SATURDAY MARCH 12

15H – CONCERT

Tunnel Riva

Durée approximative 1h30

Marc Vaubourgoin
Six petites pièces pour saxophone alto et piano

Eugène Bozza
Aria pour saxophone alto et piano

Paul Pierné
Concertino pour saxophone alto et piano

André Caplet
Impressions d’automne pour saxophone alto et piano

Claude Debussy
Rapsodie pour saxophone alto et piano

Maurice Ravel
Sonate pour piano (arrangement de Claude Delangle pour saxophone soprano et piano
Sonate pour violon et piano en sol majeur (arrangement de Sandro Compagnon pour saxophone soprano et piano)

Sandro Compagnon, saxophone
Gaspard Dehaene, piano

The birth of the saxophone repertoire

“The saxophone is a simple reed animal about whose habits I know little.” This humorous confession by Claude Debussy, from 1903, says a lot about the saxophone’s unique status in French classical music. Th instrument’s novelty derives from the fact that it is young compared to the others in a symphony orchestra. Patented in 1846, by Belgian postman Adolph Sax, the saxophone was first considered a curiosity – among other inventions such as the ophicleide and the saxotromba. Nevertheless, it did slowly join the symphony orchestra, during the second half of the 19th century. For instance, we find it in operas such as Fromental Halévy’s Le Juif errant (1852), Giacomo Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine (1865) or Jules Massenet’s Le Roi de Lahore (1877) and Herodiade (1881). However, the saxophone remains an occasional presence, confined to passages tinged with exoticism – which shows that its sound was considered synonymous with strangeness. In 1900, the saxophone still suffered from a lack of legitimacy and an absence of a proper chamber and solo repertoire.

It caught up spectacularly in the early 20th century. The program of this concert reflects this and examines the process by which the saxophone became fully accepted. Three factors facilitated its establishment in classical music, the first being private patronage. Here, Elisa Hall (1853-1924) was one of the most significant figures, having started playing the saxophone, on the advice of her doctor husband, to treat the onset of deafness. The first female saxophonist to perform on stage, Hall devoted a good chunk of her wealth to commissioning pieces intended to give the instrument a solo repertoire by the best composers of the day. We are indebted to her for two major works for saxophone by leading composers: André Caplet’s elegiac Impression d’Automne (1900) and Debussy’s Rhapsodie (1901-1911). First entitled Rhapsodie arabe then Rhapsodie orientale, this piece, contemporary with La Mer, is a perfect product of the musical modernity of the 1900s, marked as the period was by Impressionism and Orientalism.

The second factor in the rise of the saxophone came from the discovery of jazz, after the First World War. In the 1920s, many composers – Darius Milhaud leading the charge – underscored the essential part that the saxophone (described by Jean Cocteau as a “big nickel tube”) played in American music. The musical press celebrated its “resurrection” (Léon Vallas) and its “rehabilitation” (Émile Vuillermoz). Consequently, many composers chose to use it in their works, including Milhaud, Maurice Ravel (in his Bolero), Florent Schmitt and Jacques Ibert.

However, the third (and especially important) factor in the development of a solo repertoire for the saxophone was the proliferation of transcriptions. Marcel Mule (1901-2001), founder of the French Saxophone School, systematized this practice in the 1920s, to prove to music lovers that the saxophone could perfectly well be used to play baroque music (Johann Sebastian Bach and Jean‑Marie Leclair in particular) and to make his instrument interesting to contemporary composers. I had arranged some of Ravel’s songs, some melodies, to attract his attention,” he explained, in 1994. Mule’s strategy paid off. After he had transcribed the composer’s Pièce en forme de Habanera for saxophone, Ravel had the idea of writing a Saxophone Quartet. Unfortunately, this never came to be. Similarly, Mule persuaded Eugène Bozza – the now forgotten 1934 winner of the Grand Prix de Rome – to make a saxophone adaptation of his famous Aria (1936), which is to the saxophone what Sergey Rachmaninov’s Vocalise is to the voice. We can also thank Mule for two works characteristic of the elegant French neoclassicism of the 1940s and 50s: Paul Pierné’s Concertino (1946) and Marc Vaubourgoin’s Six petites pièces (1951). These two works were overshadowed (as was the composer) by the success of the avant-garde, then led by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Boulez.

Mule’s approach set a precedent with his students and his successors at the head of the saxophone class at the Paris Conservatoire. The most recent of these, Claude Delangle (born in 1957), has written a transcription of Ravel’s Sonatine (1905). Meanwhile, saxophonist Sandro Compagnon (born in 1996) chose to work on Ravel’s Violin Sonata. His transcription both anchors the saxophone in the classical French tradition and contributes to developing the instrument’s possibilities. The Sonata’s Perpetuum mobile, a virtuoso piece if ever there was one, confirms the use of techniques still experimental at the end of the 20th century: double-tonguing and circular breathing.

The growing interest in the saxophone among classical composers, which started around 1900 and has never abated, therefore owes much to the players themselves and their transcriptions. From this viewpoint, the young Sandro Compagnon perpetuates a century-old tradition.

Martin Guerpin

©Alice Blangero


Parkings Quai Antoine 1er et Digue: Forfait spectacle “Festival Printemps des Arts” 4€*
(pay on presentation of the concert ticket at the reception of the car park – valid for an arrival up to 1h before the event. 1st hour free and night rate from 7pm: 0,60€* / hour)  *subject to rate changes in 2022