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Gearhead: Spotlight on the Sarrusophone

A woodwind instrument for an alternate universe

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Sarrusophones
(Clockwise from R) Soprano, alto, bass, and tenor sarrusophones. (Photo: (Buffet-Crampon) Dayton C. Miller Collection/Library of Congress)

In the 21st century, intellectual property (IP) has become a hot-button issue for musicians and composers, specifically as it pertains to the distribution of music via the internet. This connection to technology and entertainment has given IP law a modern allure—a certain sexiness, if you will. But the question of who owns a concept and who stands to profit from its development has been a legal and societal concern, in various ways, for hundreds of years. Ladies and gentlemen, I offer as an example the case of the sarrusophone.

The what? Yes, its name sounds a little ridiculous—although the person it was named after, 19th-century French bandleader Pierre-Auguste Sarrus, would probably have disagreed with that—but the sarrusophone was a serious instrument. When it was first patented, in 1856, it was meant to replace oboes and bassoons in outdoor wind band performances; at the time, those instruments weren’t capable of being very loud.

Like oboes and bassoons, sarrusophones were double-reed instruments, at least in the beginning (single-reed mouthpieces came along later). Although Sarrus is credited with inventing the sarrusophone, the manufacturing company of Pierre-Louis Gautrot actually produced it. And it was Gautrot who eventually got slapped with a lawsuit by Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone, who claimed that Gautrot had stolen his idea. 

Sax ended up losing that suit, however. Although the sarrusophone and the saxophone do have many similarities—they’re both wind instruments made of metal, they use almost identical fingerings, and they both come in multiple ranges, from sopranino to contrabass—Gautrot’s instrument has a different, and notably harsher, tone from Sax’s. You’d never buy one thinking that you were getting a saxophone. This probably explains why sarrusophones never caught on. 

Even so, the contrabass sarrusophone did enjoy a short period of popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Great composers like Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Frederick Delius, and Jules Massenet wrote pieces featuring either the EE-flat or CC varieties of the instrument. Perhaps its most famous appearance is in Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: the bumptious low melody that gets a broom dancing in the Disney movie Fantasia. These days, however, that melody is usually played by a contrabassoon, and the sarrusophone is, sadly, little more than a museum piece.

IP law, at least as it was constituted in 19th-century France, protected Gautrot’s right to manufacture the sarrusophone; perhaps that outcome might be different today. But in the end, Sax won this battle in the marketplace. Consumers determined that his instrument sounded better. And they were helped along by one intangible factor that can be crucial in marketing: The saxophone had a catchier name. I mean, come on. 

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Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.