November 6

Adolphe Sax:
Building a Business in 19th-Century Paris

Adolphe Sax—the Belgian musician, instrument maker, and inventor—was born on today’s date in 1814.  While known primarily for creating the saxophone, he also invented a large number of other instruments bearing his name, and developed a clever strategy for creating his brand.

La Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris, Vol. 39 No. 17 (28 April 1872): 136.

An advertisement featuring images of Adolphe Sax’s many instruments


In recognition of his birth, we highlight the manner in which the press reflected his successful business enterprise in 1840s Paris.

Jules Worm, “Adolphe Sax. —D’après une photographie de MM Mayer et Pierson,” L’Illustration, Vol. XLII (5 September 1863): 175, published in H. Robert Cohen, Les Gravures Musicales dans L’Illustration, Vol. 1  (Quebec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1982): 518.

Soon after arriving in Paris in the spring of 1841, Sax received much attention in the press and the strong advocacy of critics, composers, and performers.  For example, Hector Berlioz championed Sax, hailing him in the 12 June 1842 issue of the Journal des débats, as a leading figure in the development of woodwind and brass instruments.

Mr. Adolphe Sax of Brussels, whose work we have just examined, has without doubt made a powerful contribution to the revolution which is about to take place.  He is a clever, far-sighted man, of penetrating and clear intelligence, self-willed with a persevering spirit able to withstand all trials, enormously skilled, always ready to replace even specialist workmen incapable of understanding and realizing his plans.  At the same time, he is a shrewd man, an acoustician, and when necessary, a smelter, a turner and chiseler.

Hector Berlioz, “Instrumens de musique—M. Ad. Sax,” Journal des débats politiques et littéraires (12 June 1842): 3.

In his 1844 Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes, Berlioz featured the saxophone in a section devoted to new instruments.  This text was later translated and reprinted in the Musical Review and Musical World.

The Musical Review and Musical World, Vol. 11 No. 24 (24 November 1860): 339.

The well-known critic and conductor François-Joseph Fétis also wrote favorably of Sax’s instruments.  In a translated review of Halévy’s opera, Le Juif errant, Fétis remarked on the dramatic effects of the newly-invented saxtuba, as well as the “sympathetic sonorousness” of the saxophone.

The Musical World, Vol. 30 No. 31 (31 July 1852): 490-91.

Internationally acclaimed performers were also advocates for his instruments.  While in Paris in 1844, the Distins—a family quintet of British brass musicians—acquired the first saxhorns.  Soon after, La Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris mentions in a brief concert report the relationship between Sax and the traveling performers.

The next morning Mr. Distin and his family, also from the United Kingdom of Great Britain, performed on Adolphe Sax’s excellent instruments, in the hall of Mr. Herz, and produced their accustomed effect. The pieces:  “Robert, you whom I love,” the finale of Lucia, and especially God Save the King, delighted the almost all English audience, who also had the pleasure of applauding an English pianist, Mr. Julien Adams, who performed a Weber piano concerto quite well.

La Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris, Vol. 11 No. 13 (31 March 1844): 116.

By 1843 Adolphe Sax had established his workshop, building an impressive range of both woodwind and brass instruments.  But more than variety, it was the quality of production that underlay Sax’s manufacturing.  As Horwood states, “he intended to produce each part of every instrument under his personal strict supervision so that any instrument bearing his name as an indication of its quality would have been wholly and completely made in the Sax workshop.”[1] By 1844, his workshop on rue Saint-Georges was, as these engravings indicate, already efficient, successful and bursting with activity.

The ground floor of Sax’s workshop


Édouard Renard et Henri Valentin, “Fabrique d’instruments de musique de M. Sax,” L’Illustration, Vol. X (5 February 1848): 357, published in H. Robert Cohen, Les Gravures Musicales dans L’Illustration, Vol. 1 (Quebec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1982): 148.

The workshop’s second floor


With the creation of his workshop and backing of the musical elite, Adolphe Sax began marketing his products to the masses.  While touring musicians like the Distins promoted his instruments internationally, concerts at the Salle Sax, rue Saint-Georges, depicted below, allowed the public to experience the design and sound of Sax’s latest creations.

Jules Gaildrau, “Audition des instruments récemment inventés par M. Adolphe Sax,” L’Illustration, Vol. XLIV (16 July 1864): 48,  published in H. Robert Cohen, Les Gravures Musicales dans L’Illustration, Vol. 2 (Quebec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1982): 535.

Sax also extensively promoted his creations with advertisements such as the first illustration above, and the following two.

La Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris, Vol. 31 No. 16 (17 April 1864): 128.
La Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris, Vol. 30 No. 31 (2 August 1863): 248.

In celebration of the bicentennial of his birth, saxophone professor and researcher José-Modesto Diago Ortega produced an interesting video that cleverly permits one to view the engravings of Sax’s workshop (depicted above) from within.  It’s well worth viewing.

Lest we think that he has been forgotten, Google recently spotlighted Adolphe Sax both in a search engine “doodle” and in an excellent presentation of his instruments by the Google Cultural Institute, in collaboration with the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota.


RIPM Search Tip: For more information on Adolphe Sax, search for “Sax” in the Retrospective Index and e-Library of Music Periodicals.  For more focused results, select a specific language before searching!


[1] Wally Horwood, Adolphe Sax 1814-1894—His Life and Legacy (Hertfordshire, UK: Egon Publishers, 1983), 44.

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Posted November 6, 2017 by Ben Knysak in category "Curios and Chronicles