The evolution of musical instruments can be described as a lengthy process involving scores of instrument makers, each building on the efforts of previous technicians. The genesis of the saxophone differs from the usual pattern of instrument building as its creation can be traced to one individual, Adolphe Sax. Of all his efforts, the saxophone stands as his most enduring creation.
Early on, Adolphe Sax apprenticed in the instrument manufacturing business under his father's tutelage. Charles-Joseph Sax (1791 - 1865) was employed by King William I as official instrument maker for the Belgian Army Band. The royal appointment lent authority to the Sax name and enabled the young Adolphe to learn a valuable trade. At six, Adolphe was drilling tone holes into clarinets and working a wood lathe. At 15, Sax competed in the Brussels Industrial Exposition and entered two flutes and a clarinet made of ivory.
His most ambitious project of his early years was the improvement of the bass clarinet. Completed at age 20, the bass clarinet became Sax's first patented instrument, and was generally hailed as a success, though some clarinetists were less enthusiastic. There is an amusing story concerning a bass clarinetist who threatened to quit the orchestra if the conductor voted to adopt the new instrument. The young Sax challenged the reticent clarinetist to a musical duel before the conductor, resulting in the clarinet players' dismissal.
In 1841, Adolphe Sax left Belgium and relocated his workshop in Paris. Some say Sax was disillusioned with the Belgian National Exposition for not recommending any of his entries for a prize. Sax biographers opine that the instrument maker may have been a victim of age discrimination.
Nestled in his Paris workshop, Sax manufactured standard instruments, gradually introducing improvements along the way. In 1845, Sax patented a family of brass instruments he called saxhorns, and in 1846, the saxophone family made its first appearance ranging from bass to sopranino. 1846 is often given as the year of the invention of the saxophone, but Berlioz knew of it in 1842, and wrote praises about it in Journal des Debats. The Berlioz article made Sax's reputation soar overnight, and landed him a teaching position at the Paris Conservatory.
But Sax had attracted a number of malcontents wishing to tarnish his reputation or to bring him down completely. The detractors consisted mainly of disgruntled instrument workers resistant to change and with a penchant to place blame. Rumors got started saying that Sax stole the rotary valve design from the Germans.
Some of those disputes were settled at a posh party Sax attended in Bonn. At a royal event attended by Prussian dignitaries, the Royal Prussian Army Band performed to the baton of Wilhelm Wieprecht, royal instrument maker and designer of a rotary valve system. Franz Liszt brought the two instrument makers together, and the debate over the rotary valve system was settled. Wieprecht, now convinced that Sax had not stolen his ideas, withdrew his lawsuit against him, and the two went back to business as usual. But back at home, a judge declared that "the saxophone never existed," an aberration of the mind, even though a patent had been issued for it.
Adolphe Sax died at the age of 80. He was a ceaseless innovator who advanced the art of instrument design, giving us works of art to see and to hear.