08.02.2014 - 11.01.2015
Jazz may have its roots in America, but the instrument most associated with this particular musical style - the saxophone - was invented by a Belgian. This upcoming 6 November marks the bicentenary celebration of Adolphe Sax's date of birth to the day. The ‘Sax200’ exhibition traces the man's riveting life story, which acts to illustrate the huge impact he had on the world of music.
It is only right that Antoine-Joseph Sax's anniversary (his official name) should be celebrated in style. Same as Django Reinhardt being the only musician whose name is synonymous with a specific style, the saxophone is almost the only instrument that was named after the man who invented it. So much so in fact that his effigy featured on Belgian 200 franc notes at the time.
From Brussels to Paris
Adolphe picked up the trade at his father's workshops, Initially starting out with making improvements to existing instruments. He applied for his first patent in 1838 and soon went on to design a new type of instrument that was to become the saxophone. The first official presentation of the saxophone came as early as 1841 at the Brussels Industry Exhibition. One year later he would showcase his newfangled instrument in Paris, where Sax felt more appreciated with the city of lights offering greater chances of success. As such, he soon relocated to the French capital where he started his own workshop, driven by an irrepressible urge to create new instruments. In doing so, he came up with the saxhorns, a new family of brass instruments, which would chiefly go on to be used by French military brass bands. His fertile and seemingly inexhaustible imagination produced one model after the next. His first patent for the saxophone dates back to 1846, followed in due course by further patents for the alto saxophone, the trumpet involving six independent valves and seven bells and the trombone involving six independent valves and seven bells, to name but a few.
Success and jealousy
There was no getting around Adolphe Sax on the Parisian cultural scene. He became the head of the Fanfare de l’Opéra and organised concerts at his own factory where all of high society would flock to in their droves, including the great composers of the era, such as Berlioz and Meyerbeer. One thing he certainly never lacked was ambition. He got the recognition he craved but also met with his fair share of envy and jealousy, to the point of being challenged to musical duals where the counterparty would sometimes resort to underhand tactics. In fact, his opponents would frequently take him to court. And even though time and again he would win every court case brought against him, they also left him broken. Adolphe Sax died on 7 February 1894. In 1928, French musical instrument company Selmer took over the business and the name. However, in 2012 ‘Adolphe Sax & Cie’ came home to Belgium, with the instruments available to be delivered worldwide.
Adolphe Sax was anything but an amateur inventor. His was a more than eventful life that saw him reap success as well as face his share of contempt and adversity. But above all else, he was a go-getter and a good businessman, family traits he inherited from his father Charles-Joseph who was also in the business of inventing things. After all, the family ran a company in Brussels and was even appointed purveyor to the Royal Household of William I of Orange.
And let us not lose sight of the fact that we are talking about an era that was constantly swept by change. The industrial revolution was in full swing. Which also highlights one of the strong points of this exhibition: the human story of Adolphe Sax, which is colourful in itself, is put into historical and social context. In a musical sense, his influence covers anything from the development of brass bands to the major role the saxophone would go on to play in the world of jazz. The latter aspect is not just something you get to see but above all listen to.
The MIM drew from its own collection consisting of over a hundred Sax-designed wind instruments and added in a whole string of exceptional pieces, borrowed from private collections, for good measure.
A wide range of activities
The schedule of events tying in with this exhibition is enormous as well as highly varied. The easiest way to get some bird's-eye perspective of what is going on is to consult the website for the latest up-to-date changes. However, a number of the main activities have already been finalised, including the special series of concerts set to be held on Sunday afternoons, the ‘Adolphe Sax, his influence and legacy’ colloquium (3-5 July) and the lunchtime concerts by Les Lundis D’Hortense (the association of Belgian jazz musicians). The MIM will be staging themed tours, family days, master classes and a dedicated children's track. Please note that the MIM has a free admission policy every first Wednesday afternoon of the month!