In the early nineteenth century, some French and Belgian instrument makers manufacturered a fanciful adaptation of the trombone known as the buccin. In place of the standard bell section, it had a widely curving tube ending with a gaudily painted serpent’s or dragon’s head. The same makers also put monster’s heads on serpents, serpent bassoons, and other precursors of the ophicleide.
Judging from the trombone parts in French music during or after the Revolution, the was played loudly, primarily in the lower register. As the French used a very small-bore trombone, its sound must have been coarse and at times entirely unmusical. Charles Burney once described a badly-played serpent as “exactly resembling in tone, that of a great hungry, or rather angry, Essex calf”.
Putting a dragon’s head on either instrument could only emphasize the worst aspects of their sound. Henri Castil-Blaze, writing in 1821, observed, “This form, picturesque for the eye, essentially harms the results of the instrument, of which it hinders and curtails the vibrations. The sound of the buccin is duller, harsher, and drier than that of the trombone.”
The gaudy head was not intended for sound, however. The primary customers for this model, military bands, cared more about visual display than sound. J. A. Kappey’s history of military music includes this recollection:
“I distinctly remember having seen in childhood a large Austrian band, which made a lasting impression upon me; it had about 5 or 6 brass serpents in the front rank, the bell of each being shaped like an open mouth of a huge serpent, painted bloodred inside with huge white teeth, and wagging tongue which moved up and down at every step! For ‘picturesque’ effect—I never forgot that; as to what or how the band played, I remember nothing except those terrible open jaws!!”