A brief journey with the classical saxophone

My name is Linus. I am a saxophone player, and I do not play jazz.

Gasp.

I have spent many, many hours in agony.  I take my saxophone out of its case, put on the mouthpiece and reed, and just before I play my first note, I weep.  The saxophone in my lap lays in silent sadness, unable to make a sound since there is no music besides jazz.

Well, no.  Not really.

I am certainly disappointed in myself for not tackling jazz while I grew up, but I had a different set of experiences instead that I need to justify to myself as good.  If I get around to studying jazz more seriously, I will be a late bloomer.  Or, I could learn how to rock climb.

“What else do saxophone players do?” you ask. The answer:

Marijuana.  Salsa music.  Rock music.  Funk.  Ska.  Fusion.  Punk.  Rap.  R&B.  Mostly, I myself have trained to play classical saxophone.

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Linus, you’re confusing the babies.

The saxophone was invented in France by Adolphe Sax 173 years ago.  One of the primary reasons for its invention was to invent an instrument that could sound like both a brass instrument and a woodwind instrument.  Mr. Sax actually invented a lot of bizarre instruments, like something called the “saxotromba” — which has gone extinct — and the expanded the clarinet family with the bass and contrabass clarinet.

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From left: Phillis, Billy, Susan, Bass, and Contrabass.

One of the most recognizable pieces of classical (orchestral) music that includes saxophones is Bolero by French composer Maurice Ravel.  Last night, I attended a performance of the Minnesota Orchestra, which included this piece on the program.  The sound of the saxophones playing was so liquid, so sultry, that it was difficult to discern whether it was really a saxophone or another reed instrument like the oboe or English horn.  Even though I have performed this piece and heard it many times, I was still fooled and found myself looking through the wrong section of the orchestra when I heard the saxophone.  D’oh!

My future family, from left: Sopranino, Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, and Bass. (Not pictured: John and Susan)

The recording below is the second movement of a sonata for alto saxophone and piano by American composer William Albright.  If you are interested in a bit of explanation about this piece, read below the video.  Otherwise, enjoy a performance of classical saxophone.

Sonata, Mvt. II: “La Follia Nuova”
William Albright

William Alright wrote in his program notes:

Of all of the movements, the second perhaps most deserves comment. This
movement is dedicated to the memory of the composer George Cacioppo who
died unexpectedly on April 8, 1984. Co-founder of the ONCE group and mentor
to two generations of composers, Cacioppo and his music and personality rest at
the foundation of my thinking. He would have very much appreciated the use of
the traditional title “La follia” (the madness) in my reincarnation as “La follia
nuova.” Like its Baroque antecedents, the movement is in a chaconne-variation
form, although at one point the sections jumble together, or intersect. The fact that
the key is F-sharp minor may be important, or it may not be.

Throughout the piece, there is a consistent descent.  The piano line is always going downwards, as a symbol for the descent of life into death, and the descent of a body into a grave.  Optimistically, Albright gives ascending lines to the saxophone to highlight the hope for an ascent into heaven.  Despite these efforts, I find this piece is horribly tragic, and it seems as though it ends without completing the mourning process.  The saxophone player is asked to step away from the piano and play distantly; usually, the performer turns their back to the audience and walks toward the rear wall, playing the final hymn melody by memory.  They remain facing away from you while the piano painfully performs the sounds of agonizing funeral bells.  The pianist is told to play as many repetitions of the bell chords as they wish, which can create a very elongated, sad, and uncomfortable moment. (source)