How many of you recognize the name of Ambroise Thomas? To the more dedicated music lovers, his name will probably ring a bell. Aged 60, Thomas was appointed Director of the Paris Conservatoire. Throughout his working life, he produced opera after opera - twenty-four of them in all. Some were very popular in their day, but that phrase "in their day" speaks volumes about the ephemeral nature of fame. Today, only Mignon is known at all; although seldom performed, it does feature in operatic recitals.
But two decades before Mignon, Thomas, who was known as a conservative, old-fashioned composer, actually took the time to write a testimonial for a young Belgian musician who could not resist tinkering with instruments, constantly trying to find improvements. His name was Adolphe Sax, and the result of his most inspired invention became known as the saxophone.
Sax came from a musical family, and trained at the Brussels Conservatoire. But, like many Belgians with ambitions, he soon made his way to Paris. Sax was just the latest in a long line of Belgian musicians and composers who moved to the French capital in their quest for fame and work. André-Modeste Grétry settled in Paris, where he was much admired by Marie-Antoinette and survived the Revolution to be admired by Josephine; the composer and organist César Franck became a professor at the Paris Conservatoire; Eugène Ysaye went to France where the much-admired violinist composed most of his works; and in the mid-twentieth century, Jacques Brel was to become one of the great exponents of the French chanson.
But to get back to Adolphe Sax and his wonderful invention: if Ambroise Thomas was known as a conventional composer, this new instrument was anything but. It lent itself to military brass bands where it made an important contribution to the musical genre. The saxophone was found useful in classical works, from Ravel to Hindemith, Britten, Vaughan Williams and Gershwin. And finally, the instrument seems to have made its greatest contribution to music in jazz. Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and the orchestras of Count Basie and Duke Ellington all owe a great deal to Adolphe Sax's tinkering with instruments. Ambroise Thomas would probably have been bemused, but the rest of the world has many reasons to be grateful to Sax.