During my trip through the musical looking-glass the other day, I took a quick detour into historical musical instrument, and found that my main instrument (the Tuba/Sousaphone) had some rather interesting roots.
Its immediate predecessor was the Ophecleide, which was the main low wind instrument suntil the Tuba was developed in the mid-1800s. While the Tuba is a typical brass instrument with valves, the Ophecleide has keys like the ones now used on woodwind instruments. It resembles a Baritone Saxophone, except the bell is longer and straighter, and it’s played with a brass instrument mouthpiece.
The ophecleide itself was preceded by the serpent, a cartoonish instrument whose sound has been described thusly:
Played softly, it has a firm yet mellow tone color, or timbre. At medium volume, it produces a robust sound which seems to be a cross between the tuba, the bassoon, and the French horn. When played loudly it can produce unpleasant noises reminiscent of large animals in distress.
The device itself is technically a brass instrument, although the body is made of wood. To acheive a long air column, it snakes around in a gentle, multiple S-curve pattern, hence its name. One traditional method of constructing these monsters started with a huge block of wood, which must have been a foot thick by 3-4 feet wide by 5-6 feet long. This block was cut in half (a job in itself) and matching serpentine trenches were dug out of each half. The halves were then glued back together, and the waste wood carved away.
The traditional wood for these was walnut, and I shudder to think how much fine old-growth walnut was probably reduced to chips so some musician could blow raspberries through the remainder. It’s slightly less ignoble than firewood, but not by much.
For us moderners who want to play a serpent, but can’t afford an antique or reproduction, there’s an answer. The Squarepent is an easy-to-construct serpent-like instrument (more like a wooden ophecleide, but close enough). Check out the sound clips — they’re definitely not bad for an instrument’s inaugural toot.