The Operatic Saxophone turns one year old—celebrate it by watching opera

Two years ago when everything shut down due to Covid, I started watching the daily streams of the Metropolitan Opera. My interest in opera started before then, but with all the free time and the Met’s high production value, this was the perfect opportunity to dive into the world of opera. Outside of the knowledge of Adolphe Sax’s employment at the Paris Opéra, I was unaware of how the saxophone was used in French opera. When I watched the Met’s production of Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas, it really opened my eyes to the beauty and uniqueness of this first generation of saxophone solos for opera. After that, I heard the faint saxophone solo in Turandot, (saxophones in Italian opera?) and then Werther by Jules Massenet and realized there is a greater story that needs to be told. I actually arranged all of the solos I’ve found with the hopes of publishing them, but there is a nagging feeling in my head, have I found all of the Romantic era operas with the saxophone? I don’t know.

The history of the saxophone at the Paris Opéra is already well documented. By 1890s, the operatic saxophone had left the borders of Paris. D’Indy premiered Fervaal in Brussels, and Massenet premiered Werther in Vienna. So the simple question of “what are the romantic operas and ballets that are orchestrated for the saxophone?” is actually quite difficult to answer. My next plan is to dive deeper into French Romantic Opera to see if there are any works I have overlooked. Currently there are over 800 entries in the database, this is for my use to keep all of these works organized, but I also want people to use it to dive further into saxophone history. In this last year, I’ve uncovered new works and recordings. Here is a roundup of some of my favorite posts from the last year.

Early History of the Saxophone

Hulda, by César Franck– In my research into French opera, I did not stumble across any opera by Franck. It wasn’t until the saxophonist Nicolas Prost reached out to me to share his research on Hulda. Through Prost’s recording, we can hear how Franck used the saxophone in this opera. And in more recent news, there is a brand new recording of Hulda through Naxos, the first complete recording of this opera. I haven’t listened to it yet, that’s on my list for listening.

Le Prophète, by Giacomo Meyerbeer– This 1849 opera is the earliest example of how the saxophone is used in opera. Originally, the saxophone solo ended up being cut when Meyerbeer was revising it, but in 2017 those cuts were restored and we can hear for the first time how the saxophone was used in the opera. Later, Meyerbeer used the saxophone solo in Le Prophète as the thematic material for a solo he wrote for the saxophonist, Ali Ben Sou Alle.

La Tempête, by Ambroise Thomas– In my initial research on Thomas, I only found two works of his that use the saxophone, Hamlet and Françoise de Rimini. I learned that Hamlet was performed in the inaugural season of the Metropolitan Opera when I was browsing through their online archives. I still haven’t found out if they used the saxophone in the orchestra (lack of mention of the saxophone in its reviews tells me they probably cut the saxophone) but searching through the reviews, I discovered the premiere of La Tempête in 1889. This was a strange discovery since Thomas was near the end of his life and his writing fell out of fashion by the late 1800s. Further research into the ballet gave me the story of why this exists and why it is no longer performed. I recorded the saxophone solo in the ballet, currently no recordings of the ballet exist.

American ballets and operas

Skyscrapers, by John Alden CarpenterSkyscrapers premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1926, and it is the first ballet premiered on that stage orchestrated with the saxophone. Carpenter wrote for the saxophone before, in his 1921 ballet Krazy Kat for the Chicago Symphony.

Within the Quota by Cole PorterWithin the Quota is a unique piece of American history. Written by one of the most famous American composers, before he was famous, and premiered in Paris, while telling a very American story. It shared the premiere with a now famous French ballet, La Création du monde by Darius Milhaud. Renewed interest in Within the Quota led to new revivals in 2017. In a second post, I go into more detail on Charles Koechlin’s orchestration of the score.

La Nuit Est Une Sorcière by Sidney Bechet– Here is another great example of an American composer writing for the French stage. This ballet is features Sidney Bechet on soprano saxophone, and tells the story of a scandalous murder. It has been recorded on vinyl, but it is hard to come by.

Queenie Pie by Duke Ellington– Duke Ellington has several entries in the database through his collaboration with Alvin Ailey at the end of Ellington’s life, but what surprised me was a revival of his opera, Queenie Pie. A score to this opera does not exist, it was recreated by Marc T. Bolin. Bolin stays true to the Ellington spirit.

General History

The Jazz Problem– Researching opera, sometimes I come across interesting media that gives us further insight into how the saxophone was viewed at the time. This July 1924 edition of the Etude magazine explores the shifting image of the saxophone in popular culture. It reinforced my ideas on the early saxophone solos in opera and how they were received by the public at the time. If you are a researcher on the saxophone, jazz, popular music, African American music, or 1920s American culture this edition of the Etude is a must read.

The Saxophone and the Ondes Martenot at the World Exposition– This article covers several of my interests, the saxophone, pre-WWII politics, and early electronic instruments. I try to give a good idea on how the music shaped the exposition, the same exposition that featured Picasso’s Guernica. If you haven’t seen any documentaries of this exposition here is a good place to start on the technical and architectural achievements at the exposition.

Further viewing

If you want to start exploring how the saxophone is used in opera, there is no better place to start than Werther by Jules Massenet. One of his great achievements for the stage, and easily one of his most popular works. The saxophone is fully integrated into the score, he but he does leave room for a saxophone solo in one of Charlotte’s memorable arias, “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes” (1:30:25 in the video below). This video is streaming until June 24, 2022.

Published by Mary Huntimer

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

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