Wednesday 20 September 2017

Classic talk: The joy of sax - all thanks to a Belgian

Invention: Adolphe Sax
Invention: Adolphe Sax

George Hamilton

The saxophone isn't the first instrument you'd think of when you're pondering which piece of classical music to put on. If it's sax you're after, you'd be more likely to reach for the jazz of Stan Getz, say, or maybe one of Rod Stewart's American Songbook albums that feature the solos of the "talented, attractive and sexy" Katja Rieckermann (her own words, by the way).

And yet, the arrival of the saxophone - dreamt up by a Belgian woodwind player by the name of Adolphe Sax - created quite a stir among those writing music we would consider classical.

Hector Berlioz was first on board. Sax showed him his invention in 1841, and the French composer was most impressed.

In his newspaper column, Berlioz described this hybrid that put the reed and the keys of a clarinet on to a brass body, and waxed lyrical about its versatility.

In Paris in February 1844, in a concert of new music, Berlioz conducted his Chant Sacré, a transcription of a hymn of his. Sax played his prototype baritone saxophone. This was the first music to be written for the instrument.

Bizet followed where Berlioz led. L'Arlésienne - incidental music for a play that evolved into the popular Suite No 1 - features an alto saxophone. The Suite No 2, based on Bizet's themes from several sources, also includes a saxophone part.

Later, Edward Elgar would doff his cap to this "beautiful and expressive" instrument, one that he saw as having a bright future. Well, it has had, but not, maybe, in the way that Elgar imagined.

For he would discover an issue that dogged others who'd attempt to include the sax in their line-up - a lack of accomplished players.

Orchestras didn't hire saxophonists because there were hardly any parts for them. So there continued to be few enough parts because there weren't the orchestras to play the music.

Bizet's score for the L'Arlésienne music helpfully indicated that the saxophone part could be played by a clarinet. Richard Strauss, who included four saxophones in the orchestration for his Symphonia Domestica, found another way around the problem when he was conducting the work. He simply left them out.

It was the man they called the 'March King', the American composer and conductor John Philip Sousa, who brought the saxophone into the mainstream.

His ensemble featured a Belgian player, Jean Moeremans, who became the first to record a solo saxophone album. When he left, Sousa expanded the band to include a saxophone section that eventually numbered eight.

Ravel's Boléro made its first appearance in 1928, featuring a solo for soprano saxophone and two others besides. Six years later, Aleksandr Glazunov produced a concerto for alto saxophone and string orchestra.

Sergei Rachmaninoff's orchestral suite Symphonic Dances - his final composition dating from 1940 - features a solo for alto sax.

Now, the repertoire extends way beyond the music expressly intended for Sax's invention, ranging right across the spectrum from Handel and Bach to Fauré and Debussy with much, much more in between.

Adolphe Sax, who was born in 1814, didn't live long enough to make any money out of his invention. He died in poverty in Paris during this week in 1894.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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