Saturday, 10 December 2016


One couldn’t conjure up a more elaborate – even fantastical – life story than that of Belgian inventor and musician Adolphe Sax.

Born Antoine-Joseph in 1814 to instrument designer parents, young Adolphe (as he was referred to by his family) possessed an inherent knack for inventive ingenuity. Following in the footsteps of his parents, Adolphe – who had already mastered the art of playing both the flute and clarinet (he also sung at a professional level) – would enter into instrument-making competitions by the age of 15. His first entries? Why, the very instruments on which he currently played, of course – a flute and a clarinet, both made from scratch. By 24, Adolphe had patented his own improvement of the bass clarinet design - a lucrative personal hobby that would see him relocating to Paris and bearing witness to his inventions set up on display at exhibitions.

It seemed Sax had more than enough talent to grab the world by it’s tailfeathers – nothing, it seemed, could inhibit him from realizing his preordained destiny.

That would have been the case – had Adolphe’s life story concluded here. Unfortunately for the young musical tycoon, the harsh realities that often accompany notoriety and success were about to smack young Sax right across the face. Compounding Adolphe’s vitriolic reality check would be a string of luck so bad, it would appear to the casual observer that the innovative genius was in fact the victim of an evil curse.

Following Sax like a lecherous shadow during his otherwise overly productive youth were a series of near-fatal accidents – from drinking sulfuric water at the age of three to falling from a height of three stories and landing on his head; to nearly drowning after falling in a lake; burning himself in a gunpowder explosion, to falling into a red-hot cast iron brazier and on one frightful occasion nearly suffocating to death after being locked overnight in a room which was designated a storehouse for freshly varnished furniture. Young Adolphe seemed to teeter on the brink of oblivion: so convinced of his immortality were horrified spectators to Sax’s bizarre tango with the reaper that the locals dubbed him “the Little Ghost.”

A Saxophone produced by Adolphe Sax
It would be a name that would stick. Whilst simultaneously inventing and improving on instrument designs and dodging an early death, Adolphe was also busy creating his pièce de résistance: not an improvement on an already existing design – but instead creating, from scratch, an all-new, never-before-seen-or-heard instrument that could carry with it enough clout to solidify his legacy as an inventor and leave his indelible mark in the world’s history book. And leave his mark he certainly did: with the invention of a new woodwind-horn hybrid instrument he would name after himself – the saxophone.

Sax would introduce the saxophone to the world in Paris in 1845 before a massive crowd of some twenty-five thousand spectators – all of whom gathered to witness the exploits of the boastful Belgian, who had sent musical France into a tizzy when he openly mocked the instrumentation of the French military, enraging both French traditionalists, the military and the Government alike.

Weary of Sax winning over it’s more progressively cultured citizens, the French government, in a brazen attempt to humiliate the foreigner Adoplhe, made the curious decision of challenging the stalwart musician to a public display of his invention in which he would be required to perform before the already incensed French people. Adolphe, undeterred by the very real potential of falling flat on his face, abruptly called the government’s bluff.

On a balmy 22nd of April that year, Sax would take the hastily fashioned stage (on what the French undoubtedly hoped would serve as his gallows) solo – all seven of his hired musical accompanists having been threatened or paid off by the French to suddenly go AWOL in order to sabotage Adolphe’s performance.

He played anyway.

Much to the chagrin of the French elite, the saxophone – and its inventor – unexpectedly won over the crowd. Soon after Adolphe’s performance, all of Paris was abuzz with tales of this new, curious-sounding instrument.

Not everyone was a fan, however – the classical music sphere loathed the grating and squealing characteristics of the saxophone's sound, labeling it “indecent” and “immoral” - a consensus shared by the local authorities, and even the Catholic Church. 

*Click image to enlarge* Advertisement for the 1867 Paris International Exposition for which Sax won
1st Grand Prix de la Facture Instrumentale, displaying the saxophone and Sax's other inventions:
the 6-piston trombone and the Saxhorn.
So offended by it’s very presence were the saxophones critics, Adolphe himself became the target of hired assassins after he patented the instrument in 1846. His employees were bribed by competitors and made rogues, his manufacturing plant was set on fire – and for good measure, a bomb was placed under his bed. Just as he had survived catastrophe after catastrophe in his youth, Adolphe would successfully dodge all of the hits placed on his head.

The story - as one might deduce from reading an autobiography on Adolphe - or having known the man himself – does not end here for the hapless Mr. Sax. He would be forced into bankruptcy just ten short years after first débuting his instrument – the result of rivalrous instrument makers who drove the frazzled inventor into an extended period of litigation when they challenged the legitimacy of his patents in 1856. Soon after filing - and losing all of his earnings in the process – Sax would fall ill with cancer of the lip – twice: once in 1853 and again in 1858 – which, as you may have guessed, he survived (with a full recovery to boot).

Saxs’ all-clear in the physical health department wouldn’t come as much of a boon to the former musical trailblazer – Adolphe "the Ghost" Sax would perish in 1894 in abject poverty, having never recovered from his financial losses.

While the saxophone has never quite gained a prominent spot in the symphonic orchestra, its uniquely smoky registers have earned it praise from a small handful of prominent musicians. The French composer Hector Berlioz, for instance, wrote music for it, now lost ("The Hymne pour instruments de Sax"), calling it an instrument that “cries, sighs and dreams,” and Maurice Ravel – also a composer, and also French – famously employed the saxophone in his ever-popular one-movement orchestral piece Boléro. Listen to an absolutely thrilling performance of it below (Saxophone enters at 7:24 - but you are going to want to watch this video all the way through - from the beginning..prepare yourself for heart-racing, hair-raising ecstasy):


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