A jazzy classical piece for the saxophone

A saxophone concerto from Russia with love. © Charles Thibo
A saxophone concerto from Russia with love. © Charles Thibo

Do you know, who invented the saxophone?  Mr. Sax, obviously! Albert Sax, a Belgian wind instrument maker, developed this instrument around 1840. He was a clarinetist and started to work at his father’s clarinet making workshop in Brussels before he set up his own workshop in Paris with the help of the French composer Hector Berlioz… and became the primary supplier to French army bands!

A young instrument

Since the saxophone is a relatively young instrument, it took some time before it became accepted in the context of symphonic works or chamber music. Interestingly, it initially also met resistance in jazz circles. Jazz – that is one of our keywords today.

Is this jazz? There is a saxophone for sure. And the piece swings, it groves, it talks to me about sadness and fun and elegance and so many more things. And yet, it’s not jazz. It’s Glazunov’s Saxophone Concerto in E flat major, Op. 109. And it’s rather cool. I recommend the recording by the Russian National Orchestra led by the Uruguayan conductor José Serebier and Marc Chisson playing the alto saxophone.

Praise from Rimsky-Korsakov

Alexander Glazunov was born in 1865 in St. Petersburg, 25 years after Mr. Sax had invented the saxophone. His mother was a pianist, and his talent quickly showed. He studied with Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, who praised him as a fast learner and became a personal friend. At the age of 16, he wrote a first symphony which was well received by the public and won him a patron, the industrialist Mitrofan Belyayev.

Glazunov quickly became known as a master in orchestration, absorbing both the wisdom of Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Alexander Borodin. He was a kind of musical shooting star in pre-revolutionary Russia. By 1890, Glazunov had established himself as a composer, a conductor and a teacher. All in all, he wrote nine symphonies, several piano and string concerts, three ballets, incidental and choral music, many songs and a substantial number of chamber music pieces, mainly strings quartets or quintets.

Absorbing modern western music

The saxophone concerto was one of his latest works. It was published in 1934, at a time where Glazunov spent most of his time outside of the newly founded USSR. Between 1929 and 1931 he toured Europe and the USA as a conductor.  He often lived in Paris where he died in 1936. The concerto shows the influence contemporary music in Western Europe and the USA – jazz and swing – had on him. The saxophone concerto was commissioned by the American saxophonist Sigurd Rascher.

I am always stupefied by the close relationship between classical music  and jazz. It’s probably the reason why I like both so much! Many excellent jazz musicians had or have a classical background. Many characteristics of jazz music have been taken up by classical composers: Glazunov’s concerto of course, Dmitry Shostakovitch’s Jazz Suites and the  Brass Quintets written by Viktor Ewald, who lived at about the same time as Glazunov, Kurt Weill’s “Three Penny Opera” and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. Does classical music have a future? You bet! It always had.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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