The Saxophone and Berlioz: a missed opportunity

Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz was one of France’s most influential 19th century composer. He was very enthusiastic about Adolphe Sax’s new invention, the saxophone. Berlioz actually had the honour of being the very first to compose a piece which he adapted from his own original as a showcase to present Adolphe Sax’s instruments, which included the saxophone: Chant sacré.

He was so enthusiastic about the new instrument that he included it in his orchestration book: Grand traité d’instrumentation et orchestre modernes, published in 1844. He rapidly recognized the inherent possibilities and qualities of the new instrument.

Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz

Unfortunately for saxophone history, Sax’s instrument only appeared after Berlioz’s major orchestral works had already been composed. These works included the Symphonie fantastique (1830), Harold en Italie (1834), Roméo et Juliette (1839) and the Grande Symphonie funèbre (1842).

If the saxophone had been invented a mere 15 years earlier, Berlioz, with his creative use instrumental timbres colouring would have no doubt would have found a way to integrate the instrument in more important works. That would have most likely led to other composers finding favour with the instrument.

Nonetheless, even with this missed rendezvous, the saxophone did find some usage in the 19th century orchestra by composers such as:

Symphony orchestra

  • George Bizet: L’Arlésienne (1872)
  • Gustave Charpentier: La vie du poète (1889-1891)
  • Léo Delibes: Sylvia (1876)
  • William Fry: Santa Claus Symphony (1853)
  • Vincent d’Indy: Les Burgraves du Rhin (1872)
  • George Kastner: Polka Carnavalesque (1857), Overture de Festival I (1858), Overture de Festival II (1860) & La Saint-Julien des Memtriers (1866)
  • George Kastner: Les voix de Paris (1856)
  • Jules Massenet: Scènes hongroises (1871), Marche héroïque de Szabady (1879) & Scènes de Féérie (1879)
  • Gabriel Pierné: Première Suite d’orchestre (1883)
  • Camille Saint-Saens: La Jeunesse d’Hercule (1877)
  • Ambroise Thomas: Messe solennelle (1857)

Opera

  • Jacques Halévy: Le juif errant (1852)
  • Vincent d’Indy: Fervaal, op. 40 (1895)
  • George Kastner: Le Dernier roi de Judée (1844)
  • Limander de Niewnhove: Le Château de la Barbe Bleu (1851)
  • Jules Massenet: La vierge (1878), Le Roi de Lahore (1877), Hérodiade (1881) & Werther (1886)
  • Giacomo Meyerbeer: L’Africaine (1864)
  • Emile Paladilhe: Patrie(1883)
  • Camille Saint-Saens: Henry VIII (1883)

2 Replies to “The Saxophone and Berlioz: a missed opportunity”

  1. Berlioz liked the sax but unfortunately not enough to create new editions of his major works including saxes. Imagine the Witches Sabbath from Symphonie Fantastique with chattering soprano saxes. That would have been something.

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    1. That’s an interesting idea, but I don’t know too many composers who would fool around changing their established work just to include a new instrument.
      It’s not like he had music writing software which may make that a little more feasible.

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