Belgium didn’t hold much attraction for either of us, but for two saxophonists, the little town called Dinant in the south of the country was an absolutely essential stopping point. For it is there that the inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax, was born.
Throughout our musical studies, Gary and I had read many a tale of Dinant and its prodigious child. We had seen countless pictures of the town’s granite cliffs and bulbous-steepled church overlooking the Meuse River. So when the train pulled into town and we saw that setting for real before us, we felt like we had arrived in saxophone fantasy land. This was the place where it all began, where the inventor of the saxophone actually frolicked in the streets.
Adolphe Sax is not merely an important figure for saxophonists; he is a significant historical personality in all of 19th century musical instrument manufacture. He had thirty-five patents to his name, the most significant of which, apart from the saxophone, were for the modernization of the bass clarinet’s key mechanism and for several families of brass instruments called saxhorns, saxtrombas and saxtubas. Sax’s affinity for attaching his own name to new instruments demonstrates his vanity. For all his inventive genius, Sax was more hated than appreciated throughout his lifetime. It wasn’t solely his personality that brought about such feelings. As a Belgian dominating the musical instrument scene in Paris at the height of his career, he made a lot of enemies with Frenchmen in the business. The undeniable superiority of his work also created jealousy and resentment. Yet the ill will toward Sax seemed more derivative of his character. “Sax,” wrote the biographer Leon Kochnitzky, “had exceptional gifts for the gentle art of making enemies.”1
Nonetheless, Sax had staunch supporters as well, among them some significant names in Romantic music. Berlioz, Rossini, Halévy, Donizetti, Kastner, and Meyerbeer all praised him and his work. Hector Berlioz wrote that Sax was “a man of lucid mind, far-seeing, tenacious, steadfast and skilled beyond words”2 and that “the saxophone, Sax’s masterpiece, possesses incomparably expressive qualities; the accuracy and beauty of its sound…are such that it can, in slow movements, vie with the best singers. The saxophone sighs and moans and dreams.”3
This polarity of sentiment made for complications in every project Sax undertook. The sordid history of the saxophone’s invention is testimony. No one knows the exact date or place of the instrument’s creation because of all the confusion surrounding the issue. It happened some time in the early 1840’s. In 1841, Sax was invited to display some of his new wares at the Brussels Industrial Exhibition. As the story goes, he had one prized exhibit which he kept wrapped up in a green cloth until it was to be publicly unveiled. A few days before the exhibit, someone allegedly sabotaged this package with a kick, sending the contents flying across the room. The resultant damage rendered the mysterious green bundle unfit for display. Many believe the contents were the world’s first saxophone.
That is the way things always seemed to go for Adolphe Sax; nothing came easily. But we do know for sure that he was born in 1814 in Dinant, Belgium, and Gary and I could hardly control our excitement about being right there.
Walking through the town, one can feel the presence of Adolphe Sax everywhere. Several restaurants bear his name, many stores and shops are named after him, and lo and behold, one street is even named rue Adolphe Sax.
This has to be it, we thought. All we have to do was follow that road and we’ll find his house. We proceeded slowly, nervously, down the small street and kept our eyes peeled for any sign of our destination. Modest row houses, a gift shop off to the side; no sign of it yet. We crept on. We were getting close. We could feel it.
Suddenly, there it was. A stained-glass window above an ordinary, unassuming doorway depicted Adolphe Sax and a saxophone. Below the window, a stone inscription read:
We stopped, stood, and stared, lost in thought. What stirred in the mind of a man behind that humble doorway some 150 years before resulted in the thing that brings Gary and me our greatest pleasure.
And then, the finishing grace. We slid the saxophones off our shoulders and silently set up to play. I pulled the hat out of my daypack and showed it to Gary. “What do you think?” I whispered.
“In front of Adolphe Sax’s door?! Why, that’s blasphemous!” Gary cried.
“Well, true, but we still need some money. I don’t think Adolphe would mind. He knew the hardships of having to pay the bills.”
“Maybe you’re right. Okay, we’ll put it down for Adolphe.”
I gently laid the hat on the ground. We threw a few coins in. Before we could begin to play, we needed one more moment of silence to bask in the splendor of really being there. We bowed our heads for a moment, saxophones over our hearts. We took a deep breath.
We played our hearts out. We could do no wrong—the big saxophonist in the sky was watching over us. The music soared, bounding off the stained-glass image of Adolphe Sax himself! We were not merely buskers now, but pilgrims who had reached mecca. This was a veritable consecration rite. We were serenading Adolphe Sax. Oh, the glory of it! Saxophone duets at Adolphe Sax’s front door!
Our saxophones sighed and moaned and dreamed for over half an hour. As the blissful concert came to a close, we stood in silent rapture as it all sank in. I only wonder what the people on the street thought about seeing two fellows in virtual delirium just from playing a few duets. Some of them had to make the connection. Or perhaps Dinant residents were used to starry-eyed saxophonists playing in front of that doorway. Judging from the scanty earnings we found in the hat, it sure seemed that way. But that was okay—we didn’t play in front of Adolphe Sax’s front door for the money.
Later in the day we did play for the money when we set up on a big street in town with considerably more pedestrian traffic. An hour of playing there didn’t accumulate earnings at any faster a rate than earlier that day.
“This is really paltry,” I said after inspecting the hat’s contents. “What’s the deal here, are Belgians really cheap or something?”
“I don’t know,” Gary said. “But look—there are plenty of coins, it’s just that they don’t add up to anything. What’s the biggest coin in here? Twenty francs—less than 50¢. That’s nothing compared to those big coins people threw down in Spain and France.”
Thus we learned perhaps the most important factor of the busking trade, coin denominations. Hardly anyone goes to the trouble of digging a bill out of his wallet to contribute to a busker’s cause; a passer-by usually grabs the loose change in his pocket to toss into the hat. As such, coin values figure heavily in determining the amount of money a busker can earn.
In this respect, the current trend among Western European governments to mint larger coin denominations while taking smaller bills out of circulation reflects favorably on buskers. The governments figure that coins last longer than bills, so more coins and fewer bills save on minting costs. Spain, for example, is moving toward having all currency units of less than 1000 pesetas (˜$8.50) in the form of coins only. Beginning in the mid-1980’s, the Spanish government successively minted a 100-, 200-, and 500-peseta coin, while phasing out bills of the same value. Great Britain discontinued the printing of its pound notes (˜$1.50), making the pound coin more widely used. The smallest French bill, 20 francs (˜$3), is disappearing while the government mints fully seven different 10-franc coins and even 5 commemorative 100-franc coins, worth over fifteen dollars. The 100-franc coins, however, are almost never seen, particularly by street musicians.
With fewer and fewer bills going around and more and more big coins appearing, Europeans have enormous quantities of valuable change to throw at buskers. Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to Belgium. It has by far Western Europe’s worst coin scenario. Those 20-franc Belgian coins just don’t compare with the Spanish 100- and 200-peseta coins that we saw so many of, worth about 85¢ and $1.70, or those nice French 10-franc coins, worth about $1.65. German marks are great coins for the street musician, with denominations of 2 and 5, worth around $1.10 and a whopping $2.75. Holland isn’t bad either, with its 2-guilder coin worth about a buck. Switzerland is a busker’s paradise. The 5-Swiss-franc coin is worth almost $4—that’s pay dirt. In Scandinavia, the krone currencies are pretty good, too. The Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish kroner are all worth about the same, and with a 5-kroner piece a busker makes around 70¢. Sweden has no coin larger than 5 kroner, but Denmark and Norway have a 10-kroner piece. Norway is ideal because its smallest bill is 50 kroner, about $7.00, which means that everybody’s got a pocketful of those hefty 10-kroner coins, at about $1.50 each. When those coins start to fly, the money racks up fast. Finland also does the busker well. It’s got a 5-mark coin worth a good $1.25. All of these currencies and coin denominations are dizzying, but when you’re livelihood depends on it, you learn to keep them straight. The implementation of the ECU, the European Currency Unit, will simplify this matter considerably and spare European buskers a lot of calculations.
A certain conceptual barrier complicates matters even further. The value of all these large European coins is difficult for Americans to fathom. Large coin denominations are contrary to our monetary nature. We react strangely to them: the Susan B. Anthony dollar was a failure, the half-dollar piece is rarely used. A lifetime of small coins has affected the American numismatic subconscious in such a way that we don’t believe coins add up to anything. Every time I paid for a youth hostel or a dinner in Europe with only coins, I felt like I wasn’t spending any money. I always judged the amount of cash I had on me by the bills in my wallet. It’s easy to forget: European coins go a long way.
Except in Belgium. They don’t. In fact, between the day’s lodging and food expenses, we actually netted a loss in Dinant. But for Adolphe Sax, it was well worth the sacrifice.
In our one day in Belgium we achieved our goal, and that done, we were ready to move on. Because of the lamentable monetary situation, we didn’t want to stay there any longer than necessary. The next day we took off, leaving the country as quickly as we had come in.
Even during such a short time in Belgium, I noticed differences in manner and character between the Belgians and their French neighbors. Belgians seemed less refined, without that aloofness the French are famous for. French people make jokes about the Belgians for their boorishness (although plenty of jokes go the other way, too). Belgians speak a coarser French. They eat starchier food. They wear homier clothes.
One sees in Belgium the transition from Latin to Germanic Europe. Within that small country, the transition is complete. The south of the country is French-speaking, thus Latin Europe, but with a slightly different flavor. The north of the country is Flemish-speaking and entirely Germanic.
The transition can even be narrowed down to one city. Brussels is bilingual; in many respects the transition from Latin to Germanic Europe takes place right there. It seems appropriate, then, that Brussels is the capital of the European Economic Community. Being a mixture of the two halves of Western Europe, it is well suited to properly deal with the concerns of both. It was not chosen as such for any of these reasons of transition, but it remains nonetheless a fitting place for it.
Changing flavor, changing character, changing temperament. Yet Adolphe’s saxes march on.
1 Leon Kochnitzky, Sax and his Saxophone, North American Saxophone Alliance, 1985, p. 9.
2 Hector Berlioz, Journal de Débats, June 12, 1842.
3 Hector Berlioz, Journal de Débats, April 13, 1851.
Dan Gordon, 1770 Mass Ave., #630