Bass

The bass voice is the lowest of the voice types, and the bass line sits at the bottom of a standard four-part choral texture underneath the soprano, alto and tenor lines. A good bass voice can sound like rich, liquid chocolate!

Singing bass in a choir can be very satisfying, as basses underpin the choral texture and are responsible for making it stable and sure. Many basslines are relatively straightforward, but a mistake could send the music in a completely different direction to the one planned! Bach was particularly good at making his basslines shapely and satisfying to sing, and many of the basslines to his chorale (hymn tune) settings are amazingly beautiful, running in pleasing motions from one place to another.

Like other voice-types, basses can be subdivided into many very different types of singer. Many basses are really baritones or bass-baritones, who are strong and agile in the higher extremes of the bass range. True basses are somewhat rarer, and in opera they often specialise either in blustering roles, such as villains, or overbearing fathers, such as Alfredo’s father Germont in Verdi’s opera La traviata. Otherwise, they may be suited to comedy roles such as Doctor Bartolo in Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville (indeed, basso buffo or ‘comic bass’ is a technical voice classification).

A bass whose range goes comfortably down to the very lowest depths of the standard bass range is known as a basso profundo. However, many Russian works such as the Vespers by Rachmaninov call for exceptionally low notes from the basses, lower even than a basso profundo’s natural range, because of a tradition of very low bass droning in Russian Orthodox religious music. Singers who can sing these notes comfortably are often referred to colloquially as ‘Russian’ basses, and they are very much in demand.

Play Music!

Play Music!

Howells: A Spotless Rose

This piece conjures up the cold, frosty night in which the baby Jesus was born. The central verse (at 0.57) is sung by a baritone soloist above slowly moving choral lines, and the effect is spellbinding.

Performers: Roderick Williams, baritone; City of London Choir; Hilary Davan Wetton

Taken from Naxos 8.572102

Monteverdi: L’Orfeo: Act III. O tu ch’innanzi morte (‘Oh you who before death’)

Charon is the mythical ferryman of the Greek underworld – his job was to carry souls across from the world of the living to the world of the dead. In this excerpt he is addressing Orfeo, who is trying to reclaim the soul of his dead wife Euridice.

Performers: Carlo Lepore, bass (Charon); Cappella Musicale di San Petronio di Bologna; Sergio Vartolo

Taken from Naxos 8.554094-95

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro (‘The Marriage of Figaro’): La vendetta

Bartolo has a long-held grudge against Figaro, who stole his ward Rosina from him so that Count Almaviva could marry her. Years later, he is still furious, and is always on the look-out for any chance to take his revenge.

Performers: Donato di Stefano, bass; Hungarian State Opera Orchestra; Pier Giorgio Morandi

Taken from Naxos 8.554172

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 At the end of each musical sentence or phrase, the basses in a choir are particularly important, because they provide a kind of musical gravity. These points are called:

a. Cadences
b. Dynamics
c. Slurs

 Sometimes, for an effect of timelessness, the basses hold a long note at the bottom of the texture. This is called a drone, or a:

a. Medal
b. Pedal
c. Treble

 A great deal of music for male-voice choir has more than one independent bass part. Male-voice choral singing is famously traditional in:

a. Japan
b. The South Pole
c. Wales

 Basses have lower voices than tenors because their vocal cords are:

a. Thinner
b. Thicker
c. Shinier

 A basso buffo is a:

a. A bass in a comic role
b. A duster for a cello
c. A bass with a deep voice


Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. The lowest note in the standard operatic repertoire is a D, sung by the character Osmin in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (‘The Abduction from the Seraglio’).
  2. Basses read music in the bass clef, in which the two dots sit either side of the line representing F below Middle C.
  3. Although the bass voice is a male voice, the women who sing the lowest line in barbershop-style groups are sometimes known as basses too.
  4. The basses in a standard four-part choir sing the lowest part in the music and give the roots of the harmony.
  5. One of the most famous bass singers of the 20th century was Fyodor Chaliapin, who was said to have had a voice like ‘melodious thunder’.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music featuring the bass voice. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Big Bass Solos

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Messiah: Part III: The trumpet shall sound

The third part of Handel’s Messiah, his most famous work, concerns Easter and resurrection. In this excerpt the singer responds to the powerful sound of the trumpet, which will raise the dead on the day of judgement and give them eternal life in heaven.

Performers: Eamonn Dougan, bass; Academy of Ancient Music; Edward Higginbottom

Taken from Naxos 8.570131-32

Georges Bizet (1838–1875)
Carmen: Votre toast (‘Toreador Song’)

The proud bullfighter Escamillo introduces himself to Carmen with this aria, describing the excitement and danger of being in a bullfight and the thrill of fighting for the love of a woman watching from the crowd.

Performers: Alan Titus, bass (Escamillo); Slovak Philharmonic Chorus; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari

Taken from Naxos 8.555922

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Orlando, HWV 31: Sorge infausta una procella (‘An inauspicious tempest rises’)

The hero Orlando has gone mad with jealousy, as his beloved Angelica has fallen in love with someone else. Zoroastro, a powerful wizard, here uses his magic to create a cave where he works to dispel the clouds of madness afflicting Orlando, and predicts that his troubles will soon disappear.

Performers: Valerian Ruminski, bass (Zoroastro); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Charles Rosekrans

Taken from Naxos 8.557309

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Don Giovanni, K. 527: Act II Scene 15: Don Giovanni, a cenar teco

When Don Giovanni sees a statue of the Commendatore, whom he killed, he laughingly invites it to join him for dinner later that evening; when his meal is interrupted by a pounding on the door and the arrival of his stone guest, he realises that his crime has come back to haunt him. This scene involves three characters, all with similarly pitched voices – the Commendatore (bass), Don Giovanni (baritone) and Leporello (Don Giovanni’s servant; bass). The Commendatore begins with ‘Don Giovanni, you invited me to dinner and I have come!’ Don Giovanni replies at 0.34 with ‘I never would have believed it’, and at 0.48 you can hear Leporello’s ‘Ah padron! Siam tutti morti’ (‘Ah, master, we are lost!’).

Performers: Janusz Monarcha, bass (the Commendatore); Bo Skovhus, baritone (Don Giovanni); Renato Girolami, bass (Leporello); Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.557893

Comic or Lighthearted Basses

Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848)
L’elisir d’amore (‘The Elixir of Love’): Udite, udite o rustici! (‘Listen up, you villagers!’)

The quack and peddler Dulcamara makes a living travelling from village to village, selling his fake ‘medicines’ that can treat any disease. Whenever he arrives in a new place, he sets up his stall and summons the people from all around to see what he has to offer, hoping to pocket their money and move on quickly.

Performers: Simone Alaimo, bass (Dulcamara); Hungarian State Opera Choir & Orchestra; Pier Giorgio Morandi

Taken from Naxos 8.554704

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Die Zauberflöte (‘The Magic Flute’), K. 620: Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja (‘A birdcatcher am I’)

Papageno is half-man and half-bird, and spends his days catching birds and wishing he had a girlfriend. In this excerpt he wishes it were as easy to catch girls as it is to catch birds!

Performers: Georg Tichy, baritone (Papageno); Failoni Orchestra, Budapest; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.553438

Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868)
Il barbiere di Siviglia (‘The Barber of Seville’): Largo al factotum della città (‘Make way for the city’s factotum’)

Figaro is one of Seville’s busiest men: as well as being a barber and the right-hand man of Count Almaviva, his services are always in demand wherever he goes, and no job is too difficult for him!

Performers: Roberto Servile, baritone (Figaro); Failoni Chamber Orchestra, Budapest; Will Humburg

Taken from Naxos 8.553436

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht! (‘Be still, stop chattering’), ‘Coffee Cantata’, BWV 211: Hat man nicht mit seinen Kindern (‘Aren’t there, with children’)

Herr Schlendrian is at his wits’ end with his daughter Lieschen and her addiction to coffee, which she loves more than anything else in the world. She refuses to listen to him and doesn’t care if he takes away her food and clothes and belongings – as long as she can drink coffee.

Performers: István Gáti, bass; Failoni Chamber Orchestra; Mátyás Antál

Taken from Naxos 8.550641

Basses with Piano

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
Priez pour paix (‘Prayer for peace’), FP 95

This is a quiet, heartfelt prayer to the Virgin Mary for peace in the world, pleading with her to ask her son Jesus and all the other saints in heaven to end all wars on earth.

Performers: Michel Piquemal, baritone; Christine Lajarigge, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553642

Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Der Wanderer (‘The Wanderer’), D. 489

The narrator is completely lost in the world, searching for the magical place where he once felt happy and at peace; whenever he thinks he has found it again, he soon realises that he is wrong, and so continues with his journey.

Performers: Hanno Müller-Brachmann, bass-baritone; Ulrich Eisenlohr, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.555780

Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Dichterliebe (‘Poet’s Love’), op. 48: Im wunderschönen Monat Mai (‘In the wonderful month of May’)

The narrator is full of joy in spring, and as he sees new plants growing and birds singing in the trees he imagines new love beginning for himself as well.

Performers: Thomas E. Bauer, baritone; Uta Hielscher, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557075

Maurice Ravel (1875–1937)
Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (‘Don Quixote to Dulcinea’): Chanson romanesque (‘Romanesque Song’)

Don Quixote is an eccentric old man who thinks that his tired old horse is a young stallion, and that he is a knight in shining armour whose duty is to rescue women from danger. In this song (with music based on the pattern of a Spanish dance called the guajíras) he brags to an imaginary woman about how he would do anything she wants – even stop the world from turning.

Performers: Laurent Naouri, baritone; David Abramowitz, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554176-77

Peter Cornelius (1824–1874)
Weihnachtslieder (‘Christmas songs’), Op. 8: No. 4. Simeon

Simeon was an old man who worked tirelessly in God’s temple; as a reward he was promised that before he died he would be allowed to see the saviour of the world. When Mary and Joseph bring the baby Jesus to be blessed in the temple, Simeon recognises who he is, and knows that he will be able to die happy.

Performers: Mathias Hausmann, baritone; Matthias Veit, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572859

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell was considered a hero by many when he overthrew Charles I in the English Civil War and set up a Commonwealth, but when he died people turned on him very quickly. In this lively arrangement of a Suffolk folksong Oliver Cromwell is a sort of bogeyman figure, scaring the woman who steals his apples. Here it is sung by a baritone; in the ‘Tenor’ section of Voices, you can find it sung at a higher pitch by a tenor.

Performers: Roderick Williams, baritone; Iain Burnside, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572600

Choral Bass Lines

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Messiah: Part II: He trusted in God

The singers here represent the crowd baying at Christ’s crucifixion, mocking Jesus for trusting God to keep him safe. The music is constructed as a fugue, in which the voice-parts enter one after the other, with the basses leading the way at the beginning.

Performers: Choir of New College Oxford; Academy of Ancient Music; Edward Higginbottom

Taken from Naxos 8.570131-32

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Requiem, K. 626: Confutatis maledictis (‘Let the cursed ones be confounded’)

This is a part of a requiem, or service for the dead, that Mozart wrote as he was approaching his own death; perhaps as a result it is deeply impassioned. In this excerpt the singers are praying for salvation – but it is a desperate prayer rather than a calm and thoughtful one, and Mozart’s setting of the words is highly dramatic. At the beginning, the basses sing each short phrase, and the tenors answer it.

Performers: Gewandhaus Chamber Choir; Leipzig Chamber Orchestra; Morten Schuldt-Jensen

Taken from Naxos 8.557728

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
Stabat Mater, FP 148: I. Stabat mater dolorosa

Francis Poulenc composed his Stabat Mater after his friend Christian Bérard, an artist, died. The music varies from serious and sombre to playful; the very start is sombre. It is the basses who introduce it. Listen to them rumbling at the bottom of their register: it is an atmospheric beginning to a dramatic work.

Performers: Chœur Régional Vittoria d’Ile de France; Orchestre de la Cité; Michel Piquemal

Taken from Naxos 8.553176

Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Gloria in D major, RV 589: Cum Sancto Spiritu

Bass voices begin this final movement of Vivaldi’s popular Gloria with ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ (‘with the Holy Spirit’) – starting off a fugue, where each part enters at a new pitch, and the lines eventually move around each other in a satisfying way. See if your ears can still pick out the bass line between 0.04 and 0.13 when the altos join in.

Performers: Oxford Schola Cantorum; Northern Chamber Orchestra; Nicholas Ward

Taken from Naxos 8.554056