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.
What is a saxophone made of?
Modern saxophones are made primarily from brass, which is a composite alloy made of zinc, nickel, tin, and copper. The most common type is yellow brass, which contains about 70% copper and 30% zinc. Other popular types used for this instrument are silver brass and gold brass.
The saxophone was built to be an instrument that could bridge the gap between the woodwinds and the brass and blend the tones of the two groups to create a tonal balance. This still begs the question, is saxophone brass or woodwind? This is where things can get a bit confusing.
The saxophone is constructed of metal, and this may have people believe that it is a brass instrument, but that’s not true. The saxophone produces sound with a single reed, and this means that it is categorized as a woodwind instrument, not a brass instrument.
The mouthpiece is one of the most important components of the instrument, and originally, the mouthpiece was made of wood. The initial designs of the Adolphe Sax saxophone included many wood components.
The first saxophone ever made had a mouthpiece made from softwood, such as boxwood, and then it switched to harder woods, such as rosewood and granadilla.
A few manufacturers still make saxophones with wooden mouthpieces to this day. However, in modern instruments, most mouthpieces are either made from rubber, plastic, or metal. Rubber mouthpieces are the most popular variant for jazz and classical players, while professional players prefer metal mouthpieces due to their powerful tone.
What types of saxophones are there?
The saxophone family included 14 different types of instruments originally since the inventor, Adolphe Sax, wanted to have an entire orchestra consisting solely of saxophones, so he made the instrument capable of handling a wide dynamic range.
While you can still find a saxophone in orchestra music nowadays, there is less variety since there are only six types in widespread use. In a pitch order from low to high, the six main types of saxophones available today are bass, baritone, tenor, alto, soprano, and sopranino.
Out of the six types currently used, the history of the alto saxophone is the richest since this is the type that Adolphe Sax continued to make and improve over the years. Even today, the alto and tenor saxophones are the ones that are most favored by sax players of all skill levels and ages.
The history of the saxophone – interesting facts
Out of all the instruments that are in use to this day, the saxophone is the only one to have been invented by only one person, Adolphe Sax, hence the name.
He was born in 1814, and as a proficient musician that could play multiple wind instruments, he set out to create a new instrument that could combine the ease of play of the clarinet with the easy fingering of the large woodwinds.
The saxophone is also the only woodwind instrument that is made from brass. This can cause a bit of confusion, but since it generates sound using a single reed, this classifies it as a woodwind instrument, despite being made from brass.
The only other woodwind instrument that is made of metal is the flute, but many people don’t include it in the list since, originally, the flute was made entirely out of wood, and there are still many flutes made of wood even today.
Another thing that makes the saxophone stand out among the other instruments in the woodwind family is its wide dynamic range. The sax has the widest range among all other woodwinds, and this allows it to produce a sound that is very similar to the human voice.
Across its long history, the sax has often played a crucial role in classical music, especially in the works of the French composers. This makes it even more impressive considering that when Adolphe Sax first introduced his invention in the early 1840s, the reaction wasn’t very positive as he was met with outright mockery.
At first, the instrument was a source of disdain and curiosity, and very few people took this new instrument seriously. Thankfully for Sax, there were a couple of loyal patrons and fans that saw the potential of this instrument.
Hector Berlioz was the first composer to embrace the saxophone, and he played a crucial role in popularizing it to the masses. He wrote a very positive editorial about this new instrument in “Journal des Debats”, which was a very popular Paris magazine.
Despite the numerous endorsements, Adolphe Sax didn’t live to see the instrument he created reach its true potential, and he ended up dying very poor at the age of 80 and living on a small pension that the French government provided.
What are the uses of the saxophone?
When compared to all the other woodwind instruments, the saxophone has one of the widest dynamic ranges, and this makes it a very versatile instrument. The tonal qualities of the sax are very close to those of the human voice, and this means that it is capable of reaching a very wide range of expressions.
Thus, there is no wonder why the saxophone history is so rich, seeing as the instrument does very well solo for jazz music, but it can also handle instrumental groupings very well, including use in orchestras and chamber music. There is a robust repertoire in classical music for the saxophone.
While we’re at it, it is also worth taking a moment to talk a bit about one of the most famous saxophone related instrument, the xaphoon. This is a keyless and inexpensive version of a saxophone that is made from bamboo. It was first developed in the 20th century, and it is a very popular instrument in Hawaii.
The tone of this instrument resembles the saxophone and clarinet, and this makes it suitable for jazz. Even though the tone may be familiar, playing it is no easy task since the fingerings on the xaphoon are very different from those of the saxophone.