A question often asked by first-time concert goers is—where were the saxophones? The saxophone is one of the most popular instruments. You see them everywhere. So why aren't they part of the standard orchestral line-up?
A common myth is that it doesn't blend with the other instruments. It's loud, abrasive and honky—it just sticks out too much.
But in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The true reason the sax isn't a fully-fledged member of the orchestra is a story full of intrigue, politics and prejudice.
Taken as a family, the saxophone really is one of the most versatile instruments of them all.
Like the clarinet, it's capable of playing incredible pianissimos that disappear into silence. But it's also capable of tremendous volume that can match a brass instrument.
The composer Hector Berlioz, who was an early supporter of the instrument, wrote:
"It cries, sighs and dreams. It possesses a crescendo and can gradually diminish until it is only an echo of an echo. I know of no other instrument that possesses this particular capacity to reach the outer limits of audible sound"
The soprano sax has an upper register that's close in tone to the oboe, but it can be both gentler and more penetrating.
The alto saxophone blends tremendously with the bassoon, with the oboe, with the clarinet, with the French horn, and, actually, with pretty much any instrument you can think of. A whole family of saxophones is capable of a tender and lyrical legato, as well as one of the shortest staccatos of any instrument, which is one reason why they're a popular choice to play the tight rhythms of minimalist music.
A desire to blend
When the saxophone was first introduced, many of the finest musicians and composers were impressed specifically with its ability to blend. Rossini was introduced to the instrument in 1844 and declared that "the saxophone produced the finest blending of sound that I have met with" and, in fact, the desire for blending was actually one of the main reasons it was invented in the first place.
Introducing Adolphe Sax
The man behind the new instrument was Adolphe Sax, a Belgian whose father was one of the country's leading instrument makers. By the time he was six, Adolph was already learning how to drill the body of a clarinet, while his father concentrated on retail sales. Young Adolphe was given a free rein to experiment and, as he matured, he began to focus on what he saw as a problem with the existing orchestral set-up—the lack of a well-balanced blendable bass in the orchestral woodwinds.
Sax was a talented clarinetist himself, and his first efforts went into completely overhauling the design of the bass clarinet. This is one area where his efforts were fully rewarded, and, with only a few small adjustments, his design is still used by bass clarinetists throughout the world today. He also invented the contrabass clarinet, which, although far from commonplace, is increasingly starting to find a home in orchestras playing new music. Sax felt that among the existing orchestral instruments, the bassoon didn't provide enough of a bridge to the brass section and that the ophicleide, which was a brass instrument with keys like a woodwind instrument, didn't possess enough dynamic range.
Early sketches for the saxophone
The early sketches and patents for the saxophone suggest that Sax’s concept was simply to transplant the mouthpiece he developed for the bass clarinet onto the ophicleide. The new instrument had the power to match the brass, but also the ability to play delicately and blend with the other woodwinds. Sax went on to develop a full family of instruments, from the bass up to the soprano.
A tricky character
Sax was clearly a brilliant and talented inventor, but he also had a rather brusque, arrogant manner, unafraid to push his accomplishments, even if it meant annoying people. One of his favorite sales pitches was to request a competition between an existing or a rival instrument and his own. In 1845, Sax moved to Paris and, in an attempt to become a key supplier to the French military, he found himself in front of an audience of 20,000 people in a full-scale ‘battle of the bands’ with rival local manufacturers.
And, despite some behind-the-scenes pressure from his rivals (which led to several saxophone players not showing up), Sax's instrument was still judged to be the best. The victory should have been the final confirmation of the saxophone’s arrival, but instead it marked the beginning of a bitter rivalry between Sax and the closed shop of French manufacturers, who set out to destroy him any way they could.
They embroiled him in countless lawsuits and, most damagingly for the instrument's future, they pressurized musicians not to use any of Sax's instruments. Donizetti, for example, had planned to include a bass clarinet in his opera ‘Don Sebastian.’ But when the musicians threatened to walk out, he was forced to drop it. There were numerous similar stories regarding the saxophone and, in this way, an instrument that could have quickly established itself as a core part of the orchestra was effectively blocked from entry.
A vicious cycle
The classical saxophone became locked in a vicious cycle. Composers knew there would be difficulties if they wrote for the instrument, so they tended to avoid it. And even if they did include it, they would often include alternative parts, as Bizet did in his ‘L'arlessiene,’ or write them as a solo within a single movement so that the part could be doubled by someone else who played saxophone as a second instrument, which itself meant that the saxophone part didn't always get the love it deserved.
Boston Bandleader Patrick Gilmore
Meanwhile, the saxophones used in marching bands thrived. In the 1870s, French bands with saxophones visited Boston, where bandleader Patrick Gilmore fell in love with them and introduced them to his own bands. By the time John Philip Sousa used them in the 1890s, saxophone fever had well and truly begun. But, as the instrument grew more popular, there came a certain vulgarity from groups like the Brown Brothers, who emphasized the comical aspects of the instrument.
Over the years, the reputation of the saxophone plummeted, and the more it became used in jazz and popular music, the more classical musicians shunned it. One Juilliard professor on learning his clarinet pupil also played the saxophone, said, "Don't you ever mention that instrument in class or I'll take that scholarship away from you." And, as we mentioned, this view of the saxophone as a loud, brash, vulgar instrument clearly persists in some quarters to this day.
A new generation
On the whole, though, the rise of a fine generation of new classical players and good teaching at some conservatoires means composers are far more interested in writing for the instrument than ever before. The problem now comes down to money. The orchestral setup has barely changed since the 19th century. And so to add even one saxophone, let alone a whole section of four as Adolphe Sax had originally envisioned, is something that only the most established composers can demand.
It's a sad situation. You can't help but feel that the world has lost by the exclusion of this versatile instrument into orchestral pieces over the past 200 years. Ultimately it’s hard not lay blame on those Parisian instrument manufacturers who, instead of trying to compete fairly with Sax's invention, chose instead to block its progress into the wider world.