Serpent, ophicleide, bombardon: the tuba’s forerunners

The tuba is the youngest regular member of the orchestra. Quite a bit of orchestral music is older, and it had to depend on one of three other instruments to provide a bass voice for the brass section. The serpent, ophicleide, and bombardon long ago disappeared from public view, but with the rise of historically informed performance, they have returned to concert halls at least occasionally.


Of all brass instruments before the invention of valves in 1815, only the trombone could play a complete chromatic scale. Trombones were among the major instrument groups during the Renaissance. They were made in alto, tenor, and bass, but not soprano trombone yet. Renaissance wind bands typically had two or three trombones on the bottom parts and one or two cornetts on the top. That’s cornetts, with 2 Ts in English. The Italians called it cornetto and the Germans Zink. It has a conical shaped bore, which means that it gradually widens between the mouthpiece and the other end.

brass instrumentsMade of wood, not brass, the cornett has tone holes like a recorder, but a cup-shaped mouthpiece like the trumpet’s or trombone’s. The combination of tone holes and cup mouthpiece give it a fuzzy sound somewhat akin to that of a trumpet with its spit valve open.

Like the trombone, and most other non-keyboard instruments of the time, it came in different sizes. Its tone holes had to be placed carefully–made in the right place and the right size–in order to be played in tune. The lower the pitch, and therefore longer the instrument, the larger and farther apart the holes ought to be. The conical bore means that the holes must also get a little larger as the bore expands.

Although no one made a soprano trombone, they did attempt to make bass cornetts. That led to major design problems. Smaller cornetts were either straight or gently curved. A bass in either shape would have been impossible to hold, let alone play, so instrument makers devised a convoluted shape that looked like a slithering snake. Instead of bass cornett, it was called the serpent.

Now it became possible to hold the instrument in order to play it, but not if the holes were made in acoustically appropriate places or sizes. A look at a modern saxophone (another descendant of the serpent) will show why: even on a soprano saxophone, the last hole is both too far away and too big to be covered by the players’ fingers. Saxophones and other modern woodwinds have an elaborate system of key work to allow both playability and good sound and intonation.

Such technology did not exist in the Renaissance. Serpent makers had to put the keys where players could reach them and make them small enough that human fingers could cover them. Serpent players had to adjust intonation with their lips much more than for any other instrument. Just because music needed the serpent doesn’t mean that musicians (besides serpent players) liked it. In an earlier post, I presented several quotations, most of which show no respect for the serpent.


After the invention of suitable key mechanisms for flutes, clarinets, and oboes, instrument makers began to apply them to brass instruments as well. Haydn wrote his trumpet concerto for the keyed trumpet, but the application of keys mainly benefitted brand new instruments, such as the keyed bugle. The keyed bugle became a popular solo instrument that lasted well into the valve era–especially in England.

The Parisian instrument maker Halary heard an Englishman playing his keyed bugle after the Battle of Waterloo. He decided to use keys to improve the serpent. Over the next six years, he changed the instrument’s shape from that of a serpent to one more nearly resembling a bassoon and built it of brass instead of wood. He named it the ophicleide and patented it in 1821.

Now, for the first time, a bass instrument with tone holes made of brass could have its holes in appropriate places and sizes for good sound and intonation, unlimited by the size of the players’ hands and fingers. Acoustically, the ophicleide represented a vast improvement over the serpent, but it still had tone holes in it, so it still had that fuzzy sound of the old cornett family.

The ophiclelide filled such an important need that it soon spread all over Europe. Actually, Halary made it in several different sizes. It became indispensable to military bands and dance orchestras. It found a home in symphonic music whenever the composer chose to incorporate other brasses besides horns. German-speaking composers like Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Johann Strauss, Sr. used it, but the ophicleide found its greatest acceptance and popularity in France and England, where numerous ophicleide virtuosos became popular soloists.

Nonetheless, the ophicleide’s sound continued to have many detractors. A cheeky poem that has traveled around the Internet may be better known today than the sound of the ophicleide itself:

brass instrumentsTHE OPHICLEIDE

The Ophicleide, like mortal sin,
Was fostered by the serpent.
Its pitch was vague; its tone was dim;
Its timbre, rude and burpant.

Composers, in a secret vote,
Declared its sound non grata;
And that’s why Wagner never wrote
An Ophicleide Sonata.

Thus spurned, it soon became defunct,
To gross neglect succumbing;
A few were pawned, but most were junked
Or used for indoor plumbing.

And so this ill wind, badly blown,
Has now completely vanished:
I nominate the saxophone
To be the next one banished.

Farewell, offensive Ophicleide,
Your epitaph is chiseled:
“I died of ophicleidicide:
I tried, alas, but fizzled!”


Valve technology eventually proved its superiority to keys, both in sound and technique. The modern cornet (with only one “t”) began to drive the keyed bugle from the ranks of solo instruments when cornet players routinely began to defeat buglers in head to head competition. Adolphe Sax applied valves to the entire bugle family and modestly named the resulting instruments “saxhorns.” He made an entire family them, from soprano down to contrabass. Saxhorns quickly found a place in military bands, but never made inroads to the orchestra.

brass instrumentsIn Germany, an ophecleide with valves was often called the bombardon instead of the saxhorn. C. W. Moritz and Wilhelm Wieprecht designed one and called it the bass tuba, although it was not an actual tuba by the modern definition. It had a very narrow bore, which gave it a very weak-sounding low register.

Bohemian maker Václav Červený made improvements in the 1840s that resulted in the modern tuba. His improvements to valve design enabled him to build instruments with a much more drastic conical widening than previous makers achieved. At about the same time, he began to popularize a (valved) trombone with a wider than traditional bore. His tubas made an ideal bass to his trombones.

Opinions differed about the bombardon/tuba. Berlioz, an early supporter of the ophicleide, decided that the tuba was an even better bass instrument. Verdi, on the other hand, so detested the combination of trombones and bombardon that he commissioned the design of a contrabass trombone.

Nowadays, orchestras seem to have all but abandoned the bass tuba for the contrabass tuba and have it join a trio of trombones with a wider bore than what Červený envisioned. Some contrabass tubas have such a wide bore that they provide a hooty sound that sticks out rather blend with and providing a firm foundation for the rest of the brasses.

Several modern orchestras have committed themselves to historically informed performance practices, complete with the composers’ original instrumentation. Of the serpent, ophicleide, and bombardon, the ophicleide seems to be the most likely beneficiary. It provides just the right sound for not only music of the first half of the nineteenth century, but also French and English music well into the twentieth century, countries where the tuba didn’t dislodged it any earlier.

Photo credits

Serpent: from Wikimedia Commons.
Ophicleide: from Wikimedia Commons.
Bombardon: from Saisaibatake ame-zaiku

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