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.

The curious case of the Subcontrabass Saxophone

Adolph Sax was nothing if not a creative genius. His original patent illustrated 8 sizes of saxophone – each with the option of two different pitches – for a total of 16 different instruments.  All but one were built.*

*Well, not exactly. See my post on F and C saxophones for the whole story.


Sketch from Sax’s original patent.

From right to left:

Subcontrabass (bourdon), Contrabass, Bass, Baritone, Tenor, Alto, Soprano, and Sopranino.

The saxophone was meant to be a bass family as evidenced by the emphasis on the lower forms.  However, the lowest instrument was never made – until very recently.  The immense size made this instrument the hardest to manufacture.  In a specialty shop, like Sax’s, it would have been no problem, but with the industrialization of instrument manufacturing it became almost impossible.  Today, the best wind instruments are again being made in smaller shops, sometimes by a single craftsman.  New experimentations and reenvisioning of old ideas are taking place.

And so we find it today that there are now two manufacturers who are making Subcontrabass Saxophones like Sax himself dreamed of.  J’Elle Stainer in Brazil offers two different models of Subcontrabass.  One is the compact version that only descends to a low written B.  The advantage of this instrument is that is it quite short, about the height of a normal Baritone Saxophone.  However, it is lacking the crucial bottom B-flat.  J’Elle Stainer makes up for this in its full-sized version – a saxophone that stands over 9 feet tall.  And yes, it does go all the way down to B-flat.

Over in Germany, the famed maker Benedict Eppelsheim also has made 2 different models of Subcontrabass.  His standard instrument is the B-flat Tubax, a narrow bore Subcontrabass with the bore size close to a modern Baritone Saxophone.  It has the depth, but not the warmth.  He has also made a single full-sized Low-A Subcontrabass.  All I can find of this instrument are tantalizing photos.

Can the instrument, in any of its iterations, be used?  It definitely isn’t a solo instrument.  As a powerful reed bass at the bottom of an ensemble it can add a few extra notes below the range of the already exceedingly rare Contrabass Saxophone.

Will I use the instrument… probably…