How opera is instrumental to the “Évolution” of vibrato

Extract of the “Saxiana Collection”

For saxophonists, playing with vibrato is second nature in classical performance. But up until the 1920s, most saxophonists played with an even tone. Vibrato on the saxophone was limited to jazz saxophonists and vaudeville stars. In 1928, Marcel Mule was in rehearsal for Edouard L’Enfant’s ballet, Évolution and he had a breakthrough. What if he used the jazz style vibrato on the saxophone? This was the beginning of vibrato for classical saxophonists.

For a piece that is influential for saxophone pedagogy, there is little I can tell you about Edouard L’Enfant and his work, Évolution. I can’t find any biographical information on L’Enfant, and no recordings of his work exist. What we do have is the manuscript of L’Evolution courtesy of the saxophonist Nicolas Prost.

The saxophone solo in Évolution, 1928, Extract of the “Saxiana Collection”

The ballet contains many solos for the alto saxophone. In the passage above, it’s easy to see why Mule would choose vibrato during these solos. The natural rise of the melody with a simple vibrato makes the saxophone really sing. When discussing this work with Nicolas Prost, Mule told him this “ballet has the good title …because Évolution was finally the ‘evolution’ of his playing.”

I would like to thank Nicolas Prost once again for uncovering a crucial link in French saxophone music and check out his website to discover rare and forgotten works for saxophone and home of the Saxiana Historic Collection. Learning more about how the saxophone is used in ballet and opera fills in the missing pieces of saxophone pedagogy and history. To find out more about French opera and ballet, check out the database and type in “French” under nationality. This is one piece among many French ballets and operas that use the saxophone in the 1920s.

Published by Mary Huntimer

Saxophonist, teacher, opera and silent movie enthusiast. All opinions are my own.

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