Sunday 22 September 2019

The man who fought for the sax's place in classical music

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Sixty-year campaign: Sigurd Raschèr
Sixty-year campaign: Sigurd Raschèr

George Hamilton

The saxophone was a late arrival on the classical scene. By the time, around 1840, that the first notes were being blown through its clarinet-style single-reed mouthpiece, the greats, like Haydn and Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, had all been and gone. A repertory for the instrument simply didn't exist.

It was a Belgian by the name of Adolphe Sax who came up with the idea of a hybrid that combined the subtlety of the woodwind with the brashness of the brass.

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It might well have ended up a curiosity in some obscure museum had it not been for the intervention of the French composer Hector Berlioz, also a highly influential critic.

He wrote of its "strange resonance, situated at the edge of silence", of its "beautiful accent, sometimes serious, sometimes calm, sometimes impassioned, dreamy or melancholic".

Berlioz wrote for the instrument. but despite attracting Bizet, Elgar, and Richard Strauss too, it remained a niche interest.

Hardly surprising. If there was precious little music being written for the saxophone, who would want to learn to play it?

This vicious circle was broken by John Philip Sousa, a leader of the US Marine Band.

When he left the military in 1892 to form his own concert band, he included a saxophone section.

Adolphe Sax didn't live to see it, but by the time of Sousa's death in 1932, his invention had found its place in popular music - particularly jazz - though not in the concert hall.

Enter Sigurd Raschèr, the man who more than any other ensured that the saxophone became an accepted part of the classical scene.

Raschèr's background was multinational - Swedish father, English mother, born in Germany, childhood spent in Switzerland.

Back in Germany, he finished school and went on to study clarinet. In Berlin, in need of extra income, he discovered that there was money to be made playing sax in dance bands.

He found one in a pawn shop, adapted his technique, and so began the relationship that would define his musical life.

Stints as an occasional performer with the Berlin Philharmonic when the score would call for a saxophone convinced him that its potential wasn't being fully exploited.

"Starting in 1932," it was noted in his obituary in the Los Angeles Times, "Raschèr launched a 60-year campaign to give the saxophone a home in the world of classical music."

It was in October 1932 that he made his breakthrough as a classical saxophonist, premiering a specially written concerto at a festival in Hanover.

That piece, by Edmund von Borck, almost impossible to find these days, was such a success that Raschèr reprised it in concerts in Berlin, Strasbourg and Amsterdam.

He had approached von Borck in the first place. Others he turned to included the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov, whom he pestered to deliver something appropriate.

In a letter to a friend, Glazunov told of beginning the project "under the influence of attacks rather than requests from the Danish saxophonist Sigurd Raschèr".

(Raschèr was then living in Copenhagen. Given his multinational background, Glazunov's mistake was understandable.)

The Glazunov concerto would become a seminal work in the integration of the saxophone into the classical family.

Raschèr moved to the United States - a successful concert tour in 1939 had assured his reputation there - and went on to enjoy a performing career that lasted almost 40 years.

It was somehow fitting that his final concert as a soloist, in Vermont in 1977, just short of his 70th birthday, should feature the Glazunov concerto.

Sigurd Raschèr, the man who made the sax respectable, died in upstate New York in 2001, at the age of 93.

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

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