Sopranino saxophone


When Adolphe Sax (1814-1894) considered the creation of his ‘system of wind instruments, known as saxophones’, he already had in mind a complete family of single-reed instruments with conical bore, of several sizes. In his patent No. 3226 of 21 March 1846, he described the different members of the saxophone family, even if he gave detailed drawings of only two saxophones, the baritone and the bass. Sax first set out to create a bass register instrument with a voice that was beautiful, powerful and homogeneous throughout its range. The other instruments were developed successively in the years following the filing of the patent.

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We don’t know if Sax really produced the huge contrabass and bourdon (sub-contrabass) saxophones mentioned in the patent, but we know that his initial prototype was a bass saxophone (in C or B flat), whose air column had the respectable length of 3m. The baritone in E flat was produced directly after the famous patent, all the earliest preserved saxophones being of this type. The tenor saxophone in B flat, according to current terminology, is presented with precision in another patent, taken out in Belgium in 1850, and its use was proven in 1853. The alto in E flat was probably produced very soon after the invention, even if the earliest surviving instruments date from 1848. The soprano in B flat has been commercialized by 1849.

The sopranino

The smallest member of the family (46 cm long), the sopranino in E-flat (or in F), the highest pitched made by Sax, was considered by Berlioz worth a mention in the revised version of his Grand Traité d’instrumentation, published in 1855. The composer of the Symphonie fantastique described its timbre as ‘penetrating’. It sounds one octave higher than the alto saxophone. In Sax’s time, it was probably not made at a large scale. The very rare preserved specimens date from 1879-1880, that is to say towards the end of the maker’s career.

We know rather few musical uses of this very special saxophone. Long after Sax’s death, Maurice Ravel used the instrument in his Boléro (1928). But in practice, it was and still is often replaced by a soprano saxophone which can easily play what Ravel wrote for the sopranino.

The mim’s saxophone collection has 48 instruments, but also various accessories such as mouthpieces, ligatures, reeds, cases, etc. It includes a single sopranino saxophone, alongside 11 sopranos, 18 altos, 9 tenors, 7 baritones, 1 bass and 1 Swanee sax. This sopranino, our instrument of the month, could have been used during the premiere of Ravel’s Bolero since it dates, according to its serial number, from 1920.

In the bell mark we can see the name of a well-known Parisian company, specialized in wind instruments: Buffet Crampon. This close competitor of the Selmer firm – the latter would buy the workshops of the son of Adolphe Sax in 1928-1929 – was at the time under the control of Maurice Evette and Ernest Schaeffer. Evette & Schaeffer had made a name for themselves since 1885, notably thanks to their high quality saxophones. The mark engraved on the bell of the saxophone also mentions that it is a true Evette & Schaeffer product, ‘former house Buffet Crampon & Co’ whose monogram with the intertwined B and C letters is also preserved.

Nowadays, the use of sopranino is quite limited. It is in any case rarer than the soprano which is part of the standard saxophone quartet. The sopranino even lost its status of highest saxophone when the sopranissimo – or soprillo – was developed at the beginning of the 21st century by the German maker Benedikt Eppelsheim.

Jazzmen (and -women) like Anthony Braxton, Lol Coxhill, Carla Marciano, Wess Anderson (listen to his long improvised solo on Resolution by John Coltrane, at 05:37), Christophe Monniot, Daniel Stokart play or have played the sopranino saxophone more than occasionally, even if it is not their main instrument. A niche product but still manufactured by several saxophone brands, the sopranino has a sound which can be piercing in its high register, but which remains warm. Capable of the same expressiveness as other sizes of saxophones, it obviously requires excellent mastery on the part of the musician.

Géry Dumoulin

Pictures - remarks

The original invention patent for the saxophone can be viewed online on the INPI website (Institut national de la Propriété industrielle, in Paris): insert 'saxophone' in the field 'Mot du titre' and choose 'Voir le dossier' in the patent of 1846.

Roscoe Mitchell with Art Ensemble of Chicago at the stage of Energimølla. The concert was part of Kongsberg Jazzfestival and took place on 7 July 2017. Photo : Tore Sætre / Wikimedia. Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0.

Sopranino saxohone E flat, Evette & Schaeffer, Paris, 1920
Sopranino saxohone E flat, Evette & Schaeffer, Paris, 1920
Sopranino saxohone E flat, Evette & Schaeffer, Paris, 1920
Sopranino saxohone E flat, Evette & Schaeffer, Paris, 1920
Sopranino saxohone E flat, Evette & Schaeffer, Paris, 1920
original drawing of the patent of 1846
Roscoe Mitchell met Ensemble of Chicago, Kongsberg Jazzfestival, ©Tore Sætre
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