The exhibition “Celebrating the Saxes” opened at Metropolitan museum last November. Though the saxophone is instantly recognizable as a symbol of jazz and swing, its creator Adolphe Sax could not have imagined such 20th-century music when he invented the instrument in the late 1830s. The bicentenary of Sax’s birth on 6 November 1814 at Dinant, Belgium, was widely celebrated last year.
Sax's father was a maker of musical instruments in Brussel. From a young age, Sax learned the craft at his father's side. He started out on his own instrument, the clarinet, when he was 15 years old. He improved the instrument, changing the bore and exact locations of the holes, to make it sound better. Later Sax borrowed some money, built his own workshop, and started making a range of what he called "saxhorns."
In 1841, he succeeded, inventing the first saxophone—a C bass sax he called a “bass horn”—which he promptly showed to his friend Hector Berlioz. This instrument was given its debut at the Industrial Exhibition in Brussels. As it was not yet a finished product, Sax insisted on having it played behind a curtain.
As an experiment to prove the tonal importance of the saxophone, Sax pitted the 35 members of the French army band, with only oboes, bassoons, and French horns, against a 28-member band that included saxophones in a “battle of the bands.” Sax’s band was the clear winner, and so in 1845, he was allowed to replace the French army band’s standard instruments with B-flat and E-flat saxophones. Soon, the saxophone was considered a vital part of all French military bands.
In 1846, Sax unveiled a patent for his "saxophone" . French military music made its way to the United States through New Orleans, where the sax was first introduced into the underground “jazz” sound emerging in nightclubs in the 1910s.
By the 1920s, the saxophone was a hot item, used in big bands playing both Dixieland and swing jazz. Even though jazz (and by extension, saxophones) was becoming more and more socially acceptable in U.S. society, there were still many old-fashioned folks that questioned the sound's respectability.
In 1903, Pope Pius X wrote the Motu Proprio on Sacred Music, which prohibited certain instruments ( including the saxophone ) “that may give reasonable cause for disgust or scandal” as being “unworthy of the House of Prayer and of the Majesty of God.”
In the 1930s, Ladies Home Journal, a magazine for proper American gentlewomen, spoke out against the questionable morals of jazz.
The Nazis banned it as an instrument of American “jungle music”. Their poster for the 1938 exhibition of “Decadent Music” (Entartete Musik) in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1938 featured a caricature of an African-American man playing the saxophone and wearing a Jewish star. The superintendent of the Weimar National Theatre explained in an opening speech of the exhibition that the decay of music was "due to the influence of Judaism and capitalism".
Stalin despised the instrument “of capitalist oppression” so much that he not only banned it but sent its players to Siberia. Many other Eastern European countries felt obliged to copy his stance, the ban on its performance remaining in place in some countries until the 1980s. By the way, the Papal prohibition has never been revoked.
Adolphe Sax died in 1894, and is buried in the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris. Once the sax took its place in the big bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, its rise was unstoppable.
The Saxophone becomes the head of a new group, that of the brass instruments with reed. Its sound is of such rare quality that there is not a bass instrument in use nowadays that could be compared to the Saxophone.
The exhibition Celebrating Sax: Instruments and Innovation, is on display in gallery 682 of The André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments through April 30, 2015. Rare saxophones, brass instruments, and this exquisite ivory clarinet are among the twenty-six instruments selected to showcase the innovative work of the Sax family.