Antoine Joseph Sax (1814-1894), better known as Adolphe, was born in Dinant, Belgium. His father was a distinguished instrument maker and cabinetmaker. Of the eleven children in the family, Adolphe showed the greatest aptitude while training in his father’s shop. At an early age he evinced a talent for inventing brass instruments.
That Adolphe lived long enough to invent the saxophone is a miracle. In O Thou Improper, Thou Uncommon Noun, Willard Espy reports: «Adolphe Sax... grew up accident prone: He was struck on the head by a brick, swallowed a needle, fell down a flight of stairs, toppled onto a burning stove, and accidentally drank sulphuric acid. None of this prevented him from perfecting, in 1835, the wind instrument named after him, which contained the reed mouthpiece of a clarinet with a conical tube of metal, equipped with finger keys». His instrument was patented in 1846.
Through his association with the composer Hector Berlioz, Adolphe decided to try his luck in Paris. Sax had many influential men sounding their horn for him, but he was unable to market his instrument because suppliers of musical instruments took a dim view of this Belgian upstart. Even musicians expressed no enthusiasm; they preferred to continue with the instruments with which they were familiar. In 1844, at a show featuring musical instruments, Sax performed on his saxophone, playing a piece Berlioz had written for him. The saxophone he used had not been completely finished. Sax was so apprehensive that the instrument would fall apart that he lost his place in the music and held onto one note until he could find his place. The French were delighted with the long sound — they had never heard anything quite like that before — and they kept applauding.
In the light of that good fortune, a band using Sax’s instruments competed against a band using the common instruments of the day. Sax’s group won handily, setting the stage for Sax to become the musical supplier to the French military band. He was on his way to financial success, but although he knew how to handle musical instruments, he
had no head for business. At the age of eighty, Sax became bankrupt and slipped into oblivion, just before the sax became an important instrument in modern bands.