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More Subtle Than Any Beast of the Field
12 September 2005

CD: Sous Les Voutes le Serpent
© M·A Recordings

Curious Article No. 7:

Adolphe Adam (1803-1856), composer of O Holy Night, once observed, “In Paris, at the hub of the arts, one cannot enter a church without being followed by one or sometimes two serpents.” Most believe the bewitching instrument he was referring to was invented around 1590 by French priest Edmé Guillaume of St. Steven Auxerre Cathedral to add a fuller baritone/bass voice to his choir. The serpent consists of a wooden tube carved as two half-rounds, glued together and then firmly wrapped with a coil of veal skin or other leather to make it airtight. The most common version needs to be about six feet long, so in order to make it compact enough to hold they give it several crooks. Classically there are six holes for the fingering and an angled metal tube ending in a wooden or ivory cup-shaped mouthpiece similar to that used for a trombone. Indeed, people taking up the serpent nowadays are more often than not trombonists or other low-register brass players. It emits a rounder, more organic tone than a metal instrument, somewhat bassoon-like yet also rather human. It’s fiendishly difficult to play in tune, plus you need exceptional dexterity to negotiate its holes swiftly and unerringly.

As musical instruments go, the serpent enjoyed a distinguished career — about 300 years — until it was phased out first by the ophicleide (a less zigzaggy version made of metal and employing keys rather than simple holes) and then finally the euphonium and tuba by the late nineteenth century. George Frederick Handel employed the serpent in his Royal Fireworks Music (1749), Beethoven in at least one of his marches, Berlioz in Messe Solennelle (1824 but lost until 1991), and Wagner in his opera Rienzi (1842). Christopher Monk, Alan Lumsden, and Andrew van der Beek founded the London Serpent Trio in 1976, which continues to perform in a wide range of musical genres to this day with a newer generation of players.

Aside from the Trio, two of the serpent’s strongest exponents are currently Douglas Yeo and Michel Godard. Yeo has been a bass trombonist with the Boston Symphony since 1985 and a hands-down authority on the subject, but when it comes to virtuoso serpentry he’s clearly a Man on a Mission. Check out his newest CD Le Monde du Serpent (with free MP3 excerpts). Says Fanfare Magazine, “It’s obvious Yeo meant to entertain as well as to educate, and this lively CD succeeds at doing both brilliantly. The performances are expert and loving, and the production values demonstrate the utmost in care and discernment.” Michel Godard's CD, Sous Les Voûtes le Serpent, is a different reptile entirely but intriguing in its own way, featuring selections such as “Tuba Chant” and “A Black Dust Cloud and Stars Embedded in Gaseous Nebulosities (For Carl Sagan).” I'm afraid Garrison Keillor won't be standing in line for either of these, though, having said of the serpent, “The urge to perform is not a sign of talent.” To each his own, I guess.

© Peter Blinn 2005
rosette artwork

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