Serpent (instrument)

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Manifattura italiana, Serpentone, fine sec. XVIII. Museo Civico di Modena, foto P. Terzi.jpg
Serpent, late 18th century Italy. Civic Museum of Modena
Brass instrument
Other names
  • Serpentone
Hornbostel–Sachs classification423.21
(aerophone sounded by lip vibration with keys)
DevelopedLate 16th century
Playing range

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Related instruments
  • Christopher Monk Instruments
  • Stephan Berger
  • Pierre Ribo

The serpent is a low-pitched early brass instrument developed in the Renaissance era with a trombone-like mouthpiece and tone holes (later with keys) like a woodwind instrument. It is named for its long, conical bore bent into a snakelike shape, and unlike most brass instruments is generally made from wood, usually walnut, and covered with dark brown or black leather. A distant ancestor of the tuba, the serpent is related to the cornett and was used for bass parts from the 17th to the early 19th centuries.[1]


Scarborough Fair played on the serpent by Kathryn Rose

Although closely related to the cornett, the serpent has thinner walls, a more conical bore, and no thumb-hole.[2] The serpent is typically built in eight-foot C2 with six fingerholes, in two groups of three. Early serpents were keyless, while later instruments added keys for additional holes out of reach of the fingers, to improve intonation and extend range.

There is no real standard for the serpent's range, which varies according to the instrument and the player, but typically covers from around C2 two octaves below middle C to at least G4 above middle C, sometimes higher. The sound of a serpent is somewhere between a bassoon and a euphonium, and it is typically played in a seated position, with the instrument resting upright on the player's thighs.


There is little direct material or documentary evidence for the exact origin of the serpent. Historian Jean Lebeuf claimed in his 1743 work Mémoires Concernant l'Histoire Ecclésiastique et Civile d’Auxerre that the serpent was invented in 1590 by Edmé Guillaume, a clergyman in Auxerre, France.[2] Although this account is often accepted, some scholars suppose instead that the serpent evolved from the large, S-shaped bass cornetts that were in use in Italy in the 16th century.[3] It was certainly used in France since the early 17th century to strengthen the cantus firmus and bass voices of choirs in plainchant.[4] This original traditional serpent was known as the serpent d'église (lit.'church serpent'). Around the middle of the 18th century, the serpent began to appear in chamber ensembles, and later in orchestras. Mozart used two serpents in the orchestra for his 1771 opera Ascanio in Alba.[5]

Military serpents[edit]

Towards the end of the 18th century, the increased popularity of the serpent in military bands drove the subsequent development of the instrument to accommodate marching or mounted players. In England, a distinct military serpent was developed which had a more compact shape with tighter curves, added extra keys to improve its intonation, and metal braces between the bends to increase its rigidity and durability.[1] In France around the same time several makers produced a serpent militaire initially developed by Piffault (by whose name they are also known) that arranges the tubing vertically with an upward turned bell, reminiscent of a tenor saxophone.

Upright serpents and bass horns[edit]

Several vertical configurations of the serpent, generally known as upright serpents (French: serpent droit) or bass horns, sprung up in the early 19th century. Retaining the same fingering and six tone holes of the original serpent, the layouts of these instruments more resemble that of a bassoon, with jointed straight tubes that fit into a short U-shaped butte joint, and an upward pointing bell.[1]

Among the first of these was the basson russe, lit.'Russian bassoon', although it was neither Russian nor a bassoon. The name is possibly a corruption of basson prusse since they were taken up by the Prussian army bands of the time.[2] These instruments were built mostly in Lyon and often had the buccin-style decorative zoomorphic bells popular in France at the time, shaped and painted like a dragon or serpent head.[1] Appearing around the same time in military bands was the serpent à pavillon (lit.'bell serpent') which had a normal brass instrument bell, similar in flare to the later ophicleide.[6]

The English bass horn, developed by Frenchman Louis Frichot in London in 1799, had an all-metal V-shaped construction, described by Felix Mendelssohn as looking like a watering can. He admired its sound however, and wrote for it in several of his works, including his fifth symphony and the overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream.[1] The bass horn was popular in civic and military bands in Britain and Ireland, and also spread back into orchestras in Europe, where it influenced the inventors of both the ophicleide and later the Baß-Tuba.[2]

In Paris in 1823, Forveille invented his eponymous serpent Forveille, an upright serpent with an enlarged bell section influenced by the (then newly invented) ophicleide. It is distinguished by being made from wood, brass tubing being used only for the leadpipe and first bend.[2] It became popular in bands for its improved intonation and sound quality.[1] In 1828 Jean-Baptiste Coëffet patented his ophimonocleide ("snake with one key"), one of the last innovations of the upright serpent.[7] It solved one of the serpent's perennial problems, its difficult and indistinct B♮ notes, by building the instrument a semitone lower in B♮ but adding a large open tone hole that keeps the instrument in C until its key is pressed, closing the tone hole and producing a B♮ that is clear and resonant.[8]

The serpent appears as serpentone in early 19th century Italian operatic scores by composers such as Spontini, Rossini, and Bellini.[7] In Italy it was replaced by the cimbasso, a loose term that referred to several instruments; initially an upright serpent similar to the basson russe, then the ophicleide, and finally by the time of Verdi's later operas such as Otello (1887), a valve contrabass trombone.[9]

The era of upright serpents was brief, spanning the first half of the 19th century from their invention to their replacement by the ophicleide and the subsequent invention of instruments using brass instrument valves.[2] Richard Wagner used a serpent as a third bassoon in his 1840 opera Rienzi, but by the 1869 première of his Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle he was writing his lowest brass parts for tuba and contrabass trombone.[10]: 150 

Contemporary performance[edit]

Although not as popular as they were in the past, serpents are still made today by specialist instrument makers, and in modern usage the instrument is used from time-to-time in film scores, as well as in chamber ensembles that feature period instruments. Bernard Herrmann used a serpent in the scores of White Witch Doctor (1953) and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), as did Jerry Goldsmith in his score for Alien (1979).

Michel Godard performs on a serpent in the Adrabesa Quartet, 2020

Modern works for the instrument include Simon Proctor's 1987 "Serpent Concerto", which was commissioned to mark the first International Serpent Festival, Norman Bolter's work "Temptation" for serpent and string quartet, written for player Douglas Yeo and premiered at the 1999 International Trombone Festival in Potsdam, New York, and Luigi Morleo's "Diversità: NO LIMIT", a concerto for serpent and strings which premiered in Monopoli, Italy in 2012.[11][12][13] Comic composer Peter Shickele also wrote a novelty P.D.Q. Bach piece for the London Serpent Trio and vocal ensemble entitled "O Serpent" in 1989.[14]


  • Michel Godard, jazz musician and tubist, who also plays the serpent
  • Douglas Yeo, professional trombone player, who also plays the serpent and ophicleide

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Douglas Yeo (2021). "serpent". An Illustrated Dictionary for the Modern Trombone, Tuba, and Euphonium Player. Dictionaries for the Modern Musician. Illustrator: Lennie Peterson. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 128–31. ISBN 978-1-53815-966-8. LCCN 2021020757. OCLC 1249799159. OL 34132790M. Wikidata Q111040546.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Clifford Bevan (2000). "Serpents and Bass Horns". The Tuba Family (2nd ed.). Winchester: Piccolo Press. pp. 63–126. ISBN 1-872203-30-2. OCLC 993463927. OL 19533420M. Wikidata Q111040769.
  3. ^ Herbert Heyde (2007). "Zoomorphic and Theatrical Musical Instruments in the Late Italian Renaissance and Baroque Eras". In Renato Meucci; Franca Falletti; Gabriele Rossi Rognoni (eds.). Marvels of sound and beauty: Italian Baroque musical instruments. Florence: Giunti Editore. ISBN 978-88-09-05395-3. LCCN 2008410070. OCLC 316434285. OL 16893261M. Wikidata Q113004406.
  4. ^ Christopher Holman (November 2017). "Rhythm and metre in French Classical plainchant". Early Music. 45 (4): 657–64. doi:10.1093/em/cax087.
  5. ^ Don L. Smithers (May 1992). "Mozart's Orchestral Brass". Early Music. Oxford University Press. 20 (2): 254–65. doi:10.1093/earlyj/XX.2.254. JSTOR 3127882.
  6. ^ Kridel, Craig (2003). "Questions and Answers: Bass Horns and Russian Bassoons" (PDF). ITEA Journal. International Tuba and Euphonium Association. 30 (4): 73–5. Retrieved 12 July 2022.
  7. ^ a b Touroude, José-Daniel (9 November 2011). "Compte rendu du colloque "le serpent sans sornettes" du 6 et 7 septembre 2011 aux Invalides à Paris". Archives Musique, Facteurs, Marchands, Luthiers (in French). Retrieved 12 July 2022.
  8. ^ Kridel, Craig (2019). "The Ophimonocleide: Folly or Genius?" (PDF). ITEA Journal. International Tuba and Euphonium Association. 46 (2): 30–3. Retrieved 12 July 2022.
  9. ^ Renato Meucci (March 1996). Translated by William Waterhouse. "The Cimbasso and Related Instruments in 19th-Century Italy". The Galpin Society Journal. 49: 143–179. doi:10.2307/842397. ISSN 0072-0127. JSTOR 842397. Wikidata Q111077162.
  10. ^ Clifford Bevan (1997). "The low brass". In Trevor Herbert; John Wallace (eds.). The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments. Cambridge Companions. Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CCOL9780521563437. ISBN 978-1-139-00203-5. OCLC 460517551. Wikidata Q112852613.
  11. ^ "Top Five Snakes on a Concert Stage | Top 5 @ 105". WQXR. Retrieved 2021-03-06.
  12. ^ "Douglas Yeo: Tempted by a Serpent". Retrieved 2021-03-06.
  13. ^ "Diversità No Limit (Morleo, Luigi) - Diversità No Limit (Morleo, Luigi) | 21CNMC MOOC — 中国二十一世纪网络音乐学院 - 音乐知识更新平台 |". Retrieved 2021-03-06.
  14. ^ "P.D.Q. Bach and American Serpent Players". Retrieved 2021-03-06.

External links[edit]