Marcel Mule

Marcel Mule (24 June 1901 – 18 December 2001) was a French classical saxophonist.

Marcel Mule was known worldwide as one of the great classical saxophonists, and many pieces were written for him, premiered by him, and arranged by him. Many of these pieces have become staples in the classical saxophone repertoire. He is considered to be the founder of the French Saxophone School and the most representative saxophone soloist of his time, being a fundamental figure in the development of the instrument. Yet, his beginnings were very humble.

Early life

Marcel Mule was born in a village in Aube, France, to a father who learned the saxophone while doing his military service and became director of the brass band of Beaumont-le-Roger. In a time when Paris lacked saxophone teachers, having contact with brass bands was the only way to learn to play the saxophone. His father introduced him to the saxophone at the age of eight, in addition to violin and piano. He also taught him to play with a "straight" tone (no vibrato), which was the custom of the day.

Though Marcel exhibited the talent necessary to pursue a musical career, at a time when a musician's life was not easy, Mule's father recommended that he choose a teaching career instead. Thus, he enrolled in the École Normale at Évreux and received his diploma after three years. He taught for only six months in a school in town before he was called up for military service.

Mule in the Garde républicaine

The First World War brought Marcel to Paris to serve with the Fifth Infantry. It was there that he returned to music, playing in the regiment's military band in 1921. It was also during his time in Paris that he continued his music studies in harmony, piano and violin.

It wasn't until he concluded his military service that Marcel's musical career took off. In 1923, he completed an exam to become a member of the Garde républicaine's band, La Musique de la Garde Républicaine. It provided a regular income for him. He became known for his beautiful sound, and became the saxophone soloist in the Garde, which caused him to be asked to play in concerts with orchestras and also in the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique (although almost exclusively for Massenet's Werther, as this was the only opera in the repertoire that called for an orchestral saxophone). As Mule admits, in that time people liked his sound, though he played as other people did at that time, with a straight interiorised sound. It was during this period that he played frequently with modern dance bands, and where his exposure to American jazz bands, with their treatment of vibrato, inspired him to experiment with and develop his trademark classical saxophone vibrato.

In 1927, Mule formed a saxophone quartet along with members of the Garde, under the name of Quatuor de la Garde Républicaine. In its earliest stage (it was to last for some 40 years) there was no music for such groups. Mule transcribed the music of classical composers such as Albéniz (Sevilla from the Suite Española Op. 47) and Mozart. His new ensemble achieved critical acclaim early on. As a consequence, important composers of the day, including Gabriel Pierné, Florent Schmitt and Alexander Glazunov, contributed their own works to an ever-expanding repertoire for the instrument group. This influx of exciting new material proved essential for the establishment of the saxophone quartet as a viable, sustainable ensemble type.

The Golden Age

In 1936, facing concerts abroad, Mule left the Garde and dedicated himself to performing and composing. The quartet changed its name to Quatuor de Saxophones de Paris, but later became referred to as simply the Quatuor Marcel Mule. The ensemble was heard in concerts and recitals throughout France, Belgium, Holland, England, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and North Africa. It was a period of intense effort, which enabled him to reveal the true nobility and musical potential of the saxophone.

In 1944, Claude Delvincourt, director of the Paris Conservatoire, allowed for the reestablishment of a saxophone class, an offering which had been abandoned with the departure of Adolphe Sax in 1870. Delvincourt entrusted the post to Marcel Mule, who was by then 43 years of age and highly respected in France and abroad. During his years at the Conservatoire, Mule taught over 300 students, many of whom went on to become famous saxophone performers and teachers in their own right.

In 1958, Mule's career culminated as he embarked on a twelve concert tour of the United States with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Charles Münch. His program choice for the tour was Jacques Ibert's Concertino da Camera for alto saxophone, and Henri Tomasi's Ballade.

Writing about Mule's tour with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, New York journalist Louis Leopold Biancolli (1907–1992) called Mule the "Rubinstein of the saxophone". A few years earlier, a French journalist had dubbed Mule as the "Paganini of the saxophone". In 1939, Alfred Frankenstein (1906–1981), music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "Marcel Mule is the Jascha Heifetz of the Saxophone".[1]

Mule as a teacher

According to Mule, the quality of sound depends on four conditions:

Mule's methodic teachings follow these guidelines:

All these methods are widely explained in his books. Mule gave to the saxophone history a very extensive amount of teaching material, incomparable to anything that existed previously.

Study books produced by Mule

The books produced by Marcel Mule focused on the points mentioned above: technique (scales, arpeggios), articulation and tone production. Some of the study books created by Marcel Mule are:

Mule's retirement

In 1967, Marcel Mule retired to a villa near the Mediterranean, with his saxophone, though he never played it again. As he said, it was time to let the new generations make their way through.

On 24 June 2001, all his many friends and alumni met with him to celebrate his centenary. There were Guy Lacour, who was formerly saxophone tenor in the Quatuor, Michel Nouaux, Jean Ledieu, Jacques Person, Jean-Marie Londeix and others from France, but also from Spain, Canada and the United States. In October 2001, the Faculty of Music of the University of Laval (Canada) paid an enthusiastic homage to the Master.

A little over a month after the Laval visit, Marcel Mule died in his sleep at the age of 100.

Mule's legacy

Marcel Mule is universally recognized as a modern master of the classical saxophone and a spiritual heir to Adolphe Sax. His labours as arranger and transcriber became central to the development of the repertoire for the instrument. His influence attracted the attention of some of the most important composers of the day, including Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger and Florent Schmitt, whose new works consequently included the saxophone among their forces. Many of the most important figures in classical saxophone history have been Mule's disciples, including Frederick Hemke, Jean-Marie Londeix, Eugene Rousseau, Daniel Deffayet (who succeeded Mule at the Paris Conservatoire in 1968) and Claude Delangle (who succeeded Deffayet in 1988).

Marcel Mule's virtuosity in performance was combined with a capability to extract concepts from the playing and explain them to other people. In short, apart from being a fine performer, Mule was an extraordinary teacher who was able to relate his methods most effectively. His depth of character, warmth and enthusiasm earned the affection and respect of his colleagues and students while making inestimable contributions in establishing the saxophone as a viable voice for musical expression.


Mule made many recordings over the course of his career, mostly on 78RPM and 33RPM records. Notable ones include:

Books about Marcel Mule


Inline citations
  1. "The Victor and the Spoils", by Alfred Frankenstein, San Francisco Chronicle, October 22, 1939, pg. 41
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