Did Sax invent the saxhorn?

(Saxhorns are the top row of instruments in this 1872 advertisement)

In1845, French military music reached the bottom of a long decline. The war ministry, desiring to reorganize it completely, arranged for a contest among bands with various instrumentation. The band led by Adolphe Sax won.

The Belgian-born Sax had only moved to Paris and set up shop three years earlier. His quick success (largely due to the superior craftsmanship of his instruments but also to notable supporters such as Hector Berlioz) annoyed established French makers.

That this upstart should win the right to reorganized French military music added insult to injury. That his instrumentation was built around a family of instruments he had named for himself and patented enraged several of them so much that they banded together and brought suit to nullify Sax’s patents. That suit eventually ruined both Sax and his rivals  financially.

The instruments in question, saxhorns, are valved bugles, that is, brass instruments with a conical bore. Sax was hardly the first instrument maker to add valves to bugles. He copied his valves from the German maker Johann Gottfried Moritz. Two things set saxhorns apart from anyone else’s valved bugles.

First, Sax found a superior proportion for designing the exact taper of the conical sections of his instruments. (They were necessarily cylindrical through the valves.) Second, he built a complete family of instruments from soprano to bass, alternating in pitch between B-flat and E-flat instruments.

A collection of valved bugles by other makers, which lacked similarity of proportion and compatibility of basic pitch cannot sound as good, when played together, as an ensemble of saxhorns. But did these two innovations constitute an entirely new instruments for the purpose of obtaining a patent?

Sax and his adversaries did not have enough money among them to produce a clear legal answer. Even today, differences of opinion exist.  If legal courts have no definitive opinion, the court of history does. Instruments of that kind are musically less important now than in the nineteenth century,  but where they are used at all, they are invariably saxhorns, not instruments of the same design of any of his professional and legal rivals.


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