E-flat Alto Saxophone
This is the most common saxophone seen. Nearly every saxophonist plays this instrument (in addition to any number of others). This is also the instrument that has seen the most use by “serious” composers. Typically, this is the soloist of the family, though there is no need for it to monopolize this position.
Its sound is sweet and warm when played at a normal dynamic, but can be pushed to harsh when over blown. Its range is almost exactly the same as the B-flat Clarinet (and exactly the same as the A Clarinet), though in practice the Alto Saxophone is thought of as a lower voice then the normal soprano clarinet. Like all members of the saxophone family, it can blend well with most of the other woodwinds. I find a charming combination is when it is paired with the English Horn. The Bassoon, whether at the octave or in the unison, is a wonderful combination that is rarely heard.
The level of technique that has been mastered by even amateur saxophonists is astonishing, but I find that this voice is most charming when playing sustained harmonies and lyrical melodies.
A practice that needs to be ended is the use of the Alto Saxophone (and the saxophone section in general) as a double of the Horns. While these two voice share a similar range, their timbres are not entirely cohesive. The edge of the saxophone takes away from the nobility of the Horn. Leave the saxophones as woodwind and not as brass. This is in deference to the early orchestration manual by Forsyth who includes the saxophones as members of the brass family!
The Old Castle from Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky
Prelude to L’Arlesienne by Bizet (saxophone solo starts at 3:45)
Concerto for Alto Saxophone by Glazounov performed by Andreas van Zoelen
Concerto for Alto Saxophone by Glazounov performed by Marcel Mule
Please take special note in the difference in tone between Mule and van Zoelen. Mule is considered one of the greatest saxophonists of all time, but his sound and vibrato are grating to the ear. THIS, this my friends, is why we have yet the hear greatness from the saxophone! Read the comments on the Mule performance and how saxophonists fawn over his playing. I would rather hear no vibrato than the uncontrolled warbling of Mule! (That’s for a future post though.)
Sigurd Rascher. Rascher was Mule’s main “competition.” Mule focused on technique and musicianship while Rascher focused on tone and extending the range of the saxophone. As an orchestrator/bandestrator, I care far more about tone than technique.