Musical Instrument: The Serpent

serpent(Eng. and Fr.; Germ. Schlangenrohr; Ital. Serpentone).

The Serpent is now an obsolete instrument forming the natural bass of the ancient cornet family, played with a cupped mouthpiece similar to that of the bass trombone.

It consists of a wooden tube about 8 feet long, increasing conically from 5/8 of an inch in diameter at the mouthpiece to 4 inches at the open end.

The name is obviously derived from the curved form into which the tube is contorted, presenting three u shaped turns followed by a large circular convolution.

The bell end is, moreover, turned forward from the player, and the mouthpiece makes a right angled backward turn to reach his lips.

There are six holes on the front of the instrument, to be stopped by the three middle fingers of either hand; those for the left hand on the third descending branch; those for the right hand on the fourth ascending branch towards the bell.

The holes are set in groups of three, within reach of the outstretched fingers. The hands are passed through the convolutions to the front of the tube, away from the performer; the weight of the whole is supported on the upper edges of the two forefingers, and grasped by the two thumbs, which are kept at the back of the instrument.

The serpent is considered to consist of three parts:

  1. The mouthpiece
  2. The crook, or curved brass tube leading into
  3. The wooden body

The wooden body was built up of several pieces held together by a leathern covering.

The whole of the instrument was, however, sometimes made of brass or copper.

It is usually said to have been invented by a canon of Auxerre, named Edme Guillaume, in 1590. The story bears a somewhat suspicious resemblance to that of the discovery of the bassoon by a canon of Ferrara in the first half of the same century. But there can be no doubt that about this period clerical musicians employed bass reed and brass instruments for the accompaniment of ecclesiastical plain-song.

Indeed, Mersenne, who gives a remarkably good and complete account of the Serpent, notices that ‘even when played by a boy it is sufficient to support the voices of twenty robust monks.’

The Serpent d’Eglise is still a recognized functionary in French churches, and for many years was an indispensable member of the primitive orchestras which accompanied singing in rural churches in England.

The scale of the Serpent is in the highest degree capricious, and indeed fortuitous. In this respect it resembles the bassoon. Mersenne gives it a compass of seventeen diatonic notes from 8-foot D upwards, and intimates that the intervening chromatics can be obtained by half-stopping. He does not name the device of cross-fingering so largely employed on the bassoon. Berlioz who spoke slightingly of it, stated that it was in B flat, and parts for it ‘must be written a whole tone above the real sound.’ The old parts, however, from which the writer played at the Sacred harmonic Society were all, without exception, in C.

It is obvious that the Serpent, like every other instrument with a cupped mouthpiece, can produce the usual harmonic series of notes. These in Mersenne’s work seem limited to the fundamental, its octave, and twelfth. There would be no difficulty in obtaining a far larger compass.

Lichtenthal who, as an Italian, highly valued the Serpent, gave its compass as no less that four full octaves from the Do bassissimo, which ‘does not exist on the pianoforte (1826), but on the pedal of the organ of 16 feet,’ up to the Do of the violin on the third space. He stated, moreover, that the lowest sound of Do can only be used from titme to time, ‘avendo bisogno di una particolare buona imboccature’ – requiring a specially good lip. As the fundamental note, pedal, or lowest proper tone of the Serpent was the 8-feet C, just as it is on the trombone, euphonium, or ophicleide in C, the statement of Lichtenthal can only be explained by admitting that certain players, by a peculiarly loose embouchure, could produce notes of a forced or constrained pitch one octave lower than due to the length of the tube.

The compass given in the scales and tutors is three octaves from C to c, with a possible extension downwards, by slackening the lips, to B, and B flat.

It will be seen from the woodcut that one hand being applied to an ascending, and the other to a descending branch, the usual sequence of fingering is inverted in the two hands; the scale proceeding downwards in the left and upwards in the right.

The Seprent is probably the only instrument in existence exhibiting so quaint and unscientific a device. This face, and the different lengths of sounding-tube intervening between the holes – the distance between the mouthpiece and the first finger hole being 44 inches; between the next three only about 4 inches in all; between these and the next three for the right hand, 13 inches; making 96 inches, or 8 feet – indicate the great imperfection of the instrument mechanically considered, and point to the conclusion that a good player must have relied more on his dexterity and on the strength of his embouchure, as mentioned above, than on the resources of the instrument itself.

Later makes, however, added a multiplicity of keys, both above and below, which only complicated without facilitating performance. It is well known that the notes D, A, and some others, the holes for which were the most approximately correct in position, had far greater force and correctness than others less accurately planted on the resonant tube.

On the other hand, owing to the material of the Serpent and to its bore, its tone was certainly more tender and less obtrusive than that of the blatant brass valve instruments which have replaced it in the modern orchestra.

A part for it is found in the score of Mendelssohn’s overtures ‘The Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’ and ‘St. Paul,’ in the overtures to ‘Masaniello,’ ‘The Siege of Corinth’, and ‘Rienzi.’ It is also found in the score of ‘I Vespri Siciliani.’ It is usually replaced in performance by the ophicleide.

A Yorkshire man of Richmond, named Hurworth, who played in the private band of George III., could execute elaborate flute variations with perfect accuracy on this unwieldy instrument.

There is a ‘Method for the Serpent,’ containing studies and duets, published by Cocks. The only concerted music set down to it seems to have been originally intended for the bassoon.

A ‘Contra-Serpent’ was shown in the Exhibition of 1851, made by Jordan of Liverpool. It was in E flat of the 16-foot octave. It was however too unwieldy to be carried by the player, and required independent support. Another modification of this instrument was invented by Beacham and played on the Prospere in Jullien’s orchestra. It was named the Serpentcleide, and was essentially an ophicleide with a body of wood instead of brass.