Cornets Part 3 – The Bass Cornet

When I first covered the cornet family, I mentioned four species: the E-flat Cornet, the B-flat (or C) Cornet, the Alto Horn, and the Baritone Horn.  This is the family as far as anyone is concerned.  It is the only family of the heavy brass (trumpets, trombones, cornets, and tubas) that does not extend into the bass register.  I’ve thought about this oddity on and off for a while now.  Then I started looking at all the varieties of tuba that are available.  Tuba players are nothing if not equipment junkies.  In the available arsenal, I found an odd tuba that really isn’t a true tuba. Continue reading “Cornets Part 3 – The Bass Cornet”

Quick update

I’ve been doing a lot of updating of the older posts today.  Range charts have now been updated for oboes, clarinets, and tubas (23 new charts in total).

More to come soon.

The Euphonium in the Orchestra

Why has the Euphonium never made a major impression on the orchestra?  Unlike the saxophone, there isn’t as clear of an answer.  With an instrument like the saxophone, there is the idea that a new and “unneeded” sound is being thrust into the already existing orchestra, but with the Euphonium, this is not the case.  The Euphonium is simply another member of the tuba family, and the tuba has been a firm member of the orchestra since the middle of the 1800s.

The Low Brass Unit

The standard low brass arrangement in the orchestra has been three trombones (2 Tenors and a Bass usually) and one tuba (composers rarely specify Bass or Contrabass Tuba).  Occasionally a fourth trombone is added or a second tuba.  Composers tend to think of this group as a cohesive unit.

It isn’t.

Verdi was the first to recognize this.  Verdi hated the tuba.  He knew that its rounded sound would not blend well with the harsh trombones.  Verdi instead chose to have his bottom brass part be played on a Cimbasso.  As to what instrument he actually preferred, that is a matter of heated academic debate, but it is generally accepted that the Cimbasso – at least in later Verdi works – was meant to be a valved Contrabass Trombone.

Wagner too realized that the tuba didn’t fit well with the trombones.  Instead of eliminating the tuba, he chose to use modified horns, the so-called Wagner Tubas, to make a cohesive family of tuba-like instruments. Both situations can be made into huge doctoral dissertations in and of themselves. However, for 60 years or so, the Euphonium lingered in the wind bands content to play counter melodies and tenor arias.

The Early Literature

Richard Strauss was the first to include the instrument in his orchestra.  The inclusion was purely accidental though.  In his 1897 tone poem, Don Quixote, he included a part for “Tenor Tuba” fully intending the part to be played on a Tenor Wagner Tuba.  Scoring for a single Wagner Tuba is highly unusual and almost never done.  Strauss realized how odd this was after the first performance, and suggested that the military Euphonium (German Baryton) be used in its place.  Every performance since has followed this route.  Strauss followed this up by included a part for Tenor Tuba in his Ein Heldenleben from 1898 one year later.  These are the only two works where Strauss scored for Tenor Tuba.  It is interesting to note that the scoring of Ein Heldenleben was completed before the premier of Don Quixote where the instrument change had to be made.  Perhaps this is why Strauss never wrote for the instrument again.

Mahler next tried to score for the Euphonium/Tenor Tuba in his Sixth Symphony from 1903-04.  This part, along with parts for Tenorhorn and Bass Tuba (in addition to the already present Contrabass Tuba) were part of a massive brass chorale from the finale of the 4th movement, but were ultimately left out of the final scoring.  It would have been fascinating to see a “tuba” section of Tenorhorn (Baritone Horn), Tenor Tuba (Euphonium), Bass Tuba, and Contrabass Tuba.  Mahler did however use a Tenorhorn in the opening of his Seventh Symphony.  However, this is not – I repeat, this is NOT – a part for the Euphonium.

British light music, that is music that was not intended to be as serious in nature as normal concert music, often had parts for the Euphonium in their scoring.  Gustav Holst knew this well playing in the Carl Rosa Opera Orchestra one of the leading light orchestras in the UK.  It is no surprise that he included the most famous Euphonium part in all the literature in his The Planets.  Holst’s instrument isn’t an afterthought or a mistake, but a genuine part of the ensemble

Why Didn’t the Euphonium Catch On?

There are a lot of theories as to why the Euphonium wasn’t incorporated into the orchestra.  Looking on the face of it, it should have easily been adopted into the orchestra around the same time as the tuba, but this never happened.  It was forever a “band instrument.”


Orchestras were tuned in the late 1800s and early 1900s to somewhere around a=435, which is slightly lower than today (a=440-442/3).  However, bands were regularly tuned to about a=457.5 nearly a quarter step higher than the orchestras.  British bands kept this pitch until well after World War 2 (into the 50s or 60s). This means that a band instrument could not be brought into the orchestra.   In order for an instrument, like a Euphonium, to be used in the orchestra, the maker would have to create a wholly new instrument slightly larger than the band instrument.  On a conical bore instrument this would have been difficult.  With no existing orchestral literature, there was no need to make instruments at the lower pitch.


The second reason probably has to do with the name of the instrument.  As pretty of a name as Euphonium is, it doesn’t tell what the instrument is.  It separates the instrument out from the rest and makes no connection to the rest of the brass.  Perhaps it isn’t strange that all of the early composers chose to write their parts for “Tenor Tuba” and not for “Euphonium.” Even today, when a Euphonium player tells a layperson what instrument they play they have to go through all sorts of explanations.  But, the term Tenor Tuba is considered non-standard.  I vouch that Tenor Tuba is the best term possible for the instrument.  It’s an accurate descriptor and it does not alienate the rest of the brass family.

The Great War

World War I brought to a screeching halt the production of large scale orchestral works.  The European economic collapse meant an end to the ever expanding orchestras of Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss.  Only in the economically stable UK did some progression go on (see The Planets).  The U.S. was now becoming the center of wind instrument manufacturing with companies like Conn, Beuscher, and Martin producing many fine instruments.  However, American orchestral music was on a completely different trajectory.  Americans were trying to find their own voice.  Only the distinctive Roy Harris found use of the Euphonium (he always referred to it as a “Baritone”).

In the economic ruins of Central Europe, composers were turning to new ideas such as 12-tone composition, serialism, and eventually to electronics after World War II.

Today’s World

Today, we live in a world of relative economic prosperity.  Our instruments are of the most advanced design ever seen. And we have players who can perform works older generations could never dream of.

Universities are now cranking out graduates with degrees in Euphonium performance at the rate of several dozen per year.  However, there are simply no jobs.  There may be less than a dozen civilian professional wind bands in the country.  Military bands are more abundant, but not always an option.  A Euphonium may be called for every few seasons in a major professional orchestra (and every few decades in a smaller regional orchestra).  Euphonium is rare, if not virtually non-existent in jazz or in any other myriad of genres.

Euphonium players are lonely and bored.  They need love.

Step 1: Drop the name Euphonium – call it a Tenor Tuba.

Step 2: Start scoring for the Tenor Tuba in orchestral works.  Maybe we should even think of scoring for 2 Tenor Tubas and a Bass Tuba like we score for 2 Tenor Trombones and a Bass Trombone.  Perhaps we go for a full section of four: 2 Tenor Tubas, Bass Tuba, and Contrabass Tuba.

Step 3: Convince today’s orchestras to program music being composed today.  Ever orchestral program should have at least one piece written in the last 50 years.  Sadly, my local major orchestra goes entire seasons without programming anything current or relevant.

Let’s welcome the Tenor Tuba with full arms into the orchestra.  They have nowhere else to go.

Saxophone sections in the orchestra – Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about several pieces that include a saxophone section in their instrumentation.  Today, I will present potentialities and realities.

Reality 1 – The soloist supreme

Generally, when we hear a saxophone in the orchestra, they are a featured soloist.  Pieces like L’Arlesienne, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, and Pictures at an Exhibition are all well known for their saxophone usage, but in every case they are featured soloists.  The saxophone is not here to blend in and add to the whole, but rather to contrast and stick out.

There is nothing whatsoever wrong about this approach.  The saxophone is a marvelous soloist.  In fact, because it is an unusual voice, it can make for a dramatic scoring potential.

Reality 2 – The magical section

When a section is used, the effect is often times to invoke an otherworldly quality, e.g. The Wooden Prince and Fervaal. Again, this means that the saxophone section is thought of as separate from the rest of the ensemble.

Reality 3 – Where to sit

Something an composer may not think about is where the saxophones are going to sit in the ensemble.  This is no small matter. With the current orchestral seating chart, the four woodwind sections sit together in a nice well meshed unit.  There are two rows:

seating chart

In this arrangement, the principal players of each section are all right in the center of the ensemble.  With a fifth section, this balance is thrown off.

One solution to this is a third row behind the clarinets and bassoons.  The principal player, however, would not be in line with the other principals.  Another solution would be in a group to either the left or the right of the main woodwinds.  This would work well if the side not occupied by the saxophones is occupied by the horns.

seating chart 2

The above arrangement keeps the saxophones all together with B-flat instrument and E-flat instruments behind on another and high saxes and low saxes together.  It also places the saxophones next to the double reeds, their natural tonal allies.  Tenor Saxophone will be near the Bassoon (a favorite combination of Prokofiev), Alto Saxophone will be near the English Horn.  Soprano Saxophone will be near the Oboe.  In my mind, this is the best solution to where to place the odd ensemble.  This arrangement presupposes a section of four instruments, but this needn’t be a limit.  Just as more Horns can be placed in the rows, so can more saxophones.

seating chart 3

This arrangement give some other advantages.  It places the saxophones closer to the horns and the clarinets, while still keeping them close to the bassoons.  Assuming that the “principal” saxophone is the Soprano, then they would not be in line with the other principals, but if the “principal” is the Alto, then the solution is perfect.  It also places the Tenor Saxophone next to the principal Bassoon and the Baritone Saxophone next to the 2nd Bassoon – a very logical solution.  The only disadvantage is distance from the saxophones to the oboes.

Last, but not least, I present a purely hypothetical situation for expanded woodwind section.

seating chart 4

Since arranging 5 sections is tricky, why not use a more friendly 6?  To achieve this, I’ve added a recorder quartet to the mix.  In doing this, I now have all the flute-like instruments on one row.  The double reeds (including a Bass Oboe and a Tenor Bassoon) are now together on the second row.  Finally, all the single reeds (with extra instruments as well – E-flat and Contrabass Clarinet and Bass Saxophone) are together on the third row.  The principal players of each section are firmly in the center of the ensemble.

Of course, there are many variants to each of the above possibilities, but these give you some idea of what could be done.

Creative Saxophone Scoring

Having studied a lot of scores and played in a lot of ensembles and played the saxophones themselves, I have come to several conclusions on how best it may be to score for the saxophones in an ensemble.

Option 1 – As a quartet equal to the Horns

Before Horn players throw something at me, hear me out.  I suggest them being equal to, but not the equivalent of Horns.  by having two mid-range quartets, we have have interesting dialogues between the two (especially if the groups are placed spatially apart).  The Horns act as a bridge between the other brass instruments having characteristics of trumpets, trombones, and tubas.  The saxophones can do the same for the woodwinds.

However, the effect of doubling Horns and saxophones, except in a massive tutti section, is counterproductive and diminishes the effect of both instruments.

Option 2 – As woodwind “glue”

The orchestral woodwinds are not a cohesive sound unit like the strings or brass.  Strings all have the bow to produce their sound.  Brass all have a similar mouthpiece to produce theirs.  The woodwinds are really three separate families thrown together.  As the saxophones have characteristics of all three of these families, it is only natural to use them to bind together the disparate qualities of the group.  The biggest disparity comes between the clarinets and the double reeds (particularly the Oboe). If a saxophone ensemble is used as a foundation to the woodwind section, then the other instruments can come out as the soloists that they are.  This is perhaps why the saxophone is so advantageous in the band.

Option 3 – As string doubles

Saxophone, surprising, can act in a very similar way to the string instruments.  If the composer wants a more forceful attack to the string sound, then adding saxophones to the mix can be an effective way of punching up the sound.

1st Violin + Soprano Saxophone

2nd Violin + Soprano or Alto Saxophone

Viola + Alto or Tenor Saxophone

Cello + Tenor or Baritone Saxophone

Bass + whatever low saxophone you happen to have (Contrabass Saxophone would be ideal, but unlikely)


Whatever the scoring option, I feel like the saxophone can be a valuable addition to the orchestra if used creatively.  It can be as expressive as an Oboe, as technically advanced as a Flute, or as plaintive as a Bassoon, yet, they are still a rarity.  Perhaps the ultimate decision comes down to money.  Since a regular saxophone section isn’t on the payroll of any orchestra, few composers are able to use them.  Since composers can’t use them, orchestras don’t keep saxophonists on the payroll.

Saxophone sections in the orchestra – Part 1

One of the most often asked questions in wind orchestration is “Why hasn’t the saxophone ever made its way to be a permanent member of the orchestra?”

In the first part of my two-part series, I will explore several works that include a saxophone section in their scoring.  What do the composers do? How do they use the instruments?  Is the overall sound of the saxophones effective?

D’Indy – Fervaal (1897)

The rarely performed opera of Vincent d’Indy, Fervaal, is the first major work that utilizes a section of saxophones in its ensemble.  There are a few earlier works, but none have survived in the literature (including a few works by Georges Kastner).

Fervaal is sometimes seen as the French take on Wagner’s expanded orchestra and Gesamtkunstwerk, though it is universially seen as being less successful in that regard.  D’Indy never had the depth that Wagner did.

D’Indy only scores for the saxophones (1 B-flat Soprano, 2 E-flat Altos, and 1 B-flat Tenor) in the 2nd Act, which also features Contrabass Clarinet and saxhorns.  The saxophones are used to underpin a mystical female chorus.  Here, it is easy to draw comparisons with Berlioz’s original description of the saxophone being “priestly.”  In fact, D’Indy uses the saxophones in a very similar rôle as the Wagner Tuben in the Ring.

In listening to the only recording of the work (a bootleg from a German production), the saxophones are difficult to hear.  Ultimately, the sound of the saxophones get drowned out by the chorus.  The mixture, though, is the ultimate goal, and that effect is rather magical.  The otherworldliness that D’Indy creates is the one moment of pure magic in the entire opera.

Strauss – Symphonia Domestica (1904)

Richard Strauss made what is perhaps the strangest orchestral choice of his career – maybe of anyone’s career – when he chose to include four saxophones his symphonic poem Symphonia Domestica.  This would have been fine, except for the instrument choice.  Strauss calls for Soprano, Alto, Baritone, and Bass (but not Tenor).  However, he scores for all these instruments in C and F, not B-flat and E-flat.


  • C Soprano – This instrument exists and is fairly easy to get a hold of an old antique one.  Production C Sopranos wouldn’t come around for 10-15 years after Strauss wrote Domestica, but that is a minor issue.  The part ranges up to a written high D-sharp, which would be the top F of a B-flat Soprano, which is totally doable on any standard instrument.
  • F Alto – This instrument also exists, though it is much harder to find.  Sax himself made 2 such instruments, as did a handful of other makers before and during the time of Strauss.  The only reliable F Alto is the Conn “Mezzo-Soprano” Saxophone from 1928/29.  The written part ascends to a high E, which would sound as an F-sharp on the E-flat Alto Saxophone.  Nearly every modern E-flat Alto has keywork to this note.  Even on older saxophones, the F-sharp isn’t too hard to coax out.
  • F Baritone – Here, it all falls apart.  The F Baritone never existed.  In fact, it was never even offered as an option by any maker – including Adolphe Sax himself.  The only record of a Baritone Saxophone in F comes from the original patent from 1846 where Sax makes a brief mention that the Baritone could be pitched in F if needed.  Strauss, at the time, was heavily involved in updating Berlioz’s Treatise, which does make mention of saxophones in all sizes being available in two keys.  However, we must remember that many of those sizes had yet to be built when Berlioz wrote his brief writeup in the 1850s.  Strauss chose to leave this section completely alone.  Perhaps he just didn’t know anything about the instrument.  That said, the F Baritone has the most technically demanding of the 4 saxophone parts.  it ascends to a written high F, which would be a high G on the E-flat Baritone.  This presents more of a challenge than the other parts.  It’s low in the altissimo range, but doable by all professional saxophonists.
  • C Bass – Unlike the F Baritone, this instrument did at least exist, kind of.  Sax’s original instrument was a C Bass, but he quickly went away from this model in favor of the larger and lower B-flat Bass.  The part lies completely within the range of the B-flat Bass ascending only to a high D (written E on the B-flat Bass).  The low end descends to a bottom A-sharp once.  Except for this single note and the subsequent B-natural, the part could be played on a modern Low-A Baritone, which would be closer in size to the original C Bass.  Oddly, the bottom A-sharp could never be played on the C Bass.

Strauss shot himself in the foot on this one.  Not only did he score for 2 rare saxophones, 1 extinct saxophone, and 1 fantasy saxophone, their parts are not even the slightest bit important.  There is never a single moment where they are used in a meaningful way.

Conclusion, this is the worst possible score to study for saxophone scoring.

Bartok – The Wooden Prince (1917)

The Wooden Prince is one of Bela Bartok’s lesser known works.  It doesn’t have the more modernistic edge that his later works will have, but it is a wonderful piece nonetheless.  This is the first piece where we have multiple saxophones and they play a significant soloistic role.  There are two saxophone players.  Player one plays exclusively the Alto Saxophone, while player two switches, sometimes rather quickly, between Tenor and Baritone Saxophones.  The two players play most passages in octaves.  It’s really a wonderful, warm sound that is reminiscent of the D’Indy passage.

Bartok again brings in the saxophones in the last part of the ballet.  Here, they are not soloists, but rather essential members of the ensemble.  Player 2 stays on Tenor the whole time now.  The most unusual aspect of Bartok’s scoring can be indicated by his placement of the instruments in the score.  By the 1910s, the standard placement of the saxophones as pretty firmly established as being below the clarinets and above the bassoons, but Bartok does things differently.  He places the saxophones between the oboes and the clarinets.  This indicates an unusual way of thinking.  It is almost as if the 2 saxophones function as lower members of the oboe family.  Like I’ve mentioned before, the saxophone is the key to bridging the disjunct sound of the clarinets and the double reeds.  Bartok realizes this and makes full use of it in his score.  It is possible, that this is the first fully effective scoring for multiple saxophones in the symphony orchestra.

3rd Dance

7th Dance

The 1920s and On

With rare exceptions, when saxophones were introduced into orchestras during and after the 1920s, it was to emulate the sound of jazz bands.  By that time, the saxophone had become ubiquitous with the sound of smoke night clubs and American freedom.  The magical world of D’Indy and Bartok gave way to dancing and illegal liquor.

Ravel – Boléro (1928)

Oddly, the most often quoted piece for saxophone ensemble playing, Boléro, doesn’t really have any ensemble playing.  Boléro is essentially a series of solos on various instrument in the orchestra.  Ravel scores for 2 players playing 2 instruments.  Player 1 is supposed to alternate between B-flat Soprano Saxophone and B-flat Tenor.  Player 2 must play the F Sopranino. Ugh.  Here we go again.  Like the Strauss, the F Sopranino did not exist.  Ever.  In any format, outside of a brief mention in the 1846 patent.  Ravel was wrong.  Though, unlike Strauss, he does have a partial excuse.  By 1928, the early stages of the neurological disease that would eventually kill him were setting in.  Oddly, the entire part of the F Sopranino can be played on B-flat Soprano, which is what is always done in practice.  The two players play their two solos and go right back into the texture of the orchestra.

Oddly, two of the greatest orchestrators of the 20th century, Strauss and Ravel, made huge glaring mistakes when it came to the saxophone.

Vaughan Williams – Symphony 9 (1957)

The last work I will detail is my favorite of the lot, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony 9 in E minor. RVW uses a section of 3 saxophones in his final symphonic work (2 E-flat Altos and 1 B-flat Tenor).  RVW also uses three of all the other winds (2 Flutes/1 Piccolo, 2 Oboes/1 English Horn, 2 Clarinets/1 Bass Clarinet, 2 Bassoons/1 Contrabassoon).  In so doing, the saxophones are made equal to the rest of the woodwinds.  They play throughout the work as both ensemble and solo voices.  RVW uses the entire range of the saxophones (both sizes) and employees them in both fast technical passages as well as slow chorales.

If any work can be presented that shows the potential of adding a saxophone section to the orchestra, it is without a doubt, Vaughan Williams’ 9th.

The NPR saxophones.

I’ll admit that I listen to a lot of NPR when I’m driving to and from work.  Every now and then, the local station plays musical interludes between segments.  About once a week or so, and never at predictable intervals, the music is that of a saxophone quartet (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Baritone).  Every time I hear it, It always strikes me as odd.  Not necessarily odd in a bad sense, but rather odd in a sense of “Hey, I’ve never heard that kind of sound from a saxophone before.”  Because I can’t predict when the saxes will play, I never know when I’ll be able to analyze their sound.

Then one day, everything aligned, and I was able to hear the sound of that specific quartet and figure out what was going on.  The quartet is the Washington Saxophone Quartet (I found out after a quick Google search).

It was the vibrato.

The quartet was not playing with any vibrato at all.

And this, is probably the sound that was first expected from the saxophone, because wind instruments usually didn’t use vibrato until the early 1900s.  There is good evidence that vibrato was almost taboo until the 1930s in some places.  In fact, wind vibrato is almost unheard of in places today like Vienna.  The Berlin Philharmonic didn’t use vibrato as standard for any instrument until around 1935.

Then the thoughts started swirling in my head.  Should saxophones even use vibrato? When? What kind?

I admit to being a second-rate saxophonist (mainly Alto and Baritone).  However, my approach comes from a schooling in Bassoon, so therefore, I’ve never been of a pure saxophone background.  Bassoon is one of those weird wind instruments that is a go-between on vibrato.  Sometimes we use it, and sometimes we don’t.  Saxophone, at least modern-day saxophone players and playing schools, don’t seem to have this mindset.  The vibrato is on all the time – not unlike flute playing.

But, the sound of the saxophone quartet without vibrato was refreshing and new.  It evoked the sound of a beautiful reed organ.  It was homogeneous and harmonious.  Which leads to my conclusion that I think that the saxophone, as an ensemble instrument is best done with a minimum of vibrato – completely contrary to modern performance practices.

I went and listened to several performances of various Bach pieces on saxophone to listen for various styles of vibrato. These performances ranged from amateurs to professionals.  To a person, every player used it. When I was studying Baroque performance practices on period instruments, I was routinely chastised every time even a hint of vibrato entered my sound except on the occasional 7th appoggiatura.  Sax players should be held to the same level of scrutiny even if they are playing an anachronistic instrument.

By playing without a constant vibrato, saxophones can more effectively fill in the role that they naturally fall into, which is not, as some thing, between the woodwinds and brass, but as a bridge between the double reeds and the clarinets.

I leave the readers with the question, should saxophones use vibrato as a matter of fact?  More to the point, when large groups of wind instruments – not just saxophones – get together, is constant vibrato even necessary?

Saxophones in F and C

Adolphe Sax conceived of two families of saxophone, one for orchestral use and one for military band use.  This has always been one of the more curious tidbits of saxophone history.  The real question is why did he think this was necessary?

The first question I asked myself is what was the state of tuning standards in France in the mid-1800s.  I knew that British orchestras and bands tuned to different pitches as late as the 1950s.  British orchestras tuned to A=439 while the brass bands tuned to a historically old A=452.4.  However, the French seems to have done things differently.  By 1859, the French government issued a decree stating that all music, and thus all musical instruments were to be tuned to A=435, called diapason pitch.  Leave it to the French to have the government decide things of musical importance…

I bring up this discussion to ask whether or not the military saxophones had to be tuned differently than the orchestral instruments.  The answer, at least for France – where the instruments were made – is a resounding no.  So the answer has to lie elsewhere.

The next thing I would ask is about the use of various keys.  I know from having a long background in band music that bands prefer using keys on the flat side of the circle of fifths.  It was no different back in the 1800s.  Instruments in E-flat and B-flat would be fine for this purpose, but so would C and F.  F is already a flat key, and C is versatile enough to handle anything.  A band already has flutes, oboes, and bassoons in C and they handle the flat keys just fine.

In reality, I cannot find a single compelling answer as to why the two groups had to exist.  The logical instruments would have been the F and C series, but the more cumbersome E-flat and B-flat instruments survived.

There perhaps isn’t an answer to the question as to why two families were conceived except that Adolphe Sax was known to be a shrewd businessman and knew that he could sell more instruments that way.

Then, I stumbled upon a more curious answer.  Perhaps, the whole thing is a myth.

In looking  at an online database of all the existing and known Sax instruments, only a handful of F and C instruments show up.  The majority are C Tenors.  The 2 C Sopranos are from very early in the production.  A single C Bass exists, presumable the first saxophone ever made.

2 C Sopranos

3 F Altos

7 C Tenors (one by Sax’s son)

1 C Bass (original instrument)

This is out of about 300 or so existing instruments.

What does this imply?  To me, it seems that the F and C instruments were merely an afterthought.  Something that only existed on the original patent.  Could the idea of two families be really a myth?

Current musicological research seems to indicate that this is so.  The early examples of F and C instruments seem to be Sax experimenting rather than producing an actual group of working instruments.  The idea of two separate families seems to come from Berlioz’s Treatise which mentions instruments in both E-flat and B-flat and F and C, but it is important to remember that the Treatise was written in 1844.  Sax’s patent was issued 2 years later in 1846.  The saxophone section to Berlioz’s Treatise was added in a second edition in 1856, but even then some of the saxophones he described had not yet been made – including the Sopranino, Contrabass, and, surprisingly, the Tenor.  There is also evidence that Sax himself went away from the idea of F and C instruments by around 1850.  In the earliest editions of Kastner’s treatise on military bands from the 1840s, he mentions the F and C instruments alongside the B-flat and E-flat, but by the 1850 edition all mention of the F and C instruments had disappeared – four years after the patent.

By 1864, F and C instruments were no longer even listed in Sax’s catalog.

It is possible that some of Sax’s rivals built instruments in F and C, but Adolphe himself did not except for the 11 I mentioned above (there could be a few undocumented instruments as well).

For a composer curious about the sound of the original F and C instruments, alas, there isn’t one.

However… Then came the Roaring 20s.

The saxophone craze of the 1920s produced many new innovations in saxophone technology.  People wanted new sounds.  It first started with the so-called C-Melody, a Tenor Saxophone in C.  This is the instrument Sax himself produced the most of (6 by Adolphe and 1 by his son).  I know for a fact that other French manufacturers were making C Tenors.  I myself once owned a C Tenor by Evette from either 1899 or 1900 (an Apogee system that I’m still kicking myself for selling!).  That instrument was made 20 years before saxophone craze and not intended for military band use.  What it was for, I have no clue.

The C Melody was immediately popular, and many thousands of instruments are still extant.  This was soon followed by the C Soprano, the only saxophone not to transpose.  By 1928, Conn had introduced an F Alto.  By 1929, it all came crashing to a halt.

If we want to talk about F and C saxophones, then we can only talk about the instruments made in the early 1900s.

These instruments are almost universally smaller in bore size and tone than their counterparts a major second lower.  The smaller bore means a sweeter sound with less pungency than the larger instrument.  In this regard, they are the ideal instruments for an orchestral setting where too often composers, orchestrators, and conductors complain that the traditional saxophones are too loud or don’t balance well.


  • Only 3 species of F and C instruments exist. C Soprano, F Alto, and C Tenor.  The F Alto is the rarest being only produced by one manufacturer for only a few short years.  These instruments were produced during the saxophone crazy of the 1920s – the Jazz Age, and were probably not designed as orchestral instruments.
  • Unlike the difference between the B-flat and the A Clarinet, which many find indistinguishable, there is a real marked difference between the F and C saxes when compared to the E-flat and B-flat saxes.
  • The idea of an “orchestral” set is a myth perpetuated by orchestration manuals written during the earliest stages of saxophone development.
  • The F and C instruments do sound sweeter than their larger counterparts and will blend with the orchestral winds better.
  • The F Sopranino scored for by Ravel is a complete fairy tale.  No manufacturer, included Sax himself, ever made one.
  • The F Baritone likewise was never made.
  • Strauss should have known better when he wrote Symphonia Domestica for all F and C instruments.  The most common C instrument, the C Tenor, is the only one he omits.  In 1904, none of these instruments, save the C Tenor – which he didn’t use! – were extant.

Here is a link to Robert Howe’s fantastic research on the subject.

A video of 1 of 7 surviving Adolphe Sax C Tenor Saxophones.