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Poems, prose and music about snakes - real, mythological and metaphorical. With readings by Tracy-Ann Oberman and Ewan Bailey.

Producer: Torquil MacLeod.

1 hour, 15 minutes

Last on

Tue 19 Dec 2017 16:30

Music Played

Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes

  • 00:00

    Georges Gurdjieff, Thomas De Hartmann

    Adam et Ève

    Performer: Alain Kremski.
    • NAÏVE V4890.
    • Tr7.
  • John Milton

    Paradise Lost, read by Tracy-Ann Oberman

  • 00:06

    Tony Hollins

    Crawlin' King Snake

    Performer: John Lee Hooker.
    • Ace 29667131520.
    • Tr7.
  • Thomas Hardy

    The Return of the Native, read by Ewan Bailey

  • 00:12

    Erik Norby

    Regnbueslangen (The Rainbow Snake)

    Performer: Aalborg Symphont Orchestra, Bo Holten.
    • DACAPO 8226096.
    • Tr1.
  • Denise Levertov

    To The Snake, read by Tracy-Ann Oberman

  • 00:24

    Oscar Brown Jr.

    The Snake

    Performer: Oscar Brown Jr..
    • CBS 62174.
    • Tr7.
  • Ovid, A. D. Melville (Translator)

    Metamorphoses, read by Ewan Bailey

  • 00:29

    Jean‐Baptiste Lully

    Cadmus et Hermione (Chaconne)

    Performer: London Oboe Band, Paul Goodwin (Director).
    • Tr45.
  • John Keats

    Lamia, read by Tracy-Ann Oberman

  • 00:35

    Edward MacDowell

    Lamia, Op. 29

    Performer: The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Karl Krueger (conductor).
    • Tr4.
  • William Matthews

    The Snake, read by Ewan Bailey

  • 00:49

    Uri Caine


    Performer: Uri Caine.
    • WINTER & WINTER 9100752.
    • Tr14.
  • Emily Dickinson

    Snake, read by Tracy-Ann Oberman

  • 00:56

    Michael Berkeley

    Snake (1990) for cor anglais

    Performer: Nicholas Daniel.
    • Tr20.
  • D.H. Lawrence

    Snake, read by Ewan Bailey

  • 01:03



    Performer: Rangpuhar Langa Group.
    • ARC EUCD2013.
    • Tr5.
  • Rudyard Kipling

    The Jungle Book, read by Tracy-Ann Oberman

  • 01:06

    Robert Sherman, Richard Sherman

    Trust In Me

    Performer: Sterling Holloway.
    • Walt Disney Records ? 60907 - 7.
    • Tr20.
  • Virgil

    The Aeneid, read by Ewan Bailey

  • 01:11

    Samuel Barber

    On the death of Cleopatra

    Performer: Cambridge University Chamber Choir, Timothy Brown (Director).
    • Tr9.

Producer's Note - Serpentine

We begin, appropriately, in the Garden of Eden. Adam et Eve, played by Alain Kremski, is one of many collaborative compositions by Georges Gurdjieff and Thomas De Hartmann. Typically Gurdjieff would whistle a theme, or pick it out with one finger on the piano, and De Hartmann would transcribe, adapt and harmonise these themes. The first snake we meet is the Serpent, leading Eve astray in Milton’s Paradise Lost. For those brought up in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, this early association between snakes and deception gives rise to a host of metaphors, none of which reflect well on these unfortunate reptiles. 

‘I’m a crawlin’ king snake’, sings John Lee Hooker, ‘and I rule my den’. Another talking snake and another metaphorical association, this one being unequivocally sexual in nature. 

Of course the suspicion with which snakes are sometimes treated is not simply down to the Serpent’s role in the Fall. Only a minority of species may be venomous, but that’s sufficient cause for many people to fear snakes. In Thomas Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native, Mrs Yeobright is bitten by an adder as she returns from an unsuccessful attempt to visit her estranged son Clym, who finds her in a semi-conscious state as he crosses Egdon Heath that evening. Until the doctor comes, he has to put his faith in a folk remedy involving adder fat.  

A far happier human/snake encounter is evoked by Danish composer Erik Norby’s 1975 work The Rainbow Snake which was inspired by a Native American legend describing how a snake saved people from a drought by becoming the first rainbow. In the score, Norby states that the following version of the legend should be printed in the programme whenever it is performed: 

The Rainbow Snake is an Indian legend of how the rainbow appeared in the sky; about how a snake heard the laments of the Indian people over a long period of drought and infertility and had itself thrown up in coiled form at the sky. There it uncoiled and became longer and longer, until both its head and its tail reached the ground. Its arching back scraped the blue ice down from the sky. 

The snake began to shimmer in all its colours, the ice melted and after a long drought rain fell once more on the earth. The land came to life again, the water once more filled the dried-up river beds and the roses bloomed anew. 

Since then the snake has arched its supple body across the sky every time it rains on a sunny day. 

The specimen we meet in Denise Lervetov’s poem To The Snake, is not rainbow-hued, but green and the narrator’s relationship with it is ambiguous. It seems that this isn’t a snake at all, but a harmful yet alluring compulsion akin to the combination of beautiful, glistening scales and a lethal bite.  And we meet another woman in thrall to this dangerous cocktail of attraction and threat in Oscar Brown Jr’s song The Snake.  

While the snake in that song and in John Lee Hooker’s Crawlin’ King Snake are clearly meant to be understood as representing men, if we go to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, we find a man literally turning into a snake.  Cadmus, when he founded the city of Thebes, made the mistake of killing a sacred snake.  Athene warned him at the time that he himself would end his days as a snake and, years later, when Cadmus and his wife Harmonia are living in exile in Illyria, divine retribution finally catches up with them.  Both are transformed into serpents. 

Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1673 ‘tragedie en musique’ Cadmus et Hermione deals with an earlier episode in the couple’s life – their love story.  The only transformation here is of Harmonia’s name.  This is a chaconne from the opera performed by the London Oboe Band. 

There’s some more serpentine shape-shifting in this extract from Lamia by John Keats.  In Keat’s adaptation of the Greek myth, Hermes goes in search of a beautiful nymph.  On his journey he encounters a Lamia who has been trapped in the form of a serpent.  She reveals the previously invisible nymph to him and he, in return, restores her to human form.  She then goes on a quest of her own, in search of a young man called Lycius.  No spoilers, but it doesn’t end well. 

The American composer Edward MacDowell acknowledged Keats’s poem as one of the inspirations for his own work also entitled Lamia.  In this symphonic poem, MacDowell expresses the physical and emotional transformations that the character undergoes by taking a primary musical subject and presenting it in different guises associated with specific images of Lamia. 

In William Matthew’s poem The Snake, he concentrates on the unique and sometimes unsettling way in which snakes move and how it calls to mind a host of other associations. 

There is certainly something sinuous and slightly unpredictable about jazz pianist and composer Uri Caine’s work Anaconda, named after the mighty South American constrictor. 

Emily Dickinson, in her poem Snake, is similarly preoccupied by the sudden and unnerving way in which snakes can appear and disappear.  She also identifies a singular uncanniness about snakes which marks them out from other members of the animal kingdom. 

This otherness is evoked by Michael Berkeley’s piece for cor anglais, Snake – written for and played here by Nicholas Daniel.  Berkeley was inspired to write the piece by the D. H. Lawrence poem Snake which captures the ambivalent relationship that we have with these animals.  Lawrence is awestruck by the majesty of the creature that he sees drinking at a water trough, but he is also aware of - and ashamed of – a cultural imperative to destroy it. 

Kalbeliya is a traditional song from a nomadic snake charmer community in Rajasthan.  When this is performed by the men, the women sway to music with snake-like movements.  Snake charming was once a common street entertainment in India, but has largely died out after being declared illegal in the late 20th century. Rudyard Kipling would certainly have seen snake charmers at work during his time in the subcontinent, and although pythons were among the many species used by the charmers, none of them would have been a fraction of the size of Kaa, his famous creation from The Jungle Book.  In this extract from ‘Kaa’s Hunting’, the monstrous python helps Baloo and Bagheera to rescue Mowgli from the Bandar-Log. 

Kipling may not be widely read today, but Kaa will be familiar to many thanks to the 1967 Walt Disney film of The Jungle Book.  Sterling Holloway as Kaa sings Trust In Me as he hypnotises the captive Mowgli and wraps him in his coils.  The ability of snakes to hypnotise their prey is an enduring myth, probably stemming from the fact that snakes are unable to blink and that prey animals often freeze up, presumably with fear, when in close proximity to a snake.  

Kaa, as portrayed by Kipling, is a formidable predator, but he pales into insignificance beside the fearsome serpents we meet in Virgil’s Aeneid.  When Aeneas and his men reach Carthage, Dido gives a banquet in honour of the Trojans and Aeneas tells her the sad sequence of events that have led them there.  Here he relates the terrible fate of Laocoon and his sons after the priest throws a spear at the wooden horse that they find left outside the walls of Troy. 

We end with Samuel Barber’s On the death of Cleopatra, written in 1966 for the Metropolitan Opera House and performed here by the Cambridge University Chamber Choir.  The popular tradition has it that, following Antony’s suicide, Cleopatra died from the effects of snake venom after provoking two asps to bite her. Asp is an Anglicisation of aspis which, in antiquity, referred to any one of several venomous snake species found in Nile region.  The asp was a symbol of royalty in Roman Egypt and its venom was used to kill criminals who were thought to deserve a more dignified death than more common forms of execution. 


Torquil MacLeod


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