Adolphe Sax

Antoine-Joseph "Adolphe" Sax (French pronunciation: [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.

Adolphe Sax
Sax in the 1850s
Antoine-Joseph Sax

(1814-11-06)6 November 1814
Died7 February 1894(1894-02-07) (aged 79)
Burial placeMontmartre Cemetery (Cimetière de Montmartre), Paris, France
48°53′16″N 2°19′49″E
OccupationInventor, musician, musical instrument designer
Known forInventor of the saxophone

Early life

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]

Sax faced many near-death experiences. 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 vitriolized 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 poisoning and suffocation in his own bedroom where varnished items were kept during the night,
  • was hit on the head by a cobblestone, and
  • 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".[5][6]


After leaving the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, Sax began to experiment with new instrument designs, while his parents continued to make conventional instruments to bring in money. Adolphe's first important invention was an improvement of the bass clarinet design, which he patented at the age of 24.[7] Sax relocated permanently to Paris in 1842 and began working on a new set of instruments. Hector Berlioz was so enamoured of them that he arranged in February 1844 for one of his pieces to be played entirely on Sax's new instruments.[8] These were valved bugles, and although he had not invented the instrument itself, his examples were much more successful than those of his rivals and became known as saxhorns. They came 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.[9]

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.[10] 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.

The period around 1840 saw Sax inventing the clarinette-bourdon, an early unsuccessful design of contrabass clarinet. Around this time he also developed the instrument for which he is best known: the saxophone, which he patented on 28 June 1846. The saxophone was invented for use in both orchestras and military bands. By 1846 Sax had designed (on paper at least) a full range of saxophones (from sopranino to subcontrabass). Composer Hector Berlioz wrote approvingly of the new instrument in 1842, but despite his support, saxophones never became standard orchestral instruments. However, their ability to play technical passages easily like woodwinds and also project loudly like brass instruments led them to be included in military bands in France and elsewhere. The saxophone was Sax's signature accomplishment and created his reputation more than any other. This helped secure him a job teaching at the Paris Conservatory in 1857.[11]

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. The legal back-and-forth continued for over 20 years. He was driven into bankruptcy three times: in 1852, 1873, and 1877.[5]

Sax suffered from lip cancer between 1853 and 1858 but made a full recovery. In 1894, Sax died in complete poverty[12] in Paris and was interred in section 5 (Avenue de Montebello) at the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris.

Honors and awards

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.
  3. Hubbard, W. L. (1910). The American History and Encyclopedia of Music. Toledo, Ohio: Squire Cooley. p. 454. ISBN 1-4179-0200-0. Retrieved 4 January 2007.
  4. 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. Cleary, Tom. "Adolphe Sax: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know",, Retrieved 06 November 2015
  6. Rémy, Albert. "Adolphe Sax". Ville de Dinant website, Retrieved 06 November 2015.
  7. Cottrell 2013, pp. 12–13.
  8. Cottrell 2013, p. 18.
  9. Boyd, Clark (3 December 2013). "Meet the 'dangerous Belgian' who invented the sax". The World. Public Radio International. Retrieved 3 February 2018.
  10. T. Herbert, The British Brass Band: a Musical and Social History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 4–5.
  11. 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
  12. "Adolphe Sax Obituary". New-York Tribune. 10 February 1894. p. 12. Retrieved 6 November 2015 via
  13. Cottrell 2013, p. 33.
  14. 200 Belgian Francs banknote 1995 Adolphe Sax
  15. Adolphe Sax’s 201st Birthday


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