The great jazz bass player Charlie Haden once said this:
The bass, no matter what kind of music you’re playing, it just enhances the sound and makes everything sound more beautiful and full. When the bass stops, the bottom kind of drops out of everything. —Charlie Haden
This is as true of vocal as it is of instrumental music. Unless you’re listening carefully, the bass line(s) might meander merrily around without you taking the slightest notice. But remove the bassline and the piece suddenly seems unstable or even insubstantial. I drive my family crazy because I tend to hum along to bass lines when listening to stuff (which to be fair is quite a ‘niche’ thing to do). But listening specifically for the lower parts can be a lot of fun.
On top of it all, basses get some juicy roles. The caricature is that sopranos and tenors get all the glory-hunting romantic leads whereas altos and basses are relegated to ‘best supporting’ or ‘character’ roles. But there are some fantastic bass parts out there, once you start digging around.
To get everything into perspective, however, we must head east, to Russia and the treasured depths of the Orthodox church. Because the big question is, how low can you actually go?
1. Evening Bells (Вечерний звон)
—Ivan Kozlov (1779-1840, Russian) & Alexander Alybayev (1787-1851, Russian) Vladimir Miller, Mikhail Kruglov, Sergey Krytzhenko (The Three Bassi Profundi) & Mikhail Buzin (piano)
This track opens with a piano rendition of the great bells of Moscow as captured musically by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky for his opera Boris Godunov. We then shift into a much-loved 1820s Russian song, based, ironically enough, on a poem by an Englishman. But I’ve picked this recording because of its stunning display of lowness! In operatic terms, the lowest voice (in other words, one that has a range lower than regular basses) is termed Basso Profundo (many technical terms are in Italian because of opera’s roots in Monteverdi and others). In Russian music, their equivalents are oktavists, so called because they tend to sing a whole octave below the regular bass part. They give orthodox acapella music its unique flavour.
Think of Middle C. Then go down an octave. Repeat. And repeat again! Yup—three octaves below middle C—we’re almost subsonic here, wallowing in the depths at which whales communicate their greatest intimacies. If you don’t believe me, just listen to these chaps. And keep on listening to the bitter end. After listening to this, you’ll even believe a man can fly. . . or at least launch open-cast mining with just the power of his vocal cords. In this recording we don’t just have one oktavist but three! I defy you to keep a straight face once they get under way, especially when one of them gets into full campanology-mode.
2. So much 2 say (from 1990 album of same name)
—Cedric Dent, Mervyn Warren (1964- , American) Take 6
And now for something equally spectacular (if aural fireworks can truly be described as a spectacle). I first encountered this acapella group from Alabama while I was at university. A friend who was a choral scholar and destined for professional music introduced me to this album. I was surprised, not least because of its overtly gospel lyrics. But he ignored the words. After all, on most days of term, he could be found in the college chapel singing all kinds of religious stuff while somehow keeping the meaning of it all at arm’s length. It was simply that, as a professional singer in training, he had never heard anything quite like Take 6. It needs to be heard to be believed. The sextet came together in the 1980s at Oakwood College, Huntsville, and have more or less stayed the same since (with only a couple of line-up changes). They’ve won Grammies, Doves and performed at the White House and Saturday Night Live (probably the only 5&1 artist to have done all that so far).
Blink and you’ll miss this track; it’s only a minute! I suspect you’ll need to give it several listens just to figure out the magic tricks they squeeze into that minute. The way they slide at around 50 seconds (a glissando, to be specific) in perfect sync is just astonishing. But I picked this one out simply for the use of the bass vocal as a rhythm section. He is the one who holds it all together, providing the song with impetus, harmonic intrigue, and joy, all at once! I don’t think I’d really encountered beatboxing before these guys, so it was a rather overwhelming experience! Bear in mind that no instruments were used in the creation of this track.
3. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth and The People that walked in darkness (from ‘Messiah’)
—George Frederic Handel (1685-1759, German then English) Christopher Purves (bass), Harry Christophers (conductor), The Sixteen Orchestra and Choir
The first two songs are clearly outliers. The vast majority of mere mortals can only dream of such vocal superpowers. Even so, these two consecutive numbers from Handel’s masterpiece, Messiah, make perfect use of the regular bass voice. Taking the famous verses from Isaiah 60 and then Isaiah 9, Handel conveys a sense of spiritual fog with the creeping strings and the sinuous vocal line. But as soon as he mentions ‘the Lord shall arise’ the tone instantly changes as the fog begins to dissipate. Likewise in the second track, the people seem to be groping in the dark until the light comes. He doesn’t tell the whole story of course in this piece. He doesn’t want to give the whole game away. But listen carefully to how the orchestra reflects the slightest shifts of tone or imagery in the text.
It’s hard to imagine another voice managing to convey both Isaiah’s spiritual gravity and peril here better than a bass. Handel was the master of the voice, putting his training in Italian opera to good use in this oratorio. He was a musical revolutionary and many contemporaries objected to his dangerous import into church life of musical styles normally associated with the theatre’s loose morals. But he knew what he was doing and nobody would bat an eyelid today. He sought to dramatize aspects of the gospel story in music and the whole of Messiah is subsequently one of the most performed pieces in history.
4. Ol’ Man River (from Showboat, 1927)
—Jerome Kern (1885-1945, American) & Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1969, American) Sir Willard White (bass), Carl Davis (conductor), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
For many in the west in the mid-twentieth century, the bass par excellence was Paul Robeson (1898-1976). A multi-talented African-American singer and political activist who travelled the world, he was instrumental in making this song a hit. It portrays the struggles and hardship of enslaved stevedores working the ships on the mighty Mississippi, contrasting their sweat and efforts with the river’s relentless but effortless current. It’s a poignant song, and unusual in Broadway shows for giving a musical’s signature number to a bass.
This recording is much more recent. Sir Willard White is a Jamaican-born Brit who was knighted in 2004. His repertoire is vast and long-lasting—he sang in a production in Vienna even this year while in his seventies. I first saw him live singing Porgy in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, even getting to meet him backstage afterwards. Unfortunately, I was rather overcome by his star power and was completely struck dumb. Awkward.
His performance of this song here is glorious—full of pathos and pain but also great presence.
5. “Don Giovanni, a cenar teco m’invitasti,” Don Giovanni (K. 527, Act 2)
—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791, Austrian) Vitalij Kowaljow (Commendatore, bass), Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (Don Giovanni, baritone), Luca Pisaroni (Leporello, bass), Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor) Mahler Chamber Orchestra & Vocalensemble Rastatt
The Spanish know him as Don Juan; Lord Byron wrote an epic poem about him but pronounced it Don Jewun, to rhyme with ‘true one’ (the English are petulant like that with foreign words); but because Mozart’s opera was in Italian (using a text by his friend Lorenzo da Ponte), he’s known as Don Giovanni. He is the archetypal womanizing aristocrat, seducing left, right, and centre, aided and abetted by his sidekick Leporello. It’s actually quite a grim story, especially in the light of #MeToo. The surprise, however, is not that such things are depicted on stage, but that the drama occurs within a clearly moral universe in which the feckless and selfish Don does not get away with it.
In the final minutes of the opera, he gets his comeuppance. And Mozart’s brilliance is on display here yet again because we have a trio of three totally distinct characters each trying to do something very different. In less reliable hands, a trio of two basses and one baritone would have ended up as an impenetrable aural soup. In Mozart’s it is utterly compelling and fraught in its dramatic and musical intensity.
Right at the opera’s start, Don Giovanni tried to seduce Donna Anna, daughter of Don Pedro, the Commendatore (a military commander). He gets caught and is challenged by the old soldier to a duel. Remarkably, Giovanni kills Don Pedro and escapes scot-free. But now at the end of Act 2, in a terrifying scene, a statue of the Commendatore appears with the words ‘Don Giovanni, you invited me to dine with you.’ He grips his hand and calls on him to repent. The rogue blankly refuses. The statue then drags him down to hell. All the while, Leporello has been hiding in terror under the table. So, listen out for how Mozart ingeniously separates out each character’s predicament and emotional state while ratcheting up the tension and drama in the music. Astonishing and haunting.
*The All-Night Vigil (Op. 37, 1915)
—Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943, Russian) Peter Jermihov (conductor) Gloriæ Dei Cantores, The St. Romanos Cappella, Patriarch Tikhon Choir, Washington Master Chorale
Finally, back to Russia. And Rachmaninov’s much loved All-Night Vigil (commonly called the Vespers). You want to hear how the rumbling deep of the oktavists can possibly blend well with other singers? You’ve come to the right place. In fifteen short movements, these Vespers are a glorious combination of liturgical prayers, taken from the orthodox service of Vespers, Mattins and the service of the First Hour. You can find the texts and their sources here but in particular, listen out for the fifth movement, which in the western church is known as the Nunc Dimittis (Simeon’s song in Luke 2). In this movement, the composer expects his oktavists to descend to a Bb a full three octaves below middle C.
When he played through his composition to his friend the choral conductor Nikolai Danilin, the response was sheer astonishment.
Danilin shook his head, saying, “Now where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas!” Nevertheless, he did find them. I knew the voices of my countrymen…