As 2013 rings in the year of the snake, we're predicting an auspicious year for the most reptilian orchestra instrument, the serpent. The S-shaped wind instrument was invented in the 16th century but is sparingly used in modern orchestras, despite fervent enthusiasts, such as former Boston Symphony Orchestra bass trombonist Douglas Yeo (see below) and P.D.Q. Bach (who fondly said “It looks like a serpent, but sounds like a cow”).
Though the serpent’s appearance in the orchestra pit is rare, it can make an impression when its bellowing is present. Here are our top five works that feature the serpent:
1. Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique
Berlioz was a strong supporter of the wooden serpent and its brass relative, the ophicleide (which means keyed serpent in Greek). These resonant lower register instruments are included in many of his scores, though often they’re replaced with the more easily available contrabassoon. The most famous of Berlioz’s compositions, Symphonie Fantastique, is scored for one of each of these instruments, which are prominently featured in the final movement, “A Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath."
2. Simon Procter's Serpent Concerto
The British composer—and frequent champion of unusual instruments—Simon Proctor wrote his Serpent Concerto in 1987 to mark the first International Serpent Festival. The piece has become the rallying cry for fans of the period instrument at festivals and conferences celebrating the twisted woodwind. Douglas Yeo even played the piece with the Boston Pops with John Williams conducting.
3. P.D.Q. Bach's O Serpent
The serpent underwent a renaissance of sorts in the 1970s, when a British early music fanatic and coronet player, Christopher Monk, began manufacturing the instrument using historically accurate leather-covered wood. Monk then formed the London Serpent Trio, which had great success playing works such as O Serpent by the humorist-cum-classical-music-progeny P.D.Q. Bach. The American Serpent Players revived the piece at Symphony Space in 2005 to mark the 40th anniversary of the composer’s satirical concerts.
4. Wagner's Rienzi
Before Richard Wagner turned the giant Fafner into a serpent in his Ring Cycle, the composer included a serpent in the pit for his lesser-known opera, Rienzi. Wagner was following the French compositional trends of the time, which favored the low reedy sound of the serpent. These days, a contrabassoon often provides a replacement for the originally scored instrument.
5. Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage
Like his contemporary Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn utilized the qualities of the serpent in many works, including the concert overture, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, based on verse by Goethe. He also used the ophicleide to buffoonish effect Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the instrument characterizes Bottom, the man whose head is magically transformed into that of an ass.
Below: Douglas Yeo performs a melody on the serpent: