A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Bass (voice)

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BASS is also the lowest or deepest of male voices.

By the old masters those notes of the bass voice only were employed which could be placed on the bass stave, eleven in number. By the moderns this compass has been largely extended, chiefly upwards. For whereas even the employment of the lower E is now exceptional, and that of the D below it most rare, its double octave, and even the F and F♯ above it, are not unfrequently called into requisition, even in choral music. Examples dating even as far back as the end of the 17th century point to the existence of bass voices of extraordinary extent. The Services (intended for choral performance) of Blow and his contemporaries abound in deep notes; and in a solo Anthem, 'They that go down to the sea in ships,' composed no doubt for an exceptional performer, Mr. Gostling, of His Majesty's Chapel Royal, as well as for a special occasion—the escape of King Charles II and the Duke of York from shipwreck—Purcell has employed repeatedly both the lower D and the E two octaves and a tone above it. Handel however has employed a still more extended compass. In a song for Polifemo, 'Nel Africano selve,' from his early Acis and Galatea, is the following passage, quoted by Chrysander (Händel, i. 244):—

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 3/4 \key a \major \clef bass \relative f, { fis4 r8 d''16 cis b a gis fis | cis4 r8 a'' eis fis | cis,4 r8 cis' gis a | cis,,4 r8 a''' eis fis | cis,4 r8 } }

A contemporary singer, Bosoni, might by all accounts have sung these passages—the groups of high notes in the third or falsetto register.

No theory resting on difference of pitch will account for such passages. If the church-pitch of the 17th century was lower than that of our own time, the lower notes employed in them become still more astonishing to us than they are already; if (as is probable if not certain) that pitch was higher than our own, the higher notes will stand in the same predicament. The unquestionably greater compass of the basses, and even tenors, of former times, is however explained by the fact, that judicious training, while it increases the intensity and flexibility, and improves the quality and equality of a voice, diminishes its compass. Voices of extensive range are rarely homogeneous; and their timbre or quality is generally found to be in inverse ratio to their extent. More than one passage in Milton, beyond doubt a competent judge, indicates the existence, at any rate in Italy, of considerable vocal skill even in the 17th century; and if half that has come down to us respecting the accomplishments of Balthazar Ferei be true, one singer at least flourished in the first half of that century of extraordinary skill. But prior to the end of it, when the first Italian schools were opened at Bologna under Pistocchi, singing, in the full sense of the word, was an art, skill in which was confined to a small number of persons, and instruction in which had not extended beyond the land of its origin. It is not extraordinary therefore that in the North of Europe very extensive—in other words, untrained—voices existed in the 17th century in greater number than now.

The intensity or power of the bass voice is due to the same causes as that of the tenor, the contralto, the soprano, or indeed of any other wind-instrument—the capacity and free action of the apparatus by which it collects and ejects air—in the human body, the lungs. Its 'volume' depends on the capacity of the pharynx, the cavity at the back of the mouth, between the root of the tongue and the veil of the palate, the part of the vocal mechanism most easily open to inspection. As with all well-endowed vocalists, the jaw of the bass is generally wide, the tongue large, the teeth small, and the mouth capable of easy expansion. The bass singer is generally above, as the tenor is generally below, the middle height.

The bass voice is of three kinds; the Basso profondo, the Basso cantante, and the Baryton. To these may be added the altogether exceptional Contra-Basso, standing in the same relation to the Basso profondo as the instrument so called does to the violoncello. This voice, found, or at least cultivated only in Russia, is by special training made to descend with facility to C below the bass stave,
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \clef bass c,4 }
, and even two, three, and four notes lower.

The Basso profondo and the Basso cantante are distinguished rather by their quality than their compass; that of both extending occasionally from the E flat below the bass stave to the F above it. This possible compass is frequently increased by a third register, or falsetto, of a quality wholly distinct from that of the first or second. The English male counter-tenor is in general a bass whose second and third registers have been cultivated exclusively, always to the deterioration, sometimes to the destruction, of the first.

The employment of basses and barytons in principal characters on the operatic stage, though frequent only since the latter part of the last century, dates from a much earlier epoch. Instances of it may be found in the operas of Lully and his imitators, native and foreign. Its subsequently increased frequency may still be attributed to the French, with whom dramatic propriety, in opera, has always taken precedence of musical effect. Gluck and his contemporary Piccinni, whose laurels were chiefly gathered on the French stage, both employ this class of voice largely; but it first assumed its still greater importance in the operas of Mozart, who would seem to have been the first composer to recognise the fact that the baryton or higher bass is the average and therefore typical, voice of man. To the prominence given both to the bass and the baryton voice in his later operas he was doubtless urged by a variety of causes, not the least being a paucity of competent tenors in the companies for which he had to write. To this however must be added the decline, in number, excellence, and popularity, of the class of vocalists of which Farinelli may be regarded as the type; and (closely connected with this) to an increased craving for dramatic effect, only attainable by the employment of basses and barytons, among whom as a rule—liable however to splendid exceptions—singing actors have always been found in the greatest excellence and number. This change in the once established order of things has not been brought about without protest. A distinguished amateur, the Earl of Mount-Edgecumbe, whose 'Musical Reminiscences' embody an account of the Italian Opera in England from 1773 to 1834, says, in reference to it:—'The generality of voices are (now) basses, which, for want of better, are thrust up into serious operas where they used only to occupy the last place, to the manifest injury of melody, and total subversion of harmony, in which the lowest part is their peculiar province. These new singers are called by the novel appellation of basso cantante (which by-the-bye is a kind of apology, and an acknowledgment that they ought not to sing), and take the lead in operas with as much propriety as if the double-bass were to do so in the orchestra, and play the part of the first fiddle. A bass voice is too unbending and deficient in sweetness for single songs, and fit only for those of inferior character, or of the buffo style. In duettos it does not coalesce so well with a female voice, on account of the too great distance between them, and in fuller pieces the ear cannot be satisfied without some good intermediate voices to fill up the interval, and complete the harmony.' And he adds in a note, 'It has always surprised me that the principal characters in two of Mozart's operas should have been written for basses, namely, Count Almaviva and Don Giovanni, both of which seem particularly to want the more lively tones of a tenor; and I can account for it in no other wise than by supposing they were written for some particular singer who had a bass voice, for he has done so in no other instance.' In making this last assertion the venerable writer forgot or ignored Mozart's 'Cosi fan tutte,' 'Die Zauberflöte,' and 'Die Entführung aus dem Serail,' in all of which basses are employed for principal characters. His argument, however, though ingenious, is based on an assumption unjustified and unjustifiable by either theory or practice that melody inevitably occupies, or is only effective in, an upper part. The example of Mozart, which he so severely denounces, has been followed largely by Rossini and all the operatic composers of later times. In the majority of their operas bassi cantanti appear in large numbers, without any 'kind of apology,' and persons who 'ought not to sing' do so, greatly to the enhancement of dramatic effect and the pleasure of their hearers. [ Baryton .]

[ J. H. ]