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TEMPTED BY A SERPENT

"Douglas Yeo has become the major public defender of the serpent. . ."

The Boston Globe, April 17, 1998


Now and then, the Boston Symphony Orchestra undertakes a work that requires an instrument that falls outside the traditional orchestral palate. Mozart's use of the basset horn (a member of the clarinet family) in his Requiem comes to mind as does Wagner's scoring for bass trumpet, contrabass trombone and Wagner tuba (played by horn players) in his Ring cycle. Holst calls for a bass oboe (not an English horn) in The Planets and Mahler utilizes an offstage posthorn (a small valveless member of the horn family) in his Third Symphony. More or less "authentic" performances of some works of Bach bring the viola d'amore to the stage while Richard Strauss wrote for a tenor tuba to portray Sancho Panza in his Don Quixote.

But of all the unusual and unfamiliar instruments that are called for in the symphony orchestra, there is one that was heard in a Boston Symphony concert for the first time. Berlioz' Messe solennelle, a newly discovered work that received its first performances with the BSO in Symphony Hall on October 13,14 and 15, 1994 (with subsequent BSO performances in New York's Avery Fisher Hall on October 21, 1994 and in Tokyo on December 8, 1994) brought to listeners one of the most exotic and intriguing of musical instruments - the serpent.

There is perhaps no instrument that more accurately lives up to its name than the serpent. It is an approximately eight-foot-long conical instrument of wood covered with leather, played with a cup-shaped mouthpiece usually of ivory or horn and tortuously coiled in such a way that gives it a self-evident name.

The serpent was invented in 1590 by a Frenchman, Edme Guillaume, making it one of the oldest instruments currently in use today. Conceived as the bass member of the cornett family (the group of instruments - including the cornett, bass horn, serpent and ophicleide - that preceded today's modern keyed brass instruments), the serpent immediately found a home accompanying the plainsong of the Church. It became popularized in England in the eighteenth century where in addition to being used in church services, it became the bass of the military wind band.

The serpent has a tone quality unlike any instrument in the modern orchestra. When played loudly, its powerful sound carries easily and with authority; quietly, it blends well with bassoons and voices. But with only six open holes and no keys, the serpent lives up its name in more than just its appearance - it is as treacherous as its namesake from the Garden of Eden. While numerous fingering charts for the serpent have been published, no printed matter can disguise the fact that playing the serpent is an inexact science at best, relying on the steady lip of the performer to get a firm grip on the intonation of any given note.

Being the best bass wind instrument available at the time, many composers wrote for the serpent as late as the early nineteenth century. Wagner's Rienzi and Love Feast of the Apostles, Rossini's Seige of Corinth and Verdi's Sicilian Vespers all utilize the serpent and Mendelssohn's oratorio St. Paul probably represents its most effective orchestral use.

Berlioz's writing for the serpent is at once curious and fascinating. In the Messe solennelle, an early work dating from 1825, Berlioz writes for three now obsolete instruments - buccin (in the Kyrie), ophicleide (in the Resurrexit) and serpent (in the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei, if only at the very end). The serpent and opheclide are precursors to today's modern orchestral tuba. The Grove Dictionary claims there are no known buccin to have survived today, although most scholars consider the "over -the-shoulder" dragon belled trombone to be an authentic buccin, such as the one that is used as the logo for the International Trombone Association (Respighi also wrote for buccine in his Pines of Rome; he evidently was hoping for a performance with recreations of ancient Roman instruments which are different than the buccin for which Berlioz wrote.) But from descriptions in literature, we know it was a four-foot-long brass instrument created during the French Revolution and used for outdoor music. The ophicleide, invented in 1821, takes its name from the Greek 'ophis' meaning a serpent and 'kleis', as in a cover or stopper - literally a keyed serpent. Being constructed entirely of metal and being upright, however, the ophicleide is closer to the modern baritone horn than the serpent it quickly replaced.

In the Messe, Berlioz utilizes each instrument for its known strengths - the buccin for a powerful middle register, the ophicleide for dexterity in the low range, and the serpent for its ability to blend with woodwinds and voices. In the recent BSO performances, the part of the buccin and ophicleide was performed on a baritone horn by the BSO's tuba player, Chester Schmitz. But since there is no suitable modern alternative for the serpent, I decided to do the only sensible thing - I yielded to temptation and purchased a serpent!


[The photo at left is from the 1999 International Trombone Festival held at the Crane School of music in Potsdam, New York. During a recital at the Festival, I gave the world premiere of "Temptation" by Norman Bolter for serpent and string quartet.] The unique timbre of the serpent was again used by Berlioz in his Symphonie Fantastique, where in the original manuscript (1830) of the fifth movement, he called for the use of an ophicleide and a serpent to play the Dies Irae melody which is nowadays played on two bass tubas. The continued refinement of the ophicleide, and the development of the tuba (patented in 1835) which soon took over its rightful place as the bass of the brass family, caused Berlioz to have a change of mind regarding the serpent: in the first printed edition of 1845, the serpent had been replaced by a second ophicleide. In his Grand traite d'instrumentation of 1843, Berlioz had become more ambivalent toward the serpent, writing, with characteristic hyperbole, "The truly barbaric tone of this instrument would be much better suited for the bloody cult of the Druids than for that of the Catholic church, where it is still in use . . . Only one case is to be excepted: masses for the dead, where the serpent serves to double the dreadful choir of the Dies Irae. Here its cold and awful blaring is doubtless appropriate; it even seems to assume a character of mournful poetry when accompanying this text, imbued with all the horrors of death and the revenge of an irate God."

Others, however, did not share Berlioz's later deprecation of the serpent. A writer in the Musical World in 1841 said, " . . .thus the fine quality of tone of the serpent may, henceforth, be available in the orchestra, and the hog-song of the ophicleide will, we fervently hope, be speedily tacitted or banished altogether." Philip Palmer, a present-day serpentist (recently deceased, who commissioned a copy of the largest serpent known to be in existence, a sixteen-foot-long monster dubbed "The Anaconda"), sums up the situation eloquently in his article "In Defense of the Serpent" in the 1990 Historic Brass Society Journal, "While the serpent does, in this writer's opinion, present the greatest challenge of any Western instrument, it is by no means impossible to conquer its idiosyncrasies; and the result is an added resource for the performance of old music. Not only is the distinctive tone of the serpent capable of contributing greatly to instrumental ensembles and choral accompaniment, it also possesses a visual appeal to audiences second to no other instrument, past or present. The defense rests."


This article by Douglas Yeo, with some minor alterations, originally appeared in the Boston Symphony Orchestra program book for concerts of October 13, 14 & 15, 1994.


Douglas Yeo plays the serpent

To assist you in knowing more about the serpent, the following mp3 are available for your convenience, information and enjoyment. Please note that all of the mp3 files included on this page are by the individuals or companies as indicated below. Reproduction in mp3 format of the copyrighted compositions played on these recordings is by kind permission of the copyright holders and is for exclusive use on this website.

Permission is granted to individuals to listen and download to private disk all of the files included on this page FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY. Permission is NOT granted for any commercial use of the mp3 files on this page, nor may these files be put on any other website, sold, distributed, modified, "shared", or "traded." The files may not be appropriated for use in lessons or masterclasses without express written permission of Douglas Yeo AND the original copyright holder. Violation of this notice is a criminal act and will be vigorously prosecuted under the laws of the United States of America.

Here are some mp3 excerpts which feature me playing the serpent with piano, with orchestra and unaccompanied. Additional serpent mp3 files may be found on the page with information about my new CD recording, Le Monde du Serpent.

Simon Proctor - Serpent Concerto (First movement excerpt). Simon Proctor. All rights reserved. Recorded in Edman Memorial Chapel, Wheaton College (IL) April 15, 2000. Douglas Yeo, serpent (Monk), Wheaton College Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Sommerville, conductor. Approximately 1:14 (1.1 MB).

Simon Proctor - Serpent Concerto (First movement and cadenza excerpt). Simon Proctor. All rights reserved. Recorded in Edman Memorial Chapel, Wheaton College (IL) April 15, 2000. Douglas Yeo, serpent (Monk), Wheaton College Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Sommerville, conductor. Approx. 1:25 (1.3 MB).

Simon Proctor - Serpent Concerto (Third movement excerpt). Simon Proctor. All rights reserved. Recorded in Edman Memorial Chapel, Wheaton College (IL) April 15, 2000. Douglas Yeo, serpent (Monk), Wheaton College Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Sommerville, conductor. Approximately :58 (912k).

Handel - La Rejouissance (from "Music for the Royal Fireworks"). Recorded at WBUR Radio Studio, September 28, 1999. Douglas Yeo, serpent (Baudouin). Approximately :17 (644k).

Old Man River (excerpt). Recorded at Boston Museum of Fine Arts, April 30, 1998. Douglas Yeo, contrabass anaconda serpent in CC, "George," (Monk). Approximately :27 (428k).

Handel - La Rejouissance (from "Music for the Royal Fireworks"). Recorded at Boston Museum of Fine Arts, April 30, 1998. Douglas Yeo, contrabass anaconda serpent in CC,"George," (Monk). Approximately :44 (700k).


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