The Original Saxophone Colossus

A comprehensive new exhibition in Brussels goes inside the life and legacy of Adolphe Sax

Brass instrument designed by Adolphe Sax in Paris, 1876. photo courtesy of the Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels
Alto saxophone created by Adolphe Sax, Paris, 1863. Photo courtesy of the Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels
Adolphe Sax's French patent for the saxophone, 1846. Photo courtesy of the Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels

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The same year that the Musical Instrument Museum (mim) in Brussels was founded, 1877, Adolphe Sax declared bankruptcy for the third time. A number of items from the Belgian-born, Paris-based instrument maker’s personal collection were sold at public auction, many being snapped up by the mim’s first curator, Victor-Charles Mahillon.

The creations of Antoine-Joseph “Adolphe” Sax, including early examples of his namesake invention, have thus been linked with the mim since the museum’s creation, making it the ideal site for a new exhibition celebrating Sax’s life and work. SAX200, which opened in February and will close in January 2015, traces not just the evolution of the saxophone but the many other inspirations and innovations of this remarkable instrument builder. “I’m not exaggerating,” boasted Jo Santy, communication manager at the mim, during a visit to the exhibition in early May. “You will never find anywhere in the world a more comprehensive collection of instruments and information about Adolphe Sax.”

The exhibition, marking the 200th anniversary of Sax’s birth, contains a spectacular array of instruments, including the oldest saxophone in existence as well as instruments once owned by Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon and President Bill Clinton (the lattermost in red, white and blue, naturally). Roughly 170 pieces are on display, tracing Sax’s development from his early improvements on bass clarinets in his father’s shop through his first, lesser-known invention, the saxhorn, to the 1846 birth of the saxophone itself.

Born in November 1814 in the small village of Dinant, Sax moved with his family to Brussels, where his father Charles-Joseph founded a wind instrument workshop. Sax later opened his own shop in Paris, where he became friendly with composer Hector Berlioz, a longtime champion of his work. Even more important, Sax won a lucrative contract to manufacture instruments for the French army’s military bands. It was in part this commission that led to his most enduring invention. “The saxophone was really a new voice in the 19th century,” explained Géry Dumoulin, curator of the SAX200 exhibition. “What Sax had in mind was to create an instrument that sounded a little bit like a string instrument but with a lot more power, to be played in the open air.”

The saxophone combined elements of the bass clarinet and the ophicleide, a lower-register brass instrument with fingerholes and a conical bore. The earliest saxes maintained the low register of their parents, as Sax began with bass and baritone saxes before moving up into the tenor, alto and soprano ranges. “One of Sax’s idées fixes was to make instruments in entire families,” said Dumoulin. “He would make a whole family of instruments with the same concept of sound, fingering and overall shape, so if someone could play a small instrument they could also play the large.”

This family idea is evident in the saxhorns-instruments, again created with military bands in mind, that fall somewhere between the flugelhorn and tuba-which are showcased in the exhibition in their full range, from sopranino to the contrabass. Some of these saxhorns look bizarre to the modern eye, but they’re far from the strangest items in the museum’s collection: That honor goes to a number of instruments created especially for industrial exhibitions, the 19th-century showcases for innovation and invention that allowed manufacturers to display their wares on the world stage. Among Sax’s eye-catching, if less than practical, creations is a brass instrument with 13 bells.

More conventional were Sax’s creations for the Paris Opera, where he assembled and conducted a 20-piece brass ensemble. He also crafted long Theban trumpets specifically for Verdi’s Aida as well as a bowl-less kettledrum and a lightweight bell for the opera.

The last section of the SAX200 exhibition deals with the popularization of Sax’s instruments, beginning with England’s Distin family, a brass band that Dumoulin likened to a 19th-century Beatles. (The exhibition includes ceramic vases stamped with the family’s likenesses, far more elaborate than today’s merch-table offerings.) The show contains instruments made by Sax’s son Adolphe-Édouard and by Henri Selmer, who would purchase the Sax workshop in the late 1920s, providing a direct link to today’s most prominent saxophone makers.

While the instruments are inevitably the focus, the exhibition also includes a number of images of Sax and his workshop, a touch-screen database of his patents and a selection of sound samples spotlighting the instrument (which, on the day we visited, mostly meant that someone cued up the earworm lick from Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” every few minutes). The first temporary exhibition of its kind attempted by the mim in its long history, SAX200 is an auspicious and exhaustive celebration of the life behind jazz’s most iconic instrument.