While the exact origins of the serpent are somewhat ambiguous, the instrument was created in sixteenth or seventeenth century France to bolster the sound of Cathedral choirs and complement the human voice. With a unique timbre, serpents were thought to be wonderful instruments of accompaniment. Early serpents were crafted of wood in two parts and covered in leather. They were played with a metal crook mouthpiece using a combination of finger holes and keys. By the early nineteenth century, serpents were added to military bands and, like this instrument, were made entirely of brass to better withstand unpredictable weather.
This early nineteenth century Serpent in C., part of the Utley Collection of Brass Instruments at the National Music Museum, was made in England by William Lander (1763–1843). Lander hailed from Mere, on the edge of the Salisbury Plain in Southwestern England. He operated a brass foundry and was known for his variety of patents and inventions, including the “waywiser” (a distance-measuring device) and improvements on water pumps. Lander also made a foray into the world of musical instrument-making, creating this Serpent with similar construction methods to its wooden predecessors by soldering two distinct halves together. This is Lander’s only surviving musical instrument. Come get a closer look at Lander’s creation in Trumpets, Weird and Wonderful: Treasures from the National Music Museum opening on September 13th!