History

Adolphe Sax Escaped Death Multiple Times—And Then Invented the Saxophone

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Plato once said that music gives soul to the universe. Considering how dramatically narrow a margin Adolphe Sax escaped death before inventing the saxophone, it makes you wonder if the universe itself was protecting an important part of its very soul. The Belgian musician escaped his demise on several different occasions, all before designing one of music's most iconic instruments.

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King Close Call

"He's a child condemned to misfortune; he won't live," Sax's mother was famous for saying. Luckily, she was way off. Little Antoine-Joseph, a.k.a. Adolphe, was the oldest of eleven children, and he was one of only four of them to survive adolescence. (That poor woman.) Sax's hometown of Dinant, Belgium has honored his storied childhood on their website, where they detail his multiple near-death experiences.

Born in 1814, Sax's first scrape with death was as an infant just learning to stand. He accidentally fell three stories and hit his head on solid stone, leading his family to believe he was dead. Nope! At the age of three, he guzzled down a bowl of diluted sulfuric acid, which he (understandably?) thought was a bowl of milk. At the same age, he swallowed a metal pin. After polishing those off, he was scalded badly by an exploding barrel of gunpowder. He also fell on a red-hot cast iron skillet, which burned his face. On three separate occasions, he was tucked in for bed surrounded by freshly varnished furniture. The fumes were asphyxiating, and he barely woke up the next morning. Another time, a cobblestone fell off of a roof and landed on his head, but he shook it off like a champ. Oh, and he nearly drowned in a river.

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Invented the Sax, and Then Conquered Death Again

With the level of tenacity it must have taken just to survive his childhood, it's no wonder that his adult life was marked by prolific achievement. Adolphe Sax followed in the footsteps of his instrument-maker father, Charles-Joseph Sax, and by 20, he had completely reinvented the clarinet. In 1841, he moved to Paris, bringing with him a prototype of what would be patented as the saxophone in 1846. He was actually a sax factory, inventing the saxtuba, the saxotromba, and the particularly stunning saxhorn, but it's fair to say that the saxophone was his crowning achievement.

Throughout it all, he had musical adversaries, competitors, and imitators trying to take him down. Along with, you know, death. Twelve years after patenting the saxophone, he developed lip cancer, but a doctor well-versed in the properties of Indian herbal remedies cured him. As for the saxophone, it took a full century for it to gain enough respect to make an appearance in a music conservatory, but in 1942, it finally did. It just goes to show that perseverance pays off—even if it nearly kills you.

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