The Central Coast Philharmonia
The serpent is the odd and almost extinct predecessor of the tuba. Serpents date back to Baroque times when they were used for bass in brass ensembles. The serpent can be accurately described as the cross between a woodwind and a brass; it has a brass mouthpiece and an almost woodwind body, and fingers like a woodwind (in fact it has the fingering of a recorder). This gives it a brass texture, but a certain amount of woodwind fuzziness, not unlike putting a tuba mouthpiece on a PVC pipe. The fingering of this odd-looking instrument is set up more for convenience of the hands rather than any acoustical reason making the serpent infamously out-of-tune. All brass effects that are possible on the other brasses are possible on the serpent, and the instrument carries a considerable amount of volume and resonance. Replaced by the better-designed tuba, the serpent is beginning to see a comeback as composers are frequently requesting its rather unique and unpredictably raunchy sound. For more info on serpents, visit the serpent page at www.serpentwebsite.com.
Some technical info:
The serpent is written for in bass clef and sounds in C as written. Range is from the C below the bass clef, to G or A above it....roughly the range of a euphonium without some of the high notes, but a few more of the low ones. The serpent benefits greatly from scoring with the overtone series in mind, as pitches can be difficult to find. Also it is wise to keep in mind that the instrument physically does not lend itself to being in tune, a characteristic which can merit its use in the right situation. The normal serpent is the bass serpent. There is also a contrabass serpent. Contrabass serpents are extremely rare, and sound an octave lower than written. In the Genesis program, the Violin Concerto and Four Poems both contain serpent parts, and the Four Poems also contains a contrabass serpent part.
Douglas Yeo is currently the world's foremost Serpent Player.