If one considers the most common and widespread musical instruments, only one displays in its name that of its inventor. And this is the saxophone. The instrument was created by Adolphe Sax (1814-1894), from Belgium, the son of an instrument maker by the name of Charles Joseph. Adolphe demonstrated precocious signs of musical talent, and was admitted to the Conservatoire of Brussels, where he was enrolled as a student of singing and flute at first. Later, however, he decided to study the clarinet, which soon became his favourite instrument. Even though he was enthralled by the clarinet – or precisely for this reason – he began to experiment with it, also thanks to the tools and expertise he found in his father’s workshop. It is believed that the inspiration for Sax’s building of the saxophone came from the idea of combining the mouthpiece of a bass clarinet with elements from the ophicleide.
Sax understood that his instrument had the potential to become a global success – as it would indeed become. Therefore, he moved to Paris with the aim in mind of promoting the instrument, of involving gifted composers and of convincing them to write for his instrument, and also of publishing these works in order to create a repertoire. In fact, an instrument only becomes successful when there is a virtuous circle built on the instrument’s own qualities, on the repertoire it possesses, and on the performers it may involve.
Sax managed to convince some of the greatest composers of the era, including Hector Berlioz, Gaetano Donizetti and Giacomo Meyerbeer. The instrument’s consecration happened in 1843, when no less a musician than Hector Berlioz transcribed his earlier Chant Sacré for an instrumental ensemble featuring the new “saxophone”. Indeed, the work so arranged was rebaptized as Hymne pour les instruments de Sax. The inventor continued improving his creations, and, in 1846, had the full “family” of his instruments ready, with the saxophones in F, C, B flat and E flat. In order to establish a performing tradition, Sax also requested and obtained a class at the Conservatoire of Paris, where he taught for thirteen years, until 1870.
As previously stated, the saxophone was virtually born “as a quartet”. Its very inventor conceived it as a set of instruments, capable, together, of covering the full range of Western musical composition. The composer himself created a publishing house, which, within the first seventy years of its activity (1858-1928), printed no less than twenty-one quartets for saxophones. However, the affirmation of the saxophone quartet as a chamber ensemble is commonly ascribed to the efforts of Marcel Mule (1901-2001), who was possibly not the first who played in this ensemble, but who certainly was the one who established it with continuity.
Scholar Scott Plugge identified four elements which favoured the success of the saxophone quartet. Firstly, there was Sax’s own activity as a teacher at the Paris conservatoire, allowing him to convince his colleagues to write for his instrument. Secondly, the ensemble’s success came also from wind bands, both military and civilian. Thirdly, the instrument managed to break through the American culture and to conquer both audience and performers there, actually becoming one of the musical symbols of America.
However, the first great masterpiece of the literature for saxophone quartet did not come from the US, but rather from Russia. It is the saxophone quartet by Alexander Glazunov. To be sure, Glazunov became acquainted with the relatively new instrument thanks to his journeys westwards: to Paris, where he could hear works featuring the saxophone written by Massenet and Thomas, and to the US where he discovered the still young language of jazz. Back home, Glazunov was commissioned to write a saxophone quartet, and wrote to a friend, in 1932: “The novelty of this work really thrills me, because I was formerly writing only string quartets. I don’t know how it will sound”. The work was completed between March and May 1932, and described it as follows: “I completed a composition for four saxophones […]. Movement I, Allegro in B major in 3/4 with rhythm: a bit of American! Movement II, Canzona variée. The theme is built only on harmony; the first two variations are strict classical medieval style. Next follows a variation with trills à la Schumann (akin to his Symphonic Etudes), variation à la Chopin and Scherzo. The Finale is in a fairly playful style”.
Glazunov’s pioneering masterpiece is clearly indebted to his earlier output of string quartets. Moreover, it displays homages to and influences from other composers, both explicit (as in the above-mentioned citations of Schumann and Chopin) and implicit, as, for instance, in the Wagnerian harmonies found in the first movement or the Mendelssohnian quality of the Scherzo. Typical traits of Glazunov’s own style are also found, of course; for instance, his weaving of melody within the entire fabric of the ensemble, and the compositional strategies (such as melodic inversion) employed in the first two variations of the Canzona Variée. The work was premiered by the Quatuor de la Garde Républicaine, i.e. the one founded by Marcel Mule, to great acclaim and sensation. Two years later, Glazunov would return to the saxophone, writing the E-major Concerto for alto saxophone and strings, on a commission by Sigurd Rascher.
Another major composer who wrote frequently for the saxophone (either as a protagonist, or as a member of larger ensembles) was Jean Françaix. By his time, the saxophone had already acquired some further symbolic connotations thanks to its use in jazz music. Whilst contemporary classical music never ceased to be interested in its mellow and penetrant sound, the saxophone’s presence in the non-classical field allowed its lighter and more brilliant potential to emerge. Françaix was perfectly capable of writing “serious” and at times very touching music, including sacred works; however, there is a lightness in many of his composition which never fails to appeal to the listener.
Françaix dedicated a notable amount of attention to the saxophone between the mid-1930s and the early 1960s. This mirrors his interest in this instrument, but also the laudable initiative of the Paris Conservatoire which constantly commissioned new works as pièces de concours. For the saxophone quartet, Françaix wrote the Petit quatuor and the Suite, the latter probably in the early 1970s. It is a brilliant, exhilarating, technically demanding piece, with plenty of musical ideas and of humour.
The final work on this album is a more recent, and very welcome addition to the ensemble’s repertoire. It was written by Japanese composer Jun Nagao, whose musical activity began in the field of arrangements for orchestras and wind ensembles. He later gained global recognition thanks to his own compositions, destined both for the concert hall and for other fields of musicianship, such as those connected with the visual. Among these, he is particularly appreciated for his film scores and for the music he composed for video games. One of his most important works, by the title of L’été-L’oubli rouge, was the recipient of the prestigious Toru Takemitsu Composition Award in 2000.
His output for wind ensembles is particularly abundant. Already in 1998 he had written a fascinating concerto for alto saxophone and wind ensemble (Die Heldenzeit), and another major contribution of his to this repertoire is Four Seasons of Trouvère. His Quatuor de Saxophones is among his earliest works of chamber music; his continuing interest in the saxophone is revealed by other compositions, including Your Kindness for saxophone and piano (2003), The Planets of Trouvère for saxophone quartet (2004), Paganini Lost for two alto saxophones and piano (2008), and a very appreciated and brilliant Rhapsody on “Carmen” by Georges Bizet for saxophone quartet and piano.
His Quatuour is in four movements, each bearing a French title referring to a French verb: “Perdre” (“Losing [oneself]”), “Chercher” (“Searching”), “Aspirer” (“Aspiring”), “Trouver” (“Finding”). The composer’s language is multifaceted, and the four movements are sharply in contrast with each other. For instance, Perdre – faithful to its title – is a puzzling wandering among harmonies and sonorities, at times pierced by intense cries. By way of contrast, Chercher is rather stably rooted in the tonal idiom, and is characterized by cheerful rhythms and sounds. Its language is, at times, reminiscent of folk music from Eastern Europe. The “aspiration” hinted at by the third movement translates musically as an intensely melodic and profoundly nostalgic music, where the four instruments merge their sounds and their lines in a touching fabric. Finally, the experience of “finding” is conceived as a deeply exhilarating moment by the composer. The last movement flows at a bright pace, in a whirlwind of intertwining melodies.
Together, these works reveal and demonstrate – if such a demonstration were needed – the potential and richness of this ensemble, its capability to reach a wide range of moods and emotions, and to express anything, from the most intense despair to the most joyful cheerfulness.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2021
The Vagues Saxophone Quartet is not your standard saxophone quartet. Its dynamic structure can be modulated at will. Its four members are all poly-instrumentalists: this allows for a flexible reinterpretation of the saxophone ensemble, displaying its multifaceted timbral resources in a variety of novel combinations.
The ensemble’s guiding principle is to promote what already exists and to foster the creation of what can come into being. This means to engage the historical repertoire originally conceived for saxophone quartet and to invite the composition of new works, in a constant interaction with composers, exploring the endless possibilities offered by innovative performing practices.
This double perspective was already observed on their debut concert, in 2016, at the prestigious festival “Milano Musica”, where they premiered Gabriele Cosmi’s Kic, dedicated to and written for them.
This was just the beginning of a net of stimulating collaborations. Over the years, the Vagues Saxophone Quartet cooperated with famous composers such as Fabien Levy, Stylianos Dimou, Gabriele Cosmi, Federico Troncatti, Paolo Coggiola, Paolo Ugoletti, Leonardo Bolgeri. In 2017 they performed Levy’s Durch and premiered Ugoletti’s Hard Waves in Germany and Italy. They also interpreted Ugoletti’s Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Wind Band in 2018 at the Gala Concert of the International Competition Flicorno d’Oro, with the Brescia Wind Orchestra under the baton of M° Angelo Bolciaghi. Another work by Ugoletti, Russian Bells, for saxophone quartet and organ, was premiered by the Quartet with Sardinian organist Giovanni Solinas; with this programme they toured extensively in Germany and Italy eliciting the appreciation of both audience and critics (“All appeared to have been already said about Bach, but the Vagues Saxophone Quartet and Giovanni Solinas demonstrated that the opposite is true”, Rheinische Post).
In 2018 the Quartet represented Italy at the XVIII World Saxophone Congress in Zagreb (Croatia), premiering Federico Troncatti’s In Memoriam Bob Berg. They also performed for important seasons, such as Società del Quartetto of Milan (at Casa Verdi and at the Borsa), at Festivals such as “Le altre Note”, Valtellina Teatro Festival (with works by Jinrich Feld, Giuseppe Ruggiero, and Beethoven's Trio Op. 87 transcribed by Francesco Ronzio), Festival Lago e Monti in Varenna (where they premiered Paolo Coggiola’s Subway Dances).
Among the several prizes and awards won by the Quartet are the “Premio Novecento” for the best performance of modern and contemporary music at the International Competition “Luigi Nono” (Venaria Reale) as well as the International Competition of Contemporary Music Performance organized by the Fondazione Flavio Vespasiano of Rieti.
Aleksandr Konstantinovich Glazunov,
(b St Petersburg, 29 July/10 Aug 1865; d Paris, 21 March 1936). Russian composer. His father was a book publisher, his mother a pianist. Gifted with an exceptional ear and musical memory, he began to study the piano at the age of nine and to compose at the age of 11; his first teacher was Ėlenkovsky. In 1879 he met Balakirev, who recommended Rimsky-Korsakov as a private composition teacher. These studies lasted less than two years as the pupil progressed ‘not from day to day but from hour to hour’, in Rimsky-Korsakov's words. A lifelong friendship developed between teacher and student, despite the difference in age. When he was 16 Glazunov completed his First Symphony, which was given a successful première on 29 March 1882 under Balakirev's direction. In November of the same year Glazunov's First String Quartet was performed. His precocious talent aroused the interest of the art patron Mitrofan Belyayev, who devoted his immense fortune to furthering the career of Glazunov and the younger generation of Russian composers. In 1885 Belyayev organized the Russian Symphony Concerts in St Petersburg and a music publishing house in Leipzig. The ‘Belyayev Circle’, as it became known, assembled every Friday in the palatial home of the patron, and Glazunov, despite his youth, became a prominent member, with Rimsky-Korsakov, Lyadov, Vītols, Blumenfeld, V.V. Ėval'd and others. In a way, the Belyayev Circle continued from where The Five had left off, but with an important difference: by the 1880s, the battle for a national Russian school had been won; the Belyayev Circle consolidated the gains and effected a rapprochement with the West. As Rimsky-Korsakov said: ‘The Balakirev circle represented a period of battle and pressure on behalf of the development of Russian music’.
Jean (René Désiré) Françaix
(b Le Mans, 23 May 1912; d Paris, 25 Sept 1997). French composer and pianist. He was born into a musical family: his mother was a singer and teacher of singing, his father Alfred a composer, pianist, musicologist and director of the Le Mans Conservatoire, and it was they who shaped his earliest musical education. His precocious gifts were recognized by Ravel, who wrote to Alfred Françaix: ‘Among the child's gifts I observe above all the most fruitful an artist can possess, that of curiosity: you must not stifle these precious gifts now or ever, or risk letting this young sensibility wither.’