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Adolphe Sax  


Inventor of the Saxophone Born in Dinant in 1814 !



Adolphe Sax, a Dinantais of genius

Along with Joachim Patenier (1485-1524), the creator of landscape painting; with Antoine Wiertz (1806-1865), the lyrical painter; with a plethora of sculptors, painters, musicians, brassworkers and others, Dinant can legitimately pride itself on having been the birthplace on 6 November 1814 of Antoine-Joseph, or Adolphe, Sax, a prolific and inspired inventor in the manufacture of musical instruments.

In 1860, the diarist, Oscar Comettant, wrote, "In the services that he has rendered to musical art, in the battles he has had to go through to bring his discoveries to the light of day and defend them from despoilment and in the rewards he has been the object of from all the industrial nations, [Sax's life] rises to the heights of a social event. Novelists will draw from this strange life mysterious and moving episodes (we would add: the legal world will find in the account of the "Sax trial" a vast domain for a case law study) and the moralists will find in it the features of self-denial, physical courage and perseverance, of which only a lifted soul and a great heart are capable.

An Agitated Childhood


Antoine-Joseph Sax was born in the street that has borne his name since 1896, in a modest house, which was destroyed in 1914, and which was built on the present site of an important commercial building.

In its façade, there is a stained-glass window and an inscription chiselled into the stonework: "Adolphe Sax, 1814-1894, was born here". This window was solemnly inaugurated on 27 June 1954, on the initiative of the Tourist Information Centre, under the mayorship of Mr Léon Sasserath. It is the work of Mr Jean Jadin, who designed the cartoon, and Miss Maggy Arzée. Both were taught by Miss Yvonne Gérard and Mr Perot, teachers of graphic art and decoration at the Fine Arts Academy in Namur, which was then directed by Mr Lambeau. It was created under the direction of Mr Van de Capelle.

Son of Charles-Joseph Sax (1791-1865) and Marie-Joseph Masson (1813-1861), Antoine-Joseph was the eldest of eleven children (six boys and five girls, only four of whom survived, the others dying between the ages of 20 and 25).

His childhood was tragic. Hardly able to stand, Antoine-Joseph fell from a height of three floors, seriously bumping his head against a stone: he was believed dead. At the age of three, he swallowed a bowl of vitriolized water, and then a pin. Later, he was seriously burned in a gunpowder explosion; he fell onto a cast iron frying pan and burned himself on one side. Three times he escaped poisoning and asphyxiation in his bedroom, where varnished items were lying about during the night. Another time, he was hit on the head by a cobblestone; he fell into a river and was saved by the skin of his teeth.

"He's a child condemned to misfortune; he won't live," his mother said. In the district, they called him "little Sax, the ghost".

These initial serious incidents were, alas, but the prelude to an eventful existence such as only a few have known. In 1858, Adolphe Sax was miraculously saved from a cancer of the lip by a black doctor who knew the properties of certain Indian plants. What would the future have been but for this intervention?

Charles-Joseph Sax


A joiner-cabinetmaker, Charles-Joseph Sax quickly launched himself, with success, into the manufacture of musical instruments. In the "New Street" he ran a large workshop. In this trade, he acquired such a reputation that, in 1815 (his eldest son was only one year old), he also set up a workshop in Brussels (where Antoine-Joseph's brothers and sisters were to be born), where he was summoned by William I of Orange (we were then under Dutch occupation). The latter appointed him as maker to the Court and entrusted him with the task of supplying suitable instruments to Belgium regimental music corps.

A self-taught man, therefore, Charles-Joseph Sax made woodwind and brass instruments, even violins and pianos. He registered a dozen patents and brought his instruments to perfection. He successfully participated in numerous exhibitions, where he was awarded flattering distinctions.

At the time when he could have spend the day playing, laughing and having fun, Antoine-Joseph observed the work in his father's workshop, besides being given instruction by one of his uncles, a teacher in Dinant. He was intelligent and his inventive mind was already showing itself, thanks to his love for music (whilst very young, he took singing and flute lessons). Thereafter, he was given lessons by his father, who quickly appreciated his abilities and did all he could to develop them.

Far from disregarding his son's aspirations, Charles-Joseph Sax made him his apprentice and, from a young age, he was conscious of the importance of his work, as though he were anticipating his destiny.

In 1853, after the death of seven of his eleven children, and following financial worries at his Brussels business, Charles-Joseph joined his son in Paris. The master was to become the servant, and was from then on in charge of making saxophones until his death in 1865.

A productive childhood


Supported and assisted by his father, the youth worked. He created, he perfected instruments and he played them. He was 16 when he went to the Industrial Exposition in Brussels to present flutes and ivory clarinets. At the age of 20, he made an entirely new clarinet, with 24 keys, a work of imagination and a masterpiece of manual work. Then, a new bass clarinet, which incited enthusiasm in Habeneck, the leader of the orchestra at the Paris Opera House, who was passing through Brussels, and who called the other clarinets "barbarian instruments".

Even at that early stage, this creation provoked jealousy in the soloist at the "Great Royal Harmony" in Brussels, who refused to use it because, he said, it had come from "that weedy little pupil, Sax". "Play your clarinet, then" Sax answered, " and I shall play mine." The challenge accepted, Sax triumphed in front of four thousand people. He became a soloist. Works were written for him that, after his departure, were no longer played because they were so difficult!

The young genius pursued his work. He invented a sound reflector, a new double-bass clarinet, a piano-tuning process that remained the inventor's secret and who probably was unable to exploit it for want of money, a steam organ "capable of being heard throughout the province": now that just shows Sax's tendency to think big!

Sax's beginnings throw a very curious light on his character (we shall call him Adolphe from now on): energy, courage, dynamism, total self-confidence. He refused to go and set up a business in St Petersburg, rejected an offer to set up in London. That means that his reputation exceeded frontiers. Sax was conscious of all his possibilities and his talent; he conceived the work that he felt the call to achieve; he was full of hope and he believed he had every chance of success; he had great visions, he believed in what he saw. He suffocated in his little country.

In 1840, he presented nine inventions at the Belgian Exhibition. He was denied the first medal on the plea of his young age; there would be nothing left to offer him the year after. He was thwarted in his true-love, if not in his pride. He refused the vermeil medal he was awarded, replying with pride, "If they think me too young to deserve the gold medal, I myself think me too old to accept this vermeil one."

The Call to Paris


Europe's centre of attraction, Paris haunted him, Paris called him.

The composer Halévy wrote to him of the hope that composers had in his inventions: "Hurry and finish your new family of instruments (saxophones) 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."

Let us add to this call and the snub in Brussels the fact of his family trials, and the decision was made: Adolphe Sax left for Paris "rich in ideas and light in cash": he had thirty francs in his pocket!

The year 1842 formed the turning point in Sax's life, possessing as he did his new invention: the saxophone and its family.

Moreover, in 1841, had he not presented it anonymously in Brussels, behind a curtain, so as not to disclose it and avoid the risk of plagiarism?

Adolphe Sax was almost thirty, "the age at which man's creative character affirms itself, at which the human personality is drawn." At the age of 27, Napoleon won his first battle in Italy; Newton was 24 and Einstein 26 when they devised their theories. Mozart died aged 35 and Schubert at 31. Examples of precocious geniuses are manifold.

As one former inhabitant of Dinant once rightfully said (1) "a distinction has to be drawn here between a man who draws from his own abstract thoughts the stuff that his genius will knead, him for whom symbols and signs are sufficient to bring forth a thought laden with restrained life and latent splendours; and the other man for whom a technique, slow and tenacious apprenticeship on a complicated apparatus is necessary for him to be able to physically achieve the formal idea. Count, for example, how many early-developing mathematicians there are compared with child physicists. The former exist, the latter are nowhere to be found. Sax is of the category of intellectuals that concentrated on matter and not pure form".

In 1842, there was Adolphe Sax living in a simple shed in Rue Saint-Georges, Paris. To set up business, he had to borrow money from a musician acquaintance.


Thanks to Berlioz

About the saxophone, he said "Its principal merit in my view is the varied beauty of its accent, sometimes serious, sometimes calm, sometimes impassioned, dreamy or melancholic, or vague, like the weakened echo of an echo, like the indistinct plaintiff moans of the breeze in the woods and, even better, like the mysterious vibrations of a bell, long after it has been struck; there does not exist another musical instrument that I know of that possesses this strange resonance, which is situated at the edge of silence."

Hector Berlioz

In June 1842, through a contact with Halévy, Sax met Hector Berlioz, who had a lot of influence in Parisian musicians' circles, especially through his criticisms in the

"Journal des Débats". The two men talked for several hours, during which Adolphe Sax laid out all his ideas to the great composer and went into long details about his inventions and his plans.

Somewhat whimsical, very uncommunicative, Berlioz listened in silence. At the end of this conference, he confided in Sax, "Tomorrow, you will know what I think about the work you have accomplished." This was a rather ambiguous reply, which, for the first time in his life, gave rise to some doubt in Sax's mind.

On 12 June 1842, in the "Journal des Débats", a great surprise awaited him: over a number of columns, Berlioz expressed limitless eulogies. The article was reproduced in the French and Belgian press.

For Sax, it was the start of a prolific and prodigious life, which was at the same time tormented. The price he would have to pay would be envy, jealousy, injustice, hatred and adversity before achieving glory much later.

From that moment on, the inventor/composer/performer was introduced throughout the musical world. He met frequently with numerous composers, who had faith in him. He was received at the salons. He gave numerous performances in front of the biggest of names, in his workshop and in halls. Sax's name was widely known.

The Challenges

Essentially, Sax gave his name to four great families of instruments: saxhorns, saxtrombones, saxtubas and saxophones. For the first time, a maker had interests in more than just a single instrument, but in a family of instruments. The saxophone family comprised seven instruments from the sopranino and soprano to the bass and double bass, via the alto, tenor and baritone. These instruments bring an entirely new and seductive timbre in a new form, of brass and not of wood. This form, which was discovered and adopted by Sax, is a parabolic cone. The instrument is played with reed, which imitates the sounds of a deep, bowed instrument. Therein lies the entire technical secret of the saxophone. Thus, Sax's knowledge of the principles of proportion ensured him undeniable superiority over all the other makers.

And this was precisely the main source of the multiple disappointments of this inventor, who had become used to challenge. It was only on 21 March 1846 that he patented the saxophone that he had already been playing for four years, if not longer, and which had been designed in 1838. In the face of the attacks to which he was subjected, and perhaps somewhat naively, he launched a challenge to his enemies and competitors: "I shall wait another year before registering this patent. We shall see whether, by then, a maker will have produced a true saxophone!" The challenge went unanswered and Sax kept his promise.

The Disappointments

The years that followed were to be awful for the inventor, who was to have to face up to the battle that his adversaries, his competitors and imitators waged against him and pushed to the extreme, who all organised themselves into a club to fight him. His staff were enticed away; musicians were prevented from using his instruments; disparaging articles were published, accompanied by hurtful caricatures. Saxophones were exported with the trade mark obliterated and then openly reintroduced to France after a few alterations and sealed with new seals. Sax was attacked before the courts to have his patents revoked.

It would take a book to relate all the court cases that were raised at all levels of jurisdiction. Sax won them all, not without claiming compensation, right until the final acknowledgement.

All these court cases ruined Sax, and he was declared bankrupt three times, in 1852, 1873 and 1877. And despite this, with approximately a hundred workers, some twenty thousand instruments left Sax's workshops between 1843 and 1860!

These disappointments, which also ruined Sax's health, induced Berlioz to write, "Again and again, Sax is the victim of persecutions worthy of the Middle Ages and that recall precisely the acts and deeds of Benveuto Cellini, the Florentine engraver. They took away his workmen, stole his plans, accused him of madness and took him to court. With a little more audacity, they would have murdered him. (1) Such is the hatred that inventors always waken amongst those of their rivals that do not invent anything."

The Reform of Military Music Corps


One of the great exploits of the genius from Dinant, one of his greatest victories, as well, was the reform of military music corps. In 1845, French military music corps had fallen into disuse. On the proposal of Adolphe Sax, who offered them his instruments, General de Rumigny, the Minister for War, appointed a study commission, which decided to organise a competition between the traditional system and Sax's configuration.

A great event was organised on the Champ de Mars (the present location of the Eiffel Tower) on 22 April 1845. The old system was championed by 45 professional musicians directed by Carafa. Sax championed his own with 38 musicians that he was hardly able to gather, since seven of them had failed to turn up. In addition, he himself had to play two instruments alternately, since two performers turned their backs on him at the last minute!

An audience of twenty thousand applauded Sax! It was a triumph and on 10 August that year, Sax's organisation was officially adopted, but not without provoking new hostilities on the part of the musicians who had been beaten.

Inventions and Perfections

The list of the inventions and perfections that Sax accomplished is very long. Apart from the families of instruments already quoted, mention has to be made of reforms to musical notation, compositions, musical methods (Sax became a teacher for military musicians at the Paris Conservatory directed by Auber), a pamphlet on the influence of wind instruments on the lungs, a planned applied school for inventors, a plan for reorganising orchestras, a remarkable study on concert hall acoustics, improvements in the majority of brass and wood instruments. All together: a good forty, not counting a large number of rather extravagant and even fantastical discoveries, which nonetheless show that Sax's inventive mind was ever alert.

The Saxophone...


True, the saxophone was not initially adopted by the composers of the age, despite the abundant flattering marks of appreciation it received and Sax's firm friendships in the musical world. It was a long and slow rise that the instrument was to see over the whole world.

But the enthusiasm it gave rise to amongst writers, and not just minor ones, meant that it was increasingly used year on year. Moreover, it was not until 1942, a century after it was invented, that the first saxophone class was to be officially created at the Paris Conservatory for Marcel Mule who, in 1928, had founded the first saxophone quartet. Brussels followed, in particular under the impulse of Professor Daneels.

The saxophone: ""It is the most beautiful amalgam of sounds that I know of."


Ce sont d'abord des transcriptions et des arrangements de grands noms du classique qui voient le jour, car bien des compositeurs ne pensaient pas au saxophone ou craignaient même de l'utiliser dans des ensembles.

The first to see the light of day were transcriptions and arrangements of the great names of classical music, since many composers did not think of the saxophone or were even chary of using it in ensembles.

For the saxophone's worth to be truly exploited, it took Berlioz, Halévy, Meerbeer, Donizetti, Verdi, Ambroise Thomas, Bizet, Wagner, Massenet, Delibes, Saint-Saëns, Puccini, Vincent d'Indy, Debussy, Glazunov, Ravel, Piené, Richard Strauss, Satie, G. Charpentier, Tchaikovsky, Honegger, Singelée, Florent Schmitt, Jacques Ibert, Milhaud, Villa-Lobos, Gershwin, Britten and many others; among the Belgians were: Paul Gilon, Léon Jongen, Jean Absil, Mortelmans, Marcel Poot, Théo Dejoncker, Van Moer, Dury, René Bernier, Gaston Brenta, Léon Stekke, René Barbier, Raymond Leduc, Henri Pousseur, Jean-Maie Simonis, Pierre Boulez and others; from Dinant, there were Arthur Patinet, Pierre Rodrigue and Alain Crépin. There are more than six thousand symphonic works that use one or more saxophones, mainly the alto and the tenor. In numerous countries, saxophone meets and competitions have been organised.

... and its Development

Later, configurations such as quartets and sextets formed, for which many works have been written. Methods, studies and exercises were published. The beneficiaries were also brass bands and civilian and military wind bands.

In his book "The Saxophone" in 1955, Marcel Perrin, professor at the Algiers Conservatory, and the founder of a quartet, took the view that "the literature on the saxophone can in fact be divided into three stages:

  • "the stagnant period: 1845 to 1918: timid, staid compositions, 'rococo' style, with theme and variations, salon and competition music.
  • the period of explosion: 1918-1930: the age of jazz! ... America! ... a triumphal breach in the grey veil of gradual obliteration that was all but fatal for the sax.
  • the period of reason: 1930 to date: the saxophone was at last understood, and started to have 'its music'. It became more mellow, more 'serious' and, having found its own true atmosphere, ended up being an essential ingredient of the greatest concerts"



"Without jazz, what would music be? But without the sax, what would jazz be? An oft-repeated sentiment. One could add, "It's jazz that ensured the success of the sax, and vice versa". Everyone knows that it was in the U.S.A. (South Carolina and Louisiana) that jazz was born, reminiscent of Africa. It was already around 1850 that modern instrumentation (with the sax) was establishing itself in negro orchestras, which is close to the human voice." In addition, in 1857, Sax's historiographer, Oscar Comettant, already remarked, "The precious inventions of Mr Sax have borne fruit in America as they have done in Europe."

Thus it was in 1918 that jazz was imported with all its exuberance into France and then into the whole of Europe. New harmonies astonished and captivated the public despite the lack of homogeneity of the ensembles: first 'rag-time' and then 'hot'.

Thus, although the basic principles of the saxophone remained the same as in Sax's time, the instrument of course went through transformations that were necessitated by its new use. In jazz, it assumed the absolute upper hand.

After a vogue of about five years (1918-1923), jazz was 'pummelled' by fanatics of rhythm and noise, which even discredited the sax. Happily, excellent black and white musicians came onto the scene such as Trumbauer, Hodges, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins (who came to Dinant in 1962), Carney, Alix Combelle, Hubert Rostaing, Benny Carter, the Belgians Bob Jaspar, Jacques Pelzer, Steve Houben, Erwin Vann and many others, together with formations such as those of Paul Withmann, Ray Ventura and Jo Bouillon, who gave jazz new blood and the sax the place that it was due, with more expression and emotive form.

Progress in technology (recordings, films) has done the rest most admirably, both in the world of jazz and in symphonic and lyrical music and in military and civilian music.

The Memory


As far as other aspects of his life are concerned: Sax never married. However, he did have a companion, Louise-Adèle Maor, who was of Spanish origin and died aged thirty, and who gave him five children, all of whom were recognised by their father. It seems that she was of modest background, and for this reason, Sax did not want her to appear in public ...

The Dinant genius, on whom too many tributes could never be bestowed, died in Paris on 7 February 1894. His body lies in the cemetery of "Montmartre" (18th arrondissement) in a mausoleum, alongside six members of his family.

One of his sons, Adolphe-Edouard, continued the business. In 1928, it was taken over by the Paris firm of Selmer.

Of Sax, the Dinant genius, Dinant may be proud!

Let the generations to come remember him for all time!



In January 1994, on the occasion of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Adolphe Sax's death, the International Adolphe Sax Association were pleased to present a tenor saxophone to the famous saxophonist, Bill Clinton, President of the United States, when he came to Brussels.

Since the beginning of 1996, a banknote bearing the image of Adolphe Sax has been in circulation in Belgium, with a value of 200 BEF (4.96 €)


Compiled by Albert Rémy