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The History of the Baritone

The Modern Baritone Vs The Original Tenor Saxhorn

Courtois Compensating Baritone

Like their Saxhorn progenitors, there are two versions of the modern baritone, formerly called the Bb tenor horn and the baritone (the latter of which is often mistakenly referred to as the euphonium). The original Saxhorns, both of which were Bb tenor instruments, were less wound and much taller, and sketched out a shape like a “b,” with a flared top.

Both modern baritones retain this general shape, but in compacted form, being wound in both lead-pipe and bell tubing. As with other members of the Saxhorn family, this design greatly shortens the height of the horn, whilst retaining all of the horn’s performance characteristics and intonation. Of added benefit is the fact that the instrument is more compact, easier to carry and transport, and is less prone to becoming damaged.

The bell of the modern Saxhorn also differs from the original, which more resembled a long, narrow cone ending in a small flare. The modern bell is wider, the bell tubing narrower towards the end.

The Two Bb Tenor Saxhorns

Nothing in the history of brasswinds has served to confuse so many so thoroughly!  Initially, when it came to writing a piece on the two versions of the Bb baritone, I skirted the issue of the two Bb tenor instruments in order to avoid dealing with all the misinformation floating around out there. However, merely by raising the name “baritone” and omitting any reference to the Bb tenor horn, this in itself served to draw attention to the issue.  So in response, here is the short version of what these two instruments are all about:

Upright Saxhorn

In the US, especially within organizations dedicated to the preservation of 19th band music and instruments, the terms baritone and tenor horn are used in their original form. After all, this is how they appeared in Sax’s own catalogues.

In the UK, the term alto was dropped, even though the little Eb horn was originally advertised in Sax’s catalogues as an alto horn. The reason this was done is that in British brass bands the Eb cornet is referred to as the soprano, the Bb cornet as the alto (unsaid but implied), the Eb horn as the tenor, the small-bore Bb horn, formerly the tenor horn, became the baritone, the baritone mysteriously disappeared from the Saxhorn lineup, and so on. The name tenor could apply only to one instrument, of course, and as it had been reassigned to the Eb horn, this meant that the large-bore Bb instrument got stuck with the same name as its small-bore counterpart, though it was relegated to the concert band, not the brass band lineup; an act which ended up creating two bodies of information and experience that both fell under the heading “baritone”.

To further confuse the issue (if that were possible), the euphonium is often referred to as the baritone horn, which in the minds of players creates an unwarranted association between that instrument and the Saxhorn family of instruments. The euphonium, however, is a member of the tuba family, as it shares the tuba bore-profile with its larger counterparts.

In general appearance and size, the small-bore baritone looks much like the Eb tenor horn. Tone-wise, it has a crisp, brassy sound, reminiscent of a trombone. In comparison, the large-bore baritone has a softer, more diffuse sound, that lies somewhere between the small-bore instrument and the euphonium in sound-quality.

Other Forms of the Baritone

Over-the-Shoulder Bb Tenor Saxhorn

The over-the-shoulder Saxhorn design was a common sight from circa 1850 to circa 1880, and was a staple of marching bands, especially in the United States.

Because the modern military-style band no longer marches at the front of columns of soldiers, due to the invention of motorized transport, the modern marching version of the baritone is a bell-forward instrument, in general shape like an oversized solo tenor (alto) horn.

Some of the finest modern baritones come with the compensating valve system, which delivers better intonation and more stable and truer pedals.

The Baritone Horns of Today

Yamaha Marching Baritone

Antoine Courtois has been manufacturing baritone horns since winning a lawsuit against Adolphe Sax in 1855 for the right to manufacture Saxhorns. Their horns, especially the compensating model, are among the finest. Other present-day manufacturers are: Amati, Bach, Besson, Blessing, Holton, Kanstul, King, Winston, Yamaha.