Mogens Andresen



THE BAROQUE (1600-1750)

In the Baroque the instrumental music changes both in form and in the composition of instruments. Music for smaller ensembles (chamber music ) and bigger ”orchestra like” groups – build around strings ( violin 1 and 2, viola, cello and double bass) with a different strenght of wind instruments – appear. But always with the basic group: the continuo group ( the rhythm group of the Baroque) which existed of a chord instrument (like a cembalo, organ or lute) and a bass instrument (like a viola da gamba, cello, theorbo (bass-lute) bassoon, and rarely a trombone). Brass instruments played on turn and very seldom at the same time.

One of the orchestra’s that was created during the Baroque and that kept on during later periods was the Court Emperor’s Orchestra of Vienna. In 1721 the strenght was 72 musicians. Even if it was an extremely big strenght, it shows the need of brass instruments of that time: 6 organ players, 23 violinists, 1 viola da gamba player, 4 cellists, 3 violone players (double bass players), 1 lute player, strangely no flute players, even if the flute was highly in fashion, 5 oboists, 4 bassoonists, 2 cornett players, 16 trumpeters (the court trumpeter corps would have been included) , 1 huntsman’s hornist, 4 trombone players og 2 timpanists








Fig.1 TRUMPET MUTE  – from Mersenne














Fig. 4. “8 TRUMPETS, THE KETTLE DRUMS, THE SEARGENT TRUMPET, THE SIX CLERCKS an engraving by Nicholas Yeates, London, 1687.




Fig. 4  TRUMPET BANNER FROM THE  1700’s, with the words ‘Dieu et Mon Droit’ (God and my right) embroidered

The Trumpet Corpses of the Court were still going strong in the Baroque, and there still was a certain prestige in being a trumpeter. As long as the trumpeters came from the Trumpet Corpses of the Court, their restrictions and privileges were in a way still in force. In a lot of orchestra’s the players were dressed in the same way, like an uniform, but often the trumpeters were allowed to decide which garment they should wear. The British trumpeters of the Court had – even in the time of Henry Purcell – to have permission of their Sergeant trumpeter to perform at concerts if there were musicians other than their own colleagues from the Court Ochestra. The art of playing the trumpet was definitely high esteemed: In Great Britain the trumpet soli were played, when standing in front of the orchestra, next to the vocal soloists, a privilege that the other musicians would not attain. Today, this practice can still be experienced in England.



Fig. 4 GERRIT DOU (1613 – 1675) A TRUMPET-PLAYER IN FRONT OF A BANQUET – from 1660-1665


Fig. 5 DUTCH TRUMPET PLAYER. Crocery til of Delft, Holland 17th century.


The Baroque was a real period of splendour for the trumpet. The trumpet music was full of virtuosity and heroic expression. The phrase Messa di voce (one long tone that grows and falls in strenght) came from the clarin, and the tongue technique and the fanfare-like character came from the principal, as we see in the start of the Christmas Oratorium by J.S. Bach:






The ever growing demand on the playing technique of the trumpet made that the instrument in itself got a few minor changes. To be able to reach the higher tones both the bore and the bell became smaller in the 17th century, and even if the most wanted pitch was C or D, trumpets in another pitch were build. Some had an extra piece added to lenghten the tube, thus being able to tune to a lower pitch.



Fig. 7   GIROLAMO FANTINI (ca. 1602 – ca. 1675)  – was seen as the leading trumpeter of his time, ”the monarch of the trumpet on earth today”. He wrote one of the first books on trumpet playing – Modo per imperare a sonare di tromba – and he was a pricipal to lead the trumpet into art music. He could play Messa di Voce , could play tones outside the natural harmonic series and as a forerunner for the trill as we know it, he could play “groppo”, ( or ”gruppo”) a rapid alternation between two notes in a non legato style, and “trillo”, pulsations on a single note: “shake”.



The biggest problem was the intonation of the ”out of tune” nonharmonic tones nr 11 and 13 in the natural harmonic series. Being out of tune could possibly be tolerated in the trumpeter corpses, (being somewhat charming) but in art music it absolutely could not. In many years it has been a mystery how it was possible to master the clarin part and play tones outside the natural harmonic series. Nowadays we think that the answer lays in three possibilities:




There is a range of variety in trumpets, and a few examples on special trumpets are known. You will find a Tromba da tirasi (German: Zugtrompete) in some of J.S. Bach’s scores, but there seems to be no example left of that instrument. Maybe it was an instrument like the straight slide trumpet of the Renaissance, with a single telescoping slide. Henry Purcell’s procession music to Queen Mary II Funeral, March and Canzona, is written for 4 Flatt Trumpets (also known as English slide trumpet).




The Italien trumpeter Cesare Bendinelli (c.1542-1617) (the principal trumpet player of the Viennese Court from 1567 to 1580) had build a very special trumpet, where it was possible with one hand to reach the bell, and “stop” the tones. He has written the book: Tutta l’arte della Trobetta (1614)


An other possibility was the technique of handstopping the notes. By inserting the fingers of the left hand joined together into the bell, you can lower the pitch, or bend the natural tones. It makes it possible to correct the pitch of the natural tones 11 and 13 that are out-of-tune.

Fig. 6 shows J.S. Bach’s trompeter G. Reiche with a spiral formed trumpet, like the Huntsman’s Trumpet of Prætorius. It was possible to use this handstopping technique on that instrument.

And finally there was the discovery of 2 trumpets with small holes in them, at a museum in Frankfurt, Germany. Originally it was thought that the holes came from oxidation of the material, or by cause of an accident. The holes were though on special places, and when keeping them open, the natural tones are ”pushed”, so more tones are available. Likewise, there is a hypothesis: you could make a bigger hole (like at the cornett) that could raise the pitch with a fourth. In that way you could play the problematic tones nr. 11 and 13 as the ”save” natural tones nr. 8 and 9. Many ”Baroque-trumpets” that are produced today have 2 or 3 holes, but there is no historic evidence that these holes should be there.



Fig. 9  GOTTFRIED REICHE (1667 – 1734), engraving (1727 ) after a painting by Gottlib Haussman.  Reiche was a town musician in Leipzig, known as Bach’s “star trumpeter”, and he probably has played most of Bach’s trumpet parts (but not the trumpet part in the Brandenburg Concerto nr. 2, because that was written for the Margrave of Brandenburg, and had its premiere in Coethen in 1722, one year before Bach came to Leipzig). To show the virtuosity of Reiche, he has a music part in his hand with a tremendous virtuos phrase:









Fig. 10   REICHE PERFORMING ON HIS SPIRAL FORMED TRUMPET. He was in Leipzig much earlier than Bach, and this picture should show Bach’s predecessor Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) conducting a cantata. We can see Reiche with his round Instrument and two of his trumpet colleagues with long trumpets.





The interior of the modern brass instruments is very smooth, which gives a stabil sound, and that ofcourse is a big plus. The old instruments were made of hammered pieces of metal, which gives a more or less rough surface. That makes it easier to play ”off-side” the natural tones.



The dynamic possibilities of the baroque trumpet are much less compared to the modern trumpet (even if the sound and splendour of the instrument has its brilliance).That is why it was not uncommon for 3 trumpeters to accompany one single soprano voice, or have one trumpeter playing in balance with a recorder, as in J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto nr. 2. An other thing was the aesthetic sense of the period which shows in the playing method. The trumpeters copied the phrasing method used by singers and string players: to bind two notes together, with an accent on one. To bind two notes together – to play two notes in one bow – is ofcourse a kind of ”natural” bowing technique for stringplayers. But when doing so on a trumpet, giving more accent on the ”save” notes and less accent on ”difficult” notes in between, the performance became less problematic.


Fig.10    From JOHANN ERNST ALTENBURG (1734-1801): VERSUCH EINER ANLEITUNG ZUR HEROISCH-MUSIKALISCHEN TROMPETER- UND PAUKERKUNST, HALLE, 1795.  (An Essay on the Introduction to Heroic and Musical Trumpeter’s and Kettledrummers’ Art)


The dymanic difference between the notes is shown by f and p: forte and piano.






The difference in accents between the notes are shown by using sounds /words. 



All manuals on trumpet playing emphasize the necessity of practise and hard work! Witnesses from that time testify though that it was an illusion to be able to play all trumpet tones in tune. But the influence of the real virtuosi who could play in tune, was tremendous.

So, even if it sounds incredible, almost all trumpet parts in the Baroque are played on a single natural trumpet. And with success, because the composers kept on writing even more and complicated parts for the instrument.



The trumpet was the most used brass instrument of the Baroque, both in solo performances and in orchestra’s. A great deal of trumpet music came from Italy: i.e. by Torelli (1658 – 1709) and Vivaldi (1678 – 1741). There is music by Pavel Josef Vejanovsky (1639 – 1693) from Bohemia. In France the trumpet was the symbol of the unlimited power of the King, and it shows in the proud trumpet music of Lully (1632 – 1687), Rameau (1683 – 1764) and Charpentier (1645 – 1704).





Fig. 12   FRENCH TRUMPETERS.  The King on his way to the church. Detail from Antoine Danchet: The Crowning of the French King Louis XV, 1732.

Joseph Fux (1660 – 1741) and Johann Georg Reutter (1708 – 1772) in Vienna wrote music for the ”maestro in trumpet playing”: Johann Heinisch (1725-1751) (Fux called him a “ein ganz besonderen Virtuos“, an extraordinary virtuoso). Henry Purcell in Britain got his trumpet music performed by a whole ”family” of trumpeters, the brothers Matthias and William Shore, together with William’s son John, the latter undoubtedly being the most famous of them all (it was he who invented the tuning-fork.) The socalled Trumpet Voluntaries were trumpet-like pieces for organ but the best known piece – Jeremiah Clarke’s: The Prince of Denmark’s March – can well be played on a natural trumpet. Georg Philip Telemann (1681 – 1767) in Hamburg composed also for trumpet: among them a wonderful Concerto for trumpet and strings in D. Finally we ought to mention the two giants J.S. Bach (1685 – 1767) and G.F. Handel (1685 – 1759), who not particularly wrote Trumpet Concerto’s as such, but used the trumpet in a great part of their music, for example as an obbligato instrument in vocal arias. Bach wrote a complete cantata for soprano and (slide) trumpet: Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, (Exult in God in all lands, BWV51) but best known is the aria for bass in the Christmas Oratorio: “Grosser Herr und starker König” (Great Lord, O mighty king, BWV248). Handel also wrote an aria for bass and trumpet in Messiah (1741) : ”The trumpet shall sound” especially for the trumpeter Valentine Snow.  


Fig.13   THE ENGLISH TRUMPETER VALENTINE SNOW  (1700-1770), “THE FINEST TRUMPETER IN ENGLAND AND AMONG THE BEST IN EUROPE”, painted around 1753.  Notice the special “trumpeter posture”.  Valentine Snow (c. 1700-1770) was the Sergeant-Trumpeter to King George II and King George III from 1753 until his death in 1770. Prior to holding that office, he was one of 16 State trumpeters under the leadership of Sergeant-Trumpeter John Shore. His talent on the natural trumpet was legendary. By this time of his appointment to Sergeant-Trumpeter to the King, his reputation as a musician and executant stood very high, and it was for him that Handel composed the various obbligati we find in his oratorios and operas. The Sergent-Trumpeter received an annual salary of ₤100.

Upon Valentine Snow’s death around 1770, this epitaph was inscribed upon his gravestone:

“Thaw every breast, melt every eye with woe,
Here ’s dissolution by the hand of death;
To dirt, to water’s turn’d the fairest Snow,
O! the King’s trumpeter has lost his breath.”



Fig. 14  SLICE OF GOBELIN on Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen,  showing landing at Råå 29 June 1676, during the War between Denmark and Sweden . In the Baroque period the trumpet was still an important communication medium in the military






Fig. 15   THE VIRGIN OF MONSERRAT, painting from 1693 by Francisco Chihuantito, Peru, located in the parochial church of Chichero, Cusco, includes a trombonist a cornetto player


Cornett and trombone ensembles were mostly found amongst the town musicians. Wind music was extreme popular, and the cornett and the trombone were definitely higher in rank than the violin or the lute. Like the trumpeteers at the Court, the town musicians were organised in a guild. The education took about 5 years, the pupil served his apprenticeship with a master and finished his education by passing a proficiency examination. In the hierarchy of musicians you had the Kunstgeiger, (art fiddler), higher in rank were the Stadtpfeifer, (Town pipers – City wind players, Ital. Piffari) – the title of Court musician was seen as the highest possible rank.

(Despite the implications of their titles, the Stadtpfeifer and Kunstgeiger were all expected to play both string and wind instruments. Stadtpfeifer enjoyed higher status than Kunstgeiger, because it was them who played the ”Abblasen”, fanfares and other short numbers from the City tower. They had more duties and derfor made more money.  Apart from their duties as City Hall Tower players, the Abblasen, these town musicians had the only right to play ”privat music” : music at parties, dances and weddings. This ”signalling music” from towers developped into ”art-music”, played by cornetts and trombones on special times during the day, often litteraly as time signal. It could well be a long day for the musicians, starting off at 5 in the morning, and finishing late at night. The musicians often were bound to their working place and got nicknames like ”Tower Men”, or ”Tower Rats”.  These ensembles, bands of musicians, were seen in lots of cities in most European countries, in Britain called: Band of Waits, in Holland: ”Stadspijpers”, in Germany: Stadtpfeifer and in Italy: Piffari.


Fig. 16   FRONTPAGE TO HORA DECIMA (1669) by JOHANN PEZEL (1639-1694). In the 17th century special Tower-music for cornetts and trombones was composed and edited. The best known example is written by Johann Pezel who was the most famous of the four Stadtpfeifer of Leipzig. For the daily Abblasen (a daily ritual, playing from the City hall tower at 10:00 a.m. and at various times during the evening) he wrote the Hora Decima ( 40 Tower Sonatas) in 1669, and Fünff-stimmigte blasende Music in 1685.


The cornett continued flourishing into the sixties of the 17th century. It even became an alternative to the violin, and both instruments shared their repertoire, which though after a while got more and more violinistic. And as the cornett gradually was regarded ”oldfashioned” it got back to its old role as an instrument to double choir voices. As such it was used by Bach in 11 Cantatas and later in 1762 by Gluck in the opera Orfeo and Euridice. An odd example of the ”original” use of the cornett – an instrument in a wind ensemble used by town musicians – is Bachs Cantata nr. 118: O Jesu Christ, mein Lebens Licht (O Jesus Christ, light of my life). This cantata exists only of one part, and it is especially written for outdoor use. The orchestra that accompagnies the choir exists only of brass/ lipwind instruments: two Litui (trumpets or horns), one cornett and three trombones.





Engraved portrait from 1656















 Fig. 18  BAROQUE HORN, build by Starck, Nürnberg 1667. This is the oldest existing horn. Music Museum, Copenhagen.





Fig. 19   STATUE OF MORITZ BURG, DRESDEN, GERMANY from 1733 showing the special “hunting horns posture”


During the 17th century the horn was used more and more and it got its status as an huntsmens instrument. Like the trumpeters in the military, the huntsmen communicated with each other through different horn signals. The characteristic form of the horn, with ”windings” made it easy to handle – the musician could ride a horse, with the reins in one hand and the horn in the other. The inside of the bell was often painted, to prevent blinding the other riders and horses behind, the Parforce horn. It was pitched in F, but one octave higher than the horn of today. The instrument got different names, and some of them refer directly to the hunt: Germany – Waldhorn, France – Cor de Chasse, or Cor Allemand (German Horn) and in England – French Horn.





In England they still kept the straight horn for use at hunting parties, whilst the french horn got quite a different function – it was used for playing duets – for outdoor amusement – with two horns being held opposite one another (in reverse).  It became a fashion for the upperclass to have a horn duo in their reign, which gave certain prestige.




Fig. 21   TWO HORN PLAYERS PLAYING ”IN REVERSE”. from “New instructions for the French Horn”, about 1770.


The french hunting music had its own playing method with a raw, almost shrill sound. One of the characteristic elements was the so called Tay-ya-te, a quick switch from the tone to the upperlaying natural tone and back igen, like a trill on the beat.

It is been said that the honour for the lower pitch and darker sound of the horns of today must be given to the Czech count F.A. Spörck. During a big round trip through Europe, he came to Paris in 1681, where he heard the royal hunting music of Louis XIV. He got so enthusiastic that he ordered two of his men to learn to play the horn. Back home again in Bohemia the horn playing was cultivated and the instrument got more windings, and therewith a darker timbre. The different parts of the instrument were often not solded but hold together with leather strings.  But even as the sound got darker and more full, the baroque horn sounded still more trumpet-like than the later versions (with the hand placed in the bell).



Fig. 22   HUNTING HORN PLAYER. Drawing by Frans van der Meulen (1632 Brüssels-Paris 1690)



Fig.23   HORN PLAYERS AT A HUNTING PARTY, engraving by Johann Elias Ridinger (1698 – 1767). You can see that the horn has ”grown” (if the picture is true).


It is not clear at what period the horn started to become an ”orchestral” instrument. There is an opera from 1639 and a ballet from 1664 with ”hunting scenes” build on natural tone series, but it is unknown whether they were played by horns, or by horn-imitating strings. It is true though that in 1705 in Hamburg Germany there were two Cor de Chasse in an orchestra, but otherwise the horn was definitely an outdoor instrument, and if they were used, it was not as part of the orchestra but in an ensemle, ony to give some ”hunting” atmosphere. In 1717 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote a letter from Vienna to a friend describing a Carnaval: “The music was good if it was not because of this dreadful habit of mixing it with hunting horns, which was quite deafening”.

Anyway, in this very year the horn got two prominent roles in two wellknown pieces of two famous composers: For the first time horns were used by Haendel in his Watermusic and Bach used two horns in his Brandenburger Concerto nr. 1. The first Horn concertos by Vivaldi date from this Baroque period and Telemann writes a series concertos for one, two and three horns. To be able to play these concertos, written in different pitches, horns were build in different seizes/lenghts – from the high C (C-alto) to the low C (C-basso). And finally in the beginning of the 18th century a smart system was develloped with extra tubes to lenghten or shorten the instrument, and with these it was possible to change the pitch of an instrument.

In France the hunting horn was pitched in low D and in Germany in low Eb.


Fig. 24   A MUSICAL GATHERING WITH 2 HORN PLAYERS. By Nicolaes Aartman, c. 1720-1760 Pen and black ink and brush and gray wash over black chalk on paper.


Bach use a little horn called Corno da Caccia (hunting horn) for parts which require the same virtuosity as the trumpet parts. There is no definitive definition of the instrument but it has about half the length of the large hunting horn. Maybe Gottfries Reiche  is holding a Corno da Caccia on Ill.  7 ?


FIG. 27 CORNO DA CACCIA – Reconstruction of Matthew Parker



The trombone got through the Baroque without many alterations in its construction, but like all other instruments it became more decorated. From the beginning of the 17th century the trombone was used in many connections. In the ”Symphoniae Sacre” (Sacred Symphonies) by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) for example are two pieces for bass voice, four trombones (sackbuts) and continuo,: no. 13 ”Fili mi Absalon” and no. 14 ”Attendite popule meus, legem meam”. Among other pieces are two sonatas by Daniel Speer (1636-1707)  for three trombones and a sonata for four trombones (1687), and being a bit of a curiosum there is a piece by Tiburtio Massaino (1550? -1608? ): ”Canzoni per sonare con ogni sorte di instrumenti” ( No.33 – Canzona for eight trombones). Strangely enough very few solo pieces were written for the trombone. There is an exception: ”La Hieronima” for trombone and continuo by Giovanni Cesare (1590-1667).



Fig. 24  PERFORMANCE OF A BACH CANTATA – An engraving by Johann Christoph Dehne , the frontispiece from Johann Georg Walther’s Musikalisches Lexicon, 1732, clearly includes a trombonist in a performance of sacred music. This is probably the only picture from the first half of 1700 showing a trombonist in an orchestra.  





















During the Baroque ”Trombonism” developed in very different ways in the European countries.

The Emporal Court in Vienna had a range of splendid trombonists and composers and between them (on a local plan) a unique solistic playing method arose. The trombone surely was more seen as a solo instrument than an orchestral instrument. In the period between 1698 – 1771 there were five members of the Christian family employed as court-trombonist: Christian – , Hans Georg -, Leopold senior – , Leopold junior – and Leopold Ferdinand Christian. Looking at the repertoire they must have been extremely skilful. When Leopold Christian Junior asked for a higher salary, his superior Johann Joseph Fux supported his request in saying: ”he is a virtuoso who never has met his liking, not in the past nor will he in the future”. In the orchestras the trombone often was used as an obbligato solo instrument. The composing Emperor of Austria Joseph Ist. even wrote an aria ”Alma ingrate” for soprano voice, trombone and continuo.  



Fig.25    TROMBONE SOLO PART FROM “SONATA FOR  VIOLIN, TROMBONE AND CONTINUO” BY DARIO CASTELLO. At the Emporal Court there were not less than two ensembles, existing of one or two violinists, trombone and continuo. Their repertoire, written amongst others by Antonio Bertali (1605 – 1669) and Dario Castello (ca. 1625 – ?), was primarily used as a contribution to the service in church. The trombone plays at the same level and in duet with the violins and the part includes ”breakneck” sections. 



In Germany, France and England the trombone played a much lesser role. It was absolutely not regarded as an orchestral instrument, more like an oldfashioned Town-music instrument (just as the cornett.) In 1713 the German composer and music theorist Johann Mattheson (1681-1764) writes in his thesis ”Das neu eröffnete Orchestre”, that ”trombones are seldom used, but exceptionaly at dignified occasions and in churches”. It could well be that the trombone was overruled, partly by the baroque horn, which had a more brilliant sound, and partly by the bassoon which had a far bigger mobility in the deeper tones than the trombone. The trombone was mostly used as an instrument to double choir voices and often the composer not even wrote a specific part for the trombone, but only a note that the trombone should follow the choir voices. This traditional writing method is used by Bach in some af his cantatas, and also by Haendel, although he gave the trombone a bit more substantial stuff, for example in the ”Death March” in the oratorio ”Saul”. The soprano trombone, like its antipole the contrabass trombone was seldom used and both instruments never got really in vogue, so the classical trombone trio became a trio of alto-, tenor- and bass trombone.





Soprano Trombone in Bb 1781 – Johann Joseph Schmied (1748-1784 ), Pfaffendorf





Alto Trombone in Eb – Friedrich Ehe (1669-1743), Nürnberg



Tenor Trombone in Bb 1701 – Carl Kodisch



Bass Trombone in F 1612 – Isaac Ehe (1586 – 1632), Nürnberg



Contrabass Trombone in BB 1639 – Georg Nicolaus Oller, with the swedish trombonist Nicholas Eastorp


The trombone was saved by Biblical significans. The visions of the Biblical Doomsday speak about seven angels playing an instrument that reings over life and death. In the Latin bible it was the Roman tuba, but just at this time the Bible was translated into different European languages, and the choice of the Doomsday instrument was not alike in the different translations. In England the Roman tuba became a trumpet and that is why Haendel uses the English favourit angel instrument – the trumpet – as an obbligato solo instrument in the Doomsday aria ”The Trumpet Shall Sound” in his ”Messiah”. In Germany the tuba became a ”Posaune” (trombone) and that is why we hear a trombone (- angel) play at the same text (but now in Latin) in the ”Tuba-Mirum” of Mozarts ”Requiem”.




Fig. 28  TROMBONE PLAYER, ENGRAVING by JOHANN CHRISTOPH WEIGEL, c. 1720, NÜRNBERG, GERMANY from “Musicalishes Theatrum”. The subtitle clearly describes the trombone’s status as a sacred instrument supporting choir voices. The text below the engraving reads: “Trombone: I am searching for glory in every place, In antiquity, as well as in effect, One can see what I can do in both Testaments, I destroyed walls when spoken to in a proper manner, No offering or feast could be properly conducted without me, And nowadays I adorn a large choir”


There is a Tenor Cornett shown in Michael Prætorius’ book: SYNTAGMA MUSICUM, and from this instrument the bass instrument of the cornett family, the Serpent – also called the grandfather of the modern tuba – was grown. (Although some will state that however the Serpent may be closely related to the Cornett, it is not part of the family, due to the absence of a thumb hole). The instrument is claimed to have been invented by Canon Edmé Guillaume in 1590 in Auxerre in France and it was mainly used to strenghen the sound of choirs in plainchant and in churches. Later the serpent got a status as a bass wind instrument in military bands and even later also in (symphony) orchestras.  




Fig. 28   SERPENT

The mouthpiece of the Serpent is about the same seize as the mouthpiece of a modern euphonium, the finger holes have a diameter of 13mm and between the holes is about 45cm. That is why the Serpent has its meandering form, otherwise it would not be possible to reach the holes with your fingers.

This S-form gave the instrument its name: Serpent means snake. It is not easy to play. The sound is rather diffuse and the intonation is problematic, which resulted in many different ways of fingering. There is a saying that the fingering for an up-going scale just as well could be used for a down-going scale.







Fig. A TROMBONE PLAYER AND A SERPENT PLAYER, from “instrumenti musicali e boscarecci “ by Giovanni Battista Bracelli c. 1639, Rome

Fig. 29   CHARLES WILD (1781-1835): THE CHOIR AF ANIENS CATHEDRAL, FRANCE – showing the high altar and choir with 2 serpentists. From “Twelve Select Examples of the Ecclesiastical Architecture of the Middle Ages, Chiefly in France” (c1826). Courtesy of Douglas Yeo (, used with permission.



A close up view of the serpentist on the north side of the Amiens choir,













The sound and difficult playing technique of the serpent made it not easy for it to become a popular instrument, and it was not often looked upon with great delight. When G.F. Haendel for the first time heard a serpent he cried out: ”That was definitely not the Serpent that seduced Eve in Paradise!” It must have been in lack of something better that the serpent got some kind of succes though. In tutti parts, however, where its sound was dulled by other instruments, the serpent was a effective bass instrument. And so even Haendel wrote a part for serpent in his Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749).


militær SERPENT




The Serpent got an important role as bass instrument especially in wind ensembles, and during the 1700s the Serpent came into use for military music, where they not only were played during troop movements, but even during actual battles. To marching musicans in the military it was almost impossible to hold and play when marching. (It was easier to use them on horseback). First they tried to hold it upright, like it is shown on this picture, but later they began to hold it horizontally – probably after a suggestion from the English King George II. This way the marching musicians did not get the instrument between their legs, and the soldiers behind could better hear and enjoy its bass tones.







Fig.  THE SHARP FAMILY, PAINTING BY JOHANN ZOFFANY 1779-1781-London, England. A musical family that holds regular concerts in London and on board their sailing barge, includes 2 frenhc horns lying on the table and James Sharp holding a SERPENT. National Portrait Gallery, London.


Fig. 31    THE MANNHEIMER  COURT ORCHESTRAwas the most famous orchestra in Europe in the latter half of the 18th century.. The father of the orchestra is considered to be Czeck composer Johann Stamitz. They were known for their disciplin and virtuosity. The English historian and pomposer Charles Burney (1726-1814) described 1773 the players in the orchestra before a performance as: “An army of generals, equally fit to plan a battle as to fight one”. The Mannheim Orchestra had 50 players, among them 2 trumpet players and 2 horn players, as shown on the picture (with horns playing “in revers” as in fig. 21 )