Date: December 2006
Creator: Morgan, Richard Sanborn
Description: Traditional scholarship has stated that the serpent and ophicleide (as well as their successor, the tuba) were developed and added to the standard orchestra to add a bass voice to the brass, allowing a tonal compass to match a similar downward expansion in the strings and woodwinds. A closer reading of the earliest scores calling for these instruments reveals a more coloristic purpose, related to timbre as much as to compass. Indeed, the fact that composers rarely wrote for serpent and ophicleide makes two points: it proves them to be inadequate choices as a brass bass, and when they were called for, they had an expressive, often descriptive purpose. Despite his conservative musical education supervised by Carl Friedrich Zelter, the seventeen-year-old Mendelssohn, under the influence of A. B. Marx, used the Corno inglese di basso, an upright version of the serpent, in his Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream to give a more rustic flavor to Bottom's ass-braying. Even when the English bass horn functioned as a bass voice, it was playing in contexts that were descriptive, where it often demonstrated its musical inadequacy. Berlioz's descriptive writing for the serpent and ophicleide are well known. A remarkable feature which Symphonie ...
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