More than any other classical saxophonist before or since, Sigurd Rascher contributed to the legitimization of an instrument many composers and musicians disliked. With immense fluidity and lovely, rounded tone, Rascher mastered the instrument, giving heretofore-unimagined polish and variations in temperament from virginal to seductive. Works already written for the instrument emerged in new light while contemporary composers recognized fresh possibilities and devised new scores utilizing the alto saxophone.
Born in Germany to a Swedish father and an English mother, Rascher spent his early childhood in Switzerland. From 1921 to 1925, he attended secondary school in Stuttgart where he began his musical studies, concentrating on the clarinet. Financial problems forced Rascher to interrupt his schooling in 1927 and at that point, he switched instruments, taking up the alto saxophone thinking it would be easier to play and would offer him more performing opportunities. For three years, he played with jazz bands in Germany, Switzerland, and Holland in venues ranging from cafés to spas. Performing for 12 hours each day led to a breakdown in his health; after his recovery, Rascher returned to the Stuttgart Musikhochschule to complete his studies in 1930 and to take his examinations the following year. The graduate won first honors. For a year and a half, Rascher taught both music and woodcraft in primary schools, but soon determined that he would undertake a career as a concert saxophonist.
In view of the limited repertory for the instrument, Rascher began soliciting works from important composers. Among those who responded favorably were Eric Coates, Alexander Glazunov, Darius Milhaud, and Jacques Ibert. At his concert debut at the 1932 Hannover Music Festival, Rascher won acclaim for his even, silken tone; facile fingering; ability to manage long phrases in a single breath; and impressive mastery of the upper register (extended upward by an octave). After a concert appearance in Denmark, he was engaged for a special saxophone class. In 1934, he accepted an opportunity to become a faculty member at Malmö, Sweden. Over the next several years, Rascher's concert career expanded as he traveled to Italy, France, England, and Spain and in 1938, to Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania under the sponsorship of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. In fall 1939, he came to the United States for his first American concert tour. On October 20, Boston Symphony Orchestra audiences heard two works that had become Rascher specialties, Debussy's Rhapsody for Saxophone and Orchestra and a work written for him by Ibert, the Concertino for Saxophone and Orchestra. On November 11, he presented the same program with the New York Philharmonic, once again to glowing reviews. With a growing reputation and a burgeoning list of compositions he could offer orchestras as concert fare, Rascher was as busy throughout the rest of his career as he chose to be. The list of works composed for him grew to nearly 150, while he was a guest soloist with no fewer than 250 symphonic ensembles worldwide.
Rascher settled in the United States and resumed his teaching; three of America's most distinguished schools benefited from his expert pedagogy: Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. In 1969, Rascher formed the Rascher Saxophone Quartet and remained with the group until 1981.