Bain’s Blog - Snakes In The Brass

      Date posted: January 30, 2012

Snakes In The Brass

It all started with this serpent.
Not THAT serpent; other than that story leading eventually to churches.

This serpent story takes us back to church. Specifically Auxerre Cathedral in France. The year 1590 saw the first appearance of Canon Edmé Guillaume’s newly invented wind instrument.

Church music of the time was commonly restricted to vocal choirs with or without organ. Competent singers being in limited supply, the Cornett— a wooden or ivory trumpet-like instrument utilizing finger holes to provide a scale, and having a strong resemblance to the human voice, was pressed into service to flesh out the ensemble. The cornett, however, reached only down to the tenor register; the real deficiency, in choirs, being in the bass range. The only available instrument, other than the bass of the organ was the Church Bass— soon to evolve into the violoncello—which was carried on a shoulder sling in processions.

What was needed was essentially a bass cornett. The problem being that to encompass that register, the required air column approached eight feet, and the finger holes were both too large to be covered by fingertips, and were outside hand compass. The first workable solution was to divide the holes into two groups of three, at 1/3 an 2/3 of the column. To bring the two groups into comfortably playable architecture, the tube was carved from block as a “double S”.  Some very observant fellow, an engineer of course, probably named Canon Guillaume’s bundle of joy—Serpent.  The instrument performed as hoped, blending with the low voices. It required some personal skill on the part of the player; the distribution and inadequate size of the finger holes produced an intonation on much of the scale which might charitably be described as approximate. The serpentist, in the manner of sight-singing, had to lip proper intonation.

3 cornetts

The serpent quickly entered military band use. These instruments employed brass bracing rods and ferrules. The military bandsman’s venue, at that period, extended to the battlefield itself; a barracks room joke of the time was that, if cornered, the serpent player at least had a lethal weapon to hand. This is true. While the viola has greater range— “thirty feet with a good arm”— it, to paraphrase my mentor in these matters, the late Col. Jeff Cooper, lacks the “stopping power” of a well swung serpent.

While the serpent was soon replaced in choir reinforcement, it soldiered on in British rural churches, and was immortalized by Thomas Hardy.

Thomas Hardy: (in Under the Greenwood Tree) “Old things pass away ’tis true; but a Serpent was a good old note: a deep rich note was the Serpent.”

Berlioz specified it for his “Messe solennelle”, Wagner in “Rienzi”. Instrument technology had moved on: first with a single fold of the tube — the “Russian Bassoon” and Bass Horn, made of brass— and then a breakthrough, the Ophicleide.

Invented by Jean Hilaire Asté (also known as Halary or Haleri) in 1817, made entirely of brass, it utilized properly sized and placed holes covered with key activated padded stoppers. The keys were placed conveniently and were connected to the stoppers by metal rods.

Ophicleide means keyed serpent; and the serpent “was history” in the evolving orchestra.  I was best pleased to first hear them in Roger Norringtons recording of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.  But not all quite approved:

Bernard Shaw: (On the Ophicleide) “When its part is played on the Tuba…..I never dream of objecting to the substitution.”

Enter Dr.Sax…

Adolphe Sax, a second generation instrument maker in Brussels with a penchant for design, after developing his Saxhorn family of brass valved horns of various size and pitch, and having developed the first really workable bass clarinet, installed a bass clarinet mouthpiece on one of his firm’s ophicleides.  He was aware of the tonal disparity among strings, winds, and brass, families; in which the strings and winds were generally overpowered by the brass. What he produced was, in essence, a brass clarinet, and while he thought in terms of a family of such, and would soon expand the line accordingly; the first of what he would call Saxophone, deriving from the ophicleide, was a bass instrument. This he patented in Paris in 1846.
ophecleide blowhard
Having established himself in Paris in 1842, he was visited by Hector Berlioz who recalled his visit and the demonstration of the bass saxophone in Le Journal des Débats: “The Saxophone (Le Saxophon), named after its inventor, is a brass instrument with nineteen keys, whose shape is rather similar to that of the ophicleide. Its mouthpiece, unlike those of most brass instruments, is similar to the mouthpiece of the bass~clarinet. Thus the Saxophone becomes the head of a new group, that of the brass instruments with reed. It has a compass of three octaves beginning from the lower B flat under the staff (bass clef); its fingering is akin to that of the flute or the second part of the clarinet. Its sound is of such rare quality that, to my knowledge, there is not a bass instrument in use nowadays that could be compared to the Saxophone. It is full, soft, vibrating, extremely powerful, and easy to lower in intensity. As far as I am concerned, I find it very superior to the lower tones of the ophicleide, in accuracy as well as in the solidity of the sound. But the character of such sound is absolutely new, and does not resemble any of the timbres heard up till now in our orchestras with the sole exception of the bass-clarinet’s lower E and F.

“Owing to its reed, it can increase or diminish the intensity of its sounds. The notes of the higher compass vibrate so intensively that they may be applied with success to melodic expression. Naturally, this instrument will never be suitable for rapid passages, for complicated arpeggios; but the bass instruments are not destined to execute light evolutions. Instead of complaining, we must rejoice that it is impossible to misuse the saxophone and thus to destroy its majestic nature by forcing it to render mere musical futilities”

Influenced by success of the saxophone, the Parisian bandmaster Pierre-Auguste Sarrus created the Sarrusophone, utilizing the double reed of the bassoon or oboe also on an ophicleide. In “the race for the bottom” he exceeded the contrasbass saxophone by one half-tone. The family of sarrusophones became generally extinct in the mid twentieth century; but Frank Zappa occasionally scored for a contrabass, and one was used in the score of the film “Tombstone” .

The bass saxophone was a staple in early jazz bands, in place of a tuba. Adrian Rollini used one as a solo instrument— and it appears,was an inspiration for a very young Gerry Mulligan. Recently the Bass saxophone has been used to effect by James Carter. It’s not what you might call a pretty sound, but it certainly gets your attention.

And it all started with a Serpent.  As Fats would say:”One never knows, do one”


Supplementary Links:

YouTube: Interview with Sir Roger Norrington

Website: Douglas Yeo (Serpent & Ophicleide)

John Edward Bain

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