Serpent Anecdotes & Quotes 
Over the Serpent's history, several notable musicians have described the Serpent in colorful, if less than complementary, terms.

In Germany, the Serpent was known as the Schlangenrohr, or "Snake Tube". In northern England, it was called "Black Pudding", presumably because it resembled the black colored blood sausage of the same name.

Canon Edme Guillaume: "The instrument gave a fresh zest to Gregorian Plainsong."

Michael Praetorius (1571-1621): "Most unlovely and bullocky."

Georg F. Handel (1685-1759): (On hearing the Serpent for the first time) "Aye, but not the Serpent that seduced Eve."

Charles Burney (1726-1814): "In the French churches, there is an instrument on each side of the choir, called the Serpent, from its shape, I suppose, for it undulates like one. This gives the tone in chanting, and plays the bass when they sing in parts. It mixes with them better than the organ, (and) is less likely to overpower or destroy by bad temperament, that perfect tone of which only the voice is capable. The Serpent keeps the voices up to their pitch, and so is a kind of crutch for them to lean on."

Bernard Shaw (1856-1950): (On the Ophicleide) "When its part is played on the Tuba.....I never dream of objecting to the substitution."

Willi Apel (1893-?): "A drain pipe suffering from intestinal disorder."

Musical Times, London (upon Mr Prospere playing the monstre Ophicleide at Hanover Square Rooms in 1846): "When seen slowly ascending, as it were, from the floor, among the gentlemen of the orchestra, considerable consternation arose, some imagining that, as steam is now made to do everything, they were about to witness a novel application of its powers to the manufacture of sweet sounds, by means of some machine of which the funnel was the first part introduced to their notice. But, when Prospere stepped forward, and, boldly grasping the brazen pillar, proved that one small mouth could bring out its mighty tones, merriment and delight took the part of suprise and perhaps dismay."

Marin Mersenne (1588-1648): "To accompany as many as twenty of the most powerful singers and yet play the softest chamber music with the most delicate grace notes."

J. Viret: "A type of clumsy and unsightly cornett."

Charles Burney (again): "The Serpent is not only overblown and detestably out of tune, but exactly resembling in tone that of a great hungry, or rather angry Essex calf."

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869): "The essentially barbaric timbre of this instrument would have been far more appropriate to the ceremonies of the bloody cult of the Druids than to those of the Catholic religion. There is only one exception to be made - the case where the Serpent is employed in the Masses for the Dead, to reinforce the terrible plainsong of the Dies Irae. Then, no doubt, its cold and abominable howling is in place."

Abbe Beaugeois: "The (Serpent) student needs a good ear, because many of the notes are only given by the lips."

Marin Mersenne (again): "But the true bass of the cornett is performed with the Serpent, so that one can say that one without the other is a body without a soul."

Edwin Evans (1871-1945): "The Serpent was such an odious affair that nothing short of compulsion could explain its employment."

Adolphe Adam (~1850, composer of  'Cantique de Noel / O Holy Night' ): "In Paris, at the hub of the arts, one cannot enter a church without being followed by one or sometimes two Serpents."

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928): (in Under the Greenwood Tree) "Old things pass away 'tis true; but a Serpent was a good old note: a deep rich note was the Serpent."

H. Kling: (On the Ophicleide) "It has gradually and justly been put aside, as its croaking, unmusical and false tones are, to say the least, quite disagreeable. As a solo instrument it would be quite disgusting."

Charles Dutoit (upon his first Ophicleide exposure): ".........Wonderful.........THAT is the sound that Berlioz wanted!"

Hardy (again): "Mrs. Fennel, seeing the steam begin to generate on the countenances of her guests, crossed over (to the band) and touched the fiddler's elbow and put her hand on the Serpent's mouth."

Punch Magazine: (In 1852, on Louis Jullien's gratuitous overuse of the Ophicleide) "With Ophicleide, cymbals and gongs, At first thou didst wisely begin, And bang the dull ears of the popular throngs, As though 'twere to beat music in."

Hardy (again): "At last the notes of the Serpent ceased, and the house was silent."

Marin Mersenne (again): "Even when played by a boy it is sufficient to support the voices of twenty robust monks."

C. Mandel (1859): The Serpent produced "a howl rather than an intelligible scale, and, therefore, is inferior to the bass horn and ophicleide."

Berlioz: (writing about the Monstre Ophicleide) "Up to the present nobody in Paris has been willing to play them because of the volume of breath required."

Conductor Edo De Waart (on the ophicleide during a rehearsal): "That sounds disgusting!!!....what is it?"

Marin Mersenne (again): "It seems that the irregular distance of the holes of the Serpent makes its diapason more difficult than that of the other instruments."

American Music Journal 1835 (on a performance by one Mr. Young): "The Serpent is the last instrument in the world we would wish to hear figuring in a concerto within doors - Mr. Young really plays beautifully."

L.S. Fanart / Morelet (1845): "A canon of Auxerre, Edme Guillaume, invented the disastrous machine called the Serpent."

Charles Bordes (1863 - 1909): "Ab antiquo Serpent libera nos, Domine (God save us from the ancient Serpent)".
 

Hector Berlioz (from Evenings..., projecting the future Italian orchestra in the year 2344): "In all the theaters there is in front of the stage a black pit filled with wretches who blow and scrape, equally indifferent to what is shouted on the stage and to what buzzes in the boxes and seats. They are possessed by one thought only: earning their supper. This assemblage of poor creatures is what is called an orchestra, and this is how an orchestra is generally constituted: two first and two second violins, usually; very rarely a viola and a cello, almost always two or three double basses....This formidable regiment of string instruments is pitted against an enemy consisting of a dozen keyed bugles, six piston trumpets, six valve trombones, two tenor tubas, two bass tubas, three Ophicleide's, a horn, three piccolos, three small clarinets in E flat, two clarinets in C, three bass clarinets(for lively tunes), and an organ (for ballet music). I should not forget four bass drums, six snare drums, and two gongs. There are no longer any oboes, bassoons, harps, kettledrums, or cymbals, these instruments having been consigned to deepest oblivion."

Professor Peter Schickele (a.k.a. PDQ Bach): "It was called the serpent because it was capable of playing scales."

Garrison Keillor: Quite possibly about the serpent and its players "The urge to perform is not a sign of talent."

David Raskin: This composer stated that the serpent sounds like "a donkey with emotional problems."

Algernon S. Rose (from "Talks with Bandsmen, 1895): "....two instances may here be given by way of illustrating the great utility and eminent service which a bass ophicleide may, on occasion, render. "Signor Smitoni," an ophicleide player, was fulfilling an engagement in Genoa, where, owing to some trifling disagreement, he became involved in a serious quarrel. His opponents were 12 to 1. By using his mighty ophicleide as a club, the player, with many a knockdown blow, scattered his antagonists like ninepins, in true John Bull fashion. Then there is the story of a French transport which sprung a leak and was sinking. A bandsman on board, who played the ophicleide, perceiving the danger, deftly tied a piece of tarpaulin round the bell of his instrument, corked up the mouthpiece, and secured the open key near the bell with some string. Casting himself adrift, he used the great instrument as a life-buoy, and was safely carried by the tide to the coast of Morocco."

C.S. Lewis: (from "The Silver Chair", a story from his "The Chronicles of Narnia") "A little Faun who had been standing quietly beside the Dwarf's elbow all this time now handed him a silver ear-trumpet. It was made like the musical instrument called a Serpent, so that the tube curled right around the Dwarf's neck....."

Douglas Yeo : (from liner notes to the recording "Le Monde du Serpent", 2003) "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."

Algernon S. Rose (from "Talks with Bandsmen, 1895): "Berlioz says that although the bass ophicleide, in certain cases, does wonders beneath masses of brass instruments, it is monstrous to use it for solos. Its effect is then just as if a bull, escaped from its stall, had come to play off its vagaries in a drawing room"

Conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy (Sydney Opera House, 2003, on the ophicleide during a rehearsal): "......marvelous......what a sound....not like anything I have heard....quite extraordinary"

Theodore Sturgeon (in his short story "And Now the News...") : "He [MacLyle, still partly sane] paid cash and promised to be back [to the mountain country general store)] in two weeks for the things the store didn't stock, and wired...his lawyer to arrange for the predetermined eighty dollars a month which was all he cared to take for himself from his assets. Before he left he stood in wonder before a monstrous piece of musical plumbing called an ophicleide which stood, dusty and majestic, in a corner. (While it might be easier on the reader to make this a French Horn or a Sousaphone - which would answer narrative purposes quite as well - we're done telling lies here. MacLyle's real name is concealed, his home town cloaked, and his occupation disguised, and dammit it really was a twelve-keyed, 1824-era, 50-inch, obsolete brass ophicleide.) **Months later....** The psychiatrist ... drove off  [into the mountains] ... he began to pray that nothing would go wrong with the car, and sure enough, ten minutes later he thought something had. Any car that made a noise like the one he began to hear was strictly a shotrod, and he pulled over to the side to worry about it. He turned off the motor and the noise went right on ... It was sort of like music, but like no music currently heard on  this or any other planet. It was a solo voice, brass, with muscles. The upper notes, of which there seemed to be about two octaves, were wild and unmusical, the middle was rough, but the low tones were like the speech of these mountains themselves, big up to the sky, hot, and more natural than anything ought to be, basic as a bear's fang. **** [The player, MacLyle, now completely insane] was barefoot up to his armpits. He wore the top half of a skivvy shirt and a hat the shape of one of those conical Boy Scout tents when one of the Boy Scouts has left the pole home. And he was playing, or anyway practicing, the ophicleide, and on his shoulders was a little moss of spruce needles, a small shower of which descended from the tree every time he hit on or under the low B-flat. Only a mouse trapped inside a tuba during band practice can know precisely what it's like to stand that close to an operating ophicleide.

Algernon S. Rose (from "Talks with Bandsmen, 1895): "It is strange what cock-and-bull stories one hears concerning the harmless Ophicleide. Perhaps the most general fallacy is that it is exhausting to play, and that it is calculated to shatter the health of any one who takes it up....It is not so much great lung-power for a short time that is required, as a steady duration of breath. Weak men occasionally play big brass instruments better than strong ones, because the former know intuitively how to economize rather than waste their strength in blowing"

Hector Berlioz (from Memoirs, 1843, On visiting Mendelssohn and his orchestra in Leipzig): "The Ophicleide, or rather the thin copper instrument shown to me under that name, was quite unlike a French one, and had scarcely any tone. It was therefore rejected, and replaced after a fashion by a fourth trombone."

Virginia Woolf (from Selected Letter to Vanessa Bell, 1916): ".....and his uncle who tried to commit suicide by shutting his head in a carpet bag, and his father who played ophicleide and died insane as they all do...."

Pierre Cugnier's " Le Basson", as quoted in Jean Benjamin de Laborde's Essai sur la musique ancienne et moderne 2 (Paris, 1780) 333-34: "It has already been said that the tone of the bassoon has a lot in common with the human voice, and that in this it is suitable for accompanying all sorts of voices. When used for this purpose, the tone of the bassoon must be adjusted so that one does not hear at all the kind of buzzing that the reed produces of which we have already spoken, and so that the tone of this instrument imitates, so to speak, that of a big flute, if it were possible to make one which produces a tone as low as that of the bassoon. This tone must not, however, be entirely without the kind of piercing quality proper to it, and which gives it the necessary timbre; for then it would resemble that of the serpent, which would be equally disagreeable."

The Musical Companion, edited by A.L. Bacharach, 1946: "And when, as time passed, the serpent and the ophicleide helped out the bass of the harmony, the cup of misery must have been full to overflowing."


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Copyright Paul Schmidt 1997
revised August 2013