Sax became something of a footnote in history after his creation was almost forgotten after his death, until it was revived by jazz musicians who barely remembered his name. In his own time, however, Sax made musical headlines. His life story is a rich source of information about music—and musical politics—in the nineteenth century, full of controversy, public scenes, and dramatic reversals of fortune. Sax's life, wrote a contemporary observer quoted on the Web site of the inventor's home city of Dinant, “rises to the heights of a social event.”
Developed Interest in Music
Sax was born on November 6, 1814, in Dinant, which was part of France at the time and was then annexed by the Netherlands. The town, known for a particular type of yellow copper, lies in the southern, French-speaking part of what in 1830 became the independent country of Belgium. The oldest of 11 children, he was lucky to survive his childhood, during which he fell from a third-story window (and was given up for dead), swallowed a pin, was burned in a gunpowder accident and burned again by a frying pan, was poisoned three times by varnish fumes, hit on the head with a cobblestone, and nearly drowned in a river. In between these incidents, Sax took naturally to the trade of his father, Charles-Joseph Sax, a cabinetmaker who was ordered to provide musical instruments for a Dutch army band and turned out to have strong skills in that area.
Sax became his father's apprentice and also pursued the musical side of his education, studying singing and the flute. After the younger Sax's workshop in Paris became successful, their roles were reversed. He hired his father, who had run into financial problems in Belgium, to be his production manager. By the time he was 16, Sax was not only making good examples of existing instruments but also designing new ones. At 20 he exhibited an original 24-key clarinet, and his new bass clarinet won the admiration of Franc¸ois Antoine Habeneck, the conductor of the Paris Opera Orchestra, who was passing through Brussels, Belgium.
Before long, Sax concluded that Belgium was too small for his ambitions. At the Belgian Exhibition (an industrial fair) in 1840 he presented nine inventions, among them an organ, a piano tuning process and a sound-reflecting screen. The judges felt that Sax was too young to receive the gold medal, and instead awarded him the vermeil (gilded silver). Sax was interested in an early version of the saxophone from French opera composer Fromental Halévy, and he made a quick decision to head for Paris, the capital of musical life in the French-speaking world. He had only 30 francs in his pocket.
Lived in Shed
When he arrived in Paris, he was forced to live in a shed and to borrow money in order to get himself established. But his fortunes turned around when Halévy introduced him to Hector Berlioz, who in addition to being France's most controversial composer was also an influential music critic. In 1842 Sax showed Berlioz an early version of the baritone saxophone, an instrument different from any other that had been made up to that time. It had the power of brass instruments, but it was sounded with a reed and had the expressive, voice-like qualities of reed woodwinds. Berlioz sent Sax away with the remark that on the following day Sax would know what he, Berlioz, thought of the instrument. Sax spent a nervous night before picking up the Journal des Débats, the most influential arts publication of the day in Paris, where he read Berlioz's words, as quoted in an article contained on the Saxgourmet Web site: “He [Sax] is a calculator, an acoustician, and when required, a smelter, a turner and, if need be, at the same time an embosser. He can think and act. He invents, and he accomplishes.”
Berlioz went on to praise the sound of Sax's instrument, which he soon began to produce in seven sizes from sopranino all the way down to double-bass, and it was not long before composers started to write parts for them in the growing opera orchestras of the time. But this was when Sax's troubles began. According to the article on Saxgourmet, he “had exceptional gifts for the gentle art of making enemies.” Instrumentalists devoted to rival builders tried to sabotage his innovations, refusing to play Sax's bass clarinets, although Berlioz continued to defend Sax and wrote a piece for the new instrument. And after Sax showed his saxophones at the Paris Industrial Exhibition in 1844, he had to contend with accusations from a German military bandleader named Wieprecht that a pair of German inventors had actually been the first builders to devise both the saxophone and Sax's bass clarinet. German musicians backed up the fraud by ordering Sax's instruments from Paris, buffing out the etching of Sax's name in the brass, and sending the instruments back to France.
Sax defended himself vigorously. The German's accusations were dealt with at a momentous showdown in the German city of Koblenz, attended by such celebrities as the composer Franz Liszt: Wieprecht claimed that he and other German musicians were already familiar with Sax's instruments, but when handed actual examples, he could play the bass clarinet only poorly, and the saxophone not at all. Wieprecht underwent an instant transformation and became one of Sax's new backers, and Sax magnanimously announced that he would wait another year before finalizing his patent application to see if anyone else could produce a genuine saxophone.
Received His Patent
Sax received his patent in 1846 and won his gold medal at the Paris Industrial Exposition in 1849. This did not end his legal problems, however, as lawsuits continued to plague him for years. Sax's workshop sold some 20,000 instruments between 1843 and 1860, but he was not a talented money manager, and sales were not enough to keep him solvent. He filed for bankruptcy three times, in 1852, 1873, and 1877, and he was saved from a fourth debacle only by the intervention of another of his admirers, Emperor Napoleon III. Sax continued to devise improvements to his instruments, and he taught at the Paris Conservatory beginning in 1858.
In 1858 Sax was diagnosed with lip cancer, generally a death sentence at the time, but he was successfully treated by an Afro-French herbalist. He had five children by a Spanish-born mistress, Louise-Adèle Maor, whom he never married, reportedly because he did not want to acknowledge the liaison because he felt her family was too poor. Sax's son Adolphe-Edouard followed him into the business and maintained the Sax workshop into the twentieth century; it was absorbed by the Selmer company, which still exists today, in 1928. Sax wrote a method or learners' manual for the saxophone and continued to promote it vigorously in the field of classical music, but it never caught on strongly in the symphony orchestra.
In 1870 Sax's position at the Paris Conservatory was terminated in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, and he lived his final years in straitened circumstances, kept out of poverty only by a small pension arranged for him by an admirer. By the time of his death on February 7, 1894, at the age of 80, Sax may have feared that his life's work had been compromised; the saxophone was well entrenched in band music but had little presence in the classical sphere. He had no way of knowing that his creation, transplanted to the United States and dispersed around the city of New Orleans by military bandsmen returning from the Spanish-American War around 1900, would evolve into an icon of American music, played enthusiastically by musicians ranging from schoolchildren up to Bill Clinton, the forty-second president of the United States.
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musica and Musicians, centennial ed., Nicholas Slonimsky, ed. emeritus, Schirmer, 2001.
Horwood, Wally, Adolph Sax, 1814-1894: His Life and Legacy, Bramley, 1980.
Europe, March 1994.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), July 29, 1994.
“Adolphe Sax,” Saxgourmet, http://www.saxgourmet.com/adolph-sax.html (March 18, 2008).
“Adolphe Sax (1814-1894), Inventor of the Saxophone (Historical Excerpts from Adolphe Sax and His Saxophone, Saxgourmet, http://www.saxgourmet.com/adolph-sax.html (February 17, 2008).
“Adolphe Sax: Inventor of the Saxophone,” City of Dinant Official Web site, http://www.dinant.be/index.htm?lg=3&m1=28&m2=88&m3=293 (February 17, 2008).