Gloriæ Dei Cantores
Elizabeth C. Patterson, Director; conducted by James E. Jordan, Jr.
Berlioz Historical Brass
Ben Peck, buccin; Phil Humphries, ophicleide
Douglas Yeo, serpent; Ronald Haroutunian, bassoon
Members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Keisuke Wakao & Robert Sheena, oboe
Thomas Martin & Craig Nordstrom, clarinet
Richard Sebring & Jonathan Menkis, horn
Richard Ranti, Suzanne Nelsen & Gregg Henegar, bassoon
Douglas Yeo, serpent and contrabass serpent
Deborah DeWolf Emery, piano
Jennifer Ashe, soprano
Craig Kridel and Phil Humphries, serpent
Craig Kridel, cupped bells
Go to LE MONDE DU SERPENT Program Notes Page | Order LE MONDE DU SERPENT | Read reviews of LE MONDE DU SERPENT
Und der Titel ist Programm: Beginnend mit einem Alleluia aus dem 18. Jahrhundert aus Auxerre, zu dem der Serpent nach zeitgenssischer Praxis die Melodie stützt, über technische Etüden und kurzen mehrstimmigen Stückchen aus französischen Serpentschulen des späten 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts, dem vielleicht von Haydn oder Pleyel stammenden Divertimento in B (Hob. 2:46) für Harmoniemusik-Besetzung (original inklusive Serpent!), einer zeitgenössischen Bearbeitung des Allegrettos von Beethovens 7. Symphonie gleichfalls für Harmoniemusik - hier mit "George", einem Kontrabass-Serpent anstelle des ursprünglich besetzten Kontrafagotts), bis hin zu modernen, teils ambitionierten Auftragskompositionen unter Einbezug von neuen Spieltechniken (auffallend 'Quatre Tanka' des französischen Komponisten Drake Mabry) - und noch einigem mehr ...
Die ebenso liebevoll wie kenntnisreich zusammengestellte Programm spiegelt sich in der sorgfältigen Ausstattung der CD. Ein 24-seitiges Booklet enthält vielfältige Informationen zum Programm; weitere detaillierte Angaben finden sich auf der Homepage von Douglas Yeo.
Douglas Yeo ist hauptberuflich Bassposaunist des für seinen exzellenten Blechsatz berühmten Boston Symphony Orchestra und beschäftigt sich seit gut zehn Jahren mit dem Serpent (inzwischen auch mit der Ophicleïde, die ebenso wie eine Buccin auf der CD zu hören ist). Dank seiner hohen Professionalitt und der damit verbundenen Perfektion klingt der Serpent überraschend sauber intoniert und spricht in allen Lagen gut an. Klanglich erinnert das Instrument - übrigens meist ein Serpent von Baudouin von ca. 1810 - san eine unnachahmliche Mischung von Horn, Fagott und Posaune. Wollte man kritische Anmerkungen machen, dann beträfen sie den wenig passenden amerikanischen Chor für die französischen Choralgesänge des 18. Jahrhunderts oder die Verwendung von modernen Blasinstrumenten bei den Harmoniemusik-Stücken. Aber im Zentrum der CD steht der Serpent Š und hier bleiben keine Wünsche offen. (Martin Kirnbauer)
And the title is the agenda: Beginning with an 18th-century Alleluia from Auxerre in which the serpent supports the melody in accordance with the practice of the time, through technical etudes and short pieces for several parts from French serpent methods of the late 18th and 19th centuries, the Divertimento (Hob. 2:46), possibly by Haydn or Pleyel, for Harmoniemusik ensemble (originally including serpent!), a contemporary arrangement of the Allegretto from Beethoven's 7th Symphony, likewise for Harmoniemusik (here with "George," a contrabass serpent instead of the originally intended contrabassoon), up to the modern, partly ambitious commissioned works employing new playing techniques (striking: the "Quatre Tanka" by the French composer Drake Mabry), and much more...
The care and knowledge displayed in putting together the program are also reflected in the attractive layout of the CD. A 24-page booklet contains a wealth of information about the program; further details can be found on Douglas Yeo's homepage.
Douglas Yeo is full-time bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which is famous for its excellent brass section, and for over ten years he has occupied himself with the serpent (in the meantime also with the ophicleide, which along with a buccin is also to be heard on the CD). Thanks to his great professionalism and the perfection implied by it, the serpent sounds surprisingly well in tune and responds well in all registers. In terms of timbre, the instrument - incidentally, for the most part a serpent by Baudouin from ca. 1810 - is reminiscent of an inimitable mixture of horn, bassoon, and trombone.
If one wanted to voice criticism, then it would be about the not very appropriate American choir for the 18th-century French choral works or the use of modern wind instruments in the Harmoniemusik pieces. However, the serpent stands at the center of the CD - and here nothing is left to be desired. (English translation by Howard Weiner)
Readers looking for a full history of the serpent should turn, for example, to Mr. Yeo’s Web site, specifically to http://www.yeodoug.com/publications/le_monde_du_serpent/le_monde_du_serpent_notes.html where they will find plenty of information and links. For the purposes of this review, suffice it to say that the serpent was invented in France in the late 1500s. Its home, at the time, was the church, where it provided a cantus firmus for chants. In time, it escaped its ecclesiastical confines and found its way not just into concert music but also into the village band, where it sometimes replaced the bass fiddle. The instrument was forgotten in the 1920s, but it was revived in the 1970s, thanks to the efforts of an English musician named Christopher Monk. Yeo discovered the instrument in 1994, when Seiji Ozawa programmed Berlioz’s Messe solennelle, which includes a part for the serpent. Yeo acquired one and quickly became fascinated with it. Today he is one the serpent’s most prominent exponents.
This CD could have been deader than a cottonmouth trying to cross I-95 on the day before Thanksgiving. Fortunately, Yeo has cleverly constructed an entertaining program that has more odd turns than the instrument itself. Appropriately, the CD begins with the serpent accompanying the Gloriæ Dei Cantores Schola in an Alleluia from 18th-century France. There are a few examples of didactic music from the 18th and 19th centuries (you could actually buy manuals back then). There are new works (most notably, Simon Proctor’s delightful Serpent Concerto) and old favorites. Among the latter, listeners will recognize part of Haydn’s Divertimento in Bb, Hob 2:46 as the source of Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn. They’ll also recognize the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphonynot originally scored for serpent, obviously, but quite fetching in a wind arrangement that features members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Oddest of all is a work from 2000 by the English serpentist (?) Clifford Bevan. His Mots de Berlioz, scored for the Gloriæ Dei Cantores and a quartet comprised of a serpent, a buccin (an old French trombone), an ophicleide, and a bassoon, sets the text of one of Berlioz’s lettersone pertaining to Messe solennelleto music associated with Berlioz and his contemporaries. A number of Berlioz’s “greatest hits” galumph by, including the idée fixe from the Symphonie fantastique.
It is obvious that 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.
It is unlikely that you will find this CD through most retailers. The easiest way to purchase it is to go to www.yeodoug.com. It will set you back $15, but this is money well spent. While you’re there, you might want to pick up a “Douglas Yeo Floaty Pen” for a few dollars more. (Apparently, floaty pens, like serpents and Beanie Babies, are at the center of intense cult-like activity. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) (Raymond Tuttle)
Yeo, the Berlioz Historical Brass, Gloriæ Dei Cantores, and members of the Boston Symphony all demonstrate their musical mastery through this recording. The CD begins appropriately with Alleluia, a French Gallican chant, which provides the listener with a clear example of the serpent's more traditional role. In this selection, Yeo and the vocalists of Gloriæ Dei Cantores display a superb unification of voices and instrument.
The late Christopher Monk, founder of the London Serpent Trio, receives tribute from Yeo, Craig Kridel and Phil Humphries via several works for three serpents. The most rousing of these is Yeo's arrangement of Seiber's Foxtrot, in which all three performers capture the piece's inherent humor. Another modern selection, Les Mots de Berlioz, by Clifford Bevan, spotlights a unique usage of the ophicleide, buccin and serpent. The instrumentalists interject the vocalist's Dies irae theme with well-executed and zealous accompanying figures.
Particularly inspiring is the haunting performance of Quatre Tanka by Drake Mabry, given by Jennifer Ashe, soprano and Yeo, serpent. This work, with its sprech-stimme-like vocal passages and extended techniques for serpent, demonstrates the versatility of the serpent and its inclusion in contemporary literature. Also impressive is Yeo's rendition of Simon Proctor's Serpent Concerto. His unblemished performance is matched with finesse by Deborah DeWolf Emery's piano accompaniment.
"Le Monde du Serpent" is an educational excursion through the history of the serpent. Such an impressively conceived project with brillaint performances is sure to pique interest and inspire a greater awareness of this instrument. (Daniel E. Rice)
An "Alleluia" from Auxerre (18th Century, composer anonymous) opens with serpent-accompanied chant, then blossoms into a beautiful polyphonic texture that was favored in this part of France in the late 18th Century. A "Credo" by Henri du Mont is given the same treatment by arranger Peter Wilton.
While the serpent seems most at home in such austere old settings, its pleasingly plump voice is a dignified yet delightful presence in more recent ones as well. It is the bass part in an otherwise a cappella setting of a Nicholas Roze "Domine Salvum", Mozartean in style but from the early 19th century. The last of the choral settings is by Clifford Bevan, author of the scholarly text The Tuba Family and a champion of early brass instruments since the 1970s. The text he chose for "Les Mots de Berlioz" is from a Berlioz letter that boasts about the electrifying effect of the first performance of his "Messe Solonnelle (a work that included serpent). Bevan scored his piece for choir with a quartet consisting of bassoon, buccin (a trombone with a tin bell in the shape of a dragon head), ophicleide (a keyed brass instrument with terrible tone but acceptable intonation), and serpent. Here is your chance to listed to the husky, slightly wobbly, yet touching sounds of three early 19th-Century brass instruments. It's a very enjoyable work, too, with reverences to the Dies Irae melody and quotes from Symphonie Fantastique. The four players (Yeo with buccinist Ben Peck, ophicleidist Phil Humphries, and bassoonist Ronald Haroutunian)) constitute Berlioz Historical Brass.
I am mindful of sharp comments I've made about other early brass recordings, particularly those involving keyed trumpets and ophicleides. They present the old tone qualities with terrible intonation, and the listening experience is lousy. Players must learn how to play in tune on any instrument, old or new. This collection proves that it's possible.
The program includes several unaccompanied examples from serpent etude books published in the late 18th century, when playing skills were declining. They show not only Yeo's fine technique but every detail of his tone quality. Similar in style to these jaunty etudes is my favorite selection, Bevan's very witty "Variations on The Pesky Sarpent". Yeo reads the poem (a silly tale of two snake-bitten lovers) in fine voice before playing the piece with pianist Deborah DeWolfe Emery. Yeo also teams with fellow serpent player Craig Kridel in a march from Handel's "Scipio (Yeo plays two of the three parts) and with Kridel and Humphries in a little "Foxtrot" by matyas Seiber.
What a treat it must have been for trombonist Yeo to join his Boston Symphony woodwind colleagues in works by Haydn (disputed) and Beethoven! The serpent sounds so good as the husky bass voice in these pieces (a Haydn Divertimento and the Allegretto from Beethoven's Symphony 7) that I hope someone will try it in Mozart's Gran Partita.
And then there are the newest works. Drake Mabry's Quatre Tanka (1998) is a setting of four original poems for soprano and serpent. Jennifer Ashe is the fine singer, and Yeo shows that the serpent can be subjected to avant-garde playing techniques. In Simon Proctor's Serpent Concerto (1987), Yeo teams with pianist Emery in a scintillating reading that includes the evocative sound of cupped bells, played by Craig Kridel.
I have long been aware of the serpent and its place in brass-instrument history, but I have never heard one until now. This is a great listening experience, with unusual timbres, literature of quality and variety, and excellent performances. Detailed and wry notes. (Barry Kilpatrick)
The Double Reed
On the recording Douglas is joined by the Gloriae Dei Cantores choir, members of the Boston Symphony, including oboists Keisuke Wakao and Robert Sheena, and bassoonists Richard Ranti, Suzanne Nelson and Gregg Henegar, the latter group in a performance of haydn's well-known Divertimento in B flat with Douglas playing the bass line on the serpent. (This is the work that contains the Andante second movement theme that Brahms used in his famous Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Here the serpent amply fills the role that the contrabassoon provides in the Brahms version.) Also, in a tribute to the memory of the London Serpent Trio, which was founded by Christopher Monk in 1976, and which was a popular performing group in the UK for many years, Douglas is joined by serpentist Craig Kridel in a performance of a LST favorite work, Handel's March from the opera Scipio with Douglas playing both the first and third parts. Later these two are joined by fellow serpentist Phil Humphries in performing a Foxtrot by Matyas Seiber in another tribute to the LST. the delightful sound of three serpents is something like a cross between the velvet-like sound of three horns (or perhaps three euphoniums), and the crisper sound of three trombones.
There are more treats ahead, however! The Berlioz Historical Brass (Ben Peck, buccin; Phil Humphries, ophicleide; Douglas Yeo, serpent; and Ronald Haroutunian, bassoon) join forces with the Gloriae Dei Cantores to perform a brand new work Les Mots de Berlioz (2000) by Clifford Bevan, which is based heavily on both words and music of Hector Berlioz, with the Dies Irae chant figuring in prominently. Composer Bevan is also responsible for the Variations on The Pesky Sarpent for serpent and piano (1996) the performance of which is preceeded by a recitation of the poem The Pesky Sarpent by Douglas. Again Dies Irae rears its prominent head in the Variations as well.
Next the serpent goes modern and joins soprano Jennifer Ashe in a performance of Quatre Tanka (1998), four songs by composer Drake Mabry. Here some of the contemporary musical and technical styles are given to both voice and serpent.
More Duos, Etudes, choral works, and even a nice Serpent Concerto (1987) in three movements by Simon Proctor and a wind performance of the Allegretto movement of Beethoven's Symphony 7 follow in this thoroughly enjoyable compliation. As a bassoonist, I can readily appreciate the loving respect and appreciation for the past that Douglas has lavished on this CD - most obviously a labor of love. The delightful program notes in both English and French add a lot of historical background. (For even more background infrmation on the recording and the serpent you can check out Douglas's website at www.yeodoug.com.)
As a bassoonist, I can also understand and appreciate the humor and "tongue-in-cheek" moments very much present in the scope of this recording. Lest we musicians take ourselves too seriously, this is the part of playing an "oddball" instrument myself that I really enjoy - serious, but...
Every summer in late July in Spokane, Washington, oboist David Dutton gathers all the oboists and bassoonists from the northwest region he can scare up for the annual Royal Fireworks Concert which always ends in a sparkling display of fireworks during the playing of Handel's Royal Fireworks music. Also every year, we welcome serpentist Leonard Byrne (who also serves as tubist with the Spokane Symphony between serpent gigs!) in the ensemble. Along with him, as well as the other oboes, English horns, bassoons, contrabassoons and the requisite brass we make a marvelous sound, I must say.
So thanks to Douglas Yeo for keeping this oddball instrument alive! Get this recording and enjoy it as much as I have! Rating: 3 Crows (Toots?) (Ronald Klimko).
The CD begins and ends with examples of plainchant accompanied by the serpent, the serpent sometimes playing the Cantus Firmus in a polyphonic setting, and sometimes having an independent line. These are good examples of a tradition that developed in France after the invention of the serpent in 1590 and lasted into th enineteenth century. Yeo's playing is sonorous and full-toned and shows just how successful the serpent must have been filling this important ecclesiastical role. The recording is spacious for both serpent and choir.
Perhaps the most enjoyable pieces on this recording are those which feature the serpent in the context of the wind-band (harmonie) of the classical period. Here Yeo is joined by his Boston Symphony colleagues to provide marvellous performances of the Haydn [?] Divertimento in Bflat - the one with the famous St. Anthony Chorale in it - and the Allegretto of Beethoven's 7th Symphony in an arrangement published on the same day as the symphony itself. Here Yeo takes the contrabassoon part and plays it, with admirable elegance, on the huge contrabass serpent, which is a very rare beast indeed.
There are first-rate contributions from Phil Humphries (who travelled from England to take part in this recording) and Craig Kridel who join Yeo to play music arranged for serpent trio - an acknowledgement of the contribution that Christopher Monk and the London Serpent Trio have made to the resurrection of this previously nearly extinct instrument.
Clifford Bevan provides a new work specially commissioned for this recording entitled Les Mots de Berlioz, featuring four low instruments of Berlioz's epoch and a mixed-voice choir. The quartet of instruments (serpent, ophicleide, buccin and bassoon) provides a rich accompaniment to the voices. This particular line-up rather guarantees that this imaginative work will not be often performed, which is a shame. Where could you find such a quartet of instruments!
Douglas Yeo also demonstrates his fine technique in a couple of early 19th century studies and an avant-garde piece written for French serpent virtuoso Michel Godard. A tragic-comic work by Cliff Bevan entitled The Pesky Sarpent and a Concerto by Simon Proctor provides lighter fare.
Yeo cleverly varies the sound colours from track to track in order to show the serpent in a variety of contexts, and what a revelation! What a beautiful blending he achieves with the choir in the Auxerre plainchant! What a firm and steady bass-line he provides in the Haydn Divertimento! And what adventurous sounds in Drake Mabry's Quatre Tanka. This disc will be a must for anyone seeking to nknow more about this eccentric and relatively little-known instrument. The CD is well produced with an informative and well-illustrated booklet. (Stephen Wick)
Fortunately, the instrument and its audience have what was long missing: a virtuoso with the resources, connections, and sheer energy needed to conceive and execute a recording dedicated to the world of the serpent. Douglas Yeo, bass trombonist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is also that institution's serpentist and ophicleideist and is one of the world's leading players on serpent. In 1994 he broke the serpent barrier by playing on the historic instrument for the BSO's presentation of the Berlioz Messe Solennelle and in 1997 he similarly broke the ice by playing the Proctor Serpent Concerto with the Boston Pops Orchestra under John Williams. In 2003 his long awaited personal recording project has reached the listening public as Le Monde du Serpent (The World of the Serpent).
With this recording, Yeo has combined the goals of introducing the record-buying public to the instrument, documenting the different ways the serpent has been used over the centuries, and giving recorded life to important yet obscure contemporary compositions for serpent. The CD includes pieces from most major deliberate applications of the serpent: plainsong, method books, harmoniemusik and contemporary compositions. Notably absent are military band selections (although these can be treated as part of the "harminie" tradition) and West Gallery music, the latter of which used the serpent incidentally albeit frequently and is happily still represented by other commercial recordings.
For its original incarnation, chant-plainsong, Yeo has selected an early composition known to call for serpent, an Alleluia from the Auxerre tradition of France for three voices with serpent on the cantus firmus. Also included is Domine Salvum by Abbe Nicholas Roze, a co-author of the first published serpent method in the late 18th century. From the same period are excerpts from various serpent methods, three etudes and a duet, where Craig Kridel (ITEA Journal Historic Instrument Column co-editor) joins on the second part.
After its first life as the bass of plain-song, the serpent was reincarnated in the harmonie bands of the classical period, and Yeo has selected two representative examples. First is the Divertimento (Feldparthie) in B flat, usually attributed to either Haydn or Pleyel, with members of the Boston Symphony wind section joining the performance. Next is the Allegretto from the harmonie band version of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, also with the BSO winds (this is the only selection on the CD to feature the mighty contrabass serpent).
Two pieces not specificlly written for serpent have been included on this recording, and they serve to pay tribute to key players of the serpent. Handel's March from Scipio was a favorite concert number for the London Serpent Trio and was also one of the first peices of serpent-performed music to be included on a commercial recording, the LST's Sweet and Low LP. Yeo plays the top and bottom parts through overdubbing while kridel is on the middle. Matyas Seiber's Foxtrot was another LST favorite and was included here in memoriam to serpent guru Christopher Monk. Yeo and Kridel are joined by English serpentist and current LST member Phil Humphries.
The bulk of the recording is devoted to contemporary compositions for serpent. Clifford Bevan (LST member and author of The Tuba Family), in his selection Les Mots de Berlioz, takes the text of a letter written by Berlioz to a friend, describing his Messe Solennelle, and sets it to music as a tribute to the composer's style. The Gloriæ Dei Cantores Choir delivers the text, and the Berlioz Historical Brass quartet handles the instrumental parts. Yeo is joined by Humphries on ophicleide and Ben Peck on buccin plus [BSO member Suzanne Nelsen on] bassoon.
Next, Yeo reads the early American poem, The Pesky Sarpent, then plays Bevan's michievous Variations on the Pesky Sarpent joined by Deborah DeWolf Emery on a very Lisztian piano. Peter Wilton realized and organ and serpent accompaniment in the style of Metoyen to the vocal parts of Henri du Mont's famous Royal Mass, and this recording presents its Credo.
In a more avant-garde vein, Drake Mabry's Quatre Tanka for serpent and soprano gives Yeo the chance to shine in a technical and improvisational manner that the other more formal selections do not allow. Indeed, it is hard to imagine another instrument being capable of playing this selection. Finally, the largest work on the album is Simon Proctor's pivotal 1987 composition for orchestra and soloist, his Serpent Concerto, treated here in its version using piano accompaniment. While initially one might question the use of a piano reducton on a recording such as this, and one cannot blame Yeo for not wanting to pay an entire orchestra out-of-pocket, the fact is that Proctor wrote the piano version as an equally valid performance version, and it works extremely well.
The performers on this recording are all fine choices and deliver their parts flawlessly. Besides Yeo's own sterling work on the subject instrument, special mention is due for pianist Emery, vocalist Ashe, the choir, Yeo's comrades in the BSO and packaging and artwork by Wayne Wilcox. Even though this is a self-produced CD, every aspect is professionally and pain-stakingly well done. I have written many reviews of serpent recordings for this journal, but this CD is the one to get for anyone interested in the serpent and its music. (Paul Schmidt, Heavy Metal Music).
The text below represents a small sample of the original review.
To read the complete review on the OnLine Trombone Journal website, click HERE.
...The performances are all first rate, especially if you understand how beastly the serpent can treat you if you stop concentrating for even a moment while playing.
...Highlights for this reviewer were the Divertimento attributed to Haydn and a serpent concerto composed in 1987. The Haydn is worth the price of the disc all by itself, as it is a delightful piece of music. The serpent sounds very comfortable in the ensemble due to its vaguely bassoon-like timbre, yet gives more depth to the ensemble by virtue of its larger sound. While preparing this review, I found myself returning to these four tracks the most often.
...This entire review boils down to one statement: Buy this album. It is rare to find so much education and enjoyment in one album that is executed and packaged so well. It should appeal to all teachers, performers, and serious students of low brass instruments, as well as enthusiasts of historical instrumental performances. (Wade Rackley)
"Wood dry and full of rot, leather cracking, and often equipped with a mouthpiece for some other instrument, serpents were hung on walls to collect dust, only to be taken down by well- (or ill-) meaning `experts' who would blast a few notes and pronounce the serpent `unplayable' and a detestable thing."
So says Douglas Yeo in the liner notes to his new compact disc, "Le Monde du Serpent." A predecessor of the trombone, the doubly S-shaped serpent looks like its namesake and sounds like a cross between a trombone and bassoon. Or when it tries to turn lyrical, it might be a lovesick moose.
Yeo, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's bass trombonist, entered the world of the serpent in 1994 when the BSO performed Berlioz' "Messe solenelle," a long-ignored early work. Berlioz was one of the classical composers to use the ancient instrument, and Yeo thought -- well, let him explain:
"Impulsively, and without ever having held or heard the instrument, I purchased a modern reproduction serpent and, after auditioning it for the BSO's then music director, Seiji Ozawa, became the first player in the history of the Boston Symphony to play the serpent in the orchestra."
After the Berlioz performance, Yeo's fascination grew, and he acquired three more serpents, ranging from treble to contrabass. One is from around 1810; the others are modern reproductions. One of the latter is the contrabass "George," which stands as tall as Yeo but squiggles around through 16 feet of sycamore tubing.
"Serpent solos with orchestras, recitals, performances of harmoniemusik [wind music] and orchestral repertoire, new music and old music, research, writing and discovery all become part of my musical universe. And so, in time, it became clear that a recording such as this, to document and share my rich life with the serpent, simply had to come into being."
Invented in France in 1590 to accompany chant in the church, the serpent served that primary purpose for two centuries. In time, composers of art music took it up. Rossini, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Verdi and Berlioz were among those who add its bleating sound to the orchestral mix.
Replaced by the modern tuba, the serpent died a natural death around the end of the 19th century. A modest revival began in England in the 1970s, catching Yeo on the tide.
So, ladies and gentlemen, what have we in "Le Monde du Serpent" in terms of repertoire?
The earliest examples come from the world of chant, with the serpent sometimes simply doubling the bass line. Short solo pieces also emerge from the dust of history.
There is also a selection of recent pieces, such as Clifford Bevan's 1996 takeoff on a bit of folk doggerel, "The Pesky Sarpent" (poem narrated by Yeo), and four 1998 "tanka," songs for soprano and serpent by Drake Mabry. As sung by the limpid-voiced Jennifer Ashe, the mystical songs sound something like those of George Crumb.
More serious interest attaches to four longer selections. One is the divertimento once attributed to Haydn, now believed to be by some mystery composer, but famous for one thing: the St. Anthony Chorale, which Brahms appropriated for his Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Typical of the harmoniemusik of the classical period, the four-movement original is expertly played here by Yeo and seven BSO wind players.
Even more familiar is the allegretto from Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, performed in an anonymous arrangement from Beethoven's time for wind octet and contrabass serpent. The insistent three-note pattern becomes even more obsessive in the reduction. Again, Yeo's partners are fellow BSO members.
Perhaps most striking of all is "Les Mots de Berlioz." A modern setting of words by Berlioz, this work uses a chorus and low brass instruments from Berlioz' time -- buccin, ophicleide and serpent, plus a bassoon. Working in Berlioz' style and with some of his melodies, composer Bevan uncannily evokes the sounds and mood of the "Messe solenelle."
Then there is the 1987 Serpent Concerto by Simon Proctor, an English serpent devotee. Yeo's deft partners in this witty exercise of old-plus-new are Deborah DeWolf Emery on piano and Craig Kridel on cupped bells.
Other collaborators on the disc include Gloriae Dei Cantores, a Boston-area chorus, and the Berlioz Historical Brass, an international ensemble of historical-instrument fanciers. With Yeo as either soloist or part of the ensemble, the performances are wholly convincing.
That, however, is not the same as saying they are as smooth or virtuosic as you would expect on a modern instrument. As Yeo puts it, the serpent, like other historical instruments, "is a demanding friend."
"In fact," he writes, "to say that one 'plays' the serpent makes it sound all too simple. Even the best players would agree that it is more accurate to say that one 'wrestles' with the serpent, fighting for each note, as one deals with the inherent instability of an instrument eight feet long with a half-dozen small holes which were drilled not where they made particular acoustical sense but where they could be reached with the middle three fingers of each hand."
"Le Monde du Serpent" provides a fascinating glimpse into history. It is available from Yeo's Web site, www.yeodoug.com, which also offers additional background information.
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