Adolphe Sax’s marketing campaign for new brass instruments

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RGMP March 31, 1872, detail

If people know only one thing about Adolphe Sax, it’s that he invented a lot of new instruments in the nineteenth century. Today, the saxophone is the most successful. That basically amounts to an ophicleide (a forerunner of the tuba with keys instead of valves) fitted with a clarinet reed. His redesign of the trombone with six independent valves, first introduced in 1852, was much more radical than any of the new instruments he invented. I’d like to look at at least part of his marketing campaign for that instrument as an illustration of his business methods.

The important journal Revue et gazette musicale de Paris (RGMP) shows a number of activities he undertook to promote his new trombone, among other instruments. These include

  • Obtaining good press through friendly writers in a leading journal
  • Buying journal advertisements
  • Hiring a skilled soloist to demonstrate the instrument’s capabilities. For the trombone, it was a Mr. Hollebecke. A different specialist represented other instruments.
  • Presenting concerts in various venues, notably including his own concert hall, very likely in or near his factory
  • Persuading influential foreign visitors to promote his instruments back home
  • Commissioning new music by respected composers. The name Demersmann (see the article from July 12, 1863 below) may not mean much today, but he was a prolific composer of music for wind instruments. He composed the required contest piece for the trombone class at the Paris Conservatory in 1863 and provided 17 more by the end of the century.1
  • Having the trombones participate as featured members of the orchestra only after about three and a half years of a sustained publicity campaign
  • Taking his instruments and soloists on a foreign tour.
  • Rivals considered Sax’s successful bid to reorganize French military music to be a marketing ploy. They initiated legal action that ultimately bankrupted everyone involved. I mention the reorganization and rivalries here only because the articles below occasionally allude to them.

1Constant Pierre, Le Conservatoire Nationale de Musique et de Déclamation / Constant Pierre (Paris: Imprimérie nationale, 1900), p.652
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Below the illustration are translations of several articles or parts of articles (and another ad) from Revue et gazette musicale de Paristhat describe these aspects of Sax’s marketing campaign in greater detail. I have divided the longer articles into paragraphs and omitted some passages of the longer ones.

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RGMP, March 31, 1872

v. 26, no. 37. Sept. 11, 1859, p. 306

Read in the Belgian Independence of September 1: At the concert on Tuesday in the zoological garden, a new instrument was heard, the invention of Alphose (sic) Sax, Jr., our skillful maker, currently resident of Paris. This instrument, named the saxonmitonic trombone, was played in a remarkable way by Mr. Hollebecke, also Belgian. A second hearing is promised for Thursday.

v.29 no.32, 1August 10, 1862, p. 262

The brother of Gen L’vov, distinguished composer and director of music of the emperor of Russia, knowing the excellence of French military music, organized according to the system and with the instruments of Mr. Adolphe Sax, resolved to introduce this useful reform into his country.

Much progress in this direction is already realized; a certain quantity of Sax’s instruments were sent to Russia and put into the hands of the most intelligent artists among the military musicians, who, after a few months of study, performed for the emperor. His Majesty was so satisfied with this first test and the results already obtained, that he did not hesitate to continue with the already-started plan. To this end, the director of the band of the Russian guard was sent to Paris in order to hear the best regimental bands of this capital.

The first audition for this band master, along with two senior Russian officers, kindly joined by Gen. Mellinet, took place last Tuesday in the attractive hall of Mr. Adolphe Sax. The excellent band of the 1st regiment of the grenadiers of the guard, directed by its able chief, Mr. Léon Magnier, was called to do the honors, and it can be said that it acquitted itself to general satisfaction.

Between the two parts of the program, Mr. Hollebecke played with infinite success an air with variations on the new trombone with six ascending valves, designed by Sax. The distinguished audience appeared entirely satisfied with the test of it that they attended. On several occasions they complimented the instruments as well as the music, nearly all of it composed by Magnier.

The second performance of music took place Wednesday in Sax’s hall in the presence of the same people. This time they heard the splendid band of the guard of Paris. It is made up largely of artists who are the most distinguished soloists. Mr. Paulus, the eminent conductor, has always had an excellent band, but today what one heard was even more beautiful and more perfect.

Since the piano part for Mr. Hollebecke’s trombone solo was missing, Mr. Ambroise Thomas agreed to improvise an accompaniment. Gen. Mellinet offered to turn pages.

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RGMP, April 28, 1872

Last Tuesday, the music of the 11th mounted artillery guard, under the skillful direction of its conductor Mr. Klosé, gave a remarkable concert in the hall of Adolphe Sax. A pas redouble and a march from The Cries of Paris, score by Mr. G. Kastner, and The Dream of Oswald, parts of another excellent work by the learned member of the Institute, in turn excited the interest and elicited the applause of an elite audience, in which were noticed General Mellinet, A. Elwart, Emile Jonas, Laurent de Rillé, Jules Simon, etc.

The concert ended with a fantasy on the Pardon of Ploermel and the Coronation March of the illustrious Meyerbeer. In the form of interludes, Mr. Adolphe Sax had a trombone and bass saxhorn performed, made according to a system as new as it is clever. When it was time to leave, at the request of the general and his company, the pas redouble and the march by Kastner were performed a second time, and a charming piece of inspection by Mr. Klosé for a closing obtained a true success.

[Although this article does not name Hollebecke, he must have played the trombone solo mentioned in the second paragraph.]

v. 30 no. 28, 12 jul 1863, p. 220

We have already had occasion to speak bout the latest instruments of Adolphe Sax with a mechanism of independent tubes. A new experience has just shown in a most conclusive way that this system joins together all desirable qualities, and reached, so to speak, ideal perfection in the making of brass instruments. The many listeners at the concerts in Champs-Elysées on Tuesday could be convinced of that by hearing a duet on motifs from Guillaume Tell, composed by Mr. Demersmann for trombone and bass saxhorn.

Beautiful sonority, accuracy, purity, incomparable agility: such are the principle merits of these exceptional instruments, to which the composer can now entrust all the passages reserved up to now for the violin or the voice; that he can, in a word, look forward to faithful interpretations of his entire thought in whatever form it comes to be produced.

And let us not forget to point out that with the invention of independent tubes, the instrument keeps its special timbre with all sincerity, that is, there is no longer the slightest difference in relation to the voice between the simple instrument and the piston instrument. This remark is important, because one of the favorite arguments proposed by defenders of the old system is precisely that the addition of any mechanism always results in deterioration of the quality of sound of the simple instrument. With the new invention of Adolphe Sax, this charge is reduced to nothing, and it becomes impossible for it to prevail with any man of good faith.


It would be an injustice to forget the protagonists of the new inventions of Sax: Hollebecke (trombone) and Robyns (bass saxhorn), whose intelligent ability can put forward so well the creation of the master, and who must indisputably count among the best soloists of Arban.

v. 30 no. 30. July 26, 1863, p. 237

It is said that one is not a prophet in his own country. M. Adolphe Sax has just provided a bright contradiction to this old proverb. There is no sound in Brussels except about the triumph obtained by the recent inventions of the able maker: his instruments with revolving bells, six valves, and independent tubes. We reported two weeks ago the extraordinary effect produced by the trombone and bass saxhorn in the hands of Hollebecke and Robyns; they are the same artists who undertook to introduce the people of Brussels to the accuracy, sonority, and agility of these incomparable instruments, and again in the beautiful duet on themes of Guillaume Tell by Mr. Demersmann was played by these excellent virtuosos to impress Mr. Adolphe Sax’s compatriots.


We are assured that Messrs. Hollebecke and Robyns did not obtain any less success the next day in the presence of several distinguished artists, amateurs, principal professors of the Conservatory, and of its illustrious director, Mr. Fétis; although less noisy than that in the zoological garden, this ovation indoors was certainly quite as pleasant to Mr. Sax. Neither the worth nor the number of the audience, nothing will have failed the clever inventor.

v. 31 no.12, March 20, 1864, p. 94

Until now, the new instruments of Mr. Adolphe Sax have mainly been heard in solo pieces or otherwise concerts intended to emphasize their exceptional qualities. Henri Litolff has just used them with the orchestra. At the time of the benefit for Arban , he wrote a gallop titled Une orgie aux enfers with obligatory Sax trombones with six independent valves. Among other interesting passages, these three trombones carry out in unison a series of ascending chromatic scales, then ascending and descending chromatic scales with striking effect. In a movement so quick, this brass rolling thunder does not result in confusion, but on the contrary offers a feature as clean, free, and arresting as the nimblest instrument could do.

One should not receive this first test born of circumstance with indifference or regard it as unimportant. It solves the question resolutely and shows the most obvious utility of the introduction of the new system into the symphony orchestra, the richness and originality of the new effects that it makes possible. A fantasy on themes from Chalet also put the new bass saxhorn with six independent valves in a most favorable light, singing the part of Max in the challenge duet. We repeat: these two examples appear conclusive to us and are likely to convince the most incredulous.

v. 31 no. 37, September 11, 1864, p. 291

[last paragraphs of a letter to the editor, signed S. , from Brussels, September 6, 1864]

I should speak to you about more satisfactory things of the musical world, for example, the contests of the Brussels Conservatory, which were splendid in all branches of teaching; but it has been a long time since then, and you could reproach me for sending old history. I must, however, tell you something of the artists send by Mr. Adolphe Sax to Belgium to make his new instruments heard, because he really acts in a new and important creation, of a sound world introduced to art, where it will soon cause very considerable changes.

Sax’s instrumentalists, the most distinguished of whom, by the way, are Belgian and educated at the Brussels Conservatory, initially gave a concert in the hall of La Grande harmony, where experts and specialists of the profession were highly impressed by the novel effects made possible by these new sound agents.

The program comprised a duet on Guillaume Tell for trombone and bass saxhorn, both with six valves and independent tubes; a fantasy for trumpet with piano accompaniment on Robert le Diable, in which the extraordinary speed of articulation and the perfect accuracy of the new instruments was highlighted, in which the inventor kept intact its strident and special character; a triumphal march of Mr. Demerssmann; a quartet of trombones on Le comte Ory; solos with piano accompaniment by four different members of the saxophone family; a funeral march for six instruments in memory of Meyerbeer by Henri Litolff, a remarkable composition of original character; finally, several other pieces which all demonstrate the excellence of all aspects of Sax’s new instruments.

The beauty of the sounds, their accuracy, their easy production of the fastest passages, the softness of their timbre, all joined together with power, received the applause and praise of all the assistants. The beautiful sonority of the bass and contrabass saxophones was particularly admired, whose low range exceeds everything that had been produced so far and whose sounds occur with the same facility in soft and loud dynamics.

The next day, Sax’s instrumentalists gave another performance at Vauxhall Garden; the repercussion of the success of the day before attracted a great number of elegant ladies, amateurs, and artists, who for nearly two hours did not cease to give the performers testimony of their admiration for the beautiful effects produced by their skill and their instruments.

After this second session, Sax’s artists left for Holland and Germany. On their return, they stopped again in Brussels and gave a third free concert in the park one Sunday morning, after the customary concert of one of the military bands of the garrison. What these artists wanted was popular success; never did they obtain it more completely, because the people who surrounded the bandstand did not cease their resounding applause, exclamations, and hurrahs. Excitement still reigned in this crowd long after the music ceased to be heard.

Regards, etc. , S.

v.32 no.9. 26 Feb. 1865 p. 68

We extract from the Monitor of 6 February the following correspondence:

The Philharmonic Club of Bordeaux had the good idea, on the initiative of the mayor of the city, to invite Mr. Adolphe Sax to give, in one of the meetings of the society, an audition of the new instruments with which Mr. Sax has enriched the science of music.

Mr. Sax responded to the invitation of the Philharmonic Club by sending his best soloists: MM. Monsen, Hollebeck, Robyns, and Clayette, armed with instruments recently created or perfected by him, such as the bass saxhorn, the contrabass saxhorn, the trumpet and the trombone with independent tubes.


The trumpets and the Sax trombones have the immense advantage over the old ones in being able to modulate in all the keys, to play with as much agility as the flute or violin, and to be played safely, without having to fear those bad notes to which the best players are exposed, even those of the Société des concerts du Conservatoire.

Among the pieces most applauded by the Philharmonic Club, we cite a solo for trumpet on motives of Meyerbeer; a duet for bass saxhorn and trombone on Robert le Diable; an Ave Maria for tenor voice, accompanied by saxophone, trombone, and bass and contrabass saxhorns; and finally, what carried off success, variations on Carnival of Venice, for the instruments just named, with the addition of a trumpet. The agility of all these instruments of bizarre and unusual appearance filled the audience with enthusiasm. Mr. Mayeur was charged with initiating the audience into the beauties of the saxophone, and he acquitted himself in a most delicate manner.

In sum, this meeting was a triumph for Mr. Sax, for his students, for his instruments, which have demanded for their creation the talent of a musician, the ability of a manufacturer, and the persistence of an artist.

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