[ Exhibits ]

Serpent and Ophicleide Exhibit

March 16, 2018


D’Almaine and Company
London, 1834-1858

Inscribed on the scalloped brass ferrule at the upper end of the tube:
D’Almaine & Co. / 20 Soho Sq. London

The serpent is a wind instrument that is sounded through a lip-vibrated mouthpiece.  The bass member of the cornetto family of instruments, it is believed to have come into existence ca. 1590 at the hands of Edmé Guillaume, a canon of Auxerre.  Initially, the instrument was used to reinforce the male voices of Gregorian chant.  Later, it served as a bass instrument in military bands, civic ensembles and, eventually, symphony orchestras.

​The serpent’s body is sometimes made from a number of short pieces of wood (often walnut) that have been hollowed out, joined together and covered with leather.  An alternative method of construction consists of hollowing out two complete halves of the instrument, gluing these together and covering the whole with leather.  The instrument’s serpentine shape brings the instrument’s finger holes and mouthpiece within reach of the player.  Its adjustable, brass extendor (or crook) allows the player to hold the instrument vertically, horizontally or at any angle.
Today, the serpent is rarely heard in performance, yet it is still enjoyed by a small number of players, including members of the London Serpent Trio (Phil Humphries, Andy Kershaw, and Nicholas Perry), Michel Godard, Patrick Wibart, and Douglas Yeo – retired bass trombonist from the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  
Although the instrument functioned as a fundamental member of the wind section, it has not always been held in high esteem.  The French composer and conductor Hector Berlioz wrote in his Treatise on Instrumentation (rev. Richard Strauss, trans. Theodore Front): 
The essentially barbaric tone of this instrument would be much better suited for the bloody cult of the Druids than for that of the Catholic church, where it is still in use — as a monstrous symbol for the lack of understanding and the coarseness of taste and feeling which have governed the application of music in our churches since times immemorial.  Only one case is to be excepted: masses for the dead, where the serpent serves to double the dreadful choir of the Dies Irae.  Here its cold and awful blaring is doubtless appropriate…

On the other hand, serpentist Douglas Yeo points out a more positive quote about the serpent from Thomas Hardy’s, Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), “‘Yet there’s worse things than serpents,’ said Mr. Penny. ‘Old things pass away, ’tis true; but a serpent was a good old note; a deep, rich note was the serpent.'”

Click on the PDF link below to see a page excerpt from Marin Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle (1636) that depicts the serpent.

Mersenne Serpent Excerpt

Gift of Mr. Corning White
Accession Number 3676.1976

Speical thanks to Douglas Yeo and The London Serpent Trio for providing source material!

The London Serpent Trio

Click the link below to see a concert program, instrument description, and press release from the London Serpent Trio’s 1989 performance at Yale’s Collection of Musical Instruments.

London Serpent Trio Promotional Materials

To hear how the serpent sounds, listen to this YouTube clip of the London Serpent Trio.



Unknown maker
Probably French, early 19th century

The ophicleide was designed to be an improvement upon the serpent.  Its name comes from the Greek words “ophis” and “kleid,” meaning “serpent” and “keyed.”  This example is made of brass in five sections: mouthpiece, crook, wing (or tenor) joint, U-joint, long (or bass) joint flaring into bell.  The keys are activated by flat brass springs.

Like the serpent, the ophicleide was used in military bands.  Once it came to the attention of composers such as Hector Berlioz, Richard Wagner, and Felix Mendelssohn, it appeard in orcehstral scores.  In his original manuscript of Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz made use of both the ophicleide and serpent in the fifth movement, where the two instruments play the Dies Irae chant in unison.  After the invention of the tuba, the ophicleide gradually fell from use.


Given in memory of Harold Sears Arnold, MD, by his wife and children: Mars. Harld Sears Arnold (nee Justine Ingersoll), Charles Ingersoll Arnold, Justine Arnold Linforth, and Anne Arnold Hunt
Accession Number 3660.1971

Click on this PDF link to see some excerpts from Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, op. 21 to see the ophicleide part:

Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Score

Méthode de Serpent

Pour le Service du Culte et le Service Militaire
trans: Serpent Method – for the service of worship and military service

This method book was written by three authors: Nicolas Roze, the librarian of the Conservatoire de Paris, François-Joseph Gossec, a composer, and Étienne Ozi, a bassoonist. The Conservatoire released the Méthode de Serpent in 1814, despite having discontinued serpent classes in 1802.

Click on the PDF links below to view more pages from the 1974 Minkoff reprint of Méthode de Serpent.

Cover Pages

Serpent Etudes

On loan from Yale Music Library
MT 520 M592+


Use of the serpent and the ophicleide in Symphonie Fantastique and other works

In Hector Berlioz’s Treatise on Instrumentation, he wrote about the serpent, “The essentially barbaric tone of this instrument would be much better suited for the bloody cult of the Druids than for that of the Catholic church.  Only one case is to be excepted: masses for the dead, where the serpent serves to double the dreadful choir of the Dies Irae.”  In his piece, Symphonie Fantastique, he used the Dies Irae chant as a theme in the fifth movement and scored for both the serpent and ophicleide to play the chant in his original 1830 score.  Below are page excerpts from his manuscript where the two instruments play in unison.

Symphonie Fantastique 1830 Manuscript

The serpent was also known to composers such as Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, and George Frideric Handel.   Haydn scored for the serpent in his Divertimento in F Major, Hob. II:45 and Beethoven found use for the serpent in his March for Military Band, WoO24.  It is believed that Handel originally wrote a part for the serpent in his Music for the Royal Fireworks, but then crossed it out.  Below you will see a PDF link to the first page of the score to Music for the Royal Fireworks, and at the bottom of the page you can see the supposed crossed out serpent part.

Score Music for Royal Fireworks

-Timothy Feil, Museum Intern