Oscar Abella - Tuba and early brass instruments
serpent instrument

This curve shaped instrument could be considered the first clear predecessor of the tuba and the euphonium. Although they might seem like very different instruments, they have things in common such as their so called conical tube shape, the use of a mouthpiece and the fact that they both play a bass role in ensembles.

The earliest known document dating the invention of the serpent is Mémoires Concernant l'Histoire Civil et Ecclésiastique d'Auxerre (1743). In this document, the abbot Jean Lebeuf attributes its invention to the canon Edmé Guillaume: “He found the secret of giving the shape of a snake to a cornet, around 1590. It was used for his home-concerts, and as it was improved it became very commonly used within the big churches”. While this might be the only source that gives us a precise date, we can consider that previously there were already instruments of a similair nature such as the Bass and Tenor Cornetto, used at the dawn of the Italian Renaissance in cities like Venice. In a footnote to the Lebeuf document, it is added: "If we believe in an account of the factory of the Cathedral of Sens of the year 1453, the serpent was already known at that time."
serpentón bass cornetto musée de la musique parisDifferent designs of Tenor and Bass Cornetto (16th century). Collection of the Museum of Music (Paris).
The Serpent is made of wood (usually maple or walnut), covered with leather to give it robustness and durability. It contains 3 holes for each hand, a brass leadpipe, and a mouthpiece made of ivory, horn, wood or metal, in some cases. Its main role throughout history has been to accompany the liturgical songs, due to the similarity of its sound with the human voice (hence the name with which he is known in France: (serpent d'église = Church Serpent). From the 18th century on, the Serpent had began to be used as a bass instrument in the Military Bands of the time. Different keys were added for this use, that provided some additional notes (C sharp, F sharp and B natural) and experimentation began in search of more comfortable ergonomics.
Military Serpent W. Schmidt (ca. 1805). Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York).W. Schmidt Military Serpent (ca. 1805). The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York).
Military Serpent F. Pretty (ca. 1840) y copia de Christopher Monk a su izda.F. Pretty Military Serpent (ca. 1840) and a copy by Christopher Monk on its left.
berger serpent oscar abella A Serpent, traditionally manufactured by Swiss luthier Stephan Berger. Oscar Abella Collection.
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