4 Ways The Saxophone's Had A Weird, Dark History
The saxophone looks like C-3PO's ding-a-ling if he was designed to be a robo-swinger instead of a protocol droid. The sounds made by this insane instrument are the official soundtrack to killing a bottle of wine and cheating on your spouse in front of a roaring fireplace. At least 69% of saxophonists have played it topless. In orchestras, the saxophone is found in the horn(y) section because everything about this embodiment of Idris Elba hugging you from behind is so damn sexy. Except for its history, which is a dark tale of poisonings, murder, theft, and bitterness-induced madness ...
The Inventor Of The Saxophone Was The Unluckiest Man In History
Good news! Time travel is possible! Bad news! It seems to be in the hands of one weirdo whose wine-drunk wife cheated on him in front of a fireplace to the sounds of a saxophone. That is the only logical explanation for the childhood "accidents" of Adolphe Sax because no one is that unlucky. Clearly, the man was the victim of a sci-fi cuckold.
Born in Belgium in 1814, the inventor of the saxophone, Antoine-Joseph "Adolphe" Sax, was passionate about instrument making since he was a child, producing variations on existing designs and new pieces at a very early age. If things had gone differently for him, the diligent young man could have ended up with a silly yet affectionate nickname like "Sax Machine," and that would've been that. But, instead, everyone knew him as "Ghost Child," which, yeah, sounds cool at first but so does "Ass-Kicking Frank" until you learn that he got it after being caught trespassing at a donkey farm.
Sax got his nickname because he almost died so many times, his mother actually said: "The child is doomed to suffer; he won't live." And, yeah, most moms say stuff like that when you get a C in math, but Mrs. Sax wasn't being dramatic here. When he was just two, young Adolphe fell down a flight of stairs, banged his head, and ended up in a coma for a week. His second coma came about a few years later when a heavy roof tile fell on his head. Unfortunate encores like that were a regular part of life for Adolphe, who was poisoned no less than three times after mistaking white lead, copper oxide, or arsenic for a tasty drink. Appropriately, the future inventor of the sexiest instrument ever went through life so thirsty, he rarely bothered to check what was in a cup before he gulped it down.
What else? Well, he once swallowed a needle, was caught in a gunpowder explosion, burned himself badly on a stove, fell out of a third-story window, and almost drowned in a river. Before he hit puberty, his head was covered by so many scars and burns, he was basically a real-life Jigsaw. The Punisher villain, not the guy from Saw. But later also the guy from Saw because he too got cancer.
Sometime in the 1850s, Sax developed a cancerous tumor on his lower lip. It eventually grew so massive that it made it impossible to eat and actually threatened to suffocate him. Most surgeons at the time told him that to deal with this, they would basically have to remove half of his jaw, and this was back when "anesthesia" involved the surgeon sharing some of their whiskey with you before the operation. Rumors say that Adolphe Sax was eventually cured by a mysterious "Dr. Vries," an underground healer from India known as "the Black Doctor," and, all right, why hasn't this story been reimagined yet as an HBO fantasy series? It has all the right elements, including tons of drama.
The Saxophone Was One Of The Most Controversial Instruments In History
Adolphe Sax created an early prototype of the saxophone in 1840. Despite it being made from brass, it generated sound with a single-reed mouthpiece, technically making it a woodwind. That's… cool? I guess? But the design and the range the new instrument offered were apparently so revolutionary, it kinda broke everyone's brains. People were either seeing the saxophone as an unholy abomination, like the instrument equivalent of pineapple on pizza, or they were so amazed by its design, it made them angry that they didn't come up with it. "It's not fair!" they lamented. "I could've built something like that if I was smart enough to build something like that!"
When Sax tried to exhibit his prototype in 1841 at a Brussels expo, a jealous rival actually took one look at it and kicked it across the hall, badly damaging it. The following year, Sax left Belgium for Paris, where he set up a workshop to perfect his design, which ended up winning a few awards, got a nice article written about it by a famous French composer, and was actually added to a few music schools and orchestras. In 1846, Sax was even granted a patent for his invention … making the saxophone one of the first pirated musical instruments in history, as unauthorized models started flooding France that same year. Picture it: a wave of saxophone music sweeping France. Like sprinkling Spanish fly on Viagra.
However, this was weird because, despite a small amount of success and recognition, the saxophone was still mostly considered an obscure, novelty instrument at the time. Who would go to all the trouble of flooding the market (and panties) with knock-off copies of the knock-up instrument just to make sure Sax didn't make money off it? Well, the thing is … Sax actually had his own Legion of Doom. Technically they called themselves the Association of United Instrument Makers and were composed of rival instrument makers who, fearing the potential of the saxophone becoming a popular instrument, joined forces to destroy its creator.
It's not 100% certain if they produced the pirated saxophones, but they were the ones who hit Sax with a mountain of lawsuits, claiming that his saxophone was a copy of whatever other instrument on the market vaguely resembled a sci-fi tobacco pipe. They lost each and every one of those suits, but it wasn't about winning. It was about financially crippling Sax with court fees and the like. When Sax offered stock in his instrument-making company, his enemies actually bought up as many shares as possible and sold them off at half price, just to scare off investors.
Then the assassination attempts started. After dealing with frivolous lawsuits, stock market manipulation, a mysterious "fire" that destroyed his workshop, and his specialized tools being stolen, Sax almost died after someone planted a goddamned BOMB under his bed. Thankfully, the device detonated prematurely. Unthankfully, sometime later, there was another attempt at Sax's life when a killer waited for him at his house and stabbed one of Sax's employees through the heart, mistaking him for his boss. And yet, all that violence has kind of apropos, considering that …
The Saxophone Was Meant To Be A Military Instrument
Adolphe Sax designed the saxophone to be a versatile instrument fit for any occasion, but, on the whole, orchestras weren't taking the invention seriously. But the military was. Military bands were one of the first places to adopt the saxophone, and this was back in the days when military bands didn't exist just for entertainment. They also provided music to set the proper marching pace and helped relay orders regarding formation and the like, so in another dimension where a few things went differently, and armies kept using the instrument, European wars were fought to a Kenny G soundtrack.
Sax brought the instrument with him to the 1844 Paris Industrial Exhibition but fearing another instance of someone punting his instrument like a football, he only showed it to a select number of people. Luckily for him, one of those people was Lieutenant General Comte de Rumigny, aide-de-camp to King Louis Philippe, who later helped organize a saxophone concert for the king and the court. It was then decided that the saxophone would save French regimental band music.
This is going to sound weird, but military regimental bands were serious business in the 19th century. People got weirdly prideful about what kind of music their soldiers killed foreign people to. Prussia and Austria were said to provide the best murder tunes, with France being the Nickelback of the era. One newspaper article even said that "Whoever heard an Austrian or Prussian band surely broke into laughter upon hearing a French regimental band." The saxophone was supposed to help jazz up their sound. This was the official soundtrack to the Second Franco-Dahomean War:
Or maybe the French military thought that the instrument's smooth sounds would make enemy armies so horny, they'd start making out with each other. Hey, don't laugh; the US actually considered a similar military strategy before. OK, maybe laugh a little bit.
But some people were still not convinced that the saxophone would be right for the military, so Sax did what any normal person would do: he organized a music battle. One day, two military orchestral groups gathered on the Champ de Mars. One was accompanied by saxophones; the other was not. Each played two pieces, and the massive crowd of 20,000 Parisians gathered around to listen to them (like we said, Europeans back then took military music super seriously) judged which they liked more. Everyone agreed that the Sax Squad sounded way better. Sax became an overnight sensation and was on his way up! Aaaaand then King Louis Philippe got deposed.
By then, the saxophone became so synonymous with royalty and the old regime's military that one of the first things the new republic did was ban saxophones and any other Sax instruments from military bands. Similarly, when Napoleon III overthrew the Second Republic, one of his first political decisions was to lift the ban on military saxophones. But by then, the instrument had already lost momentum while Adolphe Sax himself lost his mind.
The Inventor Of The Saxophone Died Broke, Bitter, And A Little Mad
The saxophone never became the official instrument of French war, and with few music schools willing to teach it, it barely survived to modern times when jazz helped save it. But if you traveled back in time (without running into that guy who was trying to kill Sax) and told the inventor that one day the entire world would know of his instrument, he would laugh in your face. Then he would cry. Then he would ask who sent you. "Was it one of THEM?!" he would probably scream. Then he would go back to designing a tuba the size of a building or something.
Yeah, things were not great for Sax even after Napoleon III came to power. Between the lawsuits, his saxophone patent expiring (which, fun fact, was a thing that patents used to do), and, oh yeah, people trying to murder him, Sax was short on money and high on stress, making it difficult for him to manage his affairs. He had to declare bankruptcy three times, ultimately selling off most of his assets and subsiding on a tiny government pension until his death at age 79. But fuck did he not go gentle into that good night.
In his final years, he decided to air out an entire dry cleaner's-worth of dirty laundry in public by publishing the story of his life in a magazine. He named every single person he suspected of working against him and proclaimed himself one of the greatest music visionaries ever. Then he begged for a little money so he wouldn't end up in a ditch. Then he repeated that he was a genius and everyone who doubted him could go scratch. Yeah, Sax was perhaps not in the best headspace during that time, and his work reflects that.
Some of his final ideas, perhaps made in jest, but who knows, included the Sax Thunder, an instrument the size of the July Column monument in Paris. It measures about 167 feet. He also proposed the construction of a giant organ powered by a train steam engine. We don't know why he did it, but he must have had a crazy reason for it … a loco motive, you might say. Your boos mean nothing to me! NOTHING!
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Top image: Chevanon Photography