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Lower Bass Repertoire

First some observations, then a request.

The "standard" bass compass is higher than a lot of singers, including me, can usefully manage, but there is very little repertoire to make use of our middle to lower register. I possess a voice that, even among singers, is low but not exceptionally low. In most of the (largely amateur) choirs that I sing in, I meet with people that have as much facility below the bass clef or as much difficulty at the top end as I have. A large proportion of the standard repertoire has so many notes at the top end that the choir tenors can sing it more easily than the basses. It doesn't sound good to go quiet or into falsetto at the peak of a musical phrase and I suspect that a great many lower basses get put off choral singing early as a consequence. And yet when directors lament a lack of men, they especially miss high tenors and low basses.

It's not just a matter of the highest notes. I struggle to chant a monotone at A 220Hz but can usually manage a handful of middle Cs or the occasional D before having to resort to falsetto. A sad consequence of attempting high notes is that the low ones vanish. In Faire is the Heaven, I have seen a whole section lose their low Db at the end of a testing, high-lying anthem. In the octave around A 110 Hz, we can enjoy flexibility, power, control and variety of tone, in the register where we are usually given a few cadential notes or a long drone. I once had a great time singing Die Forelle with an accompanist who didn't mind my putting the voice down a minor seventh and the piano part up a tone.

Choral parts vary by composer. At the high end are Stanford, Vaughan Williams (with rare exceptions, like Greensleeves), Handel, Haydn, Schubert. Lower are Bairstow, Bach, Bruckner, Mendelssohn, Gabrieli (provided the editor takes the lower choice regarding chiavette!), Monteverdi, and of course the sacred Russian Orthodox tradition.

Looking for solo repertoire, it gets very, very sparse. Transposition is definitely second best. Feasibility aside, it is a lot of extra work to produce something that is not quite what the composer was after. A long search turned up:
  • Sarastro's arias from the Magic Flute, which are just in range;
  • Two movements of Bach's Pentecost cantata BWV 172 (Erschallet, ihr Lieder);
  • Antony Pitts' "Remember Your Creator in the Days of Your Youth."
These last two need nothing below a C. After that there is a gap to
  • Chesnokov's Op40, No 5, (Do not reject me).
This has two endings, of which the composer preferred the lower. That is comfortable enough, but only when I've just got up. It's probably asking too much to have a choir and congregation or audience ready and waiting, so I'll have to settle for the higher version in public. It does however demonstrate that there are people capable of singing musically repertoire that is far lower than the limits usually imposed in the west.

Enough observations. The request:

Can you please suggest some more repertoire? Choral parts with rewarding lines for low basses or solo material with no need for transposition. If you are yourself the composer or the rights holder, please say so. It will help a lot to know whom to contact about performances, YouTube permissions and so on. If the moderators agree to it, I'll collate the responses and ask for them to be made into a resource.

I suspect there is a similar need for low female repertoire. Hearing a woman singing in the tenor compass is a very different experience from hearing a man singing at the same pitch. It will be interesting to hear of music composed deliberately for the timbre of a low female voice, whether solo or ensemble. Maybe that should be another thread.

Thank you for your suggestions.

Replies (4): Threaded | Chronological
on September 6, 2010 7:12am
I'm also a Bass III.  All my good notes are below the staff!  I once auditioned singing "Laschia ch'io pianga" an octave lwoer than written.  The conductor was not amues.
Seneca has some lovely low stuff in Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea, though I don't know if anything really qualifies as a solo aria - been too long.  But it's a slow as any role I've heard, like Sarastro.
on September 6, 2010 5:02pm
Nigel:  Thaks so much for your post, and the opportunity to address it.
First, every human voice is unique.  We group them into registers that are nothing more than averages, but that doesn't mean that every voice is average or fits easily into one of the classifications that we happen to use.
Second, I have known maybe a half-dozen men in my lifetime who could not only hit a low C, but who could vocalize down to the A or G below that.  Gurney Bell, in The Sportsmen Quartet, did exactly that when he warmed up, so his low C at the end of "16 Tons" would always be solid.  The low bass in Chanticleer when my son was in it had low Cs, although I don't know whether he had the low Bb that Josquin called for in one motet.  And the basses in both the Oak Ridge Boys and the Statler Bros. have that low range, although a lot of their actual sound is created and boosted by the mixing board.  So what I'm thinking is that instead of singing in choirs, your voice might belong in a great men's quartet!
Third, we have to realize that historically THERE WAS NO STANDARD PITCH, and that the high notes or low notes written at any specific church or court probably did not represent the same pitches that they do in modern A=440 pitch.  Today we know better than the oversimplification that A=415 was "baroque pitch," since it varied from one place to another, but it's a fact that Handel's high As for tenors and sopranos were sung at a lower pitch than they are today, and so would the high notes for his basses.
Fourth, not all "bass" parts through history have been intended for true basses, whatever that actually means.  In fact a larger percentage than you would think of renaissance choral/vocal ensemble music used the baritone clef for the bottom part, not the bass clef, and that tells us exactly what range voice was expected.
And fifth, and probably most important, choral composers and arrangers do one of two things.  They write for the voices they have, and they know those voices and their ranges and capabilities very well.  That describes Bach, Handel, Palestrina, Monteverdi, Josquin, and every other composer who worked at any specific place at any specific time.  OR, they write for average voices because they are writing for publication rather than for immediate performance.  And that describes entirely too many composers of the past 150 years, for whom publication was the BIGGEST reason they wrote in the first place.  And "average" voices are described by the good ol' bell curve, while it sounds as if your voice lies one or two standard deviations below the average for "bass" voices.  And it's a simple fact that a great many "basses" in choral ensembles are actually baritones in terms of voice range, voice quality, or both.
For David, oh yes, Seneca in Monteverdi's "Poppea" has some cool solos, even though he dies during the opera, but it shares with Mozart's bass arias the simple fact that it doubles the bass line in the orchestra quite a bit of the time.  But there's some cool stuff.
And to Robert, thanks so much for your post, with which I am in complete agreement.  The upper range of ANY male voice should be a blended head voice, not a pure falsetto, and it is through the use of head voice (or "mixed voice action") that one can go from pianissimo to forte and back again.  So Nigel, I'd recommend finding a mixed voice starting, in your case, at about an A or Bb just below middle C, and carrying it up without going into a full-fledged falsetto action.  A good voice teacher can defiitely help you with this.
One basic problem is that the musical instrument we call a choir or chorus, with high and low women's and high and low men's voices, is NOT the same instrument that renaissance, baroque, and even classical composers wrote for.  They were MUCH more likely to expect a choir of men and boys, and a choir much smaller than most modern choirs, with all the singers well trained.  The tradition of amateur choral singers in large choruses probably dates from the festival choruses that sang Handel in England after his death and the festival choruses Mandelssohn wrote for much later, and I believe that it was David Schildkret some years ago who noted a newspaper report in a Boston paper listing the singers who had taken part in a large musical festival in the early 19th century, in which the sopranos were identified as Miss, Mrs., or Master, but the altos were still all listed as Mr.
All the best, Nigel, and keep pumping out those low notes.  I always wanted to be a low bass but never made it.  I'm more of a "3rd tenor" instead!
on September 7, 2010 7:20am
Doing lots of Renaissance music  in small groups exposes one to ranges & intervals calling for flexability in technique as well as self definition. Take the published DeLaRue Requiem, which in Chorwerk has many low D's , but was in fact transposed up a 4th. Recently looking at the Faugues masses[Schuetze], which often in the contre tenor covers 2 octaves, and almost as much in the top & bottom lines. usually the tenor maintains a 'normal' range. 
Ockeghem was famously a profundo, so we must usually  transpose him- unless you and your rare tribe join us!
I  found [I'm normally E-E] that forcing myself to sing alto for a while made it easier to later go down to an occasional C.- not recommending for everyone!
on September 8, 2010 2:17pm
Thank you all for your replies. I shall certainly follow up the suggestions regarding Seneca, de la Rue and Ockeghem. I did enjoy hearing the Renaissance Chorus on your website.

I don't doubt that there are ways of improving my technique that could allow me to extend my range upwards into a third octave. But given how much people say they like the sound of the lower register, I wonder at how little gets written for it.

John, you raise some apposite points. You are right, I believe, to see things in terms of a bell curve, but may I modify the suggestion slightly? If we apply the curve to all broken male voices, whether involved in singing or not, then basses constitute a vertical slice of it, bounded on the right by when people choose to sing baritone or tenor, and at the bottom by when even standard bass parts are too high. We are selectively looking at people whose voices span the range deemed necessary and that also choose that part. When John Gostling was feted for his extraordinary low notes, the remarkable thing was that he could reach D below bass clef (close to modern Eb, if our A is at 440 Hz and his was a bit higher), but also sing all the standard material up to two octaves higher. Purcell's "They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships", written, I'm told, for him, starts on the D above middle C, and immediately shows off the whole range. I doubt whether Gostling would have got into the Chapel Royal on the strength of his low D alone.

If we are moving towards an attitude of "singing for all", then there is a case for encouraging composers to diversify the ranges that they write for. I wonder whether you or anyone else has had the experience of finding a student that struggled with standard repertoire but blossomed when asked to sing lower, at least until tuition and practice had improved their upper range.

Your comment about writing for publication and performance gets to the heart of it. Publication is less lucrative than it was, and many composers write in a crowded market mainly for the joy of having their pieces performed. Very many ChoralNet discussions receive offers of their own work from composers, often more than the concert-planner can hope to include. I've known published composers cross the country or travel abroad to be at a second or third performance. Yet here is a gap in the market. There are so few established pieces for lower bass that any new composition could become an instant favourite with a whole voice category. And we sorely need some more recital pieces for when we have those voice lessons.

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