The Bass Saxophone

Would you walk from Brussels to Paris?  I know I wouldn't...  Would you walk that distance carrying a bass saxophone?  I know I wouldn't, for sure!  One could say you must be really crazy to embark on such a journey, or one could say that only a man with a mission, a vision would do so: Adolphe Sax walked 186 miles to present the bass saxophone to the world!  For this, we can only thank him.
Andreas Van Zoelen and bass sax
So, the bass saxophone (in C) was the first saxophone ever.  The goal Sax had was to create an instrument that: 1. would have the power and volume of an ophicleide; and 2. would be as agile as the bass clarinet (an instrument that was very much improved by Adolphe Sax as well).  Obviously such an instrument would be of great advantage to the miltary orchestras of that moment.
The first time that a bass saxophone was heard in a concert was on February 3rd, 1844.  Berlioz himself had arranged his work "Chant Sacre", originally for voices, for a couple of instruments from the shop of Sax: "a high trumpet in B-Flat, a 'new kind of horn', a bugle, a clarinet, a bass clarinet, and finally a saxophone".  We know that Adolphe Sax himself pllayed the bass saxophone on this evening.

The first composer to ask for Saxophone en Ut (bass in C) in an original score was Georges Kastner.  The opera 'Le Dernier Roi de Juda' was premiered on December 1st, 1844.  Again, Adolphe Sax played bass sax.  Apart from that, Kastner wrote a "Methode complet et raisonnee de Saxophone" (1844), and a sextuor for two sopranos, two altos, two basses and contrabass.  A remarkable detail is that, except for the bass saxophone, none of these instruments existed at that point!  Sigurd Rascher made an arrangment of the Kastner Sextour for two sopranos, alto, tenor, baritone and bass, which was recorded by the Rascher Saxophone Orchestra

Andreas Van Zoelen at Edinburgh, with bass sax
The saxophone was patented in 1846.

Today, the bass saxophone is a greatly overlooked instrument.  Surely it has its place in saxophone ensemble works, and sometimes even in symphony orchestras, but the combination of sheer beauty and power almost never comes out.  One can only hope that the bass saxophone's future is more glorious than its past was.  After all, the Bass saxophone is the mother of all horns...

Andreas van Zoelen

Andreas van Zoelen (pictured above) is bass player to the Rascher Saxophone Orchestra.  Many new works for bass saxophone were written for him and his instrument by composers such as Walter Hartley, Chiel Meyering, Jan van Dijk, etc.  A vast part of these works are written for the Spectrum Duo, which van Zoelen forms with his partner Susanne Lucker on English horn.  This duo made its international debut last year in a successful tour through Portugal.  Van Zoelen was a guest at the 2000 Edinburgh International Fringe festival, where he played a program of works by Scottish and Dutch composers.  In 1996 he was awarded the Spiero Prise for new music.  In 2000, he was a finalist at the "Jur Naessens Muziekprijs" for new music in Amsterdam, Holland.  Van Zoelen is currently teaching at the Tilburg School of Dance and Music.
There is not much I can add to that, other than to point out an interesting variation in bass saxophone styles.  Bass saxes seem to come in two versions: one with a tall neck that projects high above the mouthpiece leadpipe ("Conn/Buescher style", also used by Keilwerth) (see the Orsi pictured below), and a second style in which the neck extends more below the leadpipe ("Selmer style") (see the Triebert bass pictured at right).  The bass sax is (almost always) pitched in Bb, with lowest note Ab1 (the Ab below the bass staff).  Keywork for many older basses goes only to high Eb (i.e., omitting the high E and F keys), although higher notes are available through altissimo fingerings.
Bass sax by Triebert ("Selmer style")
Bass sax by ORSI, taken at the factory near Milan, Italy Discography


Article 2001 by Andreas van Zoelen
Page 2001 by Andreas van Zoelen and Grant Green

Back to Compendium