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When you see someone whose been to their first symphony orchestra concert, sometimes you hear them asking where were the saxophones? Here’s a brief music history lesson to answer precisely that question.
Saxophones are one of the most popular instruments. You see them everywhere. So why aren’t they part of the standard orchestra lineup? Why are there no orchestras with saxophones?
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So, why is there no saxophone in the orchestra?
The saxophone doesn’t appear that often in the core repetoire of the symphony orchestra. It doesn’t even make sense to have a saxophone player full-time in the orchestra.
The short answer — It’s hard not to lay blame on those French instrument manufacturers who, instead of trying to compete fairly with Sax’s invention, chose instead to block its progress into the wider world.
Let’s see look at a brief history of the saxophone to put this statement into context.
Why is there no Saxophone in the Orchestra?
I was a bit shocked the other day when I came across a video that attempted to answer this question and the reason they gave was that the saxophone doesn’t blend with other instruments.
That the few uses it has in an orchestra are as a soloist because otherwise, it’s too loud — it just sticks out too much.
Other equally ridiculous reasons I’ve come across on the web are that the sax was invented too late, or that Adolphe Sax never made good on the commercial opportunity!
Now, this quite annoyed me because nothing could be further from the truth.
The true reason the saxophone isn’t a fully-fledged member of the orchestras is a pretty amazing and somewhat depressing story, in which its haters won.
Debunking the Blending Myth
But before we get into that I want to start by debunking the blending myth with a few examples of how well it blends, alongside with a few general examples of its unrivaled versatility as an instrument.
Taken as a family, the saxophone is one of the most versatile instruments of them all.
Here are a few examples that illustrate that precisely:
- Symphonic Dances, op.45 — Rachmaninov: Like the clarinet, it is capable of playing incredible pianissimos that disappear into silence.
- Concertino da camera — Jacques Ibert: It is also capable of tremendous volume that can match any brass instrument.
The composer Hector Berlioz who was an early supporter of the instrument is quoted as saying:
It cries, sighs and dreams. It possesses a crescendo and can gradually diminish until it is only an echo of an echo. I know of no other instrument that possesses this particular capacity to reach the outer limits of audible sound.
— Hector Berlioz
- Two Memorials II. “Memorial” — Mark-Anthony Turnage: The soprano sax has an upper register that is close in tone to the Oboe. But it can be both gentler and more penetrating there.
- The Mask of Orpheus — Harrison Birtwistle: The raucous sound of three soprano saxophones over a wash of brass and percussions is one of the most powerful effects.
- Charlotte’s aria from Act III. “Werther” — Jules Massenet: Tenor and alto saxophones blend tremendously with the bassoon, with the oboe.
- Lieutenant Kijé, op.60 — Sergei Prokofiev Tenor and alto saxophones blend tremendously with the clarinet.
- L’Arlésienne Suite No.2 — Georges Bizet Tenor and alto saxophones blend tremendously with the french horn.
The whole saxophone family blends with pretty much any instrument you can think of. The whole saxophone family is capable of a tender, lyrical legato, as well as the shortest staccatos of any instrument.
- Ebony Concerto — Igor Stravinsky: This capability for short staccatos is one reason why they are popular with the tight rhythms of minimalism.
When the saxophone was first introduced, many of the finest musicians and composers were impressed specifically with its ability to blend.
Rossini was introduced to the instrument in 1844 and declared:
The saxophone produced the finest blending of sound that I have met with.
— Gioachino Rossini
And as you see, the desire for blending was actually one of the main reasons it was invented in the first place.
The History of the Saxophone
The man behind the new instrument was Adophle Sax a Belgian whose father was one of the country’s leading instrument maker.
He was a bit of a mad professor and invented lots of lots of different instruments.
By the time he was 6, Adolphe was already learning how to drill the body of a clarinet.
While his father concentrated on retail sales, young Adolphe was given free rein to experiment, and as he matured he begun to focus on what he saw as the problem with the existing orchestral setup — the lack of a well balanced, blendable bass in the orchestral woodwinds.
Sax was a talented clarinetist himself. And his first efforts went into completely overhauling the design of the bass clarinet.
This is one area where his efforts were fully rewarded. And with only a few minor adjustments, his design is still used by bass clarinetists throughout the world today.
He also invented the contrabass clarinet which, although far from commonplace today, is increasingly starting to find a home in recent years in new orchestral compositions.
The lack of a well balanced, blendable bass in the orchestral woodwinds
Sax felt that among the existing orchestral instruments, the bassoon didn’t provide enough of a bridge to the brass section…
…and that the ophicleide, which was a brass instrument with keys like a woodwind instrument, didn’t possess enough dynamic range.
The idea for the saxophone came about when the Belgian military asked Adolphe to develop something which was a similar range to the bassoon and the bass clarinet but would be a bit more robust for the parade ground.
Adolphe invented the saxophone around the 1840s and patented it in 1846.
The early sketches and paintings for the saxophone suggest that Sax’s concept simply transplanted the mouthpiece he’d developed for the bass clarinet onto the ophicleide.
The first instrument he developed was the baritone sax because it’s a similar range to the bassoon.
The new instrument had the power to match the brass, and also the ability to play delicately and blend with the other woodwinds.
Sax went on to develop a whole family of instruments from the bass up to the soprano.
Battle of the Bands
Sax was clearly a brilliant and talented inventor, but he also had a rather brusque arrogant manner, and he wasn’t afraid to push his accomplishments even if it meant getting on people’s nerves.
He was also bit of an eccentric and a showman.
One of his favorite sales pitches was to request a competition between an existing or rival instrument, and his own.
In 1845, Sax moved to Paris, and in an attempt to become a key supplier to the French military.
There are stories of Adolphe Sax setting up competitions with other instrument makers in Paris where he would allow them 40 or 50 instruments and he would only have 20.
The audience would then vote on which the thought sounded better, and obviously, he would send this loud saxophones, and the audience thought that was good. The other instrument makers weren’t so happy about this.
Soon enough found himself in front of an audience of 20,000 people in a full-scale battle of the bands with rival local manufacturers.
And despite some behind the scenes pressure from his rivals, which led to several players from his band not showing up, his instruments were still judged to be the best.
The Rivalry with French Instrument Manufacturers
The victory should have been the final confirmation of the saxophone’s arrival, but instead, it marked a beginning of a bitter rivalry between Sax and closed shops of French manufacturers which set up to destroy him any way they could.
They embroiled him in countless lawsuits, there were attempts on his life at various points, and most damagingly for the instrument’s future, they pressurized musicians not to use any of Sax’s instruments.
Gaetano Donizetti, for instance, had planned to include a bass clarinet in his opera Don Sebastiano. When the musicians threatened to walk out, he was forced to drop it.
There were numerous similar stories regarding the saxophone.
In this way, an instrument that could have quickly established itself as a core part of the orchestra was effectively blocked from entry.
The classical saxophone became locked in a vicious cycle.
Composers Including Alternatives for Saxophone Parts
Composers knew there would be difficulties if they composed for the instrument, so they tended to stay away. Or if they did, they would often include alternative parts as Bizet did in his L’Arlésienne…
The instructions read “When playing without the saxophone, clarinet 1 will play the solo and clarinet 2 will play the part of clarinet 1”.
…or write then as a solo within a single movement so that the part can be doubled by someone else who played sax as a second instrument — which itself meant that the saxophone part didn’t always get the performance it deserved.
The Saxophone Spreads with the Marching Bands
Meanwhile, the saxophone’s use in marching bands thrived.
In the 1870’s French bands with saxophones visited Boston where bandleader Patrick Gilmore fell in love with them and introduced them to his bands.
By the time John Philip Sousa used them in the 1890s, saxophone fever had well and truly begun.
But, as the instrument grew more popular, with that came more vulgarity from groups like the Brown Brothers who emphasized the comical aspects of the instrument.
The Saxophone Gets into Jazz
Over the years, the reputation of the saxophone plummeted, and the more it became used in Jazz and popular music, the more classical musicians shunned it.
One Juilliard professor, on learning his clarinet student also played the sax, said: “Don’t you ever mention that instrument in class or I’ll take that scholarship away from you”.
The Saxophone Today
As we heard from the start, this view of the sax, as a loud, brash, vulgar instrument persists in some quarters to this day.
On the whole, though, the rise of a fine generation of new classical players, and good teaching at some conservatoires means composers are far more interested in writing for the instrument than ever before.
The problem now comes down to money.
The orchestral setup has barely changed since the 19th century. And so to add even one sax, let alone a whole family of four as Adolphe had originally envisioned, is something that only the most established composers can demand.
It’s a sad situation, you can’t help but feel that the world has lost out on the inclusion of this versatile instrument into orchestral pieces over the past 200 years.
It is hard not to lay blame on those Parisian instrument manufacturers who, instead of trying to compete fairly with Sax’s invention, chose instead to block its progress into the wider world.
The Saxophone in the Orchestra Today
Most of the time, the saxophone is used in quite a prominent way in the symphonic repertoire. I think this is because of the nature of the sound that it makes.
But also initially, as we’ve seen, composers weren’t quite sure what to do with it, so it was safer to use it as a solo instrument.
One of the earliest uses of the saxophone, which is still played reasonably today, is what I gave you earlier — Georges Bizet’s L’Arlésienne.
This was written for a play, but was later made into two orchestral suites.
The saxophone appears in many solos throughout both suites, but this is one of the most beautiful ones.