by Patricio Cosentino
For a long time the serpent, an early tuba predecessor, has not been used on a frequent basis. But in recent years, the instrument has seen a revival. Many tubists wonder where the tuba comes from, just as we human beings wonder where we come from. There are now tubists who have dedicated themselves to the serpent, studying it and starting a movement to continue its use.
López Romera, L, and the author
For a short time, I have returned to Europe. I’m living in Alicante, Spain. It is a beautiful area to live, for its climate and proximity to the Mediterranean Sea. Being here, I was privileged and lucky enough to realize one of my biggest goals - trying a serpent. Very near Alicante is a city called Alfaz del Pi. In this city lives tubist Juan López Romera, who for two years has been dedicated to making serpents. Thanks to his generosity, I have had the chance not only to try a serpent but to begin study of this fascinating instrument that is the great grandfather of our tuba.
Romera was trained in different parts of Europe. His studies started at the Conservatory of Music of Alicante under the guidance of Juan Palacios. He continued his improvement with Mel Culberston in Perpignan, and then with Heiko Triebener in Bamberg. He won the tuba position of the Rome Opera House, where he served for four years.
Patrick Cosentino: Hi John. Welcome!
Juan López Romera: Hi Patrick. I want to thank you for your great interest in my work.
PC: What is it like to build serpents?? Where did this idea come from - to build such an old instrument of which there are not many builders worldwide?
JLR: Well, it all started in Alfaz del Pi where I reside. One day I was talking to my friend and interpreter specializing in historical instruments (eg. renaissance bagpipes, baroque oboe), Pere Saragossa, and he asked me if I played the serpent. The truth is that I had seen one on several occasions belonging to a colleague in France but I did not touch it. This conversation made my curiosity grow and I investigated how to build one.
PC: I understand that you not only build but also perform on the serpent. Is that correct?
JLR: Yes, it is.
PC: Where were you trained to play the serpent?
JLR: Unfortunately, in Spain the serpent cannot be studied in any conservatory. So I am self taught.
PC: Is there any music college in the world where you can study the serpent professionally?
JLR: In order to study the serpent one must attend the Conservatoire à Rayonnement Régional de Toulouse where Professor Bernard Fourtet teaches. In my opinion he is one of the greatest performers and masters of this wonderful instrument.
PC: Returning to the issue of the construction, what are the instruments made from? And what kind of tools do you use?
JLR: We build the serpents in a small workshop we have made in a simple family farmhouse. We use only hand tools such as chisels and other tools that we make ourselves.
PC: Clearly we do not want to steal your secrets, but might you describe the construction process?
JLR: We take a large block of wood-large enough to fit the instrument to actual size-divide it into two parts, and sculpt the serpent. With the serpent sculpted we fit together the two parts and glue them. Lastly I cover it with leather. This construction is considered French and provides assurance of durability.
PC: Historically the serpent was made of walnut, but I understand that it is difficult to get the timber, so you build them from some other type of wood? What kind? Why?
JLR: Indeed, traditionally serpents are constructed of walnut or fruit wood. In the case of walnut, it is not hard to find the wood but it is hard to find timbers of sufficient size for the serpent, which is why we need more research with other types of wood. In our case we are testing with bubinga wood among others we have in mind, always looking for sound quality as the most important characteristic. Durability of the wood is also important so that the instrument has a long life.
PC: I had the opportunity to try several of your serpents and many were not wrapped with leather, as historically serpents were. Why the change?
JLR: Historically, as today, most serpents are wrapped with leather. This played (and plays) a major role in firmly securing the two halves of the instrument so no air leaks and so that long periods of time would not cause the two halves to separate. In my opinion, glues available today are very strong, so we are able to assemble serpents without leather, leaving bare the beauty of the wood. But we also cover some with leather out of respect for the historic building aesthetics.
PC: How long does it take to make a serpent?
JLR: As I mentioned above, construction is completely by hand, so the work takes time. The process takes not less than three months.
PC: I understand that most serpents come from France. But there is a Spanish serpent, correct?
JLR: It seems that there is. An example can be found in the Museu de la Música in Barcelona.
PC: What musical activities employ the serpent? Is it a member of a group?
JLR: Normally I play serpent in early music groups as Vespres D ‘I do Arnadí with some collaborators. But the serpent repertoire includes great orchestral music by composers such as Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Wagner, etc..
PC: How can I buy a Juan López Romera serpent?
JLR: Contact us through the web: www.serpenton.es. Anyone interested can obtain information and place orders on the website.
PC: Thank you very much for your time and for the interview.
JLR: Many thanks Patrick for your enthusiasm for this great instrument.
I would encourage musicians to discover the ancestors of their instruments. They will take great joy in discovering new sounds and possibilities.