March 26, 2001

Sigurd Raschèr, Who Showed the Sax Could Be Classy, Dies at 94


Sigurd M. Raschèr, a classical saxophonist compared by some to Casals and Segovia for his influence on his instrument and its concert repertory, died on Feb. 25 at his home in Shushan, N.Y. He was 94.

In the course of a 50-year career, Mr. Raschèr played with virtually all the major orchestras, many of which have never had another saxophone soloist. A critic for The New York Times wrote that the saxophone had gained "aesthetic respectability" on Nov. 11, 1939, when Mr. Raschèr was the first solo saxophonist for the New York Philharmonic in 3,543 concerts.

Mr. Raschèr was proud of playing dance music, but he feared his instrument's potential to add rich tones to more serious musical fare was too often unachieved. For that failure, he blamed both mechanical modifications in the original design of Adolphe Sax's instrument and bad musicianship.

"The nonexistence of a traditionally recognized tone quality gave rise to this grotesque situation," he wrote in remarks that appear on the "Classic Saxophone On-Line!" Web site ( "No wonder that serious musicians disdain the saxophone!"

Two years ago, when the journal American Record Guide compared Mr. Raschèr to Casals and Segovia, it was by some measures an understatement. For cello or guitar, the other two had available the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven as well as their more modern heirs, but the saxophone was not invented until 1841.

Mr. Raschèr first learned the clarinet and piano. When a friend mistakenly told him the saxophone was easy to play, he picked one up at a pawn shop and began supplementing his income as a shop teacher in Berlin in the 1930's with dance band jobs.

But his aspirations for the saxophone soared higher. First he perfected his technique on the instrument Sax invented to unite the expressive power of string instruments, the force of brass instruments and the many shadings of woodwinds. He occasionally played in the Berlin Philharmonic when saxophones were required.

Then he approached Edmund von Borck, the composer and conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, and asked him whether he had ever thought of the saxophone as a solo instrument, according to an article in Woodwind World in 1971. Borck gave a vigorous "no," but after Mr. Raschèr played for him for a few moments, he asked for his address.

Months passed, and Mr. Raschèr had almost forgotten the conversation, when von Borck called to say a concerto was ready. The piece was selected for a music festival in Hanover in 1932. "It was the first time I ever played with an orchestra, and I created an unbelievable sensation, not only at the festival but in music circles throughout Europe," Mr. Raschèr said. He told of another warm reception in Berlin a few months later.

But what seemed the beginning of a meteoric rise came to a halt when the Nazis rejected "foreign" instruments like the saxophone, which was invented in Belgium. Mr. Raschèr left Germany and did not return for a quarter century.

He lived and taught in Copenhagen and Malmo, Sweden, performing with symphonies throughout Europe, including ones in London, Prague, Paris and Warsaw — more than 200 in all. He also encouraged composers to write for the saxophone. Among those who wrote pieces for Mr. Raschèr to play were Glazunov, Ibert and Hindemith.

Sigurd Manfred Raschèr was born on May 15, 1907, in what is now Wuppertal, in the Westphalian section of Germany. His father was a doctor, and he grew up surrounded by music at home. He concentrated mainly on the clarinet in his early studies.

When a colleague in his dance band ridiculed the saxophone's narrow range of two and a half octaves, he developed a fingering method that let him play four octaves.

"No one before me had done this," he wrote in notes for a press kit in the 1950's. "Today, 25 years later, some of the more ambitious players are beginning to follow my lead."

He noted that his musical experiments were not appreciated by his neighbors or landlady. "A quick change of habitat saved me from the attacks," he wrote.

Mr. Raschèr's scheduled performances in New York and Boston in 1939 were followed by invitations to perform in Washington and at Town Hall in Manhattan the next year. At the Town Hall concert, Arturo Toscanini hugged him.

He decided to stay in the United States, where his wife, Ann Mari, and his son, Staffan, had joined him. But after difficulties with his immigration papers, he went to Cuba, where he spent most of the war harvesting sugar cane.

When he returned, the family settled in Shushan. Three daughters were born there, Kristina Raschèr, now of Düsseldorf; Carina Raschèr of Lürrach, Germany; and Astrid Radsh of Aberdeen, Scotland. Mr. Raschèr is also survived by a sister, Brigid Nosal of Salem, N.Y., and a brother, Michael, of Manhattan.

Mr. Raschèr taught at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, Union College, the University of Mississippi and Yale. He formed the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet with his daughter Carina. The group is still active, though Mr. Raschèr played his last solo at 73.

Among his other contributions to the saxophone, he revived the making of saxophone mouthpieces in the manner Sax had originally specified. Newer models, yielding louder but harsher tones, had almost completely replaced them.

When asked about this and his other achievements, Mr. Raschèr always had the same straightforward response: "Someone had to do it."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

To see the actual article as it appeared in the New York Times, click here.