A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Saxhorn

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SAXHORN (Saxtuba, Saxotromba). The name given to a family of brass instruments with valves, invented by the late M. Sax.

'No one can be ignorant,' say 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, built 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 exhibits the power of his new instruments that namely of playing in every key without using 'crooks,' as in the French-horn and Trumpet. [See Horn.] 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 a far sounder acoustical basis than had been attempted in the fortuitous and disconnected contrivances 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. He 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-à-pistons, utilise the harmonic octave below that in which the trumpet and French horn speak, and thus obtain power and facility somewhat at the expense of quality.

Six or even more instruments of different size compose the Sax family, the chief of these being the soprano in F, E♭, or D, the contralto in C and B♭, the tencr in F and E♭, the barytone in C and B♭, the bass in F and E♭, and the contrabass, or circular bass, in B♭. Several of these are known under special names; the tenor for instance as the Althorn; the smaller bored Barytone under that appellation; the larger bored of similar pitch as the Euphonium; the bass or double bass as the Bombardon or Contra Bombardon.

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. The compass of all the Saxhorns is very large, but especially that of the Euphonium, amounting, according to Sax's own statement, to more than five octaves. This is increased by the numerous keys in which the various members of the family are originally made, reaching from

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These instruments are furnished with 3, 4, or even 5 valves, as already described. [See Euphonium; Piston.]

It has been already said that their chief use is in military music. For the reasons given they are easy to play on the march, or even on horse-back, where an oboe or a contrafagotto would be impossible. But, in the orchestra, only the euphonium and the bombardon in E♭, much patronised by Wagner in his pompous marches, and other parade music, have held their ground.

[ W. H. S. ]