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Adolphe Sax - brilliant musical instrument inventor

Antoine-Joseph Sax (1814—1894) was born in Dinant in French-ruled Belgium, the oldest of eleven children of Charles Joseph Sax and his exhausted wife. Throughout his childhood Antoine aka Adolphe suffered a series of life- threatening accidents. Even his parents believed that their son would not live for long.

Both of Adolphe’s parents were musical instrument designers and hence he became interested in this career from a very early age. In fact he started making his own instruments at an early age and exhibited his flutes and a clarinet at a competition at 15. The adolescent redesigned a flute as well as a clarinet and took part in a competition with those two designs as his entries.

And he also learned a great deal about musical instruments when he studied the flute and clarinet at the Royal Conservatory of Brus­s­els. After university, Adolphe started designing music inst­rum­ents professionally and while his parents stuck to what they were most experienced in, Adolphe decided to look at how to design new inst­ru­ments. In 1835, when he was only 24, Adolphe designed a cleverly improved version of the bass clarinet.

 A carte-de-visite portrait of Adolphe-Joseph Sax

In 1842 Adolphe moved to Paris in order to pursue his dream of becoming a musical instruments designer; he needed a bigger stage than Belgium. There he exhibited the saxophone, a single-reed instrument made of metal with a conical bore, overblowing at the octave, which had resulted from his eff­orts to improve the tone of the bass clarinet. The saxophone, the only woodwind instrument made of brass, was patented in 1846.

With his father, Adolphe progressed on three instruments: a] the sax-horn, an improvement on the bugle horn; b] the saxo-tromba, the instrument that produced a tone between that of the bugle and the trumpet; and c] the sax-tuba. He was clearly one of the most creative musical instrument inventors of the C19th, a young men who also enjoyed adding his surname to his instruments.

It was the saxophone that made his reputation and secured him a job, teaching that instrument at the Paris Conservatoire in 1857. The composer Berlioz was delighted.

Many of his instruments came about as a response to a growing belief among the authorities that French military music was in decline.  His prototype saxophone received rave reviews almost by accident. At a demonstration, Adolphe was so concerned that his unfinished instrument might fall apart that he lost his place in the music. Holding a single note while he refound his place, the audience thought the long note was deliberate and, never having heard such a thing before from a brass instrument, applauded wildly.

A year later Adolphe wrote to King Louis-Philippe’s aide-de-camp, suggesting the army could reform military bands by integrating Adolphe’s instruments. In 1845 a public test was arranged, setting a band of Adolphe’s instruments against a more traditional military band. The jury overwhelmingly voted for the ex-Belgian, giving him a virtual monopoly on French military instrument-making overnight.

Later he improved several instruments and invented others, but un­fortunately he did not establish a legal basis for their commerc­ial exploitation. Sax’s band, consisting mainly of saxhorns that had been improved by him, was nominated the winner. The composition of his band became the guide for the re-organisation of French military bands. Soon many of his instruments were accepted for the French army bands.

Sax’s workshop sold c20,000 instruments between 1843 and 1860, but not everything went well. One of his most important inventions was the saxophone, an inst­ru­ment that was patented and remains his greatest invention. However, many of his patents ran into trouble as his rival instrument makers questioned their legality; starting in 1848, a long series of litigations against the originality of Sax’s instruments started. For years Adolphe was involved in lawsuits with competing instrument makers seeking to have his pat­ents revoked. Soon the endless legal costs involved in the process drove him to bankruptcy, three times

Saxophone produced by Sax

He was living in miserable poverty, but luckily Camille Saint-Saëns petitioned the Minister of Fine Arts to provide Adolphe with a small pension. At 79 Sax died in Paris in Feb 1894, and was buried in the cemetery at Montmartre. Adolphe was mourned by his partner Louise-Adele Maor and their 5 children. One of their sons, Adolph-Edouard Sax, went into the same profession as his father.

Saxhorn instruments spread rapidly across the world, long after Sax died. The instruments’ valves were accepted as state of the art and are still largely unchanged today. The saxophone, with its new timbre, won over many composers of the time and, somewhat later, became a great favourite of young jazz musicians who had never heard of Sax. Clearly the saxophone took a century to win enough professional respect to be accepted in a music con­ser­v­atory (in 1942).

Adolphe Sax statue in front of the
Sax Museum, Dinant, Belgium


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