Give Now  »

The Symphony And The Serpent

The Terre Haute Symphony, conducted by David Bowden, opens their 2010-2011 season with a march by Hector Berlioz, the powerful symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler, and a concerto for an arcane instrument, the serpent.

Douglas Yeo is the Boston Symphony's bass trombonist and serpent soloist. From the picture, you'll surely agree that there is no instrument that better lives up to its name. It really does look like as if Yeo has a big lapful of snake, and that he's blowing into its tail.

An Old Manuscript Brings On A New Instrument

Yeo's fascination with the serpent began when he was looking over the score for a recently rediscovered Messe Solennelle by Berlioz. He noticed a part for an instrument called the serpent, and was fascinated. Although Yeo had never played the instrument, once he found one he went right ahead and bought it.

There were plenty of technical difficulties. "What you have is an eight foot tube with six finger holes," Yeo explains. "The holes simply correspond to places that a human hand can reach, not to any coherent acoustic locations. You pretty much have to control pitch with your lip."

Not Everyone Shared His Fascination

Despite the problems, Yeo was taken with the serpent and its challenges. "I went to the orchestra manager and told him that I wanted to play it in the concert. At first he was pretty resistant. I did have to audition it for our conductor, Seiji Ozawa. He liked the sound and we did perform the Berlioz with the instrument."

Since then, in addition to his regular duties as symphony bass trombonist, Yeo has become a bit of an evangelist for the serpent, playing it with early music groups and ensembles. He's even written a journal article about the novelist Thomas Hardy's fascination with the instrument.

Music from days gone by is not the only repertoire for the serpent. The British composer Simon Proctor composed a Serpent Concerto for the First International Serpent Festival in 1989.

The Old Music Was Hard, And The New Music...

"Every one agreed it was darned near impossible to play," Yeo says. But in the late nineties, Yeo took it up for a performance with the Boston Pops. "It was very successful, and I've gone on to play it with a number of different orchestras. I'm looking forward to adding the Terre Haute Symphony to the list."

External Links

  • Visit the section of Douglas Yeo's website devoted to the serpent, Tempted by a Serpent.
  • Take a look at the Serpent Website, a site devoted to "one of the most improbable instruments ever devised."

Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From