Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 3.djvu/482

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470

��SERPENT.

��the left hand on the third descending branch those for the right on the fourth ascending branch towards the bell. The holes are set in groups oJ three, within reach of the outstretched fingers The hands are passed through the convolutions to the front of the tube, away from the performer the weight of the whole is supported on the upper edges of the two forefingers, and grasped by the two thumbs, which are kept at the back of the instrument.

The serpent is considered to consist of three parts, (i) the mouthpiece, (2) the crook, or curved brass tube leading into (3) the wooden body, which is built up of several pieces held together by a leathern covering. It is usually said to have been invented by a canon of Auxerre, named Edm<$ Guillaume, in 1590. The story bears a somewhat suspicious resemblance to that of the discovery of the bassoon by a canon of Ferrara in the first half of the same century. But there can be no doubt that about this period clerical musicians employed bass reed and brass instru- ments for the accompaniment of ecclesiastical plainsong. Indeed Mersenne, who gives a remark- ably good and complete account of the Serpent, notices that ' even when played by a boy it is sufficient to support the voices of twenty robust monks.' The Serpent d'Eglise is still a recognised functionary in French churches.

The scale of the Serpent is in the highest de- gree capricious, and indeed fortuitous. In this respect it resembles the bassoon. Mersenne gives it a compass of seventeen diatonic notes from eight-foot D upwards, and intimates that the intervening chromatics can be obtained by half- stopping. He does not name the device of cross- fingering so largely employed on the bassoon. Berlioz, who speaks slightingly of it, states that it is in Bb, and that parts for it 'must be written a whole tone above the real sound.' The old parts however from which the writer played 1 7 years ago at the Sacred Harmonic Society were all, without exception, in C.

It is obvious that the Serpent, like every other instrument with a cupped mouthpiece, can pro- duce the usual harmonic series of notes. These in Mersenne 's work seem limited to the fun- damental, its octave, and twelfth. There would be no difficulty in obtaining a far larger compass. Lichtenthal 1 who, as an Italian, highly values the Serpent, gives its compass as no less than four full octaves from the Do bassissimo, which 'does not exist on the pianoforte (1826), but on the pedal of the organ of 16 feet,' up to the Do of the violin on the third space. He states more- over that the lowest sound of Do can only be used from time to time, avendo bisogno di una particolare buona imboccatura ' requiring a specially good lip. It is evidently a ' pedal ' note similar to those obtained on the trombone, and a good instance of the great licence given to the lip in instruments of this character.

It will be seen from the woodcut that one hand being applied to an ascending, and the other to a descending branch, the usual sequence

1 DAzi'-iiiavio della Musica. torn. i. p. 193.

��SERPETTE.

of fingering is inverted in the two hands ; the scale proceeding downwards in the left and up- wards in the right. The Serpent is probably the only instrument in existence exhibiting so quaint and unscientific a device. This fact, and the different lengths of sounding-tube in- tervening between the holes the distance be- tween the mouthpiece and the first finger-hole being 44 inches ; between the next three only about 4 inches in all ; between these and the next three for the right hand, 13 inches ; and from the last hole to the bell, 31 inches; making 96 inches, or 8 feet indicate the great imperfec- tion of the instrument mechanically considered, and point to the conclusion that a good player must have relied more on his dexterity and on the strength of his embouchure, as mentioned above, than on the resources of the instrument itself. Later makers, however, added a multi- plicity of keys, both above and below, which only complicated without facilitating performance. It is well known that the notes I), A, and some others, the holes for which were the most ap- proximately correct in position, had far greater force and correctness than others less accurately planted on the resonant tube. On the other hand, owing to the material of the Serpent and to its bore, its tone was certainly more tender and less obtrusive than that of the blatant brass valve-instruments which have replaced it in the modern orchestra. It is practically disused except in some few foreign churches, and for- gotten by all but musical antiquaries. A part for it is however found in the score of Mendels- sohn's overtures ' The Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage ' and ' St. Paul,' in the overtures to ' Masaniello,' 'The Siege of Corinth' (between the 2nd and 3rd trombones), and ' Rienzi.' It is also found in the Score of ' I Vepri Siciliani.' It is usually replaced in performance by the ophi- cleide. A Yorkshireman of Richmond, named Hurworth, who played in the private band of George III., could execute elaborate flute varia- tions with perfect accuracy on this unwieldy in- strument. There were till a few years ago two Serpents in the band of the Sacred Harmonic Society, played by Mr. Standen and Mr. Pimlett. They were, however, dispensed with soon after the introduction of two of the writer's improved contrafagotti.

There is a Method for the Serpent, containing studies and duets, published by Cocks. The only concerted music set down to it seems to have been originally intended for the bassoon.

A ' Contra Serpent ' was shown in the Exhibi- tion of 1851, made by Jordan of Liverpool. It was in Eb of the 1 6-foot octave. It was how- ever too unwieldy to be carried by the player, and required independent support. Another modification of this insti-ument was invented by Beacham and played on by Prospere in Jullien's orchestra. It was named the Serpentcleide, and was essentially an ophicleide with a body of wood nstead of brass. [W.H.S.]

SERPETTE, GASTON, French composer, born kt Nantes Nov. 4, 1846, began life as an advocate,

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