The Surprisingly Badass Life of the Inventor of the Saxophone, Adolphe Sax
The favoured instrument of the likes of Lisa Simpsons, former President Bill Clinton, and the co-author of this article and founder of TodayIFoundOut, the saxophone has variously been described as everything from “the most moving and heart-gripping wind instrument” to the “Devil’s horn”. Rather fittingly then the instrument’s inventor, Adolphe Sax, was a similarly polarising figure and led a life many would qualify as fulfilling all of the necessary specifications to be classified as being “all kinds of badass”.
Born in 1814 in the Belgian municipality of Dinant, Sax was initially named Antoine-Joseph Sax but started going by the name Adolphe seemingly almost from birth, though why he didn’t go by his original name and how “Adolphe” came to be chosen has been lost to history.
The son of a carpenter and eventual master instrument maker Charles Sax, Adolphe Sax was surrounded by music from an early age, becoming especially proficient at playing both the flute and clarinet. Sax’s affinity for wind instruments quickly became apparent in his early teens when he began improving upon and refine the designs of these instruments, as well as coming up with many more. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves because Sax was immeasurably lucky to even make it to adulthood given what he went through as a child.
Described as chronically accident prone, throughout his childhood Sax fell victim to a series of increasingly unusual mishaps, several of which nearly cost him his life. Sax’s first major incident occurred at age 3 when he fell down three flights of stairs and landed unceremoniously at the bottom with his head smacking on the stone floor there. Reports of the aftermath vary somewhat, from being in a coma for a week, to simply being bedridden for that period, unable to stand properly.
A young Sax would later accidentally swallow a large needle which he miraculously passed without incident or injury. On that note, apparently keen on swallowing things that could cause him harm, as a child he drank a concoction of white lead, copper oxide, and arsenic…
In another incident, Sax accidentally fell onto a burning stove reportedly receiving severe burns to his side. Luckily, he seemingly avoided severe infection that can sometimes follow such, though part of his body was forever scarred.
Perhaps the closest he came to dying occurred when he was 10 and fell into a river. This fact was not discovered until a random villager observed Sax floating face down near a mill. He was promptly plucked from the river and later regained consciousness.
But wait, we’re not done yet, because in another incident he got blown across his father’s workshop when a container of gunpowder exploded when he was standing next to it.
Yet again courting death, a young Sax was injured while walking in the streets when a large slate tile flew off a nearby roof and hit him right on the head, rendering him temporarily comatose.
All of these injuries led Sax’s understandably worried mother, Maria, to openly say her young son was “condemned to misfortune”, before adding, “he won’t live”. Sax’s numerous brushes with death also led to his neighbours jokingly referring to him as “the ghost-child from Dinant”.
Besides apparently giving his all to practicing for a future audition in a Final Destination film, on the side, as noted, Sax made musical instruments.
In fact, he became so adept at this that when the young man grew into adulthood and began submitting his instruments to the Belgian National Exhibition, for a few years running he was recommended by the judges for the Gold Medal at the competition, only to have the Central Jury making the final decision deny him such because of his age. They explained to him that if he won the gold, he would then have already achieved the pinnacle of success at the competition, and thus would have nothing to strive for in it the following year.
In the final of these competitions he entered at the age of 27 in 1841, this was actually to be the public debut of the saxophone, but according to a friend of Sax, Georges Kastner, when Sax wasn’t around, someone, rumored to be a competitor who disliked the young upstart, kicked the instrument, sending it flying and damaging it too severely to be entered in the competition.
Nonetheless, Sax was recommended for the Premier Gold Medal at the exhibition thanks to his other submitted instruments, but the Central Jury once again denied this to him. This was the final straw, with Sax retorting, “If I am too young for the gold medal, I am too old for the silver.”
Now a grown man and having seemingly outgrown what it was possible to achieve in Dinant, Sax decided a move was in order, choosing Paris as is destination to set up shop. As to why, to begin with, in 1839 he had traveled to Paris to demonstrate his design for a bass clarinet to one Isacc Dacosta who was a clarinet player at the Paris Academy of Music. Dacosta himself also had created his own improved version of the bass clarinet, but after hearing and playing Sax’s version was quickly impressed by it and Sax himself. He then subsequently introduced Sax around town to various prominent musicians, giving Sax many notable connections in Paris to start from.
Further, not long after he was snubbed at the Exhibition, Sax had learned that certain members of the French government were keen on revitalizing the French military bands and were seeking new and improved instruments to do so. After mulling it over for some time, he decided to try his hand in the big city.
Upon arriving in Paris in 1842, supposedly with a mere 30 francs in his pocked, Sax invited noted composer Hector Berlioz to come review his instruments, resulting in an incredibly glowing review published on June 12, 1842 in the Journal des debats.
Unfortunately for him, this was the start of an issue that would plague Sax for the rest of his life- pitting himself up against the combined might of the rest of the musical instrument makers in Paris who quite literally would go on to form an organization just to take Sax down.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
As for Berlioz’s review of Sax’s work, he wrote,
M. Adolphe Sax of Brussels… is a man of penetrating mind; lucid, tenacious, with a perseverance against all trials, and great skill… He is at the same time a calculator, acoustician, and as necessary also a smelter, turner and engraver. He can think and act. He invents and accomplishes… Composers will be much indebted to M. Sax when his instruments come into general use. May he persevere; he will not lack support from friends of art.
Partially as a result of this piece, Sax was invited to perform a concert at the Paris Conservatoire to much fanfare and success. This, in turn, along with his former connections from his 1839 visit, ended up seeing Sax making many friends quickly among certain prominent musicians and composers impressed with his work. All this, in turn, saw Sax have little trouble acquiring the needed funds to setup the Adolphe Sax Musical Instrument Factory.
Needless to say, this young Belgian upstart, who was seemingly a prodigy when it came to inventing and improving on existing instruments, threatened to leave the other musical instrument makers in Paris in the dust.
Said rivals thus began resorting to every underhanded trick in the book to try to ruin him, from frequent slanderous newspaper articles, to lawsuits, to attempts to have his work boycotted.
For example, in 1843, one Dom Sebastien was composing his opera Gaetano Donizetti and had decided to use Sax’s design for a bass clarinet which, as noted, was significantly improved over other instrument makers of the day’s versions. Leveraging their connections with various musicians in the opera, many of whom worked closely with various other musical instrument makers around town, the threat was made that if Sebastien chose to have Sax’ bass clarinet used in the opera, the orchestra members would refuse to play. This resulted in Sebastien abandoning plans to use Sax’ instrument.
In the past, and indeed in many such instances where his instruments would be snubbed or insulted by others, Sax had been known to challenge fellow musicians besmirching his name to musical duels, pitting their talents against one another in a very public way. Owing to his prodigious skill at not just making extremely high quality instruments, but playing them, Sax frequently won such “duels”. In this case, it is not clear if he extended such a challenge, however.
Whatever the case, as one witness to the harassment, the aforementioned composer Hector Berlioz, would write in a letter dated October 8, 1843,
It is scarcely to be believed that this gifted young artist should be finding it difficult to maintain his position and make a career in Paris. The persecutions he suffers are worthy of the Middle Ages and recall the antics of the enemies of Benvenuto, the Florentine sculptor. They lure away his workmen, steal his designs, accuse him of insanity, and bring legal proceedings against him. Such is the hatred inventors inspire in rivals who are incapable of inventing anything themselves.
His audacious plans didn’t help matters. As noted, when he got to Paris, one of the things he hoped to accomplish was to land a rather lucrative contract with the French military to see his instruments alone used by them. A centerpiece of this, he hoped, was his new and extremely innovative saxophone.
While it seems commonplace today, in a lot of ways the saxophone was a revolution at the time, effectively combining major elements of the woodwind families with the brass. As Berlioz would note of the saxophone in his review of it, “It cries, sighs, and dreams. It possesses a crescendo and can gradually diminish its sound until it is only an echo of an echo of an echo- until its sound becomes crepuscular… The timbre of the saxophone has something vexing and sad about it in the high register; the low notes to the contrary are of a grandiose nature, one could say pontifical. For works of a mysterious and solemn character, the saxophone is, in my mind, the most beautiful low voice known to this today.”
Exactly when Sax first publicly debuted the saxophone to the world isn’t clear, with dates as early as 1842 sometimes being thrown around. However, we do know that during one of his earliest performances with the instrument at the Paris Industrial Exhibition in 1844, Sax played a rousing solo from behind a large curtain. Why? Well, Sax was paranoid about his instrument’s design being copied and, as he hadn’t patented it yet, decided that the best way to avoid this was to simply not let the general public see what it looked like.
This brings us to the military. As previously noted, the French military music was languishing in disgrace. Thus, keen to revitalize it in the name of patriotism, the French government created a commission to explore ways to reform the military bands in innovative ways. Two months after announcing this to the world and inviting manufacturers to submit their instruments for potential use by the military, a concert of sorts was put on in front of a crowd of 20,000 in Paris on April 22, 1845.
Two bands would perform in the concert, with one using more traditional instruments and the other armed with various types of saxophones and other modifications on existing instruments by Sax. Both bands played the same works by composer Adolphe Adam.
The band using Sax’s instruments won by a landslide. Several months later, on August 9, 1845, they awarded Sax the lucrative military contract he’d set out to get when he first moved to Paris.
This was the last straw- when Sax, a Belgian no less, secured the contract to supply the French military, his rivals decided to literally form an organization who might as well have called themselves the “Anti-Sax Club”, but in the end went with- L’Association générale des ouvriers en instruments demusique (the United Association of Instrument Makers). This was an organization to which the most prominent and talented instrument maker in France at the time was most definitely not welcome to join.
Their principal order of business throughout Sax’s lifetime seemed to be to try to ruin Sax in any way they could. To begin with, adopting the age old practice of “If you can’t beat ’em, sue ’em”, a long running tactic by the organization was simply to tie up Sax’s resources, time, and energy in any way possible in court.
The first legal action of this group was to challenge Sax’s patent application on the saxophone, initially claiming, somewhat bizarrely, that the instrument as described in the patent didn’t technically exist. When that failed, they claimed that the instrument was unmusical and that in any event Sax had simply modified designs from other makers. They then presented various other instruments that had preceded it as examples, none of which the court agreed were similar enough to the saxophone to warrant not granting the patent.
Next up, they claimed that the exact design had long existed before, made by other manufacturers in other countries and that Sax was falsely claiming it as his own. To prove this, the group produced several literally identical instruments to Sax’s saxophone bearing foreign manufacturing markings and supposedly made years before.
The truth was that they had simply purchased saxophones from Sax’s company and sent them to foreign workshops where Sax’s labeling had been removed and replaced with the shop owner’s own.
Unfortunately for the United Association of Instrument Makers, this ruse was discovered and they had to come up with a new strategy.
They then claimed that since Sax had very publicly played the instrument on several occasions, it was no longer eligible for a patent.
At this point, fed up with the whole thing, an infuriated Sax countered by withdrawing his patent application and giving other instrument makers permission to make a saxophone if they had the skill. He gave his rivals a year to do this, in which time nobody was able to successfully replicate the instrument with any quality. Shortly before the year was up, with no challenger apparently capable, he then re-submitted his patent application and this time it was quickly granted on June 22, 1846.
Apparently not content with just trying to metaphorically ruin his life and business, at one point Sax’s workshop mysteriously caught fire and in another an unknown assassin fired a pistol at one of Sax’s assistants, thinking it was Sax, with it being rumored that the United Association of Instrument Makers was behind both of these things.
Whether true or not, things took a turn for the worse for Sax after King Louis-Philippe fled the country in 1848. In the aftermath of the revolution, and with many of Sax’s high placed friends now ousted, the United Association of Instrument Makers were able to simultaneously petition to have Sax’s contract with the military revoked and, by 1849, were able to have his patents for the bugles-a-cylindres and saxotromba likewise revoked, freeing his rivals up to make the instruments themselves. They also attempted to have his patent for the saxophone squashed, but were unsuccessful on that one.
Sax, not one to take this sitting down, appealed and after a five year legal battle, the Imperial Court at Rouen finally concluded the matter, siding with Sax and reinstating his patents, as well as ordering the Association to pay damages for the significant loss of revenue in the years the legal battle had raged.
Nevertheless, before this happened, in 1852, Sax found himself financially ruined, though interestingly, his final downfall came thanks to a friend. During this time, as noted, Sax was fighting various legal battles, had lost his military contract, and was otherwise struggling to keep his factory afloat. That’s when a friend gave him 30,000 francs to keep things going. Sax had originally understood this to be a gift, not a loan. Whether it was or wasn’t isn’t clear, but when said individual died a couple years later in 1852, his heirs certainly noticed the previous transaction and inquired about it with Sax, demanding he repay the 30,000 francs and giving him a mere 24 hours to come up with the money.
Unable to do so, Sax fled to London while simultaneously once again finding himself embroiled in yet another legal drama. In this case, the courts eventually demanded Sax repay the 30,000 francs, causing him to have to file for bankruptcy and close down his factory.
But this is Adolphe Sax we’re talking about- a man who had survived major blows to the head, drowning, explosion, poisoning, severe burns, beatings by thugs presumably hired by the United Association of Instrument Makers, an assassination attempt, and literally the combined might of just about every prominent instrument maker in his field in Paris leveled against him.
Fittingly for a man who is quoted as stating, “In life there are conquerors and the conquered; I most prefer to be among the first”, Sax wasn’t about to quit.
And so it was that continuing to work at his craft, in 1854, Sax found himself back on top, appointed Musical Instrument Maker to the Household Troops of Emperor Napoleon III. His new benefactor also helped Sax emerge from bankruptcy and re-open his factory.
It’s at this point, however, that we should point out that, as indicated by his childhood, it clearly wasn’t just other instrument makers that were against Sax, but the universe as well.
A year before his appointment by Napoleon III, Sax noticed a black growth on his lip that continued to grow over time. By 1859, this tumor had grown to such a size that he could not eat or drink properly and was forced to consume sustenance from a tube.
Just to kick him while he was down, shortly before this, in 1858, Sax’s first born child, Charles, died at the age of 2.
Going back to the cancer, his choice at this point in 1859 was to be subjected to a risky and disfiguring surgery, including removing part of his jaw and much of his lip, or submit himself to experimental medicine of the age. He chose the latter, ultimately being treated by an Indian doctor by the name of Vries who administered some private concoction made from a variety of herbs.
Whether the treatment did it or Sax’s own body simply decided that it would not let something trivial like cancer stop it from continuing to soldier on, within six months from the start of the treatment, and after having had the tumor for some six years at this point, Sax’s giant tumor began to get smaller. By February of 1860, it had disappeared completely.
The rest of Sax’s life went pretty much as what had come before, variously impressing the world with his talents in musical instrument making, as well as fighting constant legal battles, with the United Association of Instrument Makers attempting to thwart him in any way they could, while simultaneously the musical instrument makers behind it profited from Sax’s designs as his patents expired.
Finally fed up with everything, a then 72 year old, near destitute Sax attempted to get justice outside of the courts, with an aptly titled article called “Appeal to the Public”, published in the La Musique des Familles in 1887. The article outlined the many ways in which Sax had been wronged by the United Association of Instrument Makers and the near constant, often frivolous, legal battles he fought throughout his time in Paris with them. He summed up,
[B]efore me, I am proud to say, the musical instrument industry was nothing, or next to nothing, in France. I created this industry; I carried it to an unrivaled height; I developed the legions of workers and musicians, and it is above all my counterfeiters who have profited from my work.
While none of this worked at getting the general public to rally to his defense, it did result in many prominent musicians and composers around Paris petitioning that Sax, who had indeed contributed much to the French musical world, should be given a pension so that he could at least be comfortable in the latter years of his life. The results of this was a modest pension ultimately granted towards this end.
On the side when he wasn’t fighting countless legal battles and inventing and making instruments, Sax also had a penchant for dreaming up alternate inventions, such as designing a device that could launch a 500 ton, eleven yard wide mortar bullet, he called- and we’re not making this up- the Saxocannon. He also designed a truly massive organ intended to be built on a hillside near Paris, capable of being heard clearly by anyone throughout the city when it was played.
In the end, Sax died at the age of 79 in 1894 and was buried in the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.
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