Adolphe Antoine-Joseph Sax (1814-1894) made two things at extraordinary levels of quality and quantity: musical instruments and enemies. The enemies plagued him with lawsuits, political intrigues and possibly industrial sabotage. The instruments have kept his name alive for nearly a century after his death.
The enemies are still alive too, of course, for the saxophone is as hated by some listeners as it is loved by others. Despite the enthusiasm of serious composers from Berlioz to Gershwin, the instrument remains viewed by many as an ungenteel imposter in orchestras, its reedy sonority more suited to low-life film scores than symphonies or suites.
This week at the University of Maryland, about 500 musicians will gather in homage to the saxophone, hoping to banish or eradicate its philistine image.
More than 140 saxophonists from 14 countries will be featured in concert performances; 27 works will receive their world premieres and 12 others their American premieres. On Thursday, an ensemble of more than 150 saxophones will perform on the steps of the Capitol. It is possible, as the Eighth World Saxaphone Congress will demonstrate, to put together an orchestra composed entirely of saxophones; Sax invented not a single instrument but a whole family of them, ranging in size from piccolo to double bass.
A Bach suite will be included in Wednesday night's recital program -- a neat trick, since Bach died nearly a century before the saxophone was invented. This programming detail, echoed throughout the five days of the congress, is an index of the plight of that versatile musical instrument. In its 140 years of patented existence, the saxophone has accumulated an extensive repertoire of classical compositions: concertos, sonatas with piano, quartets for saxophones of varied sizes and chamber music with other wind instruments or strings. But when a saxophonist wants to play music by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert, he has to use music borrowed from another instrument.
That's not too hard. The saxophone is something like what you would get if you mated a clarinet with a French horn, and with a little adjustment it can handle music written for either of those instruments; quintets and concertos by Mozart, a trio by Brahms, even some odd bits of chamber music by Beethoven. Besides all the premieres this week, the saxophone will be playing music written for oboe, violin, cello, organ -- you name it. But it's not the same. Classically oriented sax players would give almost anything short of their embouchures for a sonata by Beethoven written specifically for their instrument. It can't happen in this world; maybe in heaven.
Here on Earth, the saxophone has spent most of its time in what classical snobs would regard as bad company: jazz and military bands and contemporary composers. A lot of people think they don't like the saxophone because they don't like the music that is usually played on it. In the hands of an artist like Charlie Parker, it has ventured into musical regions amazing and previously unexplored.
But where is that Beethoven sonata?
In the 20th century, it has inspired some of the leading classical composers. Concerts at Maryland this week will feature sax music -- real sax music -- by such respected composers as Alexander Glazunov, Florent Schmitt, Gunther Schuller, Robert Ward, Paul Hindemith, Paul Creston, Ingolf Dahl and William Bolcom.
But where is that Beethoven sonata?
All these composers are expert craftsmen in their varied styles, but none has the clout of the great composers who died before the saxophone was invented.
The tuba, born about a decade before the saxophone, has found itself a secure place in the post-Beethoven classical orchestra -- though most orchestras use more than one tuba only on special occasions, such as a Wagner concert. The sax, arriving on the scene just a bit later, has been given occasional visiting rights in orchestras (you can't play "An American in Paris" without it) but has never established permanent residence. Its status is something like that of the clarinet before Mozart came along and composed for it some of the most beautiful music ever written; it is an outsider who may be occasionally useful. Mozart had a friend who was a clarinetist, and his music for that instrument reflects that friendship. When will another Mozart come along who has a friend who plays the sax?
There was a time when the sax's future in classical music looked brighter. Adolphe Sax, who was a genius at his trade, revolutionized the history of band music. He did it, before introducing the saxophone, by inventing the family of saxhorns, refining and standardizing the previously chaotic world of brass instruments. He was an aggressive promoter of his own work, and he secured the support of Hector Berlioz, who had unfortunately composed his "Symphonie Fantastique" 15 years before there were any saxophones, 10 years before there were any saxhorns. He became the chief supplier of brass instruments to the French army, after a contest in which a band of his instruments played against a traditional band. In 1858, when the sax was only 13 years old, it was added to the curriculum of the Paris Conservatoire.
But Sax was too aggressive, too successful; worst of all, perhaps, he was a Belgian in France outdoing the French manufacturers of brass instruments. He was viciously attacked in the press. Lawsuits began to multiply challenging his patents and, win or lose, they took up energy that he could have used for other purposes. They were also expensive; Sax declared bankruptcy three times between 1852 and 1857 -- what should have been the most productive quarter-century of his life. The Conservatoire class was suspended in 1871. His best workers were lured away by other manufacturers, and his factory was partly destroyed by a mysterious fire.
In spite of all his troubles, the instrument that bears his name is probably the most widely known wind instrument in the world. But 140 years after its birth, the saxophone is still searching for the secure status in classical music that its abilities clearly merit.
There will be jazz and band music at the World Saxophone Congress; such a large assemblage of saxes is unthinkable without it. But the emphasis will be on the instrument's large, varied and rapidly growing classical repertoire. Perhaps 27 world premieres in a single week will establish the instrument's credentials.