Boy Meets Serpent

The Bate Collection and The Serpent

Located within the University of Oxford, and possibly one of the most over looked of Oxford’s treasure trove of (free!) museums, is The Bate Collection.

It’s a magical museum of Western musical Instruments from the Renaissance through the Baroque and Classical, to the Romantic . It’s brilliant because it effectively has on display the evolution of many instruments played today.

If you love music or instruments – or have a bit of time to appreciate the arts – do pay a visit: like many of Oxford’s museums, it’s free! Students and visitors are very welcome to try out a few replica or modern pieces. Top tip: I recommend bringing your own anti-bacterial wipes for cleaning mouthpieces as unfortunately for us, they’d run out the day before and I didn’t think about this until too late! Fortunately, no harm done.

The Serpent

At the Bate Collection we particularly came to track down the ancient Serpent and our Boy was

delighted to be able to have a try at this notoriously tricky instrument. Difficult because it’s played somewhat like a strange combination of Tuba (mouthpiece) and Recorder (holes, but the irregular spacing and its awkward bulk makes it difficult to hold). Correct embouchure and a really good ear is needed to get a nice sound. Like many instruments, it’s very easy to play badly!

The Serpent instrument is reckoned to have been invented by Canon Edmé Guillaume in 1590 in Auxerre, France, and was first used to enhance the sound of medieval choirs.

Charles Burney (1726-1814) is quoted  “In the French churches, there is an instrument on each side of the choir, called the Serpent, from its shape, I suppose, for it undulates like one. This gives the tone in chanting, and plays the bass when they sing in parts. It mixes with them better than the organ, (and) is less likely to overpower or destroy by bad temperament, that perfect tone of which only the voice is capable. The Serpent keeps the voices up to their pitch, and so is a kind of crutch for them to lean on“.

Mozart used a couple of Serpents in his operas and around the middle of the 18th century it appeared in military bands and was played by solders in the Battle of Waterloo. It has appeared in various film scores in 1950’s. Then, after a resurgence in the 1970’s, its sound is in the score for Alien (1979) and more recently in PlayStation games and BBC Proms.

The Bate Collection is well worth a visit (did I mention it’s free?) It’s open Monday – Friday afternoons from 2.00 – 5.00 throughout the year. Saturday Morning opening 10.00 – 12.00

Address: Bate Collection, Faculty of Music, St Aldate’s, Oxford OX1 1DB