Hot Sax: Saxophone Works of 20th Century


  • Artist(s): Duo Otto e Quindici
  • Composer(s): Darius Milhaud, Erwin Schulhoff, Eugène Bozza, Graham Fitkin, Piet Swerts
  • EAN Code: 7.46160665764
  • Edition: Da Vinci Classics
  • Format: 1 Cd
  • Genre: Chamber
  • Instrumentation: Piano, Sax
  • Period: Contemporary
SKU: C00226 Category:

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A justly famous cartoon by Walt Disney, Music Land (1935) depicts a Romeo-and-Juliet story whose protagonists are musical instruments: the two rivalling family are based on two neighbouring islands, one consecrated to classical music, and the other to jazz. The two young lovers are, therefore, a slightly odd couple with a “female” violin and a “male” saxophone. Nearly a century after its creation (c.1840), thus, the saxophone had already become the embodiment of the alternative to classical music.

The saxophone owes its name to Adolphe Sax, who developed a range of instruments (collectively indicated as saxophones) taking inspiration from several pre-existing wind instruments but creatively combining them so as to realize a unique and innovative woodwind. Sax obtained patents for fourteen kinds of saxophones, although some of them did not stand the test of time. Ultimately, only the B-flat and E-flat families were really successful, and they constitute the overwhelming majority of saxophone presently in use. Sax’s instruments and their later developments possessed a smoothness of sound similar to that of the clarinet, but also a more penetrant and powerful sound, and an extreme flexibility both on the mechanical and on the musical plane; thus, they allowed both the touching expression of singing qualities and the brilliant virtuosity in dazzling passages. For these and for similar reasons, the saxophone was quickly adopted by military and marching bands; through these, it conquered America, and became – as in Disney’s cartoon – the musical symbol of a new music. Through its mellow sound, combined with the energy it possessed, it became one of the favourite instruments of jazz music and of other genres which alternated moments of deep passion with others of lightness and flashiness.

The fact that saxophones are irreplaceable protagonists of jazz music is indisputable, and Disney’s cartoon purposefully exploit this established association in order to visually and aurally embody the opposition of “classical” and “non-classical” in the love-story it depicts. However, at the beginning of their history, saxophones belonged in the same “island” as the violins (there were classes of saxophone at the Conservatory of Paris until 1870); and though classical music did not ultimately welcome them as wholeheartedly as other genres did, there is an august tradition of classical music for the saxophone which should not be forgotten (to cite just one example among the many, Maurice Ravel used the saxophone very idiomatically in two of his iconic works: Boléro and the orchestration of Mussorgskij’s Pictures at an Exhibition). In these pieces, saxophones are used both for their lyrical and intense sound and for the exotic flavour they bring to the music; it is therefore rather unsurprising that these same qualities fascinated Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) who was a Frenchman like Ravel, and like him, belonged in the classical tradition but was open to influences from a variety of styles and genres.

Milhaud’s Scaramouche brilliantly combines an exotic inspiration with the most refined styles of French music: it is not by chance that his encounters with traditional Brazilian music can be dated back to 1917-19, when Milhaud served in Brazil as the secretary to the local French Ambassador (who was, incidentally, none other than the great poet Paul Claudel). Just as the two men represented their country and its culture abroad, so several of Milhaud’s “Brazilian” works build cultural bridges across the Atlantic.

Scaramouche op. 165 (1937-9) came to life following a request by Marguerite Long, one of the most important French pianists and teacher, who wished two of her former students (i.e. Marcelle Meyer and Ida Jankelevitch) to play it on the occasion of a Universal Exposition. After the original version for two pianos, the piece was transcribed for solo clarinet or saxophone and orchestra; many other versions, mostly apocryphal, followed suit.

The first and third movements were adapted by Milhaud from his recent stage-music for a children’s play called Le medécin volant; the play had been performed at the Théâtre Scaramouche, which lent its name to the entire composition. The second movement comes instead from Bolivar op. 148, composed in 1935. The composer did not nourish great expectations for his piece; indeed, he discouraged his publisher from printing it and offering it to the public: “I thought”, wrote Milhaud, “that no one would ever play it. However, my publisher had a very peculiar character; he would never print anything except what he liked. He was particularly fond of Scaramouche; he thought it sounded well. The future would prove him right!”. Indeed, Scaramouche possesses a unique verve, a distinctive charm and the rare quality of imprinting itself indelibly in the listener’s memory, thanks to its lively rhythms, ironic style, and constant (and very amusing) musical quarrelling of the two instruments.

Part of this irony and witticism possibly came to Milhaud from his Jewish family; indeed, he had to leave Europe during the Nazi persecution of the Jews, and could only come back to France after its liberation. Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), another Jewish composer, underwent instead the full horror of the Shoah, dying of tuberculosis in a Bavarian concentration camp. He was, indeed, the ideal target of the abominable violence of the Nazis, not only for his Jewish descent, but also for his Communist sympathies (he had even wrote a musical version of the Communist Manifesto), for his appreciation of jazz music (which he cleverly interwove in his works) and for the ironic and satirical Dadaism of his works and of their titles.

Schulhoff’s Hot Sonate for alto saxophone and piano is possibly one of the most representative works of the jazz period of its composer. Schulhoff had familiarized himself with jazz from a rather early date, and had even published a textbook of jazz piano; in 1930, he performed the Sonata’s premiere together with the British saxophone player Billy Barton. As Joseph Bek put it, “In comparison with other jazz-inspired works, this one deserves a higher ranking. The jazz elements are integrated within the structures of the classical Sonata form, without depriving the piece of its jazz character, of its spontaneity and lightness. Typical elements are the combination of pentatonic scales, harmonies of fourth and fifth, parallel chordal motions, polyrhythmic elements and a motoric accompaniment”.

Also Eugène Bozza (1905-1991), who was Milhaud’s and Schulhoff’s junior by about ten years, had undergone the deep impression made on European listeners by jazz music; however, remained one of his numerous sources of inspiration. His Aria for alto saxophone and piano is unquestionably his best-known piece, and its evident model is the style of Johann Sebastian Bach (with clear references to the third movement of his Pastorale in F major BWV 590). The piece was written by Bozza during his stay in Villa Medici in Rome as the award-winner of the Prix de Rome, and it was dedicated to Marcel Mule, one of the most celebrated saxophone players of the era. Bozza was particularly at ease with the language of wind music (even though his instrumental training had been as a violinist), and manages to exploit the particular technique of the saxophone in an extremely competent manner; the piece’s lyrical style requires considerable technical skills, and contributes to making it one of the repertoire’s milestones.

More than fifty years separate the three composers hitherto mentioned from the following two: Piet Swerts was born in 1960 while Graham Fitkin is three years his junior. Swerts, a Belgian composer, is a preeminent figure in the contemporary music of his country and has achieved international fame; his vast catalogue encompasses all genres of chamber music and symphonic music, and his works for saxophone are numerous. Klonos was commissioned by the Tromp Music Competition of Eindhoven in 1993; it is titled after a Greek word referring, as the composer put it, to “a cramp-like contraction of the muscles, associated with the heavy movements that some saxophonists make during the fire of playing (for example, think about free jazz)…The work is… a bravura-like fantasy with a more subtle, yet intense middle section. Klonos finishes with a wild, even more virtuosic reprise. For the gifted saxophonist, it is quite a ride”.

Also Gate by Graham Fitkin is “quite a ride” in its own style. Written in 2001, it is described by its composer as follows: “This piece started from one thing – a trill. The alternation of two adjacent notes gives rise to a simple and constant grouping of beats. Place it in different temporal contexts and the inherent quality of the trill is questioned”. The trill is first heard at the piano, in the form of an ostinato repetition of semiquavers: this hypnotic movement suggests the minimalist style which has frequently been associated with the composer’s language. Here, the vibrating quality of the saxophone’s sound is explored thoroughly, giving the piece a particularly enthralling style.

Thus, the entire palette of the saxophone and of its combination with the piano is explored in this programme; and, to come back to the Disney cartoon cited above, it should be said that the saxophone seems at ease in a great variety of different contexts, ranging from the South-American rhythms of Milhaud to Schulhoff’s jazz to the gorgeous atmospheres of Bozza’s pieces and to the most innovative explorations of the younger composers.

Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio


The Duo “Otto e Quindici” was founded in January 2009 and owes its name to the fortuitous encounter that led to its formation, a meeting that took place between the pianist Anna Lisa Giordano and the saxophonist Alfredo Cerrito on the train Rome – Naples of 8:15.
The two musicians have had the opportunity to perform at various festivals and concert halls throughout Italy, in prestigious music halls and seasons such as the “Musei di Villa Torlonia” in Rome , “Auditorium San Barnaba” of Brescia , “Auditorium Monteverdi” in Mantova , theater “Aurelio” in Rome , Palazzo Ducale in Lucca , the Hall “Bernareggi” in Bergamo, “Palazzo Monsignani” in Imola , the Auditorium "Gaber" in Milan, at the “Accademia Filarmonica Romana” in Rome and in many other locations, and abroad: Switzerland, Slovenia, Finland, France, Germany, Austria. In October 2013 they held a concert, organized by the Italian Embassy in collaboration with the Iraqi Ministry of Culture , at the National Theatre in Baghdad (Iraq). In 2015 they were invited by the Italian Embassy of Vietnam to represent Italy during the "Italian Language Week"; they performed in various concert halls and held masterclasses in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.
In 2011, the two musicians performed the world premiere of "Toccata" by the composer Fabio Conocchiella, dedicated to them. The Duo has attended the Chamber Music course at the Academy "Incontri col Maestro" in Imola, where they studied under the guidance of M° Konstantin Bogino. They also attended the courses held by M° Laura Pietrocini and the "Ars Trio di Roma".
The Duo has participated in many international Chamber Music Competitions, always enjoying great success: in 2011 the two musicians are the winners of the first prize at the International Chamber Music Competition in Bellagio and the first prize at the prestigious international Competition "Camillo Togni" of Brescia, in 2012 they won the first prize at the international Competition "Città di Rocchetta"


Darius Milhaud: (b Marseilles, 4 Sept 1892; d Geneva, 22 June 1974). French composer. He was associated with the avant garde of the 1920s, whose abundant production reflects all musical genres. A pioneer in the use of percussion, polytonality, jazz and aleatory techniques, his music allies lyricism with often complex harmonies. Though his sources of inspiration were many and varied, his music has compelling stylistic unity.

Erwin Schulhoff (b Prague, 8 June 1894; d Wülzburg,18 Aug 1942). Czech composer and pianist of German descent.

Eugène Bozza (b Nice, 4 April 1905; d Valenciennes, 28 Sept 1991). French composer and conductor. He studied with Büsser, Rabaud, Capet and Nadaud at the Paris Conservatoire where he won premiers prix for the violin (1924), conducting (1930) and composition (1934), and also the Prix de Rome with La légende de Roukmāni (1934). From 1938 to 1948 he conducted at the Opéra-Comique in Paris and in 1951 he was appointed director of the Ecole Nationale de Musique, Valenciennes, an appointment he held until his retirement in 1975. He was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1956. Though his large-scale works have been successfully performed in France, his international reputation rests on his substantial output of chamber music for wind. This displays at a high level the qualities characteristic of mid-20th-century French chamber music: melodic fluency, elegance of structure and a consistently sensitive concern for instrumental capabilities.

Graham Fitkin (b Crows-an-Wra, West Cornwall, 19 April 1963). English composer. He studied at the University of Nottingham with Peter Nelson and Nigel Osborne (1981–4), then with Louis Andriessen at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague (1984–7). In 1985 he co-founded Nanquidno, a group of pianists at two keyboards. Piano music has been central to Fitkin's output; from the early multiple piano works, such as Loud (1989), Log (1990) and Line (1991), each composed for the British ensemble Six Pianos, Fitkin turned after 1991 to writing exclusively solo pieces.

The piano's neutrality and relatively unified sound quality are strong attractions for a composer much concerned with clarity, with music as abstract formal design and with an aesthetic that, despite a frequent use of quasi-programmatic titles and an often considerable urgency of expression, is essentially classical. Fitkin's style, as well as his aesthetic, has developed out of minimalism, notably the European variety associated with his Dutch teacher. Many of his compositions stress rhythmic propulsion allied to an individual timbral pungency. At the same time his style incorporates a pronounced lyrical streak and a harmonic language which ranges from the acidic to the plangent.

Fitkin lived in London from 1987 to 1991, before moving back to his native Cornwall. During the early 1990s he became increasingly in demand as a composer for contemporary dance, for music theatre (in works such as Ghosts, written for the Royal Opera House's Garden Venture scheme in 1994) and especially for large orchestra. In the 12 orchestral compositions written in 1994–8 (five while composer-in-association with the Royal Liverpool PO in 1994–6), Fitkin explores the full range of the conventional orchestra as well as the wind-dominated ensembles favoured by other post-minimalists. He formed a sextet, the Graham Fitkin Group, in 1996.

Piet Swerts (b Tongeren, 14 Nov 1960). Belgian composer. He studied at the Lemmens Institute in Leuven and obtained the Lemmens Tinel Prize for piano and composition in 1985. He wrote his first composition at the age of 12. He attended summer courses held by Lutosławski and Kotonski in Poland. His works were twice chosen as compulsory pieces for the Queen Elisabeth Contest: Rotations for piano and orchestra in 1987 and Zodiac for violin and orchestra in 1993. He won several composition prizes: Flor Baron Peeters, Camille Huysmans, SABAM, Belgian Artistic Promotion, the provinces of Brabant and Limbourg.

Swerts is a versatile, pragmatic and eclectic synthesist, in whose works structure always grows with and from musical content. Imitation and polyphony or shifting panchromatic units are well-known principles; tonality and panchromatism go hand in hand. Swerts favours the chromatic espressivo, used in his String Quartet to evoke Mahler, Beethoven, Shostakovich and Ravel in turns. In other works Wagner, Bartók and Lutosławski serve as models, for example in the Symphony no.1 and the Marcuspassie which also alludes to Bach and medieval parallel organum.

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