In the church at that time, musical instruments other than the organ were not in common use, with the purity of the human voice being held in higher esteem than the more secular instruments. Accordingly, much music in the church was performed using only choirs, with or without organ accompaniment. This was called Plainsong, and it had a simplicity and purity that was much in favor, much like the similar Gregorian Chant.
There was a problem, however. As is often the case, the low end of the chorus suffered from lack of volume. In a secular setting, any number of musical instruments could have been used to reinforce the bass line, but this would not be acceptable in the church. The obvious solution would be some sort of instrument which was powerful, yet possessing a tone quality indistinguishable from the low male voice. Something like the Bassoon might have worked, if the thing had been developed yet.
It is not really very clear exactly how the Serpent came into this world. It is known that it was developed to fill this gap in the spectrum of low pitched musical instruments, and that a French clergyman called Canon Edmé Guillaume played a part in its creation. Some say that he invented the Serpent himself, while others suggest that perhaps he commissioned an instrument maker to develop it to his specifications. The year 1590 is generally accepted as the year when the Serpent first appeared, and we know that it went straight into service in the French church accompanying the male voice in plainsong.
The Serpent was an obvious extension of the cornett family, which is a conical bore, cup mouthpiece, finger holed, wooden 'brass' instrument. See Pictures for photos of the cornett family. Some musicologists disagree over whether the Serpent and the cornett really belong in the same family, or if the Serpent is in a class by itself. The other members of the cornett family do share a common technique and set of playing characteristics which are quite different from that of the Serpent. This is due primarily to the fact that the vibrating air column inside the Serpent is not vented (via the finger holes) correctly, while the cornetts are vented according to the same scheme used on all other western finger holed wind instruments. See Playing Characteristics for more details.
The use of finger holes on such a large instrument resulted in some compromises. Wind instruments did not yet commonly use keys to cover the holes in the way modern woodwinds do. This meant that the holes had to be small enough for the human finger to cover them. On the smaller instruments such as the Recorder or Cornett, the holes could still be large enough to adequately vent the air pressure inside the bore, and those instruments were short enough that the proper acoustical placement of the holes put them in reach of the fingers. With the Serpent, the holes were much too small for proper venting, reducing their effectiveness, and they could not be placed properly along the length of the bore. During development, it was decided to arrange the finger holes into two sets of three holes, with the holes in each set spaced as far apart as the average hand could reach, apparently with the thought that poorly located holes are better than no holes, since they will at least provide some sort of pitch control. The overall bore of the instrument is about 2.5 meters (about 8 feet) long, so the two sets of holes were placed roughly at the 1/3 and 2/3 points along the bore. The task of making this scheme work was left up to the player! Stop and think about how far away 2/3 of 2.5 meters is; it comes to about 1.7 meters (5.3 feet), making the further of the two sets out of arm's reach. The simple way to bring that set into reach would be to fold the instrument in half, but the more creative approach of shaping it like the double 'S' was used instead.
Copyright Paul Schmidt 1997
revised December 1999