The Serpent was nothing if not versatile, and even before its usefulness in accompanying plainsong was over, it had found new applications. Following are several of the main ones, presented in rough historical order, although there is quite a lot of overlap and these periods are not always clearly defined by beginning and ending dates.
At some time during the series of military campaigns that swept Europe starting during the 1700s, the Serpent came into use for military music. It was common during this period for military bands to play not only during troop movements but during actual battles. The instruments used for this purpose needed to be loud, sturdy, playable outside and on horseback. The English 'Military' type Serpent proved to be valuable for this type of duty. The heavy wooden construction, reinforced by brass stays, made the instrument quite formidable. A favorite quip among serpentists is that a Serpent player in those times held a deadly weapon if he ever found himself cornered in a battle.
During the 1700s and early 1800s, the Serpent found application in the church again, this time in the bands which were used instead of the organ in rural parish churches in England. This tradition came to be known as West Gallery, referring to the church balcony from where the musicians played. The English author Thomas Hardy immortalized this tradition in his work. Even today, the Serpent finds use in nostalgic recreations of the West Gallery music.
Eventually, the Serpent found use in the orchestra. This was quite a stretch for an instrument designed for quiet accompaniment of church choirs! However, there was still no adequate substitute, and the Serpent was the only bass brass instrument capable of playing loudly enough for use in these larger groups. This is where, in spite of the necessity of its use, the Serpent began to fall into disrepute due to its shortcomings in this type of work. This is also when some of the variations of the Serpent came into being, notably the Russian Bassoon, the Bass Horn, and the Ophicleide. Refer to Variations on the Serpent for details.
During its orchestral career, the Serpent was finally phased out in favor of newer, more suitable bass brass instruments such as the Ophicleide, the Euphonium, and the Tuba.
The Serpent remained in relative obscurity for the better part of the 1900s, until its current newfound popularity was spearheaded by the late Christopher Monk. He was a versatile and enthusiastic man who studied the Cornett and Serpent, began to produce accurate reproductions of them, and became a leading player and advocate for these forgotten instruments.
Today, the Serpent and its variants find use in many venues. These include motion picture soundtracks, commercial jingles, recreations of historic music, and jazz. Refer to Historic Music for Serpent and Modern Music for Serpent for details.
In the 1990s, certain symphony orchestras have welcomed the Serpent back into their midst. Notable groups include the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops Orchestra. Refer to Links, under Douglas Yeo for details.
Copyright Paul Schmidt 1997
revised August 2013