Rare Musical Instruments: The Serpent
The “serpent” may sound more aggressive than it actually is. One of the craziest shaped instruments on the planet, they were slowly phased out in favor of simpler instruments. The appeal of a serpent today lies in both its oddity and its mellow sound.
The serpent dates back to at least 1590, when French instrument maker Canon Edmé Guilluame used it to add sound to choirs. It eventually found its way into military bands and orchestras, only to be replaced by the similarly rare ophicleide. Today, the instrument is a rarity, only made for custom orders and played rarely for specific parts where its strange sound is called for.
The serpent occupied the strange time before valved brass instruments, and to achieve different resonating lengths, the instrument used tone holes like a modern flute or saxophone. Complicating matters, the tone holes had to be relatively small, since the serpent was generally keyless. Thus, a tone hole had to be easily covered by a fingertip, much like a recorder. Also, they had to be grouped such that your hand could cover them all without excessive stretching. Again, not an easy task. Finally, the entire length of the instrument had to be manageable.
The solution was to create a radically conical, absurdly curvy tube. The serpent gets its name from the repeated curving of the resonator tube. It makes a shape like an over-folded script “E” and is typically made of wooden sections. It would then be carried close to the body, almost hugged, with an upright palm supporting the instrument from below.
The serpent got its mellow tone from the conical bore. Conical bores produce mellower tones in brass instruments, and the ophicleide would go on to inherit that trait.
While valves killed the ophicleide, keys killed the serpent. The curvaceous body made the serpent too difficult to key, and thus the evolution of keyed instruments doomed it to failure. It would be replaced by the significantly less curvy, keyed ophicleide. That in turn would lose its prominence due to valved brass becoming the norm, and today, neither are particularly common.
There still are serpents floating around. The odd collector can find them with enough effort, and playing them is not significantly different from any brass/woodwind instrument. Actually, they can be thought of as part brass, part recorder, and a competent player of both could learn the fingerings for the serpent. Overcoming the difficulty of the small vents is another matter, and it takes time to master using any new instrument, serpent included.