Enthusiasts celebrate the sound of the serpent

A slither of serpent players

An obscure and striking-looking musical instrument is making a comeback in the Swiss canton of Jura thanks to the work of a local craftsman.

This content was published on April 15, 2012 minutes
Marton Radkai,

The serpent, a snake-shaped wind instrument thought to originate in late-16th-century in France, was the highlight of a recent musical workshop organised by Stephan Berger and his wife Erna Suter near the town of Saignelégier.

For four days, 24 serpent players from France, Germany and Switzerland came together to share their experiences and, above all, continue learning to play.

The workshop culminated in a well-attended concert at the local cultural hub, the Café du Soleil. The participants had a chance to show off their newly acquired skills playing, among other things, a seven-part canon and Fribourg’s cantonal hymn.

The rest of the concert was given by the  workshop teachers, virtuoso serpentist Michel Godard, and his own former students Volny Hostiou and Patrick Wibart. Together with other soloists – Fanny Paccoud, violin, Bruno Helstroffer, theorbo, Gavino Murgia, vocals and saxophone  –  they demonstrated the versatility of this somewhat unwieldy instrument with a programme mixing ancient, classical, contemporary and jazz pieces.

Bitten by the serpent

For Stefan Berger, the event represented a personal and professional milestone. Until six years ago, he had never touched a serpent, much less played one – nor any other instrument for that matter.

One fateful evening, he went to a concert given by Godard at the Café du Soleil. “It was what one French musicologist once called the ‘choc instrumentale’, the instrumental shock,” says Berger quietly. “It was not just the sound of the instrument, but the way Michel played it, that fascinated me.”

As it turned out, Godard was looking for someone who might be willing to re-do the leather covering of his instrument, and make a copy of it at the same time. Berger is a leather specialist, but he also has the soul of an inventor.  His atelier and home, in a large traditional Jura farmhouse, contain many tools and furnishings he built himself. Among other things, he designed and produced a very successful harness for guide dogs.

The instrument itself was fairly easy to make: Two serpentine halves had to be cut out of precious walnut planks, and hollowed out to the proper thickness. These were then glued together before being carefully whittled down to a smooth roundness. The devil, however, is in the detail, which is where Berger’s creativity and persistence came to bear.

Following the principles of trial and error, he manufactured mouthpieces of horn, plastic and other materials. He shaped the top tube and its brass holder. Applying the leather, however, was more difficult, and evolved into a two-year odyssey that pushed him to his limits.

In a bid to find out how the craftsmen of yore worked, he smuggled old instruments into hospitals for X-rays and MRIs, studied ancient leatherworkers’ logs, to find out how they made their glues, and tried out various types of gut to get the smooth, almost paint-like cover. His family began complaining about the bathtub filled with fresh cow or horse intestines, but nothing would deter him.

Once he finished his first prototype, however, Berger decided to take a major innovative step, one that would have far-reaching consequences for the instrument: he started manufacturing serpents of carbon composite, which is easier to shape, lighter to carry and cheaper to produce.

“Stephan Berger built an instrument that is as good or even better than an 18th century instrument because it is new,” Godard points out, “and people can now afford to buy one.” For Patrick Wibart, Berger “is now an integral part of serpent history.”

A 400-year history

Built to accompany singers in church, the serpent has a two-and-a-half octave range. Being made of wood, it has a warm voice, somewhat breathy owing to the large holes the performer uses to change notes. It produces few harmonics, which gives it a very strong bass voice.

Historically, the instrument was mostly played in France, where it reached the court of Louis XIV and later had its place in the average orchestra. In the late 1700s, one instrument maker came up with a keyed serpent known as the ophicleide.

Until recently, the number of serpent players in the world could be counted on one hand. It is not every musician’s favourite, of course. As 19th century composer Hector Berlioz put it: "The essentially barbaric timbre of this instrument would have been far more appropriate to the ceremonies of the bloody cult of the Druids than to those of the Catholic religion.” 

This may say more about the performance than the serpent itself, which is exceedingly difficult to play well. “The holes were placed to accommodate the performer’s fingers, but they do not make any acoustical sense,” says Volny Hostiou. “You have to correct the sound with your lips, and that is difficult.”

The appearance of affordable instruments and workshops like the recent one in the Jura, represents a major step in the revival of an instrument that led a very cloistered existence. The participants at the workshop were all enthusiasts, and mostly professional musicians.

Meike Herzig from Cologne, Germany, plays recorders in several ensembles. Her introduction to the serpent came in a dream: “I heard a voice that told me to start playing the serpent,” she recalls. “I am not the esoteric type, but I did start looking around for someone who builds serpents, and now I am here.”

This strange power of attraction, Godard feels, is inherent to many brasses or winds used in religious music, from the Australian Aborigine digeridoo to the Tibetan dungchen. “They are all meant to create a connection to God,” he says. “They take you from the low, all the way up to the divine.”

What is a serpent?

The serpent is a 16th century musical wind instrument, related to the modern tuba and euphonium.

It is blown with a cup-shaped mouthpiece which is very similar to that of a trombone or euphonium.

The serpent gets its name from its unusual double-S shape.

The instrument was historically made from wood, although other materials such as brass were used.

In the 20th century, some serpents have been made from fiberglass, plastic, synthetic foam resins, and even papier mâché.

Most wooden Serpents are covered in an airtight sheath to strengthen the instrument and prevent leaks. The sheath material is either leather or varnished cloth.


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