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The saxophone's identity is deeply rooted in jazz, but the instrument has also flirted with classical music.
But is its near-absence from the symphony orchestra really due to its sound, or are there other, more complex reasons for this sidelining?
Invented in 1846 by the Belgian Adolphe Sax, the saxophone was introduced at a time when the composition of symphony orchestras was already well defined, dominated by the Germanic tradition. Integrating a new instrument into this rigid world proved a real challenge.
When the saxophone was first introduced, it was described as a cross between an English horn and a clarinet.
This unconventional characterization piqued the curiosity of many composers of the time, who appreciated its rich sound. Hector Berlioz, in particular, expressed his admiration for the instrument, writing his "Chant Sacré pour sextuor à vent" for it.
In Paris, however, the arrival of Sax and his new invention upset the balance of the musical world. His large-scale production methods and commercial vision clashed with the Parisian artisanal tradition. Adolphe Sax was so determined to protect his invention that he even survived several assassination attempts, including one in which a rival blew up his store!
As a result, a wave of opposition rose against him, involving denunciation in the press, counterfeiting, and even a campaign to boycott his instruments. Some composers were forced to remove saxophones from their compositions in the face of resistance from musicians.
Nor did the political and economic context help. Sax's closeness to the French army, then with Napoleon III (Sax was named "Official Musical Instrument Maker to the Emperor"), provoked unfavorable reactions. The saxophone was also adopted in popular concerts, doing it no favors in academic circles.
Despite political quarrels, some composers saw its potential.
Bizet, with "L'Arlésienne" in 1871, integrated the saxophone into an orchestral work, paving the way for others such as Massenet, Strauss, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Copland.
Almost two centuries after its birth, the saxophone still occupies a separate place in the symphony orchestra, going from initial obscurity to measured acceptance today, while lighting up the world of jazz for over a hundred years.