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The Nine Lives of Adolphe Sax

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Hey, Horn Wailers!

A wide assortment of Horns are a fairly common category of instrument for musicians to pick up, though for the majority of their history, they were less musical and more functional—purposed as call to signal something or used in royal ceremonies. They developed as time moved on and slowly became more complex. By the 1750s, horns were starting to be used to orchestral arrangements. Read more about different kinds of horns and horn techniques from this previous Blog post.

Today we’re going to talk specifically about the saxophone and the guy who invented it! Born Antoine-Joseph Sax in 1814 (current day) Belgium, he went by Adolphe ever since he was a child. His parents were instrument-designers themselves—both of whom had made later developments to the French Horn. Of course, raised by such parents, it was only natural that Adolphe would play as well; he learned the flute and clarinet.

Adolphe didn’t just play, though. He started making his own instruments as well—and at an early age. By just 15 years old, he had entered two of his flutes and a clarinet into a competition. He went on to study flute and clarinet performance as well as voice at the Royal Conservatory of Brussel Music School. 

Before going any further, it’s interesting to note that from a young age, Adolphe escaped death a handful of times and had a few other instances that were rather unfortunate.

  • At three years old, he drank acidic water that he thought was milk.
  • He fell from three floors up and hit his head on a stone. He was believed to be dead.
  • He once swallowed a pin.
  • He got severe burns from gunpowder exploding nearby.
  • Another time burned his side when he fell onto a hot cast-iron frying pan.
  • A cobblestone once hit him in the head. He fell in a river and nearly died.
  • He survived several accounts of sleeping in a room where varnished furniture was drying.

Had he lived to see such misfortunes, but not be fortunate enough to survive them all, we would never have heard of the Saxaphone and the instrument would never have come to be as we know it.

When he finished his time at Music School, he began playing with instrument designs. Living in Paris in 1842, he began developing a bugle with valves. This was the beginning of the saxophone. Thought to be for jazz what the guitar is for rock n’ roll, the saxophone was patented in 1846. And Adolphe didn’t stop there. He also invented the saxotromba, the saxhorn, as well as the saxtuba.

Today, you may find saxhorns in concert bands, marching bands, and orchestras. The saxhorn also paved the way for the modern euphonium! Enjoy maybe a deeper appreciation for the saxophone—a superstar among horn instruments! Till next time, Folks. And, as always, thanks for reading.


- John


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