From The Director's Desk
Editorial Views and Opinions

A Snake in the Mass:
ASW serpent makes Boston Symphony debut

I sometimes marvel at how far the early music movement has progressed in just a few short decades. Twenty years ago, when Antique Sound Workshop was in its infancy, performance on historical instruments was largely the pursuit of students or adult amateur musicians. Many if not most professional performers on modern orchestral instruments looked with disdain upon early instruments, which they considered hopelessly primitive or mere toys, and upon their players, whom they considered antiquarians or dilettantes at best.

I distinctly remember a conversation in 1978 over a late evening after-concert meal in a restaurant with a long-time friend who played horn and his uncle, who was on tour as principal violist with a noted American symphony orchestra. The uncle, who had in fact played solo viola d'amore on numerous occasions in performances of such works as Bach's St. John Passion, didn't think much of historical instruments in general and pronounced the whole early instrument movement a passing fad which would soon blow over. I held my tongue in deference to the feelings of his nephew, but was more than a little appalled by this distinguished player's Luddite attitude. I wonder what he would say today, looking over the current booming early music scene from his retirement.

Mind you, professional musicians often had good reason for their prejudices; many amateur performances of early music on historical instruments, however well-intentioned, were pretty pathetic by any reasonable musical standards. Then too, many accomplished modern instrumentalists, having dabbled briefly with the historical predecessor of their modern instrument and having used inappropriate modern playing techniques with predictably negative results, grandly pronounced early instruments to be too crude for serious professional performance. The more self-aware realized that, having spent years developing proficiency on a modern instrument in order to earn a living, they had neither the time nor the ambition to go back to square one and learn to play a completely different instrument from scratch. In one respect modern instrumentalists face a much more difficult task than the beginning amateur player, seeing as they have to both unlearn their old, deeply ingrained modern playing techniques as well as learn completely different historical ones.

In the late 1970's, however, professional opinion began slowly but inexorably to change. A new, younger generation of accomplished professional performers on historical instruments had begun to make their abilities and the virtues of their chosen instruments known, both through public performances and, perhaps even more significantly, through broadcasts and recordings. Early instrument chamber ensembles and, more important in terms of legitimacy, early instrument orchestras playing the same baroque repertoire as modern instrumental groups revealed not only the acceptability but the desirability (some ardent advocates might even say the absolute necessity) of playing late baroque music on historical instruments. Some modern instrumentalists still didn't get the message, however. I can vividly recall hearing a broadcast intermission interview in the early 1980's with the noted French solo flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal. He was asked if he ever played baroque flute; his reply, with typical Gallic arrogance, was that the instrument was too primitive for serious professional consideration. His ultimate proof was that there were no famous baroque flutists in the world (i.e., like himself or his competitor and archnemesis James Galway. I suspected then that M. Rampal badly needed to stop listening to himself and his agent, put his massive ego aside, and get out to concerts by other musicians, including the very considerable number of superb professional baroque flutists on the then-current musical scene. He might even have learned a thing or two.

During the first half of this century, American symphony orchestras typically performed late baroque music with large string sections, no continuo instruments, and no ornamentation other than the occasional token cadential trill, invariably begun incorrectly on the lower note. A good friend of mine, who sang in the New England Conservatory Chorus under the legendary Lorna Cooke de Varon, which group performed frequently with the BSO during his student days in the 1950's, tells a wonderful story about the first time that a harpsichord was used as a continuo instrument with the Boston Symphony. Daniel Pinkham, a member of the New England Conservatory faculty and noted organist, harpsichordist, and composer, was engaged for the occasion. During the first rehearsal, he was studiously ignored by Charles Munch, then BSO music director, who was conducting. At the rehearsal intermission, he approached Dr. Munch with some trepidation and asked if his performance was satisfactory. Dr. Munch beamed and said, in his wonderful Alsatian accent, "it is just perfect -- I can't hear it at all!".

In the past decade, it has gradually become apparent to all but the most stubbornly recalcitrant of modern instrumentalists that early instruments have a validity of their own that is, at the very least, equal in importance to that of modern instruments. At yet a higher stage of awareness, some players eventually learn that historically informed performance practice can in fact only be completely realized through the medium of early instruments. Indeed, it is not at all uncommon today to find at least a handful of players in any one symphony orchestra who have actually managed to develop a reasonable proficiency on the historical predecessor of their modern instrument.

Modern instrumental performances of baroque and classical music are increasingly becoming regarded as essentially de facto transcriptions, like it or not. The musical public votes with its checkbook <197> or these days with its credit card. Hardly anybody goes to a record shop to purchase or to a concert hall to hear a modern instrument performance of the Bach Brandenburg Concerti or Vivaldi's The Seasons, to cite only two warhorses of the baroque repertoire that used to be played frequently by modern instrumentalists. 1950's-style heavily modernized performances of these works are now artifacts which have been largely relegated to the elephant's graveyard of musical history -- and none too soon, I might add.

At first, early instrument orchestras played only the late baroque repertory of Bach and Handel, which never really was very well suited to huge modern orchestras except in highly colorful if rather musically dubious twentieth century transcriptions. Between 1975 and 1985, however, the abilities of early instrument players continued to improve, the orchestral repertoire of the classical period was assailed by early instrument groups, and the music of Mozart and Haydn as we had previously known it would never sound the same again. Up to then, many modern orchestras had used works of the classical era largely as lightweight program-openers, played to warm up themselves and the audience before tackling the more serious fare later in the program. Not being deemed worthy of expensive rehearsal time, performances were little more than a slick run-through on automatic pilot. More recently, early instrument performances of this music, informed by historical performance practice, have revealed previously obscured aspects of depth and power as well as a wealth of fascinating detail in this previously taken-for-granted repertoire. It is therefore no great surprise that, in recent years, many modern orchestras have begun to shy away from performing the classical repertoire as well. Oddly and inappropriately enough, the Boston Symphony, for logistical reasons, actually featured whole programs of baroque and classical music in earlier decades. Back in the 1950's the BSO moved to its summer home at Tanglewood in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts in stages: during the first weeks of July, half the orchestra, including the principal players, moved west to perform several weeks of what were called the "Bach-Mozart" concerts, while the rest of the orchestra members remained behind in Symphony Hall to work off their time in purgatory by having to play Boston Pops concerts with the late Arthur Fiedler.

Most recently, modern orchestral musicians have had more than ample reason to actually fear the historical instrument movement, insofar as more and more of the repertoire that used to be exclusively the bailiwick of modern instrumentalists has been increasingly usurped by the early instrument crowd. Admittedly, the fact that modern orchestral performances of Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart are becoming increasingly rare probably has less to do with matters of historical authenticity than with purely financial considerations, a classic example of the right choice for the wrong reasons. It is far less expensive and therefore more cost-effective to rehearsal, perform, take on tour, and record a small early instrument orchestra of, say, ten or a dozen members, than to use appreciably larger modern instrumental forces in the same repertoire. Artist managements and recording companies are not altruistic; they are in business to make money.

In the later 1980's, the music of Beethoven, which is at the very spiritual epicenter of the corpus of modern orchestral literature, became accessible to early instrument orchestras. It finally became apparent to even the dullest of orchestral musicians that the assault on nineteenth century music had begun in earnest, their legitimate repertoire was beginning to shrink drastically, and their livelihoods might well be compromised as a result. One detractor, whose name escapes me at the moment, remarked that the madness would probably not end until we were treated to a performance of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps on historical instruments. Well, we already have performances of Brahms and Wagner on late nineteenth century instruments, so this presumably tongue-in-cheek remark may in fact have not been far off the mark after all.

In yet another sign of the times, many free-lance players have taken up the baroque and classical antecedents of their modern instruments, not out of scholarly or antiquarian interests, but for purely financial reasons. They found that contractors hiring players for baroque or classical period choral works increasingly wanted historical instrument players. Free lancers took up early instruments as doubles quite simply because they were losing work – and perhaps that is not such a bad motivation after all. Meanwhile, orchestral players continue to hang onto an increasingly limited later repertory, while their orchestra managers and trustees worry about mushrooming salaries and expenses and shrinking audiences and income. Numerous smaller orchestras have become insolvent and gone out of existence. Major orchestras can already hear the wolf at the door, and no quick and easy solutions seem to be in sight. See Chrestologia, Vol. XX, No. 1 (February 1995), pp. 2-6 for a discussion of and some novel solutions to the problems of a shrinking market for classical music in general.

All of the above is simply by way of preface to the fact that, in midsummer of last year, I received a telephone call from Douglas Yeo, the bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops Orchestras for the past decade and a man of many and varied musical interests and abilities. Although I had never actually spoken with him before, I had for some years been an admirer not only of his excellent performances onstage with the BSO but his various other offstage activities on behalf of the orchestra and his chosen profession. Good bass trombonists, not to put too fine a point on it, are a dime a dozen in this country, but intelligent and interesting ones are a rarity.

Doug is what I would describe as an orchestral activist: not content to merely sit in his chair in the trombone section day after day and do the job he is paid to do, he has also become involved in other behind-the-scenes activities, both within and outside the scope of the orchestra. As an example of the latter, he has collaborated with Yamaha's brass instrument designers in developing a Douglas Yeo model bass trombone, which is reputed to be a very fine instrument indeed. Shortly after joining the orchestra and being somewhat of an antiquarian, he rummaged around in the orchestral archives to find out more about the early history of the orchestra and its players; predictably enough, he found the BSO archives to be in an appalling state of disarray. He has since become the prime mover in an attempt to preserve the valuable details of the orchestra's past. One tangential aspect of his work has been to create what is in essence an oral history of the orchestra by recording informal interviews with retired members, preserving wonderful tales and anecdotes of the orchestra's life during the first half of this century. Most recently, the indefatigable Mr. Yeo has written an article published in Counterpoint, an informal player's newsletter, detailing the drastically reduced number of recordings being made by the BSO in recent years. In point of fact, there are only two recording sessions scheduled for the 1995-1996 season. Admittedly, the recordings made by the orchestra with music director Seiji Ozawa over the entire course of the latter's tenure with the orchestra have not sold well, a significant testament to this conductor's many and manifest musical and intellectual limitations. The orchestra's performances and recordings under its music director have indeed been roundly criticized by music critics both here in Boston and elsewhere as well, as Yeo has carefully detailed. While this is undoubtedly one factor in the declining contract offers for recording sessions, Doug seems to have overlooked what is perhaps an even more important factor: the exorbitantly high union-negotiated fees paid to players, conductors, and soloists for recording sessions. The fact of the matter is that American orchestras have priced their services almost completely out of reach. Given the relatively small sales of most classical music titles, it has become simply unprofitable to record here in the United States, a fact that even the multinational recording giants such as Polygram or BMG, with their proverbially deep pockets, cannot afford to ignore.

The reason for Doug's call was that he had just learned that Maestro Ozawa had scheduled a series of performances in the fall season of a recently rediscovered Mass for soloists, chorus, and orchestra by the early nineteenth century French composer Hector Berlioz. This event was widely trumpeted by the orchestra's public relations office as a premiere performance, although it was in fact only a first Boston performance. The work had already been premiered and recorded in Europe on historical instruments by John Eliot Gardiner, and in fact had also been performed and recorded on modern instruments here in the United States. It is probably safe to say that the Ozawa-BSO performances were the first ones by a major American orchestra, for whatever that might be worth. Doug had found out that this work, long thought to be lost, had a brief but important part for serpent and wanted to explore with me the possibility of actually playing the part on a serpent. He seemed to be somewhat surprised when I informed him that not only did I know where he might obtain one, but that we had actually had four such instruments currently in stock!

He then approached music director Ozawa, who was surprisingly receptive to the notion of introducing a serpent to Symphony Hall audiences. The Maestro's only concern was, "can the thing be played in tune?" Doug relayed Ozawa's question to me and I told him, "If you have a good ear, you can play a serpent perfectly in tune; if you don't, you can't. It is that simple – and that difficult." This, of course, is true of any musical instrument; but it is especially true of a serpent, which is extremely flexible in pitch, to put it mildly. Fingerings are largely irrelevant and, as I once demonstrated to one of my college early music students, one can even play notes that are outside the range of the instrument, a simple case of mind over matter. See pp. 12-13 for an account of this event.

At any rate, Doug was game and wanted to come over and get a little hands-on experience with one of these beasts in order to see if he would be able to tame it. After giving some thought to the matter, I recommended that he try one of the fiberglass serpents made by David Harding in England. First, this instrument is patterned after an early nineteenth century French keyless serpent by Hermenge, a Parisian player and author of several method books for the instrument, who might possibly have even played in the premiere performance in 1825! It would have therefore been the instrument of choice for the Berlioz work for reasons of authenticity alone. I did have some reservations about whether a serpent could be heard in Symphony Hall with an orchestra of over one hundred modern instruments, particularly given Ozawa's disinclination to ask his musicians to play any dynamic level below mezzoforte. The Harding instrument, which has a well-focused sound and more projection than wooden instruments, would in my opinion give Doug at least a fighting chance to be heard over the din.

After trying out every serpent mouthpiece I had on hand, Doug decided to go with the one supplied with the instrument, which would have been my recommendation anyway. Like most beginning serpent players, he didn't sound all that great the first time around but was pretty certain that, with some practice, he would be able to make a go of it. I was reminded of some sage advice given by Richard Plaster, the recently retired contrabassoonist of the Boston Symphony, to aspiring contrabassoon students at Tanglewood: "take the darn thing out into the woods where no one can hear you – it's going to sound pretty awful for a while." I heartily agreed, given not only his experience as a professional brass player but also some music education background on woodwind instruments. He left for the long ride back to Tanglewood with his newly-acquired Harding serpent and plans for a few weeks of vigorous woodshedding.

Needless to say, the local performances in October were a smashing success; the serpent was definitely audible, thanks to the hall's legendary acoustics and Doug Yeo's superb playing. A great deal of hoopla, undoubtedly generated by the orchestra's publicity apparatus, surrounded the entire enterprise. Numerous radio spots, interviews, and newspaper articles were devoted to the novelty of a serpent in Symphony Hall. Actually, there has in fact been a serpent living in Symphony Hall for many decades: a rather decrepit example has been part of the badly neglected Casadesus Collection of antique instruments for many years. Sadly, this instrument was not in any condition to be used, in addition to which I suspect that it is not pitched at a'=440 Hz. The music critic of the Boston Globe, who has been known to be somewhat caustic about the music director's many and obvious shortcomings during the past two decades, was at least on this occasion highly enthusiastic about the concert in general and the serpent's contribution in particular. In a review of the first performance on October 13, 1994, he noted that "the orchestra sounded... brilliant; Douglas Yeo contributed an amusing note to the program book on that strange instrument the serpent, and played it with unobtrusive skill." Later in the fall, Maestro Ozawa and the BSO took three complete Berlioz programs, including the newly found Mass and the well-known Requiem, on tour to Japan, so our ASW Harding serpent is now a seasoned veteran of international travel as well.

Doug Yeo's witty and lucid article describing his experience with the serpent for the orchestra's program bulletin was a typically thoughtful and informative educational gesture. BSO ticket holders, many of whom could not be expected to be particularly knowledgeable about historical instruments, were thereby painlessly exposed to some pertinent information on the instrument in addition to experiencing its very special sonority during the performance. This is precisely the sort of outreach work of which all American orchestras need to do a great deal more in order to demystify their existence and insure a continuing audience for their music. Doug has kindly given us permission to reprint the article in its entirety here in Chrestologia for the information, edification, and entertainment of our readers.

Tempted By A Serpent
by Douglas Yeo

Now and then, the Boston Symphony Orchestra undertakes a work that requires an instrument that falls outside the traditional orchestral palate. Mozart's use of the basset horn (a member of the clarinet family) in his Requiem comes to mind as does Wagner's scoring for bass trumpet, contrabass trombone, and [a quartet of] Wagner tuba[s] (played by horn players) in his Ring cycle. Holst calls for a bass oboe (not an English horn) in The Planets, and Mahler utilizes an offstage posthorn (a small valveless member of the horn family) in his Third Symphony. Editor's note: the instrument called for in this work is actually a valved posthorn in Bb, not the earlier valveless instrument required in the Mozart Posthorn Serenade and a few other works.> More or less "authentic" performances of some works of Bach bring the viola d'amore to the stage, while Richard Strauss wrote for a tenor tuba to portray Sancho Panza in his Don Quixote.
But of all the unusual and unfamiliar instruments that are called for in the symphony orchestra, there is one that is being heard in a Boston Symphony concert this month for the first time. Berlioz's Messe solennelle, a newly discovered work receiving its first performances with the BSO here in Symphony Hall on October 13, 14, and 15 (with further BSO performances scheduled in New York's Avery Fischer Hall on October 21 and in Tokyo on December 8) will bring to listeners one of the most exotic and intriguing of musical instruments -- the serpent.
There is perhaps no instrument that more accurately lives up to its name than the serpent. For a close look, observe the beautiful eighteenth century serpent owned by the Boston Symphony and displayed in the Casadesus Musical Instrument Collection in Higginson Hall (near the gift shop). It is an approximately eight-foot-long conical instrument of wood covered with leather, played with a cup-shaped mouthpiece usually of ivory or horn and tortuously coiled in such a way that gives it a self-evident name.

The serpent was invented in 1590 by a Frenchman, Edmé Guillaume, making it one of the oldest instruments currently in use today. Conceived as the bass member of the cornett family (the group of instruments – including the cornett, bass horn, serpent, and ophicleide – that preceded today's modern [valved] brass instruments), the serpent immediately found a home accompanying the plainsong of the Church. It became popularized in England in the eighteenth century where, in addition to being used in church services, it became the bass of the military wind band.

The serpent has a tone quality unlike any instrument in the modern orchestra. When played loudly, its powerful sound carries easily and with authority; quietly, it blends well with bassoons and voices. But with only six open holes and no keys, the serpent lives up to its name in more than just its appearance <197> it is as treacherous as its namesake from the Garden of Eden. While numerous fingering charts for the serpent have been published, no printed matter can disguise the fact that playing the serpent is an inexact science at best, relying on the steady lip of the performer to get a firm grip on the intonation of any given note.

Being the best bass wind instrument available at the time, many composers wrote for the serpent as late as the early nineteenth century. Wagner's Rienzi and Love Feast of the Apostles, Rossini's Seige of Corinth and Verdi's Sicilian Vespers all utilize the serpent and Mendelssohn's oratorio St. Paul probably represents its most effective orchestra use.

Berlioz's writing for the serpent is at once curious and fascinating. In the Messe solennelle, an early work dating from 1825, Berlioz writes for three now obsolete instruments: buccin (in the Kyrie), ophicleide (in the Resurrexit) and serpent (in the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei, if only at the very end). All three are precursors to today's modern orchestral tuba. According to Grove's Dictionary, there are no known buccin to have survived today (Respighi also wrote for buccine in his Pines of Rome; he evidently was hoping for a performance with recreations of ancient Roman instruments which are different than the buccin for which Berlioz wrote.) But from descriptions in literature, we know it was a four-foot-long brass instrument created during the French Revolution and used for outdoor music. The ophicleide, invented in 1821, takes its name form the Greek ophis meaning a serpent and kleis, as in a cover or stopper – literally a keyed serpent. Being constructed entirely of metal and being upright, however, the ophicleide is closer to the modern baritone horn than the serpent it quickly replaced.

In the Messe, Berlioz utilizes each instrument for its known strengths – the buccin for a powerful middle register, the ophicleide for dexterity in the low range, and the serpent for its ability to blend with woodwinds and voices. In these performances, the part of the buccin and ophicleide is performed on a baritone horn by the BSO's tuba player Chester Schmitz. But since there is no suitable modern alternative for the serpent, I decided to do the only sensible thing – I yielded to temptation and purchased a serpent! The unique timbre of the serpent was again used by Berlioz in his Symphonie fantastique (1830), where in the original manuscript of the fifth movement, he called for the use of an ophicleide and a serpent to play the Dies irae melody which is nowadays played on two bass tubas. The continued refinement of the ophicleide and the development of the tuba (patented in 1835), which soon took over its rightful place as the bass of the brass family, caused Berlioz to have a change of mind regarding the serpent: in the first printed edition of 1845, the serpent had been replaced by a second ophicleide. In his Grand traité d'instrumentation of 1843, Berlioz had become more ambivalent toward the serpent, writing, with characteristic hyperbole, "The truly barbaric tone of this instrument would be much better suited for the bloody cult of the Druids than for that of the Catholic Church, where it is still in use... Only one case is to be excepted: Masses for the dead, where the serpent serves to double the dreadful choir of the Dies irae. Here its cold and awful blaring is doubtless appropriate; it even seems to assume a character of mournful poetry when accompanying this text, imbued with all the horrors of death and the revenge of an irate God."

Others, however, did not share Berlioz's later depreciation of the serpent. A writer in the Musical World in 1841 said, " ...thus the fine quality of tone of the serpent may, henceforth, be available in the orchestra, and the hog-song of the ophicleide will, we fervently hope, be speedily tacitted or banished altogether." Philip Palmer, a present-day serpentist (who recently commissioned a copy of the largest serpent known to be in existence, a sixteen-foot-long monster dubbed "The Anaconda"), sums up the situation eloquently in his article "In Defense of the Serpent" in the 1990 Historical Brass Society Journal, "While the serpent does, in this writer's opinion, present the greatest challenge of any Western instrument, it is by no means impossible to conquer its idiosyncrasies; and the result is an added resource for the performance of old music. Not only is the distinctive tone of the serpent capable of contributing greatly to instrument ensembles and choral accompaniment, it also possesses a visual appeal to audiences second to no other instrument, past or present. The defense rests."

Douglas Yeo has been bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony since 1985. His serpent is a modern copy by David Harding of London of an 1816(?) instrument played by the French serpentist M. Hermenge. [Editor's note: Mr. Harding actually lives in a small village in the vicinity of Oxford, not in London.] When called for, Mr. Yeo also plays bass trumpet in the BSO and he has been known to play harmonica in a rock band.

Copyright, Douglas Yeo, 1994. All rights reserved.

Copyright, Antique Sound Workshop, Ltd., 1995. All rights reserved.

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