When we think of the saxophone and what type of music it's used in, our first thoughts are of jazz and pop but have you ever heard the saxophone in classical music?
THE COOL INSTRUMENT
Whenever I'm asked what instrument I play, the response to my answer was quite often 'oh, the cool instrument'. The saxophone has often been referred to as cool or even sexy and rarely dull, boring, or stuffy. The most popular instruments to learn include guitar, drums, piano, singing, and saxophone, partly because of their frequent use in modern music (technically the violin is also quite a popular choice). The saxophone was used a lot in the 50s rock n roll era; in the 80s in cheesy pop solos; and in dance music since the 90s.
A prospective student usually comes to their first lesson with a favourite song that made them decide to learn this particular instrument. I've had people say they want to play like Lee Thompson from Madness, Steve Gregory in George Michael's Careless Whisper, or Raphael Ravenscroft in Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street. Jazz names people throw about include Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Maceo Parker, Joshua Redman, Kenny G; the list is practically endless.
THE UNPOPULAR GENRE
When someone approaches me and asks if I teach classical saxophone, it makes me happy. Not only am I classically trained by an amazingly talented classical saxophonist, Sarah Markham, but I'm pleased to know that there are people out there who know the saxophone's potential for creating a fantastic and unique sound in classical music.
If you type into google 'classical saxophonists', you get an idea of how many classical players there are. The most well-known include Marcel Mule, Sigurd Raschér, Eugene Rousseau and, frequently heard on the radio, John Harle, Jess Gillam, and Tommy Smith. The list is long so I encourage you to have a listen to all the brilliant saxophonists out there.
The saxophone, in comparison to many other instruments, is still a fairly new instrument. Soon after its creation by Adolphe Sax around the early 1840s, it was mainly used in small ensembles and military bands. To this day, it has rarely been used in the traditional orchestra. Despite this, solo works and contemporary ensemble pieces have been written for the saxophone since the mid-nineteenth century. With the expansion of musical genres, including jazz and contemporary, new saxophone music has continued to be released at an increasing rate.
When it comes to sheet music written for the saxophone, there are arrangements of the more traditional works, like Bach's Suite No. 1 or Handel's Sonata in G minor; as well as many original pieces written for the instrument, like Ronald Binge's Concerto for Alto Saxophone or Alexander Glazunov's Saxophone Concerto. There are even hybrid works that cross the boundaries of jazz idioms and contemporary music, like Tommy Smith's Sonatas 1 and 2 or Phil Woods' Sonata for Alto Saxophone. To get a sense of the scope of music out there written for saxophone, search for 'saxophone repertoire' in google and you'll find loads of superb compositions and arrangements.
IS THE SAXOPHONE SUITED FOR CLASSICAL MUSIC?
For those students curious to know how versatile the saxophone is, when I mention its use in classical music, the response is a puzzled look but take a moment to think about it; this is an instrument that can be punchy and aggressive one minute and soft and expressive the next. With classical music full of fast technical passages, expressive long notes, and changes in dynamics and articulation, of course the saxophone is well-suited to it and sounds great doing it.
For those of you interested, even if you don't care much for classical music, I encourage you to have a listen to some of the artists and songs mentioned above, as well as the many more available. In my opinion, the saxophone, regardless of what genre it's playing, will always be the 'cool instrument' and it's my hope that this continues to bring classical music to new audiences.
What are your favourite classical saxophone songs?