'The unknown about the well known'. Life story of Adolphe Sax

Our 'The unknown about the well known' column features the life story of prominent musical instrument maker and the inventor of the entire saxophone series.

Antoine-Joseph (Adolphe) Sax was a Belgian inventor and musician who invented saxophone in the early 1840s and patented it in 1846. Adolphe Sax was born on November 6, 1984 in what is now Belgium to a family of musical instrument designers. Six boys and five girls were born to the family. Seven of them died at an early age. Adolphe himself was a miracle survivor. Barely learning to walk, he fell from the third floor and hit his head on the stone pavement, losing consciousness for a long time, so that he was presumed dead; and at the age of three, he drank a cup of dilute sulphuric acid, and then swallowed a pin.

King William I of Belgium appointed his father Antoine the court master. Adolphe was very musical boy, surpassing his father's skills. By the age of ten, imitating his father and learning from him in the workshop, the boy could carve a finely curved pipe, grind the valves and assemble an instrument from the parts, and by the age of sixteen, he had already made his first flute and clarinet himself. The clarinet of the time was an unpretentious instrument, a wooden tube with apertures and a pair of valves. In order to play a halftone, the musician had to open or close the aperture halfway. It required a great deal of skill and was a matter of pride for orchestral professionals. Adolphe Sax had to devise a mechanism that made it possible to play the entire chromatic scale comfortably and quickly, to cast all of its parts in metal with the utmost precision and to create a system of springs and fastenings. This work took four years and resulted in a completely new clarinet with twenty-four valves. The first significant invention of Sax was the design refinements of the bass clarinet, which he patented at the age of 24. Reviews of Adolphe Sax character by his contemporaries have been preserved. He was very independent, with energy, courage and tenacity. He thought big, as a young, daring man should. He refused an offer to start his own business in St Petersburg, just as he refused an invitation to settle in London with vague horizons. He believed in his talent and wanted to realize it in Europe, but outside Belgium since it had become too small for him. In 1842, he left for Paris and began work on a new set of valves and the fingering of a new instrument. In Paris, Sax first approached Hector Berlioz, the influential music critic and composer, with his invention. Although the instrument created by Sax looked unusual, Berlioz was fascinated by its sound. He wrote a review article about the 'mouthpiece Ophicléide', as he called the instrument. Although Sax did not invent the instrument from scratch, his models were far more successful than those of his competitors were. Adolphe Sax took the clarinet, replaced wood pieces with metal, adapted a more comfortable mouthpiece and changed the cross section, making the instrument wider downwards; he provided the new instrument with a more progressive oboe and flute fingering. On the 21th of March 1846, he applied for a patent for "the system of wind instruments, called saxophones". The patent was received on June 20, 1846.

Artisan Adolphe Sax invented not just one saxophone, but an entire family of instruments. He built fourteen types of saxophones, seven of which are still in use nowadays. One of them is the baritone or alto saxophone. The unusual shape of this wind instrument, namely the parabolic body, is the source of its magical timbre. The new instrument was favored by many musicians and made its creator famous; hence, it also generated many envious enemies. Adolphe Sax was accused of plagiary and the exclusivity of his designs, i.e. the rights to his patents, was disputed.

For 13 years, between 1857 and 1870, Sax taught playing his instrument at the Conservatoire in Paris. This proved fruitful — he created a number of experienced saxophone players and composers increasingly focused on saxophone music. During the Franco-Prussian War, however, the cadets were mobilized, and musical training soon ceased.

As a result, Adolphe Sax fell victim to unfair competition. He was also repeatedly sued by other musical instrument makers, accused of plagiary. Sax was bankrupted by legal costs, his musical instrument building company went bankrupt, and the years of legal battles undermined his health.

After rather long life, Sax did not live to see the Jazz Age and died in poverty. He was buried in the Montmartre cemetery.

Adolphe Sax was featured on the 200-franc note in circulation before the euro was introduced in Belgium. The back of this banknote featured silhouettes of saxophone players and the cathedral and citadel of Dinan (Sax's hometown). The instrument's popularity these days among amateurs and professionals, classical performers and jazz musicians alike is undeniable.

Musical selection for Adolf Sax' birthday, featuring acclaimed musicians performing jazz compositions, is available in the museum Collection Sound Library.