World’s first concerto for saxophone found after 117 years

2019-02-13

A musical masterwork from Belgian musical history, Paul Gilson's first saxophone concerto from 1901 has finally been found by conductor and Belgian wind specialist, Luc Vertommen.

A special commission from Boston

Elisa Hall, a well-known maecenas and amateur saxophonist, was a director of the Orchestral Club of Boston. She is mainly known due to Claude Debussy composing the Rhapsody for saxophone and orchestra for her.

Hall played the saxophone on the advice of her doctor, to counteract her rising deafness, and studied at the Paris Conservatory. She was the first saxophonist to perform as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Hall commissioned 17 (mainly French) composers between 1900 and 1920, to write 22 works for the new instrument, presented in 1841 by the Belgian Adolphe Sax.

Around 1895, Claude Debussy received this remarkable commission. He was quick to pick up the significant check but completely forgot to finish the piece. Debussy only worked intermittently between 1901 and 1908. Only then did Hall finally receive Debussy’s finished work.

A remarkable Belgian composer

The only Belgian composer on Hall’s list was Paul Gilson, Belgium’s foremost composer of the second half of the 19th century. Gilson gained international fame with his first concerto for saxophone and orchestra (1901 – 1902), as it was the first saxophone concerto the world had ever heard.

In this work, Gilson uses all the virtuosic and musical possibilities of the saxophone. For Elisa Hall, the concerto was far too difficult – she never performed it. Consequently, the score did not end up in the Elisa Hall Collection of the New England Conservatory in Boston, where the other scores and commissions are found. Because the orchestral score was lost, the concerto could never be played with a symphony orchestra in its original form. The only source available was a piano reduction. The composer, Paul Gilson eliminated the dedication in the version for piano for whom the concerto was written (Elisa Hall), as a form of revenge for never premiering the work.

Luc Vertommen (Left) and Kurt Bertels (Right), next to the original score of Paul Gilson’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra.

A long search

After Gilson's death in 1942, many of his original scores were lost. Some of the remaining pieces found their way into the Paul Gilson Fund, a donation from his student Gaston Brenta, in the Royal Conservatory of Brussels library. Another student, and friend of Gilson’s, Jules Blangenois, obtained a large part of his work for winds. During the Second World War, one of Blangenois’ students fled to southern France with a part of Gilson’s archive. There, the manuscripts appeared a few years ago after Blangenois’ death, found in some old cabinets bought from an antique store (with the contents inside). The antique owner contacted Gilson expert, Luc Vertommen, returning the original score to its native country and finishing this long search.

The score was obtained with the support of the Conservatory of Brussels library and doctoral student/saxophonist, Kurt Bertels, hoping that this unique work (the first concerto ever from the most important composer of his generation and for the newest musical invention of a Belgian) will soon reflected on the national and international concert stages after, 117 years.