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serpent

aerophone

The serpent is a wind instrument with a mouthpiece and finger holes. Though made of wood (and bound in leather), because the sound is created by vibrating the lips in the mouthpiece, as with the trumpet, the serpent is classed as part of the brass family. The 'serpent' derives its name from its S-shaped tube. The serpent is regarded as the bass of the cornetto family, but the serpent's bore is larger, the wall proportionately thinner and it does not have a thumb hole. The ivory or horn mouthpiece is attached to the end of a metal bocal. Using the six finger holes the player can play all the chromatic notes.

The serpent's origin is far from clear, but many musicologists believe it hails from Italy. Be that as it may, from the beginning of the seventeenth century the serpent's heyday was in French churches where the instrument accompanied Gregorian plainsong. In the course of the eighteenth century the serpent was also used in military bands, where the snake-like instrument was made more manageable by giving it a more compact form. There were numerous regional variations in the design of the instrument; at one point there were even straight versions. Because those serpents resembled a bassoon, they were sometimes referred to as "Russian bassoons". It was not long before keys were added, enabling the player to use finger holes which were otherwise beyond his reach. This opened the way to the ophicleide. The serpent was played not only in France, but also in Belgium, Germany and England. In England, besides serving liturgical and military purposes, it also appeared in theatres.

In the nineteenth century we still find the occasional reference to the serpent, but then in a less positive light. Though he used the instrument in his symphonic oeuvre, Hector Berlioz in particular lashed out at the serpent: "The essentially barbaric timbre of this instrument would have been far more appropriate to the ceremonies of the bloody cult of the Druids than to those of the Catholic religion". And he added: "There is only one exception to be made - the case where the serpent is employed in the Masses for the Dead, to reinforce the terrible plainsong of the Dies Irae. Then, no doubt, its cold and abominable howling is in place." Clearly the serpent's rating fell sharply during that period. This was to the advantage of the ophicleide, which eventually swept the serpent off the stage altogether.

The serpent's revival, which began in the 1970s, is bearing fruit today. The instrument has made a remarkable comeback in ensembles and orchestras that perform on historical instruments, and at the Paris Conservatoire the serpent is back on the curriculum. Consequently, musicians and public can rediscover all its nuances. Michel Godard successfully uses the serpent in jazz and improvization, thereby proving that the instrument has far more potential than one might think. Makers are also rediscovering the serpent and building high-quality instruments in a traditional manner, sometimes using modern materials such as carbon fibre.

The mim's serpents include one attributed to C. Baudouin, who built them in Paris at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It bears the maker's name, which is most unusual as most serpents are anonymous. Notice, too, the serpent with keys which would not be out of place in a natural history museum. This one was built by Ludwig Embach, a German living in Amsterdam. And a visit to the mim is not complete without a glimpse of the serpent chandelier: affixed to a Turkish crescent are ten (originally 12) serpents whose mouthpieces have been replaced by candles. It was Puurs fanfare wind band that came up with this novel way of recycling instruments which had fallen into disuse.

Media
Images: 
serpent Baudouin inv. 2247
Joueur de serpent, in: Draner, "Types militaires", Paris, 1862-1871
Chantres au lutrin, Henri Brispot in: "L’Univers illustré", Oct 1876
keyed serpent inv.1227, L. Embach, Amsterdam, between 1820 and 1844
serpent chandelier inv.2017, Puurs, end of the 18th / beginning of the 19th C.
"Clarisse, méfie-toi ... du serpent!", Paris, Aubert, around 1850