Happy (Belated) Birthday, Mr. Sax!

I was just notified by reading Everything you always wanted to know about sax but were afraid to ask. « to55er’s Blog that Nov. 6 is (well, was, now) the birthday of Mr. Adolphe Sax.

I’m not a saxophone player. I’ve never been a saxophone player.

I did, however, play the bass clarinet.

While Mr. Sax is best known for the instrument that bears his name, he is also the reason that the bass clarinet and the even rarer contrabass clarinet have their distinctive outline, with a bell and neck resembling that of the deeper saxophones.

The resemblance is not accidental. In fact, sheet music, mouthpiece ligatures, and reeds can be shared between tenor saxophones and bass clarinets.

(In situations where no bass clarinet sheet music exists, it’s often better to reach for tenor saxophone music than for clarinet – not only is there a natural octave difference between clarinet and bass clarinet, but clarinet is often written higher on the stave than is comfortable on bass clarinet given the greater air requirements.)

There’s one reason (and my understanding is that it’s functionally the only reason) tenor saxophone mouthpieces and bass clarinet mouthpieces are not interchangeable. All saxophones have the cork on the neck, with the mouthpiece sliding onto it. All clarinets have the cork on the mouthpiece in the exact opposite configuration. This holds true no matter what specific instrument of each type you’re looking at.

The resemblance of the bass clarinet to both the common clarinet and to the common alto saxophone has become a joke several times in my life. The most memorable was when I was looking at class ring options in high school. The ‘Woodwind Section’ activity side was a crossed clarinet and saxophone (which did play a large role in my choice of that side, since the bass clarinet is literally a cross of those two instruments). Years later, I still laugh sometimes when I look at it.

So happy belated birthday, Mr. Sax, and thank you.

I’ll leave you all tonight with the London Symphony Orchestra masterclass clip on youtube for the bass clarinet, which is a wonderful sampler of the sounds the instrument is capable of producing.

(LSO Masterclass – Bass Clarinet)


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