In 1844 the Distins travelled to Paris, where they had been engaged by a M. Chaudesaigues to perform for a month at “the Paris theatre” (Henry Distin,‘Our Portrait Gallery’ The British Bandsman, p. 133, March 1889). The Distins returned from France with a new invention, a family of valved brass instruments made by the Belgian Adolphe Sax (1814–1894) which the Distins called “saxhorns”.
"The Distin family...have been, for the last six months in Paris and Germany, during which time they have lost no opportunity of improving themselves or their instruments.The latter, now used by them, are silver and were presented to them by Louis Philippe, in consequence of the pleasure he received from their performance during the late Exposition. Their instruments, termed “Sax Horns”, were originally invented by M. Sax, but have been greatly improved by the Distins. ...We really advise all who have not heard them to take an early opportunity of doing so." (The Illustrated London News, p. 365, December 7th, 1844)
‘The Distins are at present the only performers on the Sax Horns, which unites the powers of the French horn and those of the cornet-à-piston, but is infinitely superior to both, for it combines the mellowness and sweetness of the former, with all the brilliancy and power of the latter.The pieces which the Distins perform are of their own arrangement, and do credit to their musical skill.’ (The Illustrated London News, p. 384, December 14th, 1844)
Accounts vary as to exactly how the Distins first acquired their saxhorns. In the accounts by the Distins it was they who, on hearing “a French artist” (or three, as it is likely that the Distin’s heard François Dauverné, Jean-Baptiste Arban and Jean–Louis Dufresne at the concert at Salle Herz on the February 3rd, 1844, described below) perform on the new saxhorn (incorrectly termed saxophone in the following report) and insisted on seeking out the “little manufacturer” who had designed this instrument:
"After the engagement at the theatre was over the quintet played on night at a grand concert given by a famous singer, upon which occasion they heard for the same time a new instrument called the ‘saxaphone’ [sic] played by a French artist.‘What is that?’ demanded Henry, struck at once by the remarkable purity and sweetness of tone of the new instrument.‘Oh!That don’t amount to anything,’ replied the interpreter.‘Is is some new fangled thing gotten up by a little manufacturer whom I have not thought worthy of introducing to your notice.’ ‘Yes! Well, we will go to him early to-morrow morning; the first thing.’ ordered Distin.When he saw Mr. Sax he found that that ‘little manufacturer,’ who has since achieved such world-wide celebrity as to overshadow all who were then his rivals, had only completed three instruments as models - a soprano E [flat], contralto B flat and an alto E flat – and had not yet any for sale. Henry Distin made an arrangement for the loan of the three instruments, and when they were tried by his family at their hotel the combined tone awoke a sort of enthusiasm. Mr Sax readily agreed to complete the necessary instruments on the same principle for the quintet, and as soon as sufficient practice in their use had been attained they were brought out in public.” (‘The Famed Distin Family’, New York Times August 7th, 1881)
But another, less flattering version appears in Oscar Comettant's Histoire d'un inventeur au dix-neuvième siècle, (Paris, 1860, p. 53) in which it is Sax who saves the day when the Distins, described as ”poor people”, with their "detestable style" were desperately trying to get a foothold in Paris. In this account, Sax charitably gives them each a new instrument of his own design, tutors them individually and (somewhat miraculously) turns everything around. John Distin declaimed “we are saved!”. Comettant was very pro-Sax and perhaps his anti-Distin sentiments may have been influenced by the success of the Distin business in first promoting the Sax design of instrument and then capitalising on its success by producing rival instruments and designs of their own.
The new “saxhorns” were eventually to be made either with forward-facing or upward-facing bells and could range from the soprano saxhorn in E-flat through to the contrabass saxhorn in E flat.To make matters more confusing the nomenclature of these instruments varies: for example, the British “tenor” saxhorn in E flat would be called an “alto” saxhorn by some French musicians, whilst what the French call a “tenor” saxhorn, the British call a “baritone”. Today the modern versions of saxhorns are recognisable as the tenor horns, baritones and tubas of the brass band world. The Prince Regent’s Band has assembled a collection of original upward-facing saxhorns as well as a number of cornets and ventil-horns for use in this recording.
The work that the Distin's heard performed in Paris in 1844 was a composition by Hector Berlioz. Berlioz, an obsessive observer and chronicler of instrument developments, was an early supporter of Adolphe Sax’s saxhorn family. Berlioz writes for a set of off-stage saxhorns in Les Troyens and describes the tone of these instruments as ‘round, pure, full and completely even over the whole range of their scale' (Grand Traité d’Instrumentation et d’Orchestration, translation Mary Cowden Clarke, p. 234, 1855, 2nd edition).
Berlioz arranged a vocal work of his, Chant Sacré, for the performance to be given at the Salle Herz on February 3rd, 1844 which was intended to display a number of Sax’s new instruments: soprano saxhorn in E-flat (which, according to a preview published in Le Ménestrel, January 28th,1844, was to be played by the Paris Conservatoire’s trumpet professor, François Dauverné, 1799– 1874), contralto saxhorn in B-flat (virtuoso cornet player and, then, student of Dauverné’s, Jean-Baptiste Arban, 1825–1889), tenor saxhorn in E-flat (celebrated cornet-à-piston player, Jean-Louis Dufresne, 1810– 1866), clarinet (Leperd), Sax’s improved bass clarinet (Edouard Duprez) and a saxophone (Sax himself). A review of this concert said of the instruments: 'This brilliant sonority, the voices of a timbre so varied yet which blend so well, this first astonished then delighted the audience' (Le Ménéstrel, pg. 2, February 11th, 1844). Berlioz’s arrangement no longer survives; however,The Prince Regent’s Band thought it an appropriate addition to our saxhorn repertoire and arranged it solely for saxhorns.