and is full of lively elements derived from his native Brazilian music.

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