History of the Saxhorn

(Saxtube, Saxotromba)

The name given to a family of brass instruments with valves, invented by Adolphe Sax in the early 1800’s.

saxhorn‘No one can be ignorant,’ said the editors of the Method for Saxhorn and Saxo-tromba, ‘of the deplorable state in which brass instruments were when M. Sax’s method made its appearance. No coherence, no unity between the individual members of the group; in one case keys, in another valves; a small compass, an imperfect scale lack of accurate intonation throughout, bad quality of tone, variations of fingering requiring fresh study in passing from one instrument to another. The keyed bugle, build on false proportions, offered no prospect of improvement; the mechanism of the valves themselves, by their abrupt angles, deteriorated the quality of tone; and the absence of intermediate instruments caused gaps in the general scale, and at times false combinations.’

Sax’s first advice to players exhibited the power of his new instruments – that namely of playing in every key without using ‘crooks,’ as in the French-horn and Trumpet.

He also attacked the problem of true intonation in valve instruments, by means of what he terms a compensator. Besides these improvements he planned all the tubes and mechanism on far sounder acoustical basis than had bee attempted in the fortuitous and disconnect contrivances and of former periods.

The valve or piston was indeed known, but was open to the objection stated above, and was at best but a clumsy machine. Sax unquestionably simplified it by causing fewer turns and corners to interfere with the free course of the vibrating column of air. It is to be noted, however, that all the instruments of the Sax family, like the ordinary cornet-a-pistons, utilize the harmonic octave below that of which the trumpet and French horn speak, and thus obtain power and facility somewhat at the expense of quality.

Sax did not aim at designing or improving instruments of the trumpet and horn qualities only, but rather at adapting improved valves systematically to brass instruments of the bugle type ranging in pitch from soprano to contrabass, the lower pitched members of the family being substitutes for the imperfect serpents, ophicleides, and other bass horns then in use.

The power and facility of tone production of the instruments known as Saxhorns, whether made by Sax, or by other makers who have followed up his ideas, should therefore be compared with that obtainable on these keyed instruments, rather than with the quality of French horns and trumpets.

The cornet is an instrument standing by itself, as a hybrid between the trumpet and the flugel horn, and its analogy with Saxhorns, as now understood, cannot be pushed beyond the fact that the free use of the second octave in the harmonic series is common to it and to them.

The valve system of the Saxhorn is arranged in such a manner that the depression of the second valve flatten the pitch a semitone, the depression of the first valve flattens it a tone, and third valve a tone and a half. Whatever the normal pitch of the instrument, the second note of the harmonic series is written as middle c when the treble clef is used, but when the bass clef is employed the notes are written as sounded. The harmonic scale obtained from the unaltered length of the instruments I supplemented when three valves are used singly and in combination, by six other similar scales, and by this means a complete chromatic scale can be produced.

It will be observed, on comparing the notes on the first and last groups of the scheme, that there is a gap between the open pedal C (No. 1) and the G flat above it, produced by the combined use of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd valves, but this is of no practical consequence on the alto, tenor, and baritone instruments, as the quality of the extreme low notes is poor. With the basses (euphoniums and tubas), however, the case is different, as the notes of the pedal octave are required, and to obtain them, a fourth valve, altering the pitch two and a half tones, is usually employed.

Fingering for the Saxhorn

saxhorn fingering chart

The range of compass of the Saxhorn family is fully five octaves, the upper limit being approximately that of the soprano voice, and the lower descending an octave lower than the bass voice.

Sir Edward Elgar in his “Cockaigne” Overture has a descending passage for the tuba going to D flat. Although the basses can take three octaves without difficulty, the average easy compass of the other instruments is about two octaves or a little less.

The saxhorns chiefly used are the following:

  • E flat soprano flugel horn
  • B flat alto flugel horn
  • E flat tenor or althorn
  • B flat baritone or althorn
  • B flat bass or euphonium
  • E flat bass tuba or bombardon
  • B flat contrabass

But, the instruments are sometimes pitched in F instead of E flat and in C instead of B flat when required for use in the orchestra. As stated above, the second note in the harmonic series is written as middle C when the treble clef is used, the actual pitch of the nonte for each of the instruments named being as shown here:

saxhorn notes

In every case, however, the note written as middle C is known as the ‘low C’ of the instrument, the octave below is the ‘pedal C,’ and the octave above, or No. 4 in the harmonic series, is known as ‘middle C.’ ‘Top C’ or No. 8 in the harmonic series is rarely passed.

There can be no doubt that the inventor of the Saxhorn added greatly to the compass, richness, and flexibility of the military brass and reed bands. But it is a question whether the tone of these powerful auxiliaries blends so well with the stringed instruments as that of the trumpet, French horn, and trombone – and hence their comparative neglect.