Tuesday, January 30, 2007

High Hopes and Shattered Dreams: The Embarrassing Demise of the Sarrusophone

The saxophone and the sarrusophone have some interesting similarities. It's ironic that the saxophone is well known while the sarrusophone is obscure.

I have chosen to begin this story with the clarinet. The clarinet is a lovely single reed instrument that is a relative newcomer to the orchestra. It appears that Haydn had trouble figuring out how to incorporate the clarinet into the orchestra, but Mozart made magnificent use of it. His clarinet concerto is stunning. Other composers also became enamored with the clarinet and it became firmly established in the western musical tradition.

Around 1840, Adolphe Sax expanded on the idea of the clarinet by inventing the saxophone. It is also a single reed instrument, but it has a metal body instead of a wooden one.

The saxophone is just one possible way of attaching a reed mouth piece to a metal body. In 1856, Pierre-Louis Gautrot patented and began producing an instrument called the sarrusophone. (It is thought that a French bandmaster named Sarrus was responsible for the original idea.) This instrument featured a double reed mouthpiece attached to a metal body. It was intended to replace the oboe and bassoon in outdoor band music, where additional volume would be desired.

It was a great idea and there was good reason to expect that the sarrusophone would become a popular and important instrument. Alas, the sarrusophone would never attain the status that some thought it deserved.

There are many factors that influence the popularity of an instrument. Many charming instruments have fallen into disuse and faced virtual extinction while others have experienced unexpected surges in popularity. I can't claim to understand or explain all the reasons for the immense popularity of the saxophone and the obscurity of the sarrusophone. There is one event, however, that may have played an important role in preventing the sarrusophone from becoming more popular.

Adolphe Sax sued Pierre-Louis Gautrot for patent infringement. The sarrusophone does resemble the saxophone in some ways. It even has a similar fingering. The instruments, however, sound very different, so Sax lost the lawsuit.

It is difficult to evaluate the importance of this lawsuit. Even though Gautrot prevailed in a legal sense, the lawsuit no doubt damaged the future prospects of the sarrusophone. Just how damaging this lawsuit was is the subject of some debate. It all seems very unfortunate to me. One wonders why Adolphe Sax didn't extend his concept of the saxophone to produce a similar instrument with a double reed mouthpiece. He had a window of opportunity of about sixteen years to do this. It's unfortunate that Sax's reputation as an inventor of a popular instrument has to be tarnished by a footnote in history that he may have needlessly contributed to the demise of a different instrument.

There are other factors that no doubt contributed to the decline of the sarrusophone. While the saxophone can produce a pleasing mellow tone the sarrusophone sounds rougher and more industrial. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's easy to see how it would have a harder time finding its way into the hearts of average listeners.

It was originally hoped that oboes and bassoons could be replaced by corresponding sizes of sarrusophones in outdoor band music. This didn't work out because it is difficult for sarrusophone players to match the ranges of oboes and bassoons. The contrabass sarrusophone did enjoy some temporary success as a replacement for the contrabass bassoon. Eventually, however, the contrabass clarinet was invented and served as an even more effective replacement. The sarrusophone is a vivid example of a good idea that just didn't work out. There is a small revival of interest in the sarrusophone, but it remains unknown to most people.

Please visit this page at Odd Music if you would like to hear a sarrusophone and see what it looks like.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Paul O'Dette and the Baroque Guitar

Paul O'Dette is a superstar of the early music world, considered by some to be the world's finest lutenist. These videos prove that he also does a great job with the baroque guitar.

Improvised Galliarda

Works by Santiago de Murcia

You may also enjoy some of the early music videos at my video blog:
Sting Plays the Lute
More Lute Videos
Viol Videos