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CLASSICAL 101 | Why Is There No Saxophone In The Orchestra?

By Hye Won Cecilia Lee on August 7, 2019

The answer may surprise you.

With so many standard instruments orchestra, where is the saxophone?
With so many standard instruments orchestra, where is the saxophone? (Photo: United States Navy)

Whether it be a crushing bebop track a la Charlie Parker, or the super chill bossa nova of Stan Getz, there is no shortage of love for the saxophone.  Love it or hate it, Kenny G is still one of the best-selling artists of all time  — sandwiched between Shakira and Tupac Shakur, and the American cartoon icon, Lisa Simpson, whose dream it was to become a saxophonist.

Ranging from sopranino to contrabass, the family of saxophones curates one of the widest sound ranges available acoustically.  Being relatively easy for beginner musicians, the saxophone is popular for both learning and listening.  However, we rarely see it in orchestra concerts. Why?

Many believe that the saxophone’s timbre is hard to blend, out-of-tune, and simply too loud.  But the real screaming stick of the orchestra is the piccolo; despite its piercing nature and tuning challenges, it has been considered integral since Beethoven’s time (Egmont Overture, Symphonies 5, 6 and 9).

A single tuba or trombone can play over the entire orchestra in solo sections — yet an orchestra will feature at least a few low brass players (even Papa Haydn includes three trombones in the Creation). The modern timpani have so many issues regarding tuning, yet it is inconceivable to imagine an orchestral concert without the timpani. So why were the saxes singled out?

“Sure, the saxophone has a reputation of being loud and out of tune, but since the saxophone was accepted as a Classical instrument to study at the Paris Conservatory (we have Marcel Mule to thank for this), composers have included it in the orchestra,” says Toronto-based virtuoso saxophonist Wallace Halladay.  “It is very versatile: its entire range can be played at any dynamic, and — in the hands of a good player — in tune.”

Despite its rarity, quite a few big-name composers who have included the saxophone in their orchestral writing. Examples include Ravel’s Bolero with both soprano and tenor, and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances’ lovely alto sax solo. Alban Berg chose the saxophone to ‘shadow’ Lulu in the opera (and Suite version for Orchestra and Soprano), and includes an alto sax part in his Violin Concerto- particularly interesting to note, as Berg’s mastery of orchestration is truly sublime in its blending and colours. The list continues: Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition: The Old Castle (orchestrated by Ravel), Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde, Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé and Romeo and Juliet.  Puccini even uses alto saxophones specifically to keep the girls’ chorus in pitch in Turandot (Act II: Dal deserto al mar, and Tre enigma m’hai proposto), though most of us would’ve had no clue until now, as both the chorus and saxes are offstage — surely demonstrating the saxophone’s ability to blend almost invisibly, even with the human voice. Additionally, musicians themselves always strive to be ‘better,’ with technical practice to override each instrument’s innate limitations and faults — so what really happened?

“The saxophone has a sordid history: the inventor,  Belgian Adolphe Sax,  was actually working with Richard Wagner on instruments, I believe for Tannhauser, as Wagner was looking for something “new”, perhaps something “loud”, that could be added to the orchestra,” explains Wallace.  But when Sax moved to Paris in the midst of rising nationalist tides, the German wasn’t interested anymore.“ […] Many of the French composers at the end of the 19th-Century did include the saxophone in the orchestra: the earliest examples being Bizet (L’Arlésienne), Massenet (Werther), Thomas (Hamlet), etc. This tradition (somewhat) continues into the 20th Century with Ravel, and of course the Russians.”

Composer David Bruce’s excellent presentation on the suffering history of the saxophone, further illustrates the additional difficulties Adolphe had to face in Paris.

Though the Germans re-embraced the instrument, including Richard Strauss who included four saxophones in the Sinfonia Domestica, thanks to the First World War, saxophones were put away from orchestras once again:

“…The rise of the Nazis in the 1930s did not help the instrument — it was labelled degenerate by the regime due to its use in jazz in North America,” Wallace explains. “Meanwhile, it was really a military instrument — the rise of “bands” (France’s Garde Républicain) gave a perfect home to the saxophone — both in Europe and North America. It is loud, portable, and virtuosic.  And in North America, it became the solo instrument of choice for new and evolving jazz scene.”

What about the practical issue of money? Is it possible that current arts operation models and cash flow issues could be a reason for bullying-of-saxes? Skill in budgeting and promotion can make or break an entire organization.  Ever-tight budgets (including fundraising, grants and self-generated revenue) can have an impact upon two important fields for an orchestra: programming and commissioning.  The additional cost of extra players can add up fast, and many of Toronto’s community orchestras operating in community spaces would find it challenging to provide adequate resources to fit in the extra players for rehearsals even if they were to rely on a pro-bono or honorarium scheme. In addition, Wallace also mentions the challenges created by the regionality of music — especially for contemporary music.

“Since the 1960s, the saxophone has been accepted as an orchestral instrument in Europe, and included in many compositions, regardless of nationality.  The issue is that North America has no interest in programming these works.  When North American orchestras play contemporary music, it is generally the result of its own commissioning, and government or foundation grants; the orchestras generally dictate the orchestration of commissioned works, and ‘extra’ instruments are discouraged- most of the commissioned repertoire is ‘Mozart’ orchestra, perhaps ‘winds-by-3’ if the composer is a big name.”

It is always exciting to go see a show and take a good look at things.  When we go to a concert hall for orchestra concerts, it’s the variety and contrast of different instruments on the stage that draws our attention.  As we have just pondered on some of the factors that led to the saxophone’s rare appearance within the orchestra, next time you see one on stage (they are likely to be grouped just beside the clarinets!), give it a good listen — do they blend well? Are they effective? Do you like it? And see what you think. How intriguing!


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