Rediscovery of the World’s First Saxophone Concerto: A Belgian Masterpiece After 117 Years


The unfolding narrative of musical history occasionally presents the serendipitous rediscovery of hidden treasures, offering a poignant glimpse into the creative tapestry of bygone eras. One such treasure recently brought to light is the world’s first saxophone concerto, a masterpiece composed by the eminent Belgian musician Paul Gilson. Commissioned by Elisa Hall, a prominent figure in Boston’s musical landscape during the early 20th century, this concerto marked a groundbreaking moment in the evolution of musical composition. However, its intrinsic complexity, coupled with Hall’s reluctance to perform it, consigned the concerto to the shadows, its orchestral score lost to the inexorable passage of time. In this article, we embark on a fascinating journey to explore the historical significance of this concerto and the dedicated efforts of researchers to breathe life back into this forgotten gem.

Elisa Hall: A Maecenas and Saxophonist Extraordinaire

Central to this unfolding saga is Elisa Hall, a luminary maecenas and an accomplished amateur saxophonist whose influence resonated through the Boston Orchestral Club. Hall’s connection with the saxophone was not merely one of musical curiosity; it served as a therapeutic response to her encroaching deafness. As the director of the Boston Orchestral Club, Hall’s commitment to the saxophone led her to undertake studies at the illustrious Paris Conservatory, culminating in her becoming the first saxophonist to solo with the prestigious Boston Symphony Orchestra. Beyond her instrumental prowess, Hall’s legacy is further accentuated by her ambitious commissioning of 17 composers, primarily French, between 1900 and 1920, resulting in the creation of 22 distinct works for the saxophone.

The Forgotten Commission and Debussy’s Rhapsody

Around the year 1895, Elisa Hall extended a significant commission to Claude Debussy, a luminary in French Impressionist music, to compose a concerto for the saxophone. Debussy, known for his revolutionary compositions, accepted the commission but allowed the project to languish unfinished for several years. It wasn’t until the period between 1901 and 1908 that Debussy completed the Rhapsody, originally intended as a tribute to Hall. Despite the delayed delivery, this composition would go on to become a significant addition to the saxophone repertoire, solidifying Debussy’s reputation as a master of musical innovation.

Paul Gilson: A Belgian Maestro’s Pioneering Work

Within the roster of Elisa Hall’s commissioned composers, the singular Belgian luminary was Paul Gilson, a trailblazer in Belgian musical history during the second half of the 19th century. Gilson achieved international acclaim for his groundbreaking concerto for saxophone and orchestra, a composition that came to life between 1901 and 1902. This concerto marked a historic moment as the world’s first-ever saxophone concerto, showcasing Gilson’s unparalleled mastery in exploring the virtuosic and musical possibilities of the instrument.

The Complex Legacy of Gilson’s Concerto

Regrettably, Elisa Hall found Gilson’s concerto too intricate, ultimately declining to perform it. Consequently, the orchestral score never found a place in the Elisa Hall Collection at the New England Conservatory in Boston, where other commissioned works were housed. Gilson, feeling slighted by Hall’s decision, took a retaliatory artistic stance by eliminating the dedication to her in the piano reduction of the concerto. This act further obscured the concerto’s existence, rendering it inaccessible for performance with a symphony orchestra in its original form.

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

The Long Search and Rediscovery

The narrative takes an intriguing turn after Gilson’s death in 1942, when many of his original scores vanished into the shadows of time. A portion of his remaining works found its way into the Paul Gilson Fund at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels library, thanks to a donation from his student Gaston Brenta. Jules Blangenois, another student and friend of Gilson, acquired a substantial portion of his wind compositions. The turbulence of World War II added an extra layer to this story when one of Blangenois’ students fled to southern France with Gilson’s archive. Several years ago, these manuscripts surfaced after being discovered in old cabinets purchased from an antique store, following Blangenois’ death.

The owner, recognizing their significance, contacted Gilson expert Luc Vertommen, facilitating the return of the original score to Belgium and concluding this extensive search. With the support of the Conservatory of Brussels library and a dedicated doctoral student and saxophonist, Kurt Bertels, the score has been retrieved, rekindling the hopes that this unique work, the first concerto ever composed by Belgium’s most important musical figure for the newest musical invention, will soon grace national and international concert stages once again.

The Restoration and Future Reverberations

The rediscovery of Paul Gilson’s Saxophone Concerto after 117 years not only represents a resurrection of a forgotten masterpiece but also opens a door to a renewed appreciation of its historical and artistic significance. The meticulous efforts of researchers, musicians, and institutions involved in this rediscovery have breathed new life into a piece that once languished in obscurity. The restoration process itself is an intricate dance, combining scholarly dedication, musical expertise, and a touch of serendipity to reassemble the fragments of Gilson’s opus.

As the original score returns to the spotlight, questions arise regarding its adaptation for contemporary performances. How will modern orchestras interpret and convey the nuances of a concerto conceived in the musical landscape of the early 20th century? The answers lie in the hands of conductors, soloists, and scholars who must navigate the delicate balance between historical authenticity and contemporary interpretation. The rediscovery of this concerto not only offers a chance to resurrect Gilson’s masterwork but also provides an opportunity for the music community to engage in a meaningful dialogue about the intersection of tradition and innovation in the performance of historical compositions.


In the grand tapestry of musical history, the rediscovery of Paul Gilson’s Saxophone Concerto after 117 years stands as a momentous occasion that transcends temporal constraints. It symbolizes the triumph of dedication and perseverance in unearthing a forgotten gem, offering a renewed appreciation for the artistic achievements of a bygone era. The intricate interplay between Elisa Hall’s visionary commissions, Debussy’s delayed contribution, and Gilson’s groundbreaking concerto unveils a captivating narrative in the history of musical patronage and artistic expression.

As we celebrate this rediscovery, it serves as a testament to the enduring power of music to enrich our understanding of the cultural tapestry that defines us. The collaborative efforts of researchers, musicians, and institutions have not only resurrected a Belgian masterpiece but have also ensured that the world’s first saxophone concerto will once again resonate through concert halls, captivating audiences and honoring the legacy of those who contributed to its creation. In the ever-evolving story of music, the return of Gilson’s concerto marks a poignant chapter, reminding us that the melodies of the past can still find resonance in the hearts of contemporary audiences. The restoration of this concerto not only bridges the temporal gap but also invites us to reflect on the timeless nature of musical expression, serving as a testament to the enduring legacy of those who dared to push the boundaries of artistic innovation.

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