Curator's Choice: A classic 19th century trombone made by saxophone forefather Adolphe Sax in Paris

By Ben Miller | 24 May 2016

Jo Santy, of the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, on a trombone with six independent valves and seven bells, made by Adolphe Sax in Paris in 1876

A photo of an ancient trombone in the musical instruments museum in brussels
“We’re a very active and dynamic museum. We try to bring music to the people. There are four hours of music included and 200 instruments on display. People love it.

Adolphe Sax might be the second-most famous instrument builder in history. The problem for musical instrument museums is that we don’t have a Rubens, Breughel or Magritte: instrument makers are not that famous. Sax is the exception because he was a very talented, multi-faceted man who understood not only the acoustics and craftsmanship, but also the design and what we would call the marketing today.

He was very clever in giving his name to his most famous instrument, the saxophone. That’s why we still know him. This one is still a trombone – it’s not a saxo-trombone or whatever, it’s just a trombone. But it is a masterpiece for several reasons.

Sax was a very intelligent instrument-maker. At a certain point he got pretty obsessed by the idea of building the perfect wind instrument. I’ll not go into too many details, but it’s very interesting – and not a coincidence – to see this alongside other instruments.

A photo of an ancient trombone in the musical instruments museum in brussels
You’ve got the regular design of a brass instrument with valves. In this case, the valve serves, temporarily, to lengthen the tube that the musician blows through. It’s basically one big tube and you can play harmonics – several notes on one tube. By lengthening it, you can produce the different chromatic tones.

Here’s the glitch: by using this system, several notes are off-key. You can modify and correct them with your lips but it’s difficult. Sax was annoyed by this. He said, ‘I must find a solution to this problem.’

So he took an acoustic principle to the extreme and designed an instrument that works in a totally different way. There are seven independent tubes with seven independent bells – seven instruments in one. The valves don’t lengthen any of the tubes, they just choose the tube the air passes through.

You never combine the valves, which was the main problem for the off-key notes. It is a masterpiece for this engineering, of course, but also, typically for Sax, it’s masterfully designed.

A photo of an ancient trombone in the musical instruments museum in brussels
He was like Jon Ives, of Apple. You’ve got the technical requirements but he also made it in a way that looks pretty stunning. That’s what Sax has always done: his instruments were technically superior but they also looked great, they were very good ergonomically.

Playing original 19th century instruments is very difficult and often they prove to be out of key. Several of these were made and at one point you could study this instrument at the Conservatoire de Paris.

This trombone is pretty heavy and difficult to produce. All of the brass and wind instrument players had to learn a completely new technique because of the different system of valves. They didn’t like that, so it wasn’t really a success.

The last time it was played was in 1980, for a film. We’ve got a clip of it on our website. I was surprised by the sound when I first heard it. I can’t describe it: it’s thinner than I thought, but quite sharp.

It was used in opera. It was played until the first half of the 20th century and then it just stopped. It’s not even used historically for practice.

I think Sax, today, would be very happy with the modern saxophones because they’re superior to his. If he had continued making them he would probably have arrived at the same point.”

  • The Musical Instruments Museum is part of 100Masters, celebrating 100 masterpieces from museums across Brussels. Visit 100masters.brussels. For more objects from the museum, visit mim.be.

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