Last Look

No apple required

A sinuous selection from the Collection of Musical Instruments.

Christopher Gardner

Christopher Gardner

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No, it’s not a snake. It’s a serpent: a musical instrument thought to have been invented in France around 1590. Initially, it was used to accompany or reinforce the male voices of Gregoran chant. Much later, in the early nineteenth century, the serpent became a mainstay in the bass section in British andFrench military bands. It might have been slightly awkward to march with. The one shown here is about two feet four inches tall, with a tube length of over six feet.

Susan E. Thompson, curator of the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments, says this serpent was crafted around 1812. It’s made of wood and covered with leather and black paint. The serpent was eventually superseded by the ophicleide (which looks something like a brass bassoon) and later by the tuba. Thompson quotes the novelist 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."

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