The alto saxophone is a member of the saxophone family of woodwind instruments invented by Belgian instrument designer Adolphe Sax in 1880. It is smaller than the tenor but larger than the soprano. The alto and tenor are the most common types of saxophones. The alto saxophone is commonly used in classical music (such as concert bands, chamber music, and solo repertoire), military bands, marching bands, and jazz (such as big bands, jazz combos, swing music, etc.).
The alto saxophone is an E♭ transposing instrument and reads the treble clef. A written C-natural sounds a major sixth lower (concert E♭) when played. Because the alto saxophone is a reed instrument, it is classified as a woodwind instrument.
The range of the alto saxophone is from concert D♭3 (the D♭ below middle C—see Scientific pitch notation) to concert A♭5 (or A5 on altos with a high F♯ key). As with most types of saxophones, the standard written range is B♭3 to F6 (or F♯6). Above that, the altissimo register begins at F♯ and extends upwards. The saxophone’s altissimo register is more difficult to control than that of other woodwinds and is usually only expected from advanced players. By covering or partially covering the bell of the saxophone when playing B♭3, it is possible for the alto saxophone to reach A3 as well.
Some notable jazz alto saxophonists include Charlie Parker, Kenny Garrett, Jimmy Dorsey, Johnny Hodges, Art Pepper, Cannonball Adderley, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Stitt, David Sanborn, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Phil Woods, John Zorn, and Paul Desmond.
Some notable classical alto saxophonists include Timothy McAllister, Marcel Mule, Sigurd Raschèr, Jean-Yves Fourmeau, Lawrence Gwozdz, Frederick L. Hemke, Donald Sinta, Harvey Pittel, Larry Teal, Jean-Marie Londeix, Kenneth Tse, Arno Bornkamp, Harry White, Otis Murphy, Claude Delangle, and Eugene Rousseau.
Some companies that currently produce saxophones are Buffet Crampon, KHS/Jupiter, Conn-Selmer, Selmer Paris, Yamaha, Leblanc/Vito, Keilwerth, Cannonball, and Yanagisawa. New alto saxophones range in price between US$200 for lower quality student models to over US$8000 for professional models.
In classical music
The alto saxophone, has a large classical solo repertoire that includes solos with orchestra, piano, and wind symphony. Two of the most well-known solo compositions are Jacques Ibert’s “Concertino da Camera” and Alexander Glazunov’s “Concerto in E Flat major”.
Also, the alto saxophone is part of the standard instrumentation of concert bands and saxophone quartets.
The alto saxophone is also occasionally used in orchestral compositions. Several orchestral examples are listed below.
Georges Bizet features it in the Minuet from the second suite of music from L’Arlésienne.
It was called for by Richard Strauss in his Sinfonia Domestica, which includes parts for four saxophones including an alto saxophone in F.
Dmitri Shostakovich uses the alto in his Suite for Variety Orchestra and it has a prominent solo in the Waltz No. 2 section. He also includes it in his Suite No. 1 and Suite No. 2.
Maurice Ravel uses the saxophone prominently in his orchestration of Modest Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, most notably as the soloist in “Il Vecchio Castello”.
Alban Berg uses the saxophone in his late orchestral works, most notably “Der Wein”, Lulu, and the Violin Concerto.
Sergei Rachmaninoff uses the saxophone in his Symphonic Dances as a soloist in the first movement.
George Gershwin includes it in a few pieces; such as Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris.
Pierre Boulez wrote for 2 alto saxes in his composition Pli Selon Pli (“Fold By Fold”).
Benjamin Britten calls for an alto in his Sinfonia da Requiem and The Prince of the Pagodas.
Leonard Bernstein includes an alto sax in his Symphonic Dances From West Side Story.
Vincent d’Indy enlists two altos in his opera Fervaal.
Darius Milhaud writes for an alto in La Creation du Monde.
Allan Pettersson makes use of an alto in his 16th symphony.
Krzysztof Penderecki scores for two altos in his opera The Devils of Loudon (“Die Teufel von Loudon”).