Saxes and the Orchestra

One of my special interest is the role the saxophone has in the classical symphony orchestra. Most people only know of a few pieces which have made their way into the mainstream with the saxophone playing a role in this formation. 

Adolphe Saxe had the use of the saxophone in the orchestra in mind when he first designed our favorite instrument. He even built a full family of F and C saxophones just for this purpose. His thinking was that the Bb/ Eb saxes would be able to adjust more easily to the tunings of the wind bands and the C/F instruments would work well with the orchestral instruments. 

Well, as we all know, even the best laid plans don't always work out. I'll discuss some of the reasons why this didn't happen in later posts. 

We all know about Ravel's Bolero, Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition or Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, just to name the most obvious. But composers of all stripes have been enhancing their orchestral palette by adding the beautiful and expressive sounds of the saxophone family. Where most of you may be aware of a few dozen pieces of this ilk, I've collated information for close to 3,000 such pieces. You can expect my discussing some of these in the future. 

So, why don't we hear about these pieces? Why don't we, as saxophone players, have more occasions to work in the symphonic field? 

The answer to this is rather complex. I believe one of the main reasons is related to why modern composers have a lot of trouble getting their works played. Orchestra's are, in most cases, very conservative in their programming. They also have limited space for works. If you figure a hard working orchestra might play a new program every week or so, and each program usually consist of three pieces, that does not amount to a lot of spots for new pieces. The majority of the pieces which are usually programmed are from the Romantic period or earlier. The small portion of post-1900 repertoire are in the most conservative style. It's not hard to figure why contemporary composers aren't being played. And since most of the repertoire using saxophones fall under this umbrella, we suffer from the same faith as our composer friends.

If you are interested in finding out a little more about our symphonic history, I've set up a selection of record choices which you can find in my store (which is linked to Just follow the link for Orchestra Saxophone and you'll find a varied selection which you can browse to, Most have Amazon's previews so you can get a brief introduction to the variety of music. 

Speaking of orchestral works, here's a link to a review I just read a review about a recording of one such piece: Virgil Thomson's The Plow that Broke the Plains. This is a beautifully orchestrated work full of Americana themes which is very approachable and enjoyable. One wonders why this is not programmed more. You can read the review here