LOST Magazine
About Us

Subscribe Now


Print This Article    Print This Article

Email This Article    Email This Article


by Michael Segell

The battle that the military band lost against the saxophone.

Brash, arrogant, handsome, with a lush, full beard and bedroom eyes, Adolphe Sax was the embodiment of the fiery 19th-century Romantic. Enormously self-confident — "In life there are conquerors and the conquered; I most prefer to be among the first," he often said — Sax was sure that his invention would have profound and everlasting repercussions for music and its practitioners. A brief trip to Paris in the spring of 1839 had strengthened his conviction; the well-regarded composers François-Antoine Habeneck, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Jacques Fromental Halévy, to whom he had shown the new bass clarinet and a few of his retooled brass instruments, praised him lavishly during his visit. Sax was convinced he would find a learned and appreciative audience in the salons and conservatories of France and receive the recognition he had been denied in Brussels.

Sax wisely perceived an opportunity to launch the production of his player-friendly new instruments:  he would persuade French military officials to include them, as well as brass instruments he had improved, in their regimental bands. In the early 19th century, France's military bands, which refused to hire professional players and were poorly subsidized, were humbled by the proud and noble ensembles of Prussia and Austria. After Poland and Austria repelled the last Ottoman invasion in the late seventeenth century, the victors seized complete sets of instruments from the mehter, the rousing janissary bands that accompanied the campaign songs of the Turkish armies as the strode from one bloody battle to the next. Spicing up their Western instrumentation with the exotic additions — mostly percussion instruments like cymbals and bells, but also the yiragh, a form of oboe, and the bur, a piercing horn — the Europeans formed their own versions of janissary bands, which became famous for their ability to whip fighting regiments into a patriotic froth. The slack French bands, however, suffered poorly in comparison. According to an article in L'Illustration, "Whoever heard an Austrian or Prussian band surely broke into laughter upon hearing a French regimental band."

Beyond the lassitude of its members, the military orchestra, in Sax's analysis, suffered from a variety of problems that could be remedied by the introduction of saxophones and reworked and improved brass instruments, most prominently his saxhorns. In addition to making them sound better, Sax designed his saxhorns and the smaller saxotrombas (throughout his life, the possessive Sax attached his name to everything he invented or redesigned) so that a soldier could play one while riding a horse. The horn could be held under the left elbow while the left hand held all four regulation reins. The right hands was free to work to the valves; the instrument's vertical design protected it from the horse's head.

At the urging of his friend Lieutenant General de Rumigny, Sax sent a long letter to the French war minister in 1844 proposing a reorganization of the country's military bands. The high-pitched piccolos and clarinets and oboes, and the instruments used to carry the bass lines — the bassoons and ophicleides — were not suited to open-air performances, he argued. They were fair-weather instruments; rain rendered most of them unplayable. And many of the intermediary instruments were lost amid the competing sounds. He suggested a solution:  the introduction of his new saxhorns — a family of bugles with piston valves — and, of course, his booming bass saxophones.

Virtually no one connected to the military bands — musicians, instrument makers, conductors, military brass — favored the proposed reforms of the Belgian, whom they regarded as an opportunistic interloper. The cliquish Parisian instrument makers argued loudly against the saxophone, which threatened the way they did business. As the industrial revolution progressed, they relied increasingly on artisans in outlying villages to provide interchangeable parts to be assembled and packaged in Paris. Though a boon to all involved, the process tended to stifle innovation. Advances in design tended to come from bright young upstarts, such as Adolphe Sax, who made all the parts for their own instruments. His saxophone threatened to cut the parts suppliers out of the production chain.

But Sax had developed enough influential friends, most significantly Lieutenant General de Rumigny, to force the naming of a commission to decide the matter. Michele Carafa, the director of the Gymnase de Musique Militaire, which trained most of the army's musicians, had also proposed reforming the bands, simply by adding more conventional instruments. To decide the matter, the commission, made up on acoustical experts from the army and France's foremost composers, decided to take the issue to the people. It would hold an outdoor concert, a battle of the bands, and let popular opinion decide.

On April 22 the two rival groups gathered on the Champ de Mars, a drill ground next to the Ècole Militaire (now the gardens surrounding the Eiffel Tower), surrounded by more than 20,000 music-loving Parisians. Both Carafa and Sax had proposed bands of forty-five players, but seven of Sax's musicians had been bribed not to show up, including the two bass saxophonists. But Sax, who loved a pitched battle and was never so dangerous as when infuriated, strapped two instruments to his side, including, some historians believe, his B-flat bass saxophone. Each band was to play a piece selected by the commission in addition to one of its own choosing. But after the first round had been completed, the crowd erupted, overwhelming favoring Sax's band and demanding more. His ensemble, though 20% lighter than the competition, projected its sound throughout the assembled crowd, while the sound Carafa's group produced faded after only a short distance. The members of the commission agreed that Sax's new configuration, featuring his bold new and reworked instruments, was far superior to the old.

Sax was the talk of Paris for days. The prospect of reform within the louche and pathetic military bands excited great national pride. In September the commission issued its report:  it recommended the inclusion of Sax's baritone and bass saxophones and his resonant saxhorns. Within months, regimental bands organized according to Sax's system were winning first prizes in contests. Even proud Prussia asked Sax to undertake a reform of its regimental bands. Sax had finally achieved his consecration.

And the saxophone received a quick launch. The Belgian's saxhorns were most responsible for his victory on the Champ de Mars, but it was his unusual new instrument with the serpentine shape, elaborate fingerboard, and distinct new sound that went on to capture the public's imagination. Sax won his patent for the instrument in 1846; his application listed eight members of the family, ranging from "bourdon," a subcontrabass, to the high soprano "sur aigu" ("above acute"), a piccolo instrument an octave above the soprano. By then, the E-flat baritone was the ascendant instrument, and it was quickly adopted into Italian, Spanish, and Hungarian military bands, bringing it instant international exposure. Within just a few years it was deploying its powers of seduction on every continent in the world. Everywhere it landed, it was recognized as the sound of modernity and independence — an instrument that gave voice to the common man, whose creative spirit was being stifled by the depersonalizing forces of the industrial revolution. In almost every new musical idiom that would emerge over the next century and a half, whether bebop, meringue, rhythm and blues, or rock, and even when the instrument was introduced to cultures whose musical traditions has been established for hundreds of years, the saxophone would assert its dominance, romancing and beguiling millions of new players on its way to becoming the most popular woodwind in the world.

From The Devil's Horn:  The Story of the Saxophone, from Noisy Novelty to King of Cool, by Michael Segell, recently released in paperback by Picador. Copyright © 2005 by Michael Segell. All rights reserved

Back to Top

Articles in this Issue

The Twins, by Suzanne Montagne
The Moved, by Rebecca Peters-Golden
Hedy Lamarr, by David Wallace
The Place This Is, by Abby Sher
Broken, by Michael Chorost
Real Estate, by Katherine Carlson
Public Works, by Peter Joseph
Acoustics, by Michael Segell
September 2006


Michael Segell is an amateur percussionist and saxophone player and a professional music lover. He is the author of Standup Guy, and his writing has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, and Esquire, where he wrote the popular column "The Male Mind." He has received two National Magazine Award nominations for his work. He lives with his wife and children in New York City and Long Eddy, New York.

Buy Michael Segell's books through Amazon at the LOST Store.

Where loss is found.

Copyright © 2008 LOST Magazine. All rights reserved.   User Agreement   Privacy Statement   LOST RSS Feed