by Douglas Yeo
I’ve been playing the trombone since 1964, when I was in fourth grade. For many years thereafter, trombone was the only wind instrument I played. OK, I played the flutophone for awhile in elementary school (and then during my freshman year in college when my roommate and I would jam regularly, he on piano and me on flutophone—trust me, you can improvise on it). But maybe that doesn’t count. When I got to Wheaton College, I began to branch out more seriously to other instruments. I minored in euphonium briefly when I was a student at Wheaton College from 1974–1976 before switching my minor instrument to percussion. In 1988, for Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of Richard Strauss’ opera, Elektra, I picked up the bass trumpet for the first time and I ended up playing that instrument on a host of BSO performances of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Janacek’s Sinfonietta, excerpts from Wagner operas, and many other pieces. Over the years, contrabass trombone and bass sackbut in F were eventually added to my doubling lexicon.
I love playing those instruments, but in 1994, I began playing an instrument that truly changed my life: the serpent. It was by playing the serpent—an instrument invented in the late sixteenth century that found full flower in France accompanying the singing of chant in the Roman Catholic Church, and which later became a regular member of military bands, chamber music ensembles, and symphony orchestras until the invention of the ophicleide and eventually the tuba and euphonium—in performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra of Hector Berlioz’s Messe solennelle in Boston, New York, and Tokyo, that I found another instrument (besides bass trombone) that truly changed the course of my musical life. I have played serpent (and ophicleide as well) in modern and period instrument orchestras, in chamber music groups, and as a solo instrument in recitals and orchestra concerts.
Douglas Yeo, composer Simon Proctor, and conductor John Williams, after a performance of Proctor’s Serpent Concerto with the Boston Pops Orchestra, John Williams, conductor, May 29, 1997
I also made a solo recording on serpent (Le monde du serpent), produced an instructional DVD about the instrument (Approaching the Serpent: An Historical and Pedagogical Overview), wrote a book about it (Serpents, Bass Horns, and Ophicleides at the Bate Collection), and I appear with a serpent in my hands on museum video and audio guides around the world. One of the things my serpentine exploits led me to was an intersection with the universe of tuba and euphonium players.
Display of serpents with video of Douglas Yeo, Hamamatsu (Japan) Museum of Musical Instruments, 2019
I’m sure many people have forgotten—or never knew—that the logo for the International Tuba Euphonium Association used to be a serpent. Back in the 1980s, when the organization operated under its previous name, Tubists International Brotherhood Association, or T.U.B.A. (the name was changed in 2000 to reflect a more inclusive view of women and euphonium players), a serpent figured prominently on the cover of its quarterly journal. Such as was the case on this cover, below, from the May 1987 issue where my article, Tuba Players of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1913–1987, was published. You can read that article by clicking HERE.
I’ll say more about the serpent in particular in a future article, but there is a reason for this excursus. Next week I’ll be traveling to Tempe, Arizona, to take part in the 50th International Tuba Euphonium Conference (ITEC), presented by the International Tuba Euphonium Association (ITEA), and hosted by my friend, Dr. Deanna Swoboda at Arizona State University. I’ve attended many International Trombone Festivals, and the Fourth Trombone and Tuba Festival in Beijing. But this is my first time at an ITEC event and as a result, I’m looking forward to entering the tuba/euphonium universe in a new way.
ITEC 2023 will feature the kinds of things brass players are accustomed to at these kinds of events. There will be competitions, solo and ensemble performances, lectures, masterclasses, panel discussions, group sight-reading sessions, exhibitors displaying the latest instruments and accessories, and plenty of time for attendees to hang out and talk shop. I’ll be presenting two programs at ITEC.
On Thursday, June 1, I’ll give a presentation about John M. “Chief Red Cloud” Kuhn, a Native American sousaphone player who played with the bands of Bohumir Kryl, Patrick Conway, and John Philip Sousa, then with the Isham Jones Orchestra, and then as a member of the NBC Radio Orchestra in Chicago. And these are only a few of the many groups he played with. Kuhn’s story is remarkable. Born a member of the Assiniboine Nation on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Poplar, Montana in 1882, he rose to become one of the most celebrated tuba players of the first half of the twentieth century. The story of this influential Native American is fascinating and my presentation will include information about Kuhn and photos that have never been seen before, thanks to the generosity of his granddaughter, Katherine Kuhn Rose, and his great-grandson, Kevin Leahy. They have shared photos and materials from the Kuhn family collection, and my presentation will appear as an article in the ITEA Journal sometime next year.
John Kuhn with John Philip Sousa’s Band, 1919. Photo courtesy Kuhn Family Collection.
Then, on Friday, June 2, I’ll give a recital of music that features serpent. I’ll be joined for two pieces—a partita by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (Partita in E-flat, 1803) and a divertimento attributed to Joseph Haydn (Divertimento in B-flat [Chorale St. Antoni], 1782/84—by a group of ASU faculty and students conducted by Jason Caslor and Jamal Duncan. I’ll also be joined by pianist Susan Wass for two pieces for serpent and piano by Clifford Bevan (Variations on “The Pesky Serpent,” 1996) and Thérèse Brenet (De bronze et de lumière (2008). Here’s a preview, a performance I gave of Cliff Bevan’s piece at a faculty recital I gave at Wheaton College in 2022:
If you’ve never heard a serpent before, ITEC 2023 is an opportunity to see it in action.
Information about ITEC 2023 can be found HERE on the ITEA website. It’s not too late to register. A schedule of activities can be found HERE. If you’re coming to Arizona State University for ITEC 2023, I look forward to seeing you there. Serpent and sousaphone—what’s not to like!