Instruments: The Serpent a pavillon

Music and Recordings
Piccolo Press
ITEA Historical Instrument Section
The Tigers Shout Band
  Described by Coeffet in 1839 as having a clear tone and notes of consistent quality, the serpent a pavillon consists of three sections with a coiled metal bocal and metal bell, six fingerholes with no thumbhole, and three keys (including a left hand vent key). The middle portion, a U-shaped wooden stock of parallel tubing, is less substantial in weight and width than the basson russe.

This instrument is thought to have been used exclusively in French military bands.

Much more research needs to be conducted on the serpent a pavillon. An assortment of designated does not exist nor are there any known mouthpieces that have been attributed to this instrument.

One important designation among the upright serpents is the configuration of finger holes for the lengthening of the air column. Using Mendelssohn's 1824 line drawing of the English bass horn (sent in a letter to his sister, Fanny), finger holes have been placed in order on the air column as a way to display their positioning for the serpent a pavillon.


Measurements of air column with the instrument pitched at A=440


As the traditional, curved serpent, the serpent d’église, entered the military bands of the late 18th century, the bass horn emerged during a time of great experimentation prior to the invention of mechanical valves. Designers sought to conceive a bass instrument that would be more sturdy, easier to hold, and offer better intonation. While bass horns, along with serpents, suffer from acoustically ill-placed fingerholes, the thickness of the bass horn’s walls permitted angled and flared drilling, offering greater flexibility in the size and placement of the tone-holes. The length of the instrument’s initial conical air-column, the bocal, was typically narrower and longer than the church serpent’s crook, and with a bell that was typically wider, the instruments design was thought to provide more control and clarity of sound. No bass horn can produce the same pure tone for each note; yet,  instrumentalists could still attain proper intonation and volume to expand the sound of the bass part within the military or chamber ensemble. The bass horn integrates modern distinctions between the woodwind and brass families with the instrument seemingly more closely aligned to the bassoon. Further, the unique acoustical properties of the bass horn, when coupled with the bassoon, supplemented the lower harmonic range and low frequency energy and, similar to the effects of the serpent, greatly increased the perceived volume of the bassoon’s sound.

For a complete description of the different types of bass horns, see Bass horns and Russian bassoons by Craig Kridel


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Please include the following photo credit in any public presentation:
© Craig Kridel,
Berlioz Historical Brass

exploring the role of early 19th century brass
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