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These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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The Serpent and the Ophicleide

22 August 2010

Perhaps the most evocative name for a musical instrument is the Serpent. In the family tree of musical instruments, it is but a side twig of  labrosones - musical instruments whose sound is produced by vibrations of the lips. So it is a bit like a brass instrument in that it has a tuba-sized mouthpiece to buzz the lips, but it is actually made of wood and has finger holes like a recorder to play different pitches. This is a souvenir postcard of a trip to Normandie, France in 1909.

It shows the typical use of this odd instrument, with a member of the church band playing from a book of plain chants. He is not especially tall but is actually seated on a high chair which has a foot rest for his wooden sabot or clog. The Serpent is a bass sounding instrument and had a musical utility in rural Catholic churches accompanying choirs, long after it had been abandoned in orchestras and bands.

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.

So in the 1820's it was replaced by this, the Ophicleide. Patented by a French instrument maker named Jean Hilaire Asté (who is also known by his trade names of Halary or Haleri), it belongs to the keyed bugle branch of brass instruments. Using woodwind type keys, the Ophicleide spreads the tone holes further apart than the serpent and gives a more even scale. And it is made of brass so it sounds louder and stays together better. It proved more popular and was the designated bass instrument in the brass section for several composers including Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and Verdi.

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.

But a search for the name brought up a nice website in France run by a luthier named Roland Terrier:   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?


Anonymous said...

You say "Who could believe that in 1912 there was still a market for these odd instruments?" Well, who could believe that in the 21st century there would be a market for that even odder Franlenstein-monster of an instrument, the Saxophone - for which Adolphe Sax used a body based on the ophicleide, fingering based on the flute and a clarinet mouthpiece.

Perhaps more interestingly, there is still a strong market today for the ophicleide, and new ones are being manufactured in the USA and Germany as an increasing number of us come to realise the unique tonal characteristics of this instrument. "Odd" is a relative term - it is all a question of familiarity.


earlybrassguy said...

I applaud your efforts to share information with others, but being a person fairly expert in serpent and ophicleide matters, I have noticed some errors in your text.

-Serpents were originally used in major Catholic churches in France, to support the plainsong. Then they spread to military bands, then orchestras. The blog text makes it sound like they eventually ended up in rural churches after use elsewhere. One of their last uses, once obsolete, was in rural English churches as part of West Gallery music.
-The blog test says that serpents are mistakenly thought of as Renaissance instruments, because they don't appear in band books until the 1740s. This is incorrect! The serpent is a late Renaissance instrument, being invented in 1590. It does not appear in 'band books' because it was not used in bands for the first stretch of its life. In churches, the serpent did not have its own part because it used the vocal part(s). And later, other terms were often used to describe it in scores and parts...'serpent' was not always the term used.
-The blog text suggests that the serpent was not a popular horn. It was actually quite popular, as evidenced by its wide usage over a long period of time. It was actually quite iconic and is referred to in all sorts of paintings, texts, and other documents.
-The blog text states that the serpent plays chromatic notes with difficulty. This is not true. It has problems playing certain specific pitches (which can differ depending on the pitch reference, e.g. A-440, and temperament being used). Its main problem is that the intonation is too flexible, so it is more like a trombone, requiring the player to lock onto pitches without the instrument helping him.
-The blog text says that being made from leather covered wood, the serpent came unglued too easily. This is also not true. The serpent is actually quite strong. English serpents, made by attaching wooden parts with staples, had problems over time because the staples rusted out, leaving holes. All old serpent are subject to rot and worm holes, making them leaky. But during their heyday they did not suffer from any particular fragility.

earlybrassguy said...

(Part 2)
I applaud your efforts to share information with others, but being a person fairly expert in serpent and ophicleide matters, I have noticed some errors in your text.

-The blog text states that because the ophicleide spreads its tone holes further apart (than the serpent), it has a more even scale. Not entirely true. The serpent's hole suffer from two interactive problems...they are too small and they are not placed where they would be on a woodwind instrument. But the serpent was not played using a woodwind type fingering progression nor was if intended to be. If the tone holes has been larger, it would have been unplayable. If they were spaced further apart, it also would have been unplayable. The solution used by its inventor was the only solution that worked. The ophicleide totally dispensed with the system used by the serpent, but like the serpent is did not use a tone hole scheme akin to woodwinds...instead it used another original scheme. Comparing the two by just mentioning the hole spacing is very misleading.
-The bog text says that since the ophicleide is made of brass, it is louder (than the serpent). Not entirely true. The serpent can be just about as loud as the ophicleide, and the use of wood is not why it would be any softer, any more than why a clarinet would be any softer than a metal flute. There are too many other reasons that are more significant than the material that is used for the body...organ pipes are very loud, but are often made from wood! The serpent is harder to play WELL than the ophicleide because of the design of the mouthpiece and because the fingering system used requires more embrochure control, and this is harder to manage when playing loudly.
-The blog text says that the ophicleide proved to be more popular (than the serpent). The serpent was used over a greater geographic area, over a MUCH longer period of time, and in a greater variety of musical situations than the ophicleide. Seems that the serpent was actually more popular!
-The catalog showing the child playing the ophicleide is simply an attention getter. By the time this catalog came out, serpents were no longer used in most churches, but the ophicleide was not used in their place. You would not have seen robed choir boys playing ophicleides in churches.


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