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It’s easy to understand why the serpent, a 17th-century predecessor of the euphonium and the tuba, is obsolete. Besides being difficult to play and awkward to hold, the instrument sounds like a mouthpiece bussed through PVC pipe that’s been stuffed with dirty socks. But this bad reputation didn’t stop J. Randal Guptill, former Duke University Wind Symphony conductor and Triangle-area euphonium luminary, from exploring this instrument and sharing its history in an installment of the Perkins Library at Duke University’s Rare Music in the Rare Book Room series. And it didn’t stop a curious, if somewhat apprehensive, audience from witnessing the spectacle.
Guptill ably introduced this intriguing (yet, for low brass players, slightly embarrassing) musical artifact to an intimate audience. Despite the difficulty presented by learning the basics of a “rare” (read: justifiably obsolete and/or crumbling with age) instrument like the serpent, Guptill gave a fun, informative lecture-performance that lived up to its title.
The lecture was structured around a rough timeline of the serpent’s history, moving from its invention circa 1590 to its obsolescence after the ophecleide (keyed version of the serpent resembling a modern-day contrabass clarinet) took its place in orchestras in the mid-19th century. Hardware guru Christopher Monk’s work making new serpents prompted a brief resurgence of interest in this antediluvian curiosity in the 1970s. Today, a few serpent ensembles, such as the London Serpent Trio, exist. One might call these “novelty early music” ensembles.
The instrument, which looks like two backwards S-shapes stacked on top of each other, was created to serve two purposes in French church services. One serpent player was positioned on each side of the choir. This addition made up for a dearth of low (male) voices and kept singers on the correct pitch. In an ironic twist that shows just how far the standards of instrument makers and musicians have risen in the past four centuries, even a skilled serpent player has difficulty centering the instruments stuffy, wobbling pitches. Unlike brass instruments today, a faster column of air doesn’t create higher pitches through the overtone series. A serpent player is more likely to be able to play three notes – the “correct” pitch, one whole step above, and one whole step below – and use just one fingering. Still, composers wrote parts for the instrument, and Guptill favored the audience with spirited renditions of serpent excerpts like the “Overture” from Handel’s Fireworks Music and the “Dies Irae” section from Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, as well as the serpent parts to a few church hymns.
The English eventually adapted the serpent for use during marches and on the battlefield by compacting its curves slightly. English military-style serpents were made by carving many individual curves that would overlap when connected to form the body. Makers of French church serpents would carve the sinuous curves into two pieces of wood, which would be pressed together to form the interior hollow of the instrument. The serpent’s exterior would be carefully whittled out of the wood blocks until only a thin wall remained. The two halves were bound together by leather or a combination of cloth bandages and paint. Six finger holes were drilled, three on each of the middle curves, and mouthpieces were made of ivory or bone. Guptill confessed to using a Lucite trombone mouthpiece with the twentieth-century-crafted serpent from Duke’s instrument collection used for the presentation.
Although his presentation of historical information and repertoire of serpent excerpts and chorales was extensive and varied, Guptill admitted to his own occasional bafflement and ignorance when describing the serpent. His already-jocular delivery engaged the audience even more, whether he was describing a long search for viable fingering charts or sharing the serpent’s negative reception throughout history. By identifying with his audience this way, Guptill bridged the gap between contemporary listeners and this awkward but indispensable ancestor of modern brass instruments.
The 150 years during which the serpent was in use saw some of the most important musical advances in human history. But this was also a time when the artistic ambitions of composers and performers sometimes outstripped the technology available to them – back then music wasn’t always just pretty flute sonatas and keyboard prodigies.
However clumsy and ridiculous the serpent may seem to us now, this compromise of an instrument proved to be the missing link that enabled composers to add a new dimension to orchestral sound. The idealization of the past might block us from connecting with its reality, but Guptill’s frank, well researched, and adventurous approach to music history brought an unconventional freshness and accessibility to the musical misfit that is the serpent.