The Saxophone in Baroque Music: A Performer’s Perspective

The history of Baroque music certainly carries a distinguished tradition. From the courts of kings to the Catholic mass and Protestant service, there were a number of acceptable venues for this music that would carry on melodies forever in honor of the un-penetrable power of the upper-crust aristocracy or sacred recognition of God’s kingdom which would never end. From Arnold Schoenberg to the Modern Jazz Quartet, there is no denying the influence of this venerable music tradition in our current musical world. Unlike most of the music we listen to today, Baroque music was not instrumentally idiomatic—there was often simply counterpoint, intersecting yet independent monophonic melodies that sound harmonies when played together, and whatever instruments were available at the moment. Such a pragmatic solution was considered perfectly reasonable to express the elegance of the music. By the end of the Baroque period, St. Mark’s Basilica (Venice) organist Giovanni Gabrielli started writing for specific instrumentations and from then until today, we have a venerable classical tradition of writing music for specific instruments.

In our day and age, people make careers out of arranging music of all shapes and sizes. Arrangers at Hal Leonard fashion the latest Christina Aguilera pop hits for marching band, Oliver Nelson arranged the combo music of Thelonious Monk for big band, and there are enough distinct versions of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings to write a book. On an aesthetic level, the realization of the Second Bach Cello Suite on saxophone is a beautiful continuation of a veritable tradition that existed hundreds of years ago. Listening to sensitive and talented musicians performing Frederick Hemke’s saxophone quartet arrangement of D. Scarlatti’s Sonata for Harpsichord in F Major K 44/L 432 is, at face value, a charming engagement. As a saxophonist myself, studying with Leo Saguiguit and Steve Geibel proved essential in helping me develop a respectful and aesthetic understanding for Baroque performance practice—it opened up my world! So why am I making an issue of saxophonists playing Baroque music?

Simply put, it is a matter of identity. The lens of time carries with it a confining perspective that relegates certain instruments with certain music periods. For example, we generally think of the lyre with ancient Greek music, the electric guitar with American rock n’roll music, the shakuhachi with traditional Japanese music, and the turntable with German techno/house music. The very fact that the saxophone was not invented until the 19th century puts it in a relatively late circle in the world of classical music, something I view as a double-edged sword. We don’t have the veritable literature of a Telemann or von Weber, but neither do we have the tremendous weight of history on our shoulders to remain faithful to a concretely traditional repertoire.

If we lean on establishing ourselves as classical saxophonists by playing the music of composers who came before the instrument was even invented, we pigeonhole ourselves as musical imitators. Already, the saxophone carries a reputation as principally a jazz instrument. Why confuse the public even more, much less arouse the consternation of other classical musicians who view such programmatic efforts a cheaper imitation of the real thing? Even today, there exists an opportunity to make new music for ourselves and create a body of definitive music that will remain sticky and influential beyond our time. If we are making music for the beauty and expression of an aesthetic inside of a vacuum, there is no problem. Great music should transcend medium and time period. If we care, however, about defining a legacy for the saxophone as a veritable concert instrument, we as performers and composers owe it to ourselves to promote a repertoire and a tradition of our own instead of looking around in an effort to be inclusive and cosmopolitan. At some point, it just seems watered down.

One thought on “The Saxophone in Baroque Music: A Performer’s Perspective”

  1. “Shakuhachi”? Well, look who was paying attention in Music in World Cultures! 😉 I suppose Baroque being non-idiomatic is nice for saxophonists, in a way, because at least that levels the playing field a little bit. Let me tell you, it’s no picnic performing Baroque with violin or voice, either! And I suppose the genre confinements works the other way, as well. It’s super hard to find a jazz violinist.

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