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Serpentists In Charles Wild's
The Choir of the Cathedral of Amiens (France)
(ca. 1826)

For many years I have been a student and performer of the serpent, the ancient wind instrument invented in 1590 to accompany chant in the Roman Catholic Church and which later moved into military bands, Harmoniemusik ensembles as well as the symphony orchestra (Berlioz, Rossini, Mendelssohn, and Wagner, among others, wrote for the serpent).

Those interested in my various serpent activities are invited to read the following articles in my website, all of which include photographs of me playing and demonstrating various serpents:

Tempted By A Serpent
(An article I wrote for the Boston Symphony Program Book when I first performed on serpent in the Boston Symphony in the
Berlioz Messe solennelle

Serpent Night At The Boston Museum Of Fine Arts
(A tour of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts' collection of serpents and related instruments with many photos taken during my lecture/demonstration at the Museum)

A Musical Serpent Joins The Boston Symphony
(An article by Andrew Pincus of The Berkshire Eagle detailing my love of the serpent, written when I organized a music of Harmoniemusik which included serpent with members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra)

In addition to playing the serpent as a soloist, in chamber ensembles and in the Boston Symphony, I am keenly interested in the history of the serpent. Several years ago, I came in posession of an interesting and important print which may be seen below.

The image is of Amiens Cathedral in Amiens, France. The exquisite high altar is visible as well as the classic Gothic style of this largest of all Gothic churches in the world. A careful eye will notice that in the choir, a serpentist may be found on either side.

What makes this so interesting (and important) is that there is quite a little discussion in early music circles regarding how the serpent was held when it was played in churches in France during its history. While most agree that the serpent was held vertically - that is "palm down" as shown in the print - at its invention, a more horizontal hand position was developed ("palm up") by about 1790. How popular this horizontal hand position actually was is the point of discussion; there is no dispute that it became the favored position when the serpent was used in military bands, but for ecclesiastical use in France, my research has concluded that the vertical position remained favored. This print would seem to confirm this.

It is also interesting that there are TWO serpentists playing. I am unaware of any other prints which include two serpentists playing in an ecclesiastical setting. This is confirmation of the comment in the New Grove Dictionary of Music which speaks of a vibrant musical life in Amiens where the cathedral employed two serpentists, one of whom doubled on bassoon.

When visiting Amiens Cathedral in May 2000, I was able to compare the print with the cathedral itself and I found it to be a remarkable representation, exact even down to the number of panes in each window. All details of the altar, statuary, and the choir stalls are accurate in the extreme, which gives some confidence that the artist did not take liberties when drawing the serpent players.

In addition, upon careful examination of the choir stalls, I came upon the stall in the south choir (right side of the print) where the serpentist normally stood and found, carved into the back of the stall, graffiti of serpents, beautifully rendered (the serpents were carved in a vertical position). This was very exciting to see, as you can imagine, and photos of the interior of Amiens Cathedral and the choir stalls with serpent graffiti are below.

The original print measures 37.5 cm x 27 cm and is an aquatint engraving. It is mounted on stiff paper and is in mint condition. After extensive research, particularly at the Boston Public Library, and Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum and Houghton Library, I have identified the artist as Charles Wild (1781-1835), an English artist who made many drawings of churches and other buildings in England and the continent. The print I have is the fifth of a series of 12 plates in his 1826 folio, Twelve Select Examples of the Ecclesiastical Architecture of the Middle Ages, Chiefly in France. Amiens figures in three of the 12 prints in the folio, which also contains images of cathedrals and churches in Cologne, Beauvais, Rheims, Strasburg, Chartres, St. Ouen and Rouen. Subsequently I was able to obtain my own copy of Wild's compete 12 print collection. I offer my thanks to those who helped me in my search for the identification of this print over a three year period, including R. Eugene Zepp of the Boston Public Library's Rare Books and Manuscripts Department, Karen Shafts of the Boston Public Library's Print Department, Marjorie Cohn of Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, and Elizabeth Falsey of Harvard's Houghton Library. This print (accompanied by some of these and other photographs) and its implications is the subject of an article of mine which was published in the Historic Brass Society Journal (Volume 13, 2001) titled, "Serpentists In Charles Wild's 'Choir of the Cathedral of Amiens' (ca. 1826)" for which these online, color images are an addenda.

There is an excellent book in English about the choir stalls of Amiens Cathedral which I highly recommend: Charles Tracey and Hugh Harrison: The Choir-Stalls at Amiens Cathedral. Spire Books, Reading (England). 2004. ISBN 0-9543615-6-3. While the book does not discuss Wild's print or the presence of serpent players at the cathedral or the serpent graffiti in one of the stalls, it is a magnificent book on the history of the stalls including details of the carpentry and carving that created them.

Enjoy this exquisite image!

Charles Wild's "The Choir of Amiens Cathedral" (France) showing the high altar and choir with serpentists.

A closer view of Wild's depiction of the Amiens Cathedral Choir

A close up view of the serpentist on the north side of the Amiens choir, seated on the misericord of stall number 96 (in Tracey and Harrison's numbering of the stalls). The subject of this stall's misericord is "The Israelites leave, guided by the columns of cloud and fire (Exodus 13, 20-2)."

A close up view of the serpentist on the south side of the Amiens choir, seated on the misericord of stall number 41 (in Tracey and Harrison's numbering of the stalls). The subject of this stall's misericord is "The Ishmaelite merchants arrive from Gilead (Genesis 37, 25-7)." It is this choir stall that is the further subject of the photos below.

Serpent "Graffiti" at Amiens Cathedral

When I visited Amiens Cathedral in May 2000, I came upon the choir stalls where the serpentists and choir stood. these are beautifully carved, with over 4000 images of Biblical and extra- Biblical scenes. One of the charming aspects of the choir stalls are several which have centuries old graffiti carved by those who sat in the stalls. By comparing the historic print above to the actual choir stalls, I noticed that all of the graffiti appeared in the stalls near where the serpentists used to stand, and you can imagine my shock, wonder and delight when I discovered graffiti in stall number 41 on the south side (right side of the print above) of a serpent. The photos below will give you the context.

All photos 2000, Douglas Yeo. All rights reserved.

The great Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame in Amiens was built in the 13th century and is the largest Gothic cathedral in France. Shown here is the front fascade of the cathedral, recently cleaned.

Upon entering the cathedral, you look down the nave toward the east, and can see the choir screen ahead.

On the day I visited, I was fortunate to be able get into the choir (which is normally closed). You can easily compare this photo with the print above and see the accuracy of the print. The high altar and glory are the same today as they are drawn in the print.

Note that today, there are chairs on the floor between the choir stalls on the left and right; on the day I visited, the choir was being set up for a wedding to take place later in the afternoon.

This view is of the choir on the south (right) side. The choir stalls in Amiens are one of its great treasures. They were begun in 1508 and completed in 1522. Originally numbering 120, there are 110 today. Over 4000 images are carved into the stalls including scenes from the Old and New Testaments as well as scenes from every day life. In this photo, you can see (left to right) two lower stalls beginning at the far left after which there is an aisle the width of a single stall (to allow access to the upper stalls). The serpentist would then stand in the next lower stall (third from the left, or the first of the second set shown in the photo).

Here is a closeup of the serpentist's stall (number 41) on the south side. You can see the intricate carvings. The choir stalls have folding seats, which, as shown in the photo, are folded up. Even the bottom of the seats (called misericord) are carved, and in the "folded up" position, the seat has a platform so when standing, the choir members can lean up and rest their rear end on the platform. Given that services in medieval times would sometimes last up to three hours, this was no doubt a welcome feature of the stalls.

Two stalls on each side are covered with graffiti on the back of the stall. Mostly there are names which are crudely carved, there are also some dates (1657, 1897 etc) and some words in Latin. Here is the stall 41 on the south side. You can see that amongst the crudely carved words is a small carved image of a serpent in the vertical position, near the center, and under the carved name, "Barbier". Approximately 2 inches high, it is carefully carved, even to the detail of the mouthpiece. In contrast to the other graffiti, the serpent image seems to have been made with care. There is also a second carved image of a serpent, less carefully done, on the lower right of the photo, with the serpent coming between the numbers of a carved date (1879).

Clifford Bevan, the new edition of his comprehensive book,"The Tuba Family" (Winchester, England: Piccolo Press), has compiled a listing of known historic serpent players including this intriguing entry:

Barbier. Carpentras, Vaucluse, France. Serpent, cathedral, 1639.

Carpentras is in the south of France and Amiens is quite far away, north of Paris, but... could it be...?

Here is a closeup of the graffiti, showing more clearly the serpent images. Click HERE to view a larger, high resolution (236k) detail of this graffiti.

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©1996-2013 by Douglas Yeo.
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