Variations on the Serpent 
The Serpent, successful in spite of its shortcomings, was still perceived as an instrument in need of improvement, and several attempts were made to correct its deficiencies.

The first problem to be dealt with was that of awkward shape and difficulty in fabrication. Makers tried to change the shape to one which would be easier to build, and the Russian Bassoon and Bass Horn resulted. These were acoustically the same instrument as the Serpent, but built using the more conservative, and simpler, shape of a tube folded in half, much like the modern bassoon. The finger holes were still uncovered, still too small for proper venting, and still spaced in two sets of three. The Russian Bassoon, also called Serpent Basson, was usually made of wood with a brass bell section (often highly decorated or in the shape of a snake's head), and crook for the mouthpiece. The Bass Horn, also called Ophibaterium or Ophibariton, had a similar shape and was often made entirely of brass (see Pictures). These types were used in Harmonie music and Janissary bands (see Historic Music for Serpents), as well as orchestral work.

The next improvement was the addition of holes and keys. The two sets of three holes were left in their original places, but one or two holes were added in spots carefully selected to alleviate the worst playing problems. These new holes were covered by metal keys which allowed them to be controlled even though out of reach of the players fingers. This improvement was most often realized on the English or Military types (see Pictures).

In 1821, a French maker of Keyed Bugles named Jean Hilaire Asté, or "Halary", decided to make a 'high-tech' Serpent using the latest brass instrument techniques. He devised an instrument of the same acoustical size and pitch range as the Serpent, but with the simple folded shape of the Bass Horn and keys like the Keyed Bugle. Indeed, his use of keys allowed the holes to be increased in size until they vented the bore properly, and the holes were increased in quantity and were also relocated to facilitate accurate playing. He called this instrument the Ophicleide, meaning literally 'keyed Serpent'. The new instrument shared with the Keyed Bugle an oddity which set them apart from the fingerings of all other keyed wind instruments. Instead of having the holes normally open, and progressively closing them from top to bottom to lengthen the vented tube, these new instruments had all their holes normally closed, and only one or two were opened at a time to vent the tube at various spots. Even with this less than intuitive fingering system, the Ophicleide rapidly took the place of the Serpent in bands and orchestras. This would be the happy ending, except for the perfection of the valve, and subsequent development of the Euphonium and Tuba about 50 years after the Ophicleide was invented. The new valved bass brasses quickly obsoleted the Ophicleide, and it enjoyed a popularity lasting only about 70 years (see Pictures).

About the same time that the Ophicleide was invented, other instrument makers were also trying to perfect their own improved versions of the Serpent. In 1823 a half wood, half metal Serpent called the Serpent Forveille was created in France. 1828 saw the Ophimonocleide, a kind of metal Bass Horn with one key and a primitive valve which allowed it to switch between two different pitch standards. An inventor in Scotland in 1850 took a giant step backwards with a wooden Ophicleide called the Serpentcleide. In the late 1800s, various Serpents were made which had lots of keys, such as the Psalmelodicon with 25 keys and the Apollo-Lyra with 42 keys in addition to the six standard holes.

One other variation is worth mentioning. In the early 1800s, one or perhaps even a few contrabass (double sized) Serpents called Hibericons were built in England. In 1840 a couple of English craftsmen produced a single example of a contrabass Serpent. In terms of construction, sound, and shape, it was a Serpent. However, it was equipped with full sized keys, operated and located much like an Ophicleide. Accordingly, it might be justly classified as a Serpent-shaped contrabass Ophicleide. Because of its large size, it is often referred to as The Anaconda. This instrument still exists and is in frequent use in England by the London Serpent Trio; refer to Serpent Groups and Pictures. In the 1980s, an American instrument builder designed and assembled another contrabass Serpent, fabricated from progressively larger sections and fittings of PVC drain pipe. The keys were made from sheet metal and the key return springs were rubber bands. This surprisingly operational instrument was dubbed The American Anaconda. In the late 1980s, Christopher Monk (refer to History of the Serpent part 2) built another contrabass Serpent, essentially scaling up his standard French style instrument and adding keys for the six holes, which incorporated a pivot system such that they operated the same way as a normal Serpent from the player's perspective. This instrument was called "George", and was first used in concert in London in 1990. After residing for about 10 years in Richmond, Virginia, it now has a home in Lexington, Massachusetts. In the late 1990s, Keith Rogers of the Christopher Monk Workshop built a copy of "George", dubbed "George II", this time with key action that opened the holes when the keys were pressed. It tours England as part of a one-man-band show.

The Monk Workshop also produces tenor serpents, which are not based on historic examples; these are useful primarily in Serpent choirs. Another unusual size variant is the "Monstre" (contrabass) ophicleide, of which only a few examples were made. The only known "Monstres" today are pitched in E flat and are produced by Robb Stewart (see Pictures and Makers).

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Copyright Paul Schmidt 1997
revised February 2001