There’s a snake at The College of Musical Arts at Bowling Green State University, but don’t fear its bite — the serpent is a rare, snake-like predecessor to the tuba and the French horn.
The college is hosting a residency featuring Douglas Yeo, one of the world’s leading exponents of the instrument, which will culminate in a concert Thursday evening. The residency will include a free public concert, a master class and a seminar, featuring BGSU faculty and staff.
“The Ruth P. Varney Serpent: A Conversation and Concert Led by Douglas Yeo” will cap off the residency events. It begins at 8 p.m. at the Bryan Recital Hall in the Moore Musical Arts Center, with a reception following in the Kennedy Green Room. The program features period pieces that prominently showcase the serpent and the various qualities that make it unique and relevant today.
The Varney Serpent is a military serpent, said to have been used in the Boer War (South Africa, October 1899-May 1902), and estimated to have been made in the 1830s, so Christopher Eley’s “The Duke of York’s March” (1795), Samuel Wesley’s “March in D” (1777) and the four pieces from Franz Joseph Haydn are all appropriate for the instrument. Yeo’s performance will be accompanied by students and faculty from the College of Musical Arts.
While it is in the brass family, the instrument is actually made of wood and leather, so it has a more muted sound than the actual brass instruments that followed in horn evolution. During the performance, the serpent player is positioned in the center position.
“The serpent doesn’t belong on the end, because it is part of the ensemble,” Yeo said.
Historically, the serpent would be playing the low notes and Yeo will be seated next to the bassoon and French horn.
“The sound of the symphony orchestra of 200 years ago was very different that it is today. Instruments all were much softer in their sound and had a more woody, rich and breathy quality,” said Yeo.
“I‘m bringing it back to life,” Yeo said.
The Varney Serpent had not been played for over 100 years. Fortunately, time had been kind to the Varney Serpent. While it had sat next to a piano in the Varney household, essentially a piece of art, for much of that time, little damage had taken place. The only damage is to the original ivory mouthpiece, which is cracked and unplayable, but is with the instrument. Yeo will be using a boxwood mouthpiece, which, except for the material, is almost identical to a modern metal trombone mouthpiece. During the several months Yeo has been practicing with the Varney Serpent, he has oiled the wood and leather and brought back the action of the four keys.
The serpent was invented in the 16th century. At that time, metal working with modern tools, like the electric lathe, was not yet available. The Varney Serpent is an eight-foot long tube made of hand-carved wood and leather, with metal supports. The metal supports are there for added strength, as this would have been used in military marches on foot or horseback. Early serpents had no keys, while later instruments had as many as 14. The Varney Serpent has four.
“Because instruments have been refined and made ‘perfect’ doesn’t mean that their predecessors didn’t have something to bring to the table. There is no instrument in all of music that has the sound, the timbre, of the serpent. It is a unique instrument that was designed to provide a bridge between brasses and woodwinds,” Yeo said.
The shape of the curves of the serpent also changed over time, with an original front-facing orientation held between the knees to the military style Varney Serpent held to the side with tighter curves. Because of the curve shape, the holes were not placed for ease of note creation, but for holding the instrument. That makes the fingering different for each shape of a serpent and makes demands of the player’s skill in creating the right pitch for the note.
Every morning, Yeo said he asks the serpent, “What kind of mood are you in today?” Because of the natural materials, changes in temperature, humidity and air pressure all have their impact on the sound of the instrument, to which the player must adjust.
Yeo spent 27 years as a trombonist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and four years as a professor at Arizona State University, from which he recently retired. As a soloist, he performed Simon Proctor’s Serpent Concerto with John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1997 and has subsequently played it with five other orchestras around the country. He has a serpent performance CD that has received high acclaim as well as the instructional DVD project, “Approaching the Serpent: An Historical and Pedagogical Overview.”
This unique serpent is a donation to the college from Dr. Glenn Varney, professor emeritus of management. The two days of events are in honor of his wife, Connie, who inherited the instrument from her mother, Ruth. The instrument was purchased for Ruth in London at an antique store in the early 1900s. Ruth received her degree in music from Ohio Wesleyan University.