This is a photo of an original Adolphe Sax tenor saxophone that I took at the Museu de la Música in Barcelona, Spain. It’s the first time I’ve gotten to see one of these up close and it was really interesting to see how the saxophone has evolved over the last 170 years.
Here are some of the things that make this horn different from the ones we play today:
- This instrument is keyed from low B to high F – if you look, you’ll see that the bell is shorter than a modern saxophone.
- There is no bis key. You could only play side Bb or 1+1 Bb.
- There is no front F key. This would probably make for an awkward transition from the standard range of the instrument into the altissimo.
- There are no rollers on the pinky keys for the left or right hand. This would have made transitions between certain intervals nearly impossible.
- There is no side F# key.
- You can’t see it on the tenor, but if you look at the alto next to it, you’ll see that it has two separate octave keys. Originally, saxophones didn’t have the automatic octave mechanism that we rely on today. Pitches from D to G# would be play using the first octave key and pitch from A upward would require the 2nd octave key.
While the modern instruments we play today are different in a number of ways that the original instrument designed by Adolphe Sax, it is clear that Sax’s conception was complete. The added keys and features, such as rollers, have primarily aimed to improve facility and/or ergonomics.
I can’t overstate what an incredible experience it was to see these instruments. It felt like a homecoming of sorts and helped to create a visceral connection between the horns I play and their origin.