Since its invention in the 19th century, the saxophone, also known as Satan’s horn, has been said to have the power to conjure the devil. Indeed, the instrument’s inventor seemingly had his own ongoing battle against God. As a recent viral tweet pointed out, the story of Adolphe Sax involves a litany of near-death misses on his way to glory.
If you visit Sax’s Wikipedia page, you’ll learn all the standard biographical details, like, the fact he was born in 1814 in Dinant, which at the time was in France, but is now part of Belgium. His father built instruments for a living, meaning young Sax grew up in his father’s workshop absorbing what he would one day employ himself as a master instrument maker. But first he had to survive his childhood, which wasn’t an easy task.
Sax’s own mother had few hopes her boy would make it to adulthood. She was quoted as saying, “He’s a child of misfortune, he won’t live.” The neighbors agreed, calling him “little Sax, the ghost.”
The near-death experiences started when he was just three, when he fell on his head. The September 2, 1939 issue of the York Daily Record described the incident:
Madame Sax, plump wife of a struggling musical instrument-maker in the Flanders town of Dinant, France, jumped to her feet. “Good gracias!” she exclaimed. “What is that?”
“Perhaps the cat upser the fish bowl,” suggested her husband.
“Yes, and it may be Adolphe,” she replied, worriedly. With that she sprang for the stair door.
As the instrument-maker rose to his feet, there was a scream and a second crash — his wife had fainted. At the foot of the steep stairs lay as dead the form of a small son, blood trickling from a gash in his head.
As if the sight of her child, whom she assumed was dead, wasn’t enough for his dear mother, fate stepped in a week later with another near-death experience. From that same issue of the York Daily Record: “A week or two later, apart from a nasty scar, little Adolphe seemed none the worse for his accident. But his convalescence was hardly over when his mother one day heard him gurgling and gagging in the adjoining room. The precious son had swallowed a long, sharp pin. With rare good luck, the physician succeeded in extracting the pin, and Madame Sax collapsed in a chair with relief. ‘That boy,’ she sighed to her husband, ‘was just born to cause trouble.’”
God wasn’t done testing Sax either. First, he fell into a kitchen fire, and barely survived after being dragged from the flames. Not long after that, he was burned badly again. Next up was an incident with furniture varnish that nearly caused him to asphyxiate in a closed room. Then came a near-drowning: When Sax was 10, he was knocked unconscious and plunged into a rushing river. Luckily, a villager spotted the boy, floating face down. The villager fished him from the river, saving him from certain death.
On another terrifying day, Sax accidentally drank from the wrong bowl while in his father’s workshop. When his father spotted the empty bowl, he reacted with a knowing panic. He shouted at his son, “That bowl! Where’s the contents?”
“Why?” his boy asked, before informing his father, “I drank it.”
“Drank it!” his father bellowed. He grabbed Sax and rushed him to the local doctor. Sax had finished off a bowl of clear toxic chemicals he’d mistaken for water. The mixture should’ve killed him. But Adolphe Sax was practically unkillable.
Once he was an adult, Sax took his lucky ass to Paris and set about to dazzle the world with his innovative musical instruments. But it didn’t take long for peril to find him. Sax was standing outside a small gunpowder dump, chatting with an acquaintance, when the gunpowder exploded. The instrument-maker landed nearly 60 feet away, “his clothes in shreds, half of his hair missing.” He was “still alive — though how, nobody knew!”
His destiny could not be stopped. And so, in 1840, Sax gave us the saxophone. (He’s also responsible for the saxtrombone, saxtuba and saxhorn as well as something he called the Saxocannon, which was designed to fire a 500-pound bullet; for reasons of practicality, it never became a thing.) Later on, he would reveal that he first imagined saxophone in a dream — one that sounds a lot like a nightmare: He dreamt of devils and demons playing the sax as a soundtrack for the doomed souls as they entered Hell.
But just as soon as he patented his saxophone in 1846, Sax inherited countless haters and rivals. In fact, a group of instrument makers formed a whole association just to oppose Sax and his new instrument. His many enemies attempted to hire away Sax’s staff. The association barred musicians from performing on his instruments, and they schemed to ban the saxophone from military bands. Sax also faced endless rumors, libelous articles and lawsuits meant to drain his profits. There were even allegations that the association formed against him burned down one of his workshops and hired an assassin to take him out. But the contract killer shot at Sax’s assistant instead, mistaking him for the instrument-maker.
In at least one instance, though, the sax helped keep him on this side of the grass. In 1851, Louis Napoleon seized power in France. His soldiers on patrol believed they were fired upon from a home where Sax was staying. The soldiers rushed into the home, and when a servant tried to stop them, the servant was shot and killed. The soldiers then leveled their rifles at Sax and his host. First, Sax spoke in his own defense, but when that failed, he shouted at the soldiers, “I am Adolphe Sax!” The commanding officer ordered his men’s weapons down. “A thousand pardons, monsieur. Men, this is the great genius who invented the saxophone! Salute.”
Late in his life, Sax survived one more close call. What began as a black spot on his lip grew into an immense cancerous tumor. The growth became so severe he couldn’t eat and had to take all his meals through a feeding tube. To treat his cancerous lip, Sax was offered a risky surgery that would have seen half his jaw removed. Instead, he visited an Indian doctor who saved his life with a “private concoction made from a variety of herbs.”
But no man — not even Adolphe Sax — can outrun the inevitable. Two-and-a-half decades later, on February 9, 1894, he lost his lifelong battle with death. He was 79. At the time, the New York Times noted he died from pneumonia in “absolute poverty.” It’s safe to say that as smooth as the sound of the Satanic horn may be, the life of its inventor was anything but.