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The Devil's Horn
The Story of the Saxophone, From Noisy Novelty to King of Cool
By Michael Segell
Picador Copyright © 2005 Michael Segell
All rights reserved.
THE GHOST CHILD
He was known as Le petit Sax, le revenant (the ghost-child) to the citizens of his village, Dinant, in Belgium. After one of his many nearly fatal accidents, his mother lamented, "The child is doomed to suffer; he won't live." Almost before he could walk, little Adolphe Sax, christened Antoine Joseph in 1814, was fascinated with the alchemical magic performed every day in his father's workshop, where the most elemental materials were recombined into the finest brass, which was in turn fashioned into an exquisite musical instrument. Although Charles Joseph Sax, who had been appointed Belgium's chief instrument maker by William I of Orange, was eager to pass on his skills to his firstborn son, agents of misfortune conspired relentlessly to remove the boy from the land of the living. When he was two Adolphe fell down a flight of stairs, smashed his head on a rock, and lay comatose for a week. A year later, toddling around his father's atelier, he mistook sulfate of zinc for milk, gulped it down, and nearly expired. Subsequent poisonings involved white lead, copper oxide, and arsenic. He swallowed a needle, burned himself severely on a stove, and was badly scorched again by exploding gunpowder, which blew him across the workshop floor. He was again rendered comatose by a heavy slate tile that dislodged from a roof and landed on his head. When he was ten, a villager happened to spot the drowning lad when, after falling into a river, he was eddying, facedown and unconscious, in a whirlpool above a miller's gate. The villager just managed to pluck him from the water. Before he entered adolescence, his head was scarred by the repeated blows, and one side of his body was badly disfigured by burns.
But his misadventures proved instructive, hardening him for the nasty battles that would plague him as he tried to launch an ingenious musical invention, a serpentine horn whose provenance he secured by naming it after himself. From the moment his lips first touched his saxophone prototype, Adolphe Sax would face a juggernaut of slander, theft, litigation, forced bankruptcies, and attempts on his life that tried to suppress his new sound, a sound never before heard in nature, a sound that promised to change the timbre and soul of music wherever it was played.
By 1842, the twenty-eight-year-old Adolphe Sax was widely recognized as one of the world's top acoustical craftsmen. Far more skilled and ambitious than his brilliant father, he set out on a late-winter day from Brussels for Paris, then the musical-instrument manufacturing center of the world. In addition to his personal belongings, he carried with him an enormous brass horn, almost as tall as he, that he had fabricated in his father's workshop, where he had thrived after surviving his calamitous childhood. It was the most recent creation of his already remarkable career. At fifteen he had fabricated a clarinet and two flutes from ivory, considered exquisite specimens by judges at the 1830 Brussels Industrial Exposition. Before he was twenty he had created a new fingering system on the soprano clarinet and reinvented the bass clarinet, transforming the unreliable and mostly unplayable instrument into a regal, elegant woodwind that provided a rich bottom to any instrumental configuration and, remarkably, played in tune. The newly rehabilitated instrument had quickly been adopted as a standard member of the woodwind group and its inventor acknowledged as an engineer of great promise in the musical capitals of Europe.
Despite his success, Sax was feeling grossly maligned and unappreciated. For several years the judges of the Belgian national exhibition had refused to grant him the first prize for his innovations, reasoning that though the precocious designer may have deserved them, were he to receive the exhibition's highest honors at such a young age, he would have nothing else to aspire to. The year before, in 1841, Sax had prepared to submit for review his new bass horn, the as-yet-unnamed saxophone, the first in a proposed family of seven that would reconfigure the sonic organization of military and symphonic orchestras. After glimpsing the instrument — a brass-and-reed hybrid that joined the body of an ophicleide, a sinuous conical horn, with a clarinet-style mouthpiece — the first wholly new one to emerge since the clarinet had been invented a hundred years before, a jealous competitor apparently booted it across the floor, damaging it so badly it was unfit for exhibition. Disappointed and disgusted, Sax had packed his belongings, carefully wrapped up his mangled creation, and fled Brussels. When he arrived in Paris he had thirty francs in his pocket.
It was the first of many attempts to suppress this intrusive latecomer, this interloper, which, unlike wind instruments with ancient roots, could trace its lineage only as far as the revolutionary design specifications of a visionary acoustical scientist. Like every subsequent injunction over the next century against the saxophone and its "carnal," "voluptuous" sound — by heads of state, local police, educators, symphonic conductors, film censors, and a host of other moral arbiters, including the Vatican — it failed.
Brash, arrogant, handsome, with a lush, full beard and bedroom eyes, Adolphe Sax was the embodiment of the fiery nineteenth-century Romantic. Enormously self-confident — "In life there are conquerors and the conquered; I most prefer to be among the first," he often said — Sax was sure that his invention would have profound and everlasting repercussions for music and its practitioners. A brief trip to Paris in the spring of 1839 had strengthened his conviction; the well-regarded composers François-Antoine Habeneck, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Jacques Fromental Halévy, to whom he had shown the new bass clarinet and a few of his retooled brass instruments, praised him lavishly during his visit. Sax was convinced he would find a learned and appreciative audience in the salons and conservatories of France and receive the recognition he had been denied in Brussels.
Paris represented a fresh start in other ways, too. As a young man, Sax had shown a remarkable ability to develop enemies. Not long after he reinvented the bass clarinet, a jealous artist at the Brussels Grande Harmonie declared he would quit the orchestra if it adopted the new instrument by the designer, who was also a highly talented musician. Sax challenged him to a musical duel — a strategy he deployed frequently with his critics. In his adopted city of Paris, he decided on a new tack. He invited the composer Hector Berlioz, who wrote a feuilleton for the highbrow Journal des débats, to review his instruments, including the improved clarinets and the prototype for his new bass horn. On June 12, 1842, Berlioz devoted much of his column to Sax, "a man of lucid mind, far-seeing, tenacious, steadfast and skilled beyond words." He called the new instrument le Saxophon, an eponym the egomaniacal young genius wholly endorsed, and predicted the instrument would "meet with the support of all friends of music." Attempting to describe the unique effects the horn has on the human ear, Berlioz wrote elsewhere, "It cries, sighs and dreams. It possesses a crescendo and can gradually diminish its sound until it is only an echo of an echo of an echo — until its sound becomes crepuscular." In another article, he said, "The timbre of the saxophone has something vexing and sad about it in the high register; the low notes to the contrary are of a grandiose nature, one could say pontifical. For works of a mysterious and solemn character, the saxophone is, in my mind, the most beautiful low voice known to this day."
Other composers echoed the praise, even though they had heard the instrument before it underwent its final refinements. The opera composer Gioacchino Rossini declared that "it produced the finest blending of sound that I have met with." Claude Lavoix described its "particular color of sadness and resignation." A couple of months after Sax arrived in Paris, Fromental Halévy exhorted him, "Hurry and finish your new family of instruments and come and succour to the poor composers that are looking for something new and to the public that is demanding it, if not to the world itself." By 1843, Sax had put the final touches on his first prototype, a B-flat bass with a main body that was still shaped like an ophicleide.
The bombastic Berlioz, perhaps recognizing a kindred spirit in his feisty, irritable new friend, helped promote the instrument in every way he knew how. He scored his Chant Sacre for an ensemble of Sax's instruments, including the B-flat bass saxophone. In early 1844 the work was performed as Hymne pour les instruments de Sax at the Salle Herz, with Sax playing his bass prototype in what was probably the first public performance of the colossal new instrument. Later that year, Georges Kastner used the saxophone, this time a bass in C, in his biblical opera The Last King of Juda, performed at the Paris Conservatory, its only performance ever.
Sax also wooed French royalty. A conservatory student for much of his youth, Sax could play, and play well, virtually every woodwind and brass instrument. At the Paris Industrial Exhibition in 1844, he kept his invention hidden from view (because it was not yet patented, he was then calling it a contrabass clarinet), quietly revealing it to only a few trusted acquaintances. One of them was Lieutenant General Comte de Rumigny, the king's aide-de-camp, who arranged a showcase for Sax and a quartet of musicians before King Louis Philippe, Queen Marie Amélie, and two of their sons at court.
Sax envisioned a major role for his new family of instruments in both the symphonic orchestra and military bands. As an acoustical technician and player, he was aware of the tonal disparity between the winds and the strings. In an orchestra, the strings were often overwhelmed by the woodwinds, which in turn were overpowered by the brasses. His saxophone, originally called an ophicleide à bec(that is, an ophicleide with a clarinet-like mouthpiece instead of the customary cup mouthpiece), harmonically fused the traits of all three instrumental groups into one. By joining reed and mouthpiece to the metal tube of the ophicleide, a large, conical brass instrument that was the most widely used bass horn of the day and was the forerunner of the tuba, Sax had created an instrument with the tonal qualities of the woodwinds, the projection of the brasses, and the flexibility of the strings. As a family within an orchestra — Sax envisioned the seven members as ranging from the tiny sopranino to the monstrous contrabass — the saxophones would be able to pass along the melodic line as smoothly as the members of a string quartet or the voices of a choir. (The lowest-sounding pitch on the E-flat contrabass, D-flat, is a third, or four keys, from the lowest pitch on the modern, 88-key piano. The highest-sounding pitch on the E-flat sopranino, A-flat, is an octave and a third, or fifteen keys, below the piano's top note.) Each horn was designed with the same fingering system, which allowed a musician to play all of them with only slight changes in his embouchure. The saxophones also overblew by a perfect octave, as opposed to the clarinet's more complicated twelfth. This meant that by pressing an octave key, a musician could play a scale in the first and second octaves using virtually the same fingering. The efficient harmonic design of the instrument permitted vastly simplified notation.
Sax wisely perceived an opportunity to launch the production of his player-friendly new instruments: he would persuade French military officials to include them, as well as brass instruments he had improved, in their regimental bands. In the early nineteenth century, France's military bands, which refused to hire professional players and were poorly subsidized, were humbled by the proud and noble ensembles of Prussia and Austria. After Poland and Austria repelled the last Ottoman invasion in the late seventeenth century, the victors seized complete sets of instruments from the mehter, the rousing janissary bands that accompanied the campaign songs of the Turkish armies as they strode from one bloody battle to the next. Spicing up their Western instrumentation with the exotic additions — mostly percussion instruments like cymbals and bells, but also the yiragh, a form of oboe, and the bur, a piercing horn — the Europeans formed their own versions of janissary bands, which became famous for their ability to whip fighting regiments into a patriotic froth. The slack French bands, however, suffered poorly in comparison. According to an article in L'Illustration, "Whoever heard an Austrian or Prussian band surely broke into laughter upon hearing a French regimental band."
Beyond the lassitude of its members, the military orchestra, in Sax's analysis, suffered from a variety of problems that could be remedied by the introduction of saxophones and reworked and improved brass instruments, most prominently his saxhorns. In addition to making them sound better, Sax designed his saxhorns and the smaller saxotrombas (throughout his life, the possessive Sax attached his name to everything he invented or redesigned) so that a soldier could play one while riding a horse. The horn could be held under the left elbow while the left hand held all four regulation reins. The right hand was free to work the valves; the instrument's vertical design protected it from the horse's head.
At the urging of his friend Lieutenant General de Rumigny, Sax sent a long letter to the French war minister in 1844 proposing a reorganization of the country's military bands. The high-pitched piccolos and clarinets and oboes, and the instruments used to carry the bass lines — the bassoons and ophicleides — were not suited to open-air performances, he argued. They were fair-weather instruments; rain rendered most of them unplayable. And many of the intermediary instruments were lost amid the competing sounds. He suggested a solution: the introduction of his new saxhorns — a family of bugles with piston valves — and, of course, his booming bass saxophones.
Virtually no one connected to the military bands — musicians, instrument makers, conductors, military brass — favored the proposed reforms of the Belgian, whom they regarded as an opportunistic interloper. The cliquish Parisian instrument makers argued loudly against the saxophone, which threatened the way they did business. As the industrial revolution progressed, they relied increasingly on artisans in outlying villages to provide interchangeable parts to be assembled and packaged in Paris. Though a boon to all involved, the process tended to stifle innovation. Advances in design tended to come from bright young upstarts, such as Adolphe Sax, who made all the parts for their own instruments. His saxophone threatened to cut the parts suppliers out of the production chain.
But Sax had developed enough influential friends, most significantly Lieutenant General de Rumigny, to force the naming of a commission to decide the matter. Michele Carafa, the director of the Gymnase de Musique Militaire, which trained most of the army's musicians, had also proposed reforming the bands, simply by adding more conventional instruments. To decide the matter, the commission, made up of acoustical experts from the army and France's foremost composers, decided to take the issue to the people. It would hold an outdoor concert, a battle of the bands, and let popular opinion decide.
On April 22 the two rival groups gathered on the Champ de Mars, a drill ground next to the École Militaire (now the gardens surrounding the Eiffel Tower), surrounded by more than 20,000 music-loving Parisians. Both Carafa and Sax had proposed bands of forty-five players, but seven of Sax's musicians had been bribed not to show up, including the two bass saxophonists. But Sax, who loved a pitched battle and was never so dangerous as when infuriated, strapped two instruments to his side, including, some historians believe, his B-flat bass saxophone. Each band was to play a piece selected by the commission in addition to one of its own choosing. But after the first round had been completed, the crowd erupted, overwhelmingly favoring Sax's band and demanding more. His ensemble, though 20 percent lighter than the competition, projected its sound throughout the assembled crowd, while the sound Carafa's group produced faded after only a short distance. The members of the commission agreed that Sax's new configuration, featuring his bold new and reworked instruments, was far superior to the old.
Excerpted from The Devil's Horn by Michael Segell. Copyright © 2005 Michael Segell. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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