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Dinant, Belgium. ©Andrés Nieto Porras/Flickr
Dinant, Belgium. ©Andrés Nieto Porras/Flickr
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Adolphe Sax: Belgian Inventor Of The Saxophone

Picture of Maria Maldonado
Updated: 26 January 2017
You probably have listened to great tracks like “I Got You (I Feel Good)” by James Brown, “Young Americans” by David Bowie, or “Slave” by the Rolling Stones. What do all of these songs have in common? Featured within each song is the identifiable woodwind instrument, the saxophone. Unbeknownst to many, this iconic musical instrument’s roots lie within Belgium, and its invention can be attributed to the Belgian musician and instrument maker, Adolphe Sax. Read on to discover how his musical creation would come to revolutionize the music industry and shape future musical genres.

Early Life

Antoine-Joseph Adolphe Sax was born on 6th November, 1814, as the eldest of 11 siblings. Sax was born and raised in Dinant, Belgium; a small city in the southern region of Wallonia. His father, Charles Joseph Sax, was a great influence on Adolphe as he was an instrument designer and owner of an instrument factory. Sax started to work with his father at a very young age and soon realized his passion for instruments and music. He then started to take clarinet lessons and even entered a contest at age 15. In 1828, he began his formal musical education at the Royal School of Music located in Brussels.

It is known by few that Sax designed and invented more instruments than just the saxophone. In fact, as a teenager, he created whole new designs for the clarinet and for flutes. A few years later, he invented a new clarinet model known as the 24-key clarinet. In 1835, Sax showed his invention to the public at the Industrial Exposition in Brussels. He also presented a series of 9 different inventions, including the organ, at the same exposition in 1840.

Sax’s innovative creations started to gain acclaim from the public and attract the attention of famous people involved in the music industry, such as Francois Antoine Habeneck, conductor of the Paris Opera Orchestra.

Saxo-tromba | WikiCommons
Saxo-tromba | WikiCommons

The Saxophone

Just one year later, in 1841 at the Industrial Exposition in Brussels, Sax decided to present to the public his most important invention: a woodwind instrument composed of a single reed, a conical tube, and finger keys. This interesting invention would soon be known as the saxophone. The creation was soon patented in 1846, a few years after the public presentation.

Sax tried his luck and moved to Paris, renowned as a musical capital of Europe at the time, to promote the saxophone and start a workshop. He had to face hard economic times, but it all changed when he was introduced to music critic and composer, Hector Berlioz. Berlioz was inspired by Sax’s creations and wrote a review on the saxophone. Soon, Sax started to produce the saxophone in different sizes and the instrument started to be featured on operas.

Sax's workshop at 50 Rue Saint-Georges in Paris | WikiCommons
Sax’s workshop at 50 Rue Saint-Georges in Paris | WikiCommons

A rocky road to success

The saxophone started to gain in popularity, especially among military bands. Once, Sax organized a ‘battle band’ between two different military bands, one of them featuring the saxophone and the other band playing traditional French infantry band instruments. The band featuring the saxophone won the competition and so the military incorporated the saxophone into their musical groups. Despite his great success, Sax suffered from difficulties in the business and underwent bankruptcy three times. He managed to avoid a fourth with the help of emperor Napoleon III, one of the major admirers of the saxophone.

The competition with other instrument makers was tough since buyers and composers were already loyal to other instrument makers. Sax was once accused of stealing the idea of the saxophone from the Germans. Many other accusations were made against Sax, but he somehow always able to prove his invention was in fact, an original idea. Aside from the downs in his business, Sax continued to gain recognition and awards for his inventions.

Saxophone |© Elisabeth D'Orcy
Saxophone | © Elisabeth D'Orcy

Legacy

Sax died on 7th of February, 1894. The saxophone became a great success in band music, but it never turned out to be an important instrument for classical music as Sax always hoped. Adolphe Sax even died believing that the saxophone would never become a famous and popular instrument. Little did he know that his invention would revolutionize the world of music during the 20th century and begin one of the most popular genres that have ever existed, jazz. Sax could not witness the greatest success of the saxophone, but up to this day people still visit the Belgian town of Dinant to see where the inventor of the saxophone once lived, admire sculptures of the saxophone around the town, and learn about the history of this special musical instrument and the life of its inventor.

Manneken Pis as Adolphe Sax | WikiCommons
Manneken Pis as Adolphe Sax | WikiCommons