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.

3 thoughts on “Saxophone sections in the orchestra – Part 1

  1. Michaela Saxofónová

    Hi, I think you might have just one little mistake in the section about the F baritone sax from Sinfonia Domestica. When you are writing about the transposition of the note high F into Es baritone, it won’t be written as high G, but just as high Es. So today players could play it on stage without being frustrated from the altissimo register 🙂

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