Adolphe Sax at the Paris Opéra

The journey of the saxophone from Belgian Industrial Exposition in 1841 to the stage of the Paris Conservatorie in 1844 to the stage of the Opéra-Comique on Paris in 1851 and finally to the Paris Opéra in 1852 is a tale of ingenuity, timing, and luck.  How did the saxophone, a controversial instrument at the time, become one of the unique solo voices in the Paris Grand Opera tradition?  The saxophone’s use in opera can be traced back to the inventor himself, Adolphe Sax.

Adolphe Sax (1814-1894)

Adolphe Sax (1814-1894) moved to Paris 1842 to establish a manufacturing plant for his instruments.  Along with the saxophone, Sax is responsible for modernizing the bass clarinet and creating his own set of brass instruments like the saxhorns and saxtuba.  His instruments caught the attention of the composers at the time like Hector Berlioz, Fromental Halévy, Gaetano Donizetti, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Ambrose Thomas. Sax’s instruments gave composers new tools for creating technically challenging music and a new set of timbral sounds.  In 1844, the composer/theorist Jean-George Kastner (1810-1867) included the saxophone in his opera, La dernier roi de Juda, staged at the Paris Conservatorie.[1]  This opera has never been performed on stage since its premiere.  Kastner also called for a quartet of saxophones in his 1857 composition, Les Voix de Paris. It is unclear if this stage/symphonic work has ever been performed.  Kastner’s greatest contribution to the saxophone is his Manuel général de musique militaire (1848) which includes the first illustrations of the saxophone.[2]

The next composer who used the saxophone in opera is Armand Limnander de Nieuwenhove.  Limnander used the alto saxophone in his operas, Le Château de la Barbe-Bleue (1851) for the Opéra-Comique and Le Maître chanteur in 1853 at the Paris Opéra.[3]  Both of these operas were well received at the time, but disappeared from the opera repertoire.  There are no current recordings or productions of these works.

In 1847, Adolphe Sax was appointed the director of the banda at the Paris Opéra.[4] The banda was the collection of instruments that played on or off the stage during the opera.  For example, the trumpets on stage during the “Triumphal March” in Verdi’s Aida is a great example of how the banda is used in the Grand Opera tradition.  The lack of set instrumentation in the banda allowed Sax to advocate for his instruments use in these operas.  From 1847 to 1892, when Sax gave up his position at the Paris Opéra, Sax met and worked with all of the major composers in this era, including Donizetti, Verdi, Wagner, Gounod, and Rossini.[5]  None of these composers used the saxophone in any of their operas, and it took a few more decades before composers in Italy and Germany/Austria incorporated the saxophone into their works.

Bronze bust of Halévy at the Palais Garnier in Paris, France.

The first use of the saxophone in the banda at the Paris Opéra was in J. F. Fromental Halévy’s (1799-1862) 1852 opera, Le Juif errant (pg. 704-707).[6] This opera contained an unusual quartet of saxophones, B flat soprano, 2 E flat altos, and a Bass in C. In the manuscript, Halevy calls for four saxophones, and he write the saxophone part in concert key (page 533-536).  Sax himself was one of the saxophone performers in this opera. Between 1852-1853, there were 50 performances of Le Juif errant at the Paris Opéra.[7] Halévy’s reputation was highly regarded in Paris, so much so he is immortalized in the Palais Garnier. The bronze bust next to Halévy’s on the Palais Garnier facade is another popular Romantic composer who is highly regarded in France, Giacomo Meyerbeer.

In 1865, Giacomo Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine premiered at the Paris Opéra.  L’Africaine is one of the few operas that scored the saxophone as an alternate voice to the bass clarinet.  It’s unclear whether Meyerbeer wanted to use the saxophone instead of the bass clarinet, because Meyerbeer died in 1864 and the saxophone was added after his death.[8]  Meyerbeer attempted to write for the saxophone in another opera, Le Prophète in 1849 but ended up cutting the saxophone solo from the opera during the dress rehearsal. A new recording in 2017 restores the saxophone solo to the production so for the first time, we can hear Meyerbeer’s original score for Le Prophète.

By the 1860s, the saxophone found a receptive audience among the following composers at the Paris Opéra: Ambroise Thomas, Jules Massenet, and Léo Delibes. They were able to successfully incorporate the saxophone into stage works, both in the banda and as a member of the full orchestra through the 1860-1890s. Many of those operas and ballets are still performed today.

Alphonse Sax (Adolphe’s brother)caricatured as a young Sylphide by Étienne Carjat, 1862

Adolphe Sax continued to advocate for the saxophone throughout his lifetime. As late as 1883, he was writing to Ambroise Thomas, the head of the Paris Conservatorie to add the saxophone as a class because of a lack of suitable performers.[9] This lack of suitable performers combined with composers writing for the saxophone means that solos originally intended for the saxophone are now covered by other orchestral instruments. That call went unanswered. It wasn’t until 1942 that a saxophone class was introduced to the Paris Conservatorie, led by Marcel Mule.

By 1890s, the saxophone fell out of favor at the Paris Conservatorie when Gabriel Fauré replaced Ambroise Thomas as the head of the Conservatorie. The style of French music dramatically changed, with Claude Debussy and César Franck taking the lead, developing the music now referred to as Impressionist style. The syrupy melodies of the saxophone, favored by Thomas, Massenet and Delibes fell out of style.

For further reading, check out this article by Ignace De Keyser on the history of Adolphe Sax at the Paris Opéra.


[1] Stephen Cottrell, The Saxophone. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), pg. 104

[2] Thomasin La May, Revised by Stewart A. Carter. “Kastner, Jean-Georges,” Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online. https://www-oxfordmusiconline-com.proxy108.nclive.org/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000014753?rskey=fgT5Nl&result=3 Date accessed 9/8/2020

[3] Stephen Cottrell, The Saxophone. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 105.

[4] Ibid., 103.

[5] Ignace De Keyser, ed. by Keith Polk and Stewart Carter,  “Adolphe Sax and the Paris Opéra,” Brass Scholarship in Review: Proceedings of the Historic Brass Society Conference, Cité de la Musique, Paris, 1999. United Kingdom: Pendragon Press, 2006, pg. 155.

[6] Stephen Cottrell, The Saxophone. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 105-106. 

[7] Ignace De Keyser, ed. by Keith Polk and Stewart Carter,  “Adolphe Sax and the Paris Opéra,” Brass Scholarship in Review: Proceedings of the Historic Brass Society Conference, Cité de la Musique, Paris, 1999. United Kingdom: Pendragon Press, 2006, pg. 145.

[8] Stephen Cottrell, The Saxophone. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 106. 

[9] Ibid., 109. 

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