Pierre Ribo Serpent in C with 4 Keys

The serpent, a mysterious bass instrument, was developed in France in the 1500s. It remained largely unchanged until the early 1800s when makers began adding keys to aid players in finding the tonal center, rather than relying solely on their lip and ear for difficult notes. This evolution led to the multi keyed brass Ophicleide, pioneered by Adolphe Sax and Joseph Halari in the 1830s.

One of my favorite pieces in my collection is Pierre Ribo’s serpent. Crafted in Belgium in 2013, it is a stunning piece of playable artwork. Pierre is a dedicated artist and craftsman, and that energy shines through in this instrument. Made from maple wood wrapped in hand-dyed calf leather, it features 6 tone holes and 4 keys, with three crooks in A440, A430, and A415 to suit various ensembles. The additional keys are especially helpful in chromatic passages, particularly in challenging works like those of Mendelssohn. The brasswork is done by Pierre’s son, Matteo.

I was amazed by the intonation and stability of this instrument, far superior to many replicas I’ve tried before. Its sound is complex, warm, with a beautiful core and density unique to the unrefined nature of the serpent. This instrument, known for its timbre in the ensemble, is featured in compositions by Haydn, Mendelssohn, Verdi, Handel, and others. Playing it is a joy, and I try to do so as often as possible.

In 2023, I had the fortune of performing Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony No.5 on this instrument with the Handel Haydn Society in Boston. The Brass Ark is a dealer for Ribo serpents, so I encourage you to explore his section on the “Makers” page and email me if you’d like one of your own!