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The Serpent and Its Children

Jan 8, 2008
In 1590 French churchman Guillaume of Auxerre invented the serpent, a weird-looking wind instrument about eight feet long. Its tubing was made in a shape suggesting a squirming snake which had been struck with a stick. For about two hundred years it flourished as an important bass instrument, but now it is chiefly known for its many and varied progeny.

Among these are the ophicleides, a family of six; the saxhorns, a family of eight; the saxtrombas, a family of eight; the tubas, a family of nine; and the muchmaligned saxophones, which have now grown to a family of nine.

Too much credit cannot be given Guillaume for his invention, because the serpent is little more than a bass member of the large family of cornettos, or zinken. These instruments put in an appearance in Europe in the fourteenth century.

In England they were called cornettos and were built in three keys. The little treble cornetto in F was only about eighteen inches long and had a thin, weak tone. Another was the cornetto in C, about two feet long. The third was the great cornetto in G, approximately three feet long. In Germany these same instruments were known as zinken and were built in several keys, one of them being a high soprano in D which was only a little over a foot long.

It is not definitely known how many different members there were in this original family of instruments, but there undoubtedly were quite a number.

The cornettos and zinken were the "black sheep" among musical instruments. Not only were they cheaply made, but they were noted for their poverty of musical qualities.

Constructed of wood and covered with leather, their tone was colorless, coarse and windy. Anyone with a pocketknife, a pot of glue and a thin skiver of leather could make one of these instruments. Two sides of the tube were whittled out and stuck together with glue. Then the tube was covered with leather to strengthen the thin wood.

After this, holes were bored in the side of the tube and a cupshaped mouthpiece was turned out of a piece of wood. The instrument was then complete. Making these ancient instruments was something like making the cigar-box fiddle or the slippery-elm whistle of today.

Nevertheless, these instruments became the most popular in Europe. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries they were heard in military bands and church choirs and were rated as the most important wind instruments of their time.

Their number and variety multiplied. They swept over Europe somewhat as their famous offspring, the saxophones, later swept over America in the 19205. Guillaume, no doubt, heard them from morning to night, not only outside his church but also in his own choir loft.

Apparently Guillaume shared the enthusiasm of his contemporaries for these instruments. He decided the world would be further blessed if a larger and better zinke or cornetto were invented, and accordingly he brought forth the serpent.

Originally it was a conical tube about eight feet long with six finger holes and was played with a wooden cup-shaped mouthpiece. Later, keys were added and the mouthpipe and mouthpiece were made of metal.

Its pitch was two octaves below Middle C or thereabout, and it furnished a deep voice for the military bands and for the church choirs. It found its place in musical circles much as might a bass singer in a college glee club which was without adequate bass voices.

The only important wind bass at the time was the bassoon, and its reedy quality of tone did not seem to strike theTancy of the populace. The serpent, therefore, was looked upon as a much-needed addition to wind instruments, a great boon to music.

Fifty years before Guillaume invented the serpent, another churchman, Afranio of Ferrara, Italy, had invented the shape of the bassoon. He built it so its tubing was doubled back upon itself in parallel lines, which shape earned for the instrument the name of fagotto, or bundle of fagots.

Guillaume apparently did not think well of his brother churchman's design, for the serpent was curved into a fantastic shape which resembled a reptile. It has seemed odd to some people that Guillaume, a divine, would make an instrument in the shape of the serpent, symbol of evil.

Possibly it did not occur to Guillaume that he was giving the shape of a serpent to his instrument. Possibly he took his design from the fifteenth-century painting, "Angel with the Trumpet." In this painting, the trumpet is shown bent in the shape of a reversed letter S.

Perhaps Guillaume was simply trying to carry this idea into the bass instrument and evolved his serpent shape. In any event, he produced an instrument whose shape has caused wonder and amazement for over three hundred years.
About the Author
Malcolm Blake has spent years of his life devoted to studying music online and off. He is currently working on projects concerning learning to play the guitar quickly and how to learn guitar chords easily.
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