The Serpent and the Ophicleide
22 August 2010
Posted by Mike Brubaker
Though often mistakenly called a renaissance instrument, it really only shows up in music books from the 1740's. It was used for a time in military bands, but it was never a popular horn. It is not very loud, it plays chromatic notes with difficulty, and being made of leather-covered wood it came unglued far too easily. Playing a Serpent whilst marching or even on horseback, boggles the mind, but bandsmen did just that. No doubt wishing they had a different instrument.
Unfortunately it could not compete with the new brass instruments that used the plumbing technology of valves, both piston and rotary, to make a horn instantly change length. The Saxhorns of Adolph Sax quickly supplanted the keyed bugle line of brass and by the 1850's, the poor Ophicleide was no longer accepted in bands and orchestras. Like the serpent it must have been challenging to play one on horseback.
Nonetheless, in France it seems to have survived as a church instrument. This novelty postcard, with no postmark, celebrates the French musical instrument company of Couesnon. It was one of the largest band and orchestra instrument companies in the world in 1900. Before WWI it had 11 factories and over 1000 employees, but like so many music instument brands, it was bought out and now survives as something very different that the great company it once was.
luthiers-mirecourt.com Their website included many old reprints of instrument companies including this one from the 1912 Couesnon Catalog.
There on page 86 we find the same choir boy promoting the wonders of the Ophicleide. Perhaps like the serpent they were used to support the tunes in church music. Note that the boy has music attached to a lyre on the bell. Can't see if he is wearing clogs.
Who could believe that in 1912 there was still a market for these odd instruments. They came in different sizes with 9, 10 or 11 keys, and for a small extra charge you could have it nickle plated!
How many ophicleides were recycled into shell casings in 1914-18?