I’ve purposely skirted around the subject of Saxhorns throughout my run of this blog. Saxhorns are really a complete mess of a family. Adolphe Sax intended them to be a homogeneous family of valved brass instruments. However, to say that these instruments are wholly his invention would be false. All he did was make them uniform and slap his name on the family.
There are usually thought to be 7 members of the family
- E-flat Sopranino
- B-flat Soprano
- E-flat Alto/Tenor
- B-flat Tenor/Baritone
- B-flat Bass
- E-flat Bass/Contrabass
- B-flat Contrabass
In addition to this, there are references to a B-flat Piccolo and E-flat and B-flat Subcontrabasses or Bourdons.
A performance and explanation (in German) of Adolphe Sax’s instruments using original instruments from Sax.
Numbers 1 through 4 can be thought of as one family, while numbers 5 though 7 can be thought of as a second. Numbers 5, 6, and 7 are the easiest to deal with, so I shall tackle them first.
The Whole-Tube Saxhorns
A whole-tube instrument is a brass instrument that is able to play the fundamental (i.e. pedal) note with ease. These are usually wide-bore conical instruments. Today, we call these tubas. Saxhorns number 5, 6, and 7 are simply nothing more than today’s Euphonium, E-flat Tuba, and B-flat Tuba, which Sax standardized and somewhat perfected. Numbers 5 and 6 had four valves, while number 7 had only 3.
The Half-Tube Saxhorns
A half-tube instrument is a brass instrument that cannot play its fundamental pitch easily. Saxhorns 1 through 4 can usually be placed in the half-tube grouping. These instruments all have three valves. Numbers 3 and 4 are virtually identical to today’s Alto/Tenor Horn and Baritone Horn. In fact, in France, these are still sometimes referred to as Saxhorns. Numbers 1 and 2 are a little trickier. Some say that they are closer to cornets while others say they are closer to flügelhorns. The truth is, they are probably somewhere in between cornets and flügelhorns. A cornet is firmly a half-tube instrument while a flügelhorn is firmly a whole-tube instrument. Sax’s original instruments probably could play the fundamental, but not easily. What seems likely is the the early instrument, and most of those made by Sax himself were closer to cornets, while later instruments, notably those by other manufacturers, were closer to flügelhorns.
A later Sax-made Sopranino Saxhorn in flügelhorn style
A later Sax-made Soprano Saxhorn in flügelhorn style
OTS saxhorns were a purely American take on the instrument. These became popular during the Civil War when bands would march in front of the troops going in to battle. These instruments had bells that pointed backward so that the sound pointed towards the marching troops. There are several modern groups that use these instruments in Civil War reenactments.
Today, the saxhorns are still with us, but mostly under different names.
- E-flat Sopranino – E-flat Cornet
- B-flat Soprano – B-flat Cornet
- E-flat Alto – Alto Horn
- B-flat Tenor – Baritone Horn
- B-flat Bass – Euphonium
- E-flat Bass – E-flat Tuba
- B-flat Contrabass – B-flat Tuba
This is the standard make up of 80% of the modern British brass band, something that Adolphe Sax would immediately recognize. The name Saxhorn has completely fallen out of use – save in one instance…
The French Orchestral Saxhorn
In France, there is still an instrument called simply the Saxhorn. It is a bass instrument pitched in C a step above the modern Euphonium. It has a minimum or four valves, though as many as six are common. This was the standard French tuba for a large part of the 20th Century and the sound that many French composers, including Ravel, had in mind. Due to the instrument being a whole-tube instrument and having extra valves, it is able to play most of the tuba repertoire despite being the smallest of the bass tuba instruments.