Adolphe Sax
Adolphe Sax
Sax in the 1850s
Antoine-Joseph Sax

(1814-11-06)6 November 1814
Died7 February 1894(1894-02-07) (aged 79)
Paris, France
Burial placeMontmartre Cemetery (Cimetière de Montmartre), Paris, France[citation needed]
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OccupationInventor, musician, musical instrument designer
Known forInventor of the saxophone
Saxophone produced by Sax

Antoine-Joseph "Adolphe" Sax (French: [ɑ̃twan ʒɔzɛf adɔlf saks]; 6 November 1814 – 7 February 1894)[1] was a Belgian inventor and musician who created the saxophone in the early 1840s, patenting it in 1846. He also invented the saxotromba, saxhorn and saxtuba. He played the flute and clarinet.

Early lifeEdit

Antoine-Joseph Sax was born on 6 November 1814, in Dinant, in what is now Belgium, to Charles-Joseph Sax and his wife Marie-Joseph (Masson).[2] While his given name was Antoine-Joseph, he was referred to as Adolphe from childhood.[3][4] His father and mother were instrument designers themselves, who made several changes to the design of the French horn. Adolphe began to make his own instruments at an early age, entering two of his flutes and a clarinet into a competition at the age of 15. He subsequently studied performance on those two instruments as well as voice at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels.[3][4] He was Jewish.[5][6][7]

Sax faced many brushes with death. Over the course of his childhood, he:

  • fell from a height of three floors, hit his head on a stone and could barely stand afterwards.
  • at the age of three, drank a bowl full of acidic water and later swallowed a pin.
  • burnt himself seriously in a gunpowder explosion.
  • fell onto a hot cast-iron frying pan, burning his side.
  • survived an accidental poisoning from keeping varnished items in his bedroom during the night.
  • was hit on the head by a rock
  • fell into a river and nearly died.

His mother once said that "he's a child condemned to misfortune; he won't live." His neighbors called him "little Sax, the ghost".[8][9]

Career and later lifeEdit

After leaving the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, Sax began to experiment with new instrument designs, while his parents continued their business of making conventional instruments. Sax's first important invention was an improvement in bass clarinet design which he patented at the age of 24.[10] He relocated permanently to Paris in 1842 and began working on a new set of valved bugles. While he did not invent this instrument, his examples were much more successful than those of his rivals and became known as saxhorns. Hector Berlioz was so enamoured of these that he arranged in February 1844 for one of his pieces to be played entirely on saxhorns.[11] They were made in seven different sizes and paved the way for the creation of the flugelhorn. Today, saxhorns are sometimes used in concert bands, marching bands, and orchestras. The saxhorn also laid the groundwork for the modern euphonium.[12]

Sax also developed the saxotromba family, valved brass instruments with narrower bore than the saxhorns, in 1845, though they survived only briefly.[3]

The use of saxhorns spread rapidly. The saxhorn valves were accepted as state-of-the-art in their time and remain largely unchanged today. The advances made by Adolphe Sax were soon followed by the British brass band movement which exclusively adopted the saxhorn family of instruments.[13] The Jedforest Instrumental Band formed in 1854 and The Hawick Saxhorn Band formed in 1855, within the Scottish Borders, a decade after saxhorn models became available.[citation needed]

The period around 1840 saw Sax inventing the clarinette-bourdon, an early unsuccessful design of contrabass clarinet. On 28 June 1846 he patented the saxophone, intended for use in orchestras and military bands. By 1846 Sax had designed saxophones ranging from sopranino to subcontrabass although not all were built. Composer Hector Berlioz wrote approvingly of the new instrument in 1842 but despite his support saxophones did not become a standard part of the orchestra. Their ability to play technical passages easily like woodwinds yet project loudly like brass instruments led to their inclusion in military bands in France and elsewhere. His reputation helped secure him a job teaching at the Paris Conservatory in 1857.[14]

Sax continued to make instruments later in life and presided over the new saxophone program at the Paris Conservatory. Rival instrument makers both attacked the legitimacy of his patents and were sued by Sax for patent infringement. These legal troubles continued for over 20 years. He was driven into bankruptcy three times: in 1852, 1873, and 1877.[8]

Sax suffered from lip cancer between 1853 and 1858 but made a full recovery. In 1894 he died in poverty[15] in Paris and was interred in section 5 (Avenue de Montebello) at the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris.

Honors and awardsEdit

In his birthplace Dinant in Belgium the Mr Sax's House is dedicated to his life and saxophones.


  1. Many sources give alternative dates for Sax's death, mainly 3 and 7 February. A sign at Sax's grave in Montmartre says 7 February, for example. However, 4 February appears in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (8th ed., Nicolas Slonimsky); and in both the first and second editions of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
  2. Fit for a King: An Ivory Clarinet by Charles Joseph Sax
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Hubbard, W. L. (1910). The American History and Encyclopedia of Music. Toledo, Ohio: Squire Cooley. p. 454. ISBN 1-4179-0200-0.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Richard Ingham (1998). The Cambridge companion to the saxophone. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–2. ISBN 978-0-521-59666-4.
  5. Sax In Netherlands | › netherlan... Translate this page The day before yesterday, Mr Adolphe Sax, of Brussels, inventor of the Clarinette Cusse ... 11th, 1849 by his son François Dunkler Jr. (Namur, Belgium, 1816- the Hague, Netherlands, 1878), 6. ... These names suggest that it is a Jewish family.
  6. All Belge and waffles! | Jewish News › all-belge-and-waffles Feb 4, 2019 — Lucy Daltroff explores the vibrant Belgian region of Wallonia, ... of the Jewish musician and innovator Adolphe Sax, who in 1840 invented this ...
  7. Sax Section - clarinet klezmer › Sax-Section It is a relatively new instrument that was invented by Adolphe Sax in 1942. ... fate of this genius man born in Dinant , a lovely little town in the south of Belgium.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Cleary, Tom. "Adolphe Sax: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know",, Retrieved 6 November 2015
  9. Rémy, Albert. "Adolphe Sax". Ville de Dinant website, Retrieved 6 November 2015.
  10. Cottrell 2013, pp. 12–13.
  11. Cottrell 2013, p. 18.
  12. Boyd, Clark (3 December 2013). "Meet the 'dangerous Belgian' who invented the sax". The World. Public Radio International. Retrieved 3 February 2018.
  13. T. Herbert, The British Brass Band: a Musical and Social History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 4–5.
  14. Fred L. Hemke, The Early History of the Saxophone, (Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) dissertation), University of Wisconsin, 1975, 249–250. OCLC 19033726, 65652818, 164782566
  15. "Adolphe Sax Obituary". New-York Tribune. 10 February 1894. p. 12. Retrieved 6 November 2015 – via open access
  16. 16.0 16.1 Cottrell 2013, p. 33.
  17. "200 Belgian Francs banknote 1995 Adolphe Sax".
  18. "Adolphe Sax's 201st Birthday".


External linksEdit

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