Getting yourself a Yamaha saxophone is an impressive feat, but before you do that, you should know something about the history of the instrument. First invented in 1840 by Adolphe Sax, the saxophone went through some minor changes along the years, and although it was initially used for classical music, it established itself as an instrument for jazz.
What led to the apparition of the sax?
The inventor of the saxophone was named Adolphe Sax, so it’s clear where the instrument got its name from. Sax was an instrument maker from Belgium, and he also liked playing brass and woodwind instruments, the flute, and clarinet in particular.
Although originally from Brussels, Belgium, in order to develop his instrument business, he moved to Paris where he knew he could be more successful. He invented the saxophone in 1840, but he had a lot of previous experiences with many similar instruments before he achieved that feat.
For example, he worked on a number of improvements on the bass clarinet, by making its acoustics better, improving the keywork, and extending the instrument’s lower range. He was also an instrument creator that liked to make the ophicleide, which was a large brass instrument, similar to the tuba nowadays.
Given this experience that he had with designing, making, and improving instruments, it was clear that Adolphe Sax was capable of inventing a new instrument, and he had the technology at his disposal for that, as well.
At first, in the 1840s and 1850s, the sax was not so popular and it was rather used in small ensembles that played classical music. These ensembles were both formed of saxophones only and mixed as well. Some people used the sax as a solo instrument, while the French and British military forces used them in their bands.
The instrument started to become more popular and conservatories in Europe began teaching the saxophone. Even in orchestral scores, the instrument was starting to become used, however, it was never really a widespread orchestral instrument. The first time the sax was present in the united states was in 1853 with the orchestra of Louis Antoine Jullien.
The first saxophones
He started all of this when he was trying to improve the bass clarinet, and he wanted to create something that had the projection of a brass instrument, and still be easy to play like a woodwind one. In musical terms, he wanted the new instrument to have more range when overblown, from a twelfth to a full octave.
The result was a brass instrument with a single-reed mouthpiece and a body that had a conical shape. He attempted to build the instrument in different sizes at the beginning of the 1840s, trying to experiment with his new creation. In 1846 he eventually received a patent of 15 years for his new instrument.
This patent included all of the shapes and sizes he designed, and it took into consideration the different pitched models too. Amongst these, the B flat and E flat models became the standard really fast. A characteristic of the saxophone was that it had an expansive range of two and a half octaves.
After 15 years, in 1866, the patent for the saxophone expired and that’s when many other instrument makers started to create their own designs and improve upon the initial work of Sax. his original keywork was a simple one; probably too simplistic for what people needed at the time. It was based on Triebert’s 3 oboe system for the left and Boehm’s clarinet system for the right hand.
But that meant that some techniques such as legato were hard to perform. That is why the developments brought to the instrument were mainly focused on adding some extra keys, mechanisms that will help with linkage, and developments that would help with making the fingering patterns less difficult to execute.
Further development of the sax
After the initial modifications brought to the instrument, its range was also extended, first to E and then to F above the staff. Later, in the 1880s, most of the music for the saxophone was written in a range between low B and F.
There was a company named Buffet-Crampon that in 1887 got a patent to extend the range of the instrument downwards until it reached a B flat. As of today, this extension is standard to saxophones, although there are some exceptions, especially the baritone sax that goes even lower, to a low A.
In terms of the upper range, the F note will remain the standard, up until the apparition of the altissimo design, with the F sharp key becoming what was wanted in the industry.
After that, the instrument suffered no major changes for a while, partly because it lost its initial support from classical music enthusiasts across Europe. Between 1870 and 1900 the teaching of this instrument was not done at the conservatory of Paris anymore and the repertoire for the instrument didn’t see any change in that space of time.
The saxophone in the USA
Although not as successful in Europe anymore, the sax started to be used in the USA more, and that was mainly due to more musicians coming in the country and touring with their bands or orchestras.
One of these musicians was Patrick Gilmore, and Edward Lefebre, who was the leader of a Dutch band, a saxophonist that had some ties with the Sax family. The two of them organized the World Peace Jubilee that took place in Boston in 1872, where Lefebre performed with his band.
After that Lefebre became very popular in New York with his saxophone, and the following year Gilmore organized another spectacle that included Lefebre. The two of them established their own band featuring more saxophones, performing sometimes as a quartet. They performed in small ensembles too, and they worked with composers to increase the repertoire of the saxophone.
It was the effort that Lefebre put into promoting the saxophone that really made this instrument popular amongst Americans. He even went to a brass instrument manufacturer, C.G. Conn, and he convinced them in the 1880s to start producing some saxophones that were better, yet more affordable than European ones.
This helped bring the instrument on the market for people that couldn’t previously afford to purchase such an instrument from all the way across the ocean. C.G. Conn produced a lot of instruments and helped the public gain access to the saxophone in the 1890s.
Lefebre also made the effort to publish his arrangements, transcriptions, and other original saxophone works. Furthermore, he worked with the Conn Conservatory to help them expand the pedagogy of the saxophone in the states. That’s how much he loved the instrument.
He had a long collaboration with the manufacturers and the publishers. Although he died in 1911, the company publishing his works still continued to share his arrangements posthumously.
What happened in the 20th century?
At first, the instrument was considered one suitable for classical music and that was the area where it was mostly used. However, after it fell out of the likings of classical musicians, it had to find its own niche. Fortunately, in the early decades of the 20th century, there were many new genres appearing and the saxophone was able to get a foothold in some of those.
It was the instrument of choice for ragtime bands and Vaudeville music, and that led to it being used in dance orchestras. As the years passed by, the saxophone became really popular amongst jazz enthusiasts, and that is where you will mostly find it today.
With the growth of popularity in the jazz community, the manufacturers also started producing more saxophones. Casual players were now able to get the instrument that was now being designed to play in the same key as pianos.
During the 1920s was when the instrument started to become really popular, and thanks to the efforts of Sigurd Rascher and Marcel Mule the sax was reintroduced in the world of classical music. The two worked a lot to expand the classical repertoire of the instrument.
Saxophones, as they are today, first started to be produced in the 1930s and 40s, and there has been little to no change since then. The model that Selmer created in 1948 was the one that set the final layout for most of the saxophones today.