With the saxophone, we enter a realm of knowns and unknowns. We all know the sound of the saxophone, or at least we think we do.
“The only sounds that can give any idea of the saxophone’s delicious half-tints and its suggestions of fading twilight are the diminuendo and piano of the cantors in the Russian Imperial Chapel, those wonderful singers who must make the good Lord envious of Tsar Nicholas.”
This was Hector Berlioz’s first impression upon hearing the sound of Adolph Sax playing his new invention. Are we listening to a different instrument today than Berlioz heard?
The simple answer to that question is yes. The saxophone of the 19th century is not quite the same that we see today. Berlioz formulated his opinions based upon hearing a Bass Saxophone in C, and indeed, the saxophone was first conceived as a low voiced instrument. I had the great privilege of hearing a recording of a 19th century Bass Saxophone in C (though not made by Sax himself, but an exact copy), and I can now attest that Berlioz heard a very different sound, and it is indeed priestly. Does this sound still exist? Can we resurrect it from the dead? What is the role of the saxophone in that band anyway?
The original sound of Sax.
We’ve lived with this instrument for over 150 years, and I still attest that bandestrators don’t know what they are doing with it. It has never been accepted into the orchestra, which means that every orchestration text every written slights this instrument, and some even malign it. I both love and play the instrument, but have a very different feel for the instrument than most. I hope some of my insights prove valuable.