Arts & Culture | Adolphe Sax | Early Romantic | Classical
The son of the Brussels wind-instrument maker Charles-Joseph Sax, Adolphe Sax (1814–94) studied the clarinet at the Conservatoire in Brussels. Accordingly, his first experiments with instruments were designs for improving the clarinet and then plans for a bass clarinet.
Sax patented the saxhorn in 1845. He took the existing valved brass instruments and came up with the idea of a group of such instruments, with a shared playing technique and a shared quality of sound. Initially copying the trumpet, he subsequently modelled the instruments on the tuba. His most famous invention, the saxophone itself, was patented in 1846. Crossing the single-reed woodwind family with the keyed-brass instruments of the early nineteenth century, he created a new instrument family.
His least-known instrument design is probably that for his timpani. Patented in 1855, this replaced the metal shell with an open frame, stretching the drum-head vellum over a long, conically shaped resonator. A pedal operated a series of shutters which allowed the pitch of the instrument to change, not by altering the tension in the vellum, but by changing the size of the resonator.
Sax’s successes led to his winning a virtual monopoly in the supply of instruments to France’s military bands. This, combined with his quarrelsome temperament, led to a series of lawsuits involving other instrument-makers who claimed that he had patented already existing designs. As a result of this he was declared bankrupt in 1852, 1873 and 1877.
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