My 10 favourite bass movements
Here is a list of the movements or sections of music that I have enjoyed singing the most. While singers of all voices would be likely to include any of these among their favourites, in each of them there is something about the bass line that in my eyes gives it particular merit.
Bach: B Minor Mass – Confiteor/Et Expecto
A certain chorus master has been known to describe the last section of the Apostles’ Creed as a shopping list. What I take it he means by this is that it consists of a series of beliefs that are important to the Christian faith, but are not easy to set to music in an interesting way.
This is no problem to Bach who in the previous section gives the bass soloist an intricate aria. This chorus begins with what at first might seem routine counterpoint. After a few pages of this, the basses introduce a plainsong theme. This is taken up by the tenors but in semibreves rather than minims. As this passage come to an end, the music starts to slow down and become very chromatic with unexpected modulations and key changes. It is also generally homophonic but with individual parts every now and then coming to the fore.
The words at this point are “I look for the resurrection of the dead” and it is as if Bach is grappling with what this means, with the singers moving uncertainly in the dark. Then the mood suddenly changes, though the words are the same, as if he has realised that whatever it means it is something to be ecstatic about. The trumpets are introduced for the first time, and the singers are let off the leash, with the basses the first to do their trumpet impressions. The rest of the movement is the most glorious choral writing with plenty of chances for all parts to show off. On the final page the basses have a repeated short phrase in parallel with the sopranos that climbs up the scale. When we reach the top it is as if to say it is time to finish now.
The Confiteor is followed by the Sanctus which would be very high on the list had I not made a rule not to include any work more than once.
Bach: St John Passion – Opening chorus
The more I listen to this piece, the more remarkable it seems even by Bach standards. The orchestral introduction is very ominous with flowing string passages, slow moving woodwind phrases and a pulsing continuo. I see it as a precursor of minimalism, looking forward to the compositions of Steve Reich and John Adams. There are certainly not what you could call tunes in that introduction, just repeated short phrases that build of to a climax with the entry of the chorus.It could even be argued that there are no tunes in the vocal parts. The first section is dominated by cries of “Herr” (“Lord”), either all together or individual parts, and the flowing semiquaver passages first introduced by the strings. As the movement progresses, stronger melodic lines appear, but there is not really a dominant theme. There are very few chord changes in the continuo, but the bass line remains interesting throughout. And while the mood stays the same, there is plenty of variety in the vocal lines. It really is a glorious sing, and the best bit about it is that when it seems to announce that you have reached the end, it goes back to the beginning and you get a chance to sing the first section again.
Purcell: Queen Mary’s Funeral Music – Thou Knowest Lord (I)
I wonder what the feeling of the singers was who were first presented with the score of this movement. They probably knew that the composer was used to being adventurous, but were they really expecting the kind of intervals he wanted them to sing?
For the opening words, “Thou Knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts”, he employs vivid word painting. Each part comes in separately – tenor, alto, soprano, bass. They sing “Thou Knowest, Lord” on the same note, then up a tone or a semitone for “the”, then appropriately for the word “secrets” they drop down a long interval to a note you wouldn’t expect. For the basses, having sung upper A natural B flat, they drop to lower A natural B flat.
There are a few more surprises along the way, until eventually it becomes homophonic with more conventional chords and intervals. But he waits for the end for more dramatic word play. The final words are “for any pain of death to fall from thee”. The words “to fall” are repeated in the different parts with a drop of around an octave. For the basses it is a thriller. Having finished the previous phrase on bottom F, we go up an octave then down to A natural, A flat, G. However he gives an option to replace the minim A flat with a crotchet rest followed by a crotchet upper A flat before going down to the bottom G.
It looks extremely challenging, but when you get into the piece it all makes complete sense and is a magnificent sing.
Bach: St Matthew Passion – final chorale of Part 1
There are so many memorable sections of this work, and this may not be the obvious movement to choose. I first sang it as a treble when I was 11, and I remember being captivated by the orchestral introduction, and fascinated by all that was going on around while I was singing the melody.
Then when I sang it as a bass, I got a feeling that we were in control. Our line was getting to the heart of the music, and though we were singing in English, every note brought the words to life. For example, the first line begins with a standard harmonisation of the words “O man, thy grievous sin moan”, but then the words are repeated more pictorially, in particular the setting of the word “bemoan”. In the third line, for the words “from highest heaven descending” there is a descending scale after which the words are repeated with another scale starting even higher.
Later on, at the line “the dead he raised to life again”, the basses come in before the altos and tenors, and more than two octaves below the soprano tune with a line that initially descends but then jumps up an octave. By the end of the phrase, having started in the lower register but finished high up in the voice, the singer can’t help conveying the depiction of someone rising from the dead.
The last line of the chorale is treated differently from all the previous ones. Instead of the sopranos coming in before the others, here the altos tenors and basses give their take on the words “the shameful cross enduring” in a predominantly minor key, before the sopranos sing their decidedly major key line. The basses have the final word with a melodic line that jumps about between major and minor.
This work is not just an account of the betrayal, trial and death of Jesus, but also a portrayal of all the positive aspects of Jesus’ life and how his death and resurrection are for the good of mankind. The tragedy of the events lead to man’s salvation, and this message is conveyed throughout the work and in particular in this movement.
Elgar: The Apostles – final chorus
The Apostles is my favourite work by Elgar. Although it does rather meander at times, there are so many imaginative sections in it that I am prepared to put up with the less interesting parts.
The work relates the ministry of Jesus from the calling of the first disciples right up to the Ascension. It is controversial at times such as the way he treats Judas Iscariot in a sympathetic manner, but he is utterly original particularly when describing the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Many listeners would be familiar with the Bach passions, and he seems to go out of his way to be different. Peter’s remorse after his denial is sung by a 4-part women’s chorus, while the words “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani” are not sung but written in the score above a solo cello part.
Elgar was never afraid to attempt to put in music the unknowable. In The Dream of Gerontius, in a most dramatic way, he describes Gerontius looking for the one and only time on the face of God, and in The Kingdom he vividly imagines the coming of the Holy Spirit. This closing chorus takes the form of a dialogue between heaven – the sopranos and altos of the chorus, including a semi-chorus – and earth – Mary, Mary Magdalene, John, Peter and the men of the chorus. It is launched by the men quoting from the psalms, which the soloists initially join in, but then Mary starts singing the Magnificat, while Mary Magdalene quotes a verse from Lamentations. While all this is going on, those “in heaven” are singing “Alleluia”. It is a frequent observation of choir audiences that they can’t hear the words, but in this case it is understandable.
I can’t describe the whole movement as so much happens, but eventually after an orchestral build up the tenors and basses have a big tune, singing in octaves, which builds up to an fff B flat, and while the tenors triumphantly hold it on for a bar and a half, the basses start descending a step at a time, gradually getting softer and ending up on bottom E flat. There are still a few pages left, but for the chorus it is just alleluias, all p and pp, apart from the final one which has a big crescendo and diminuendo in the best Elgar manner.
This may not be high on everyone’s list, but I love it.
Mahler: 8th Symphony – Gloria from Part 1
Some people love this work, others admit to being mystified by it. There is a story that Michael Tippett attended a performance with a friend, and they kept laughing to each other at how banal they thought the music. I first heard it on a transistor radio when I was a student, but then attended a performance at a Prom and was blown away by it.
It is known as the Symphony of a Thousand, which is a slight exaggeration as you can get away with half that number of people! That first performance I attended included two symphony orchestras. And it is set for two separate choruses who may well rehearse apart and only come together late on.
There can be few pieces of music that are as in your face as the first part. After a big chord on the organ the choir come in ff, and the sopranos are up to A flat in only the second bar. It is then pretty unrelenting for the next 25 minutes with the occasional period of calm.
The words are from the Latin hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus”, known in English as “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire”. Mahler was born a Jew, but was obliged to convert to Catholicism if he were to get a significant appointment in the musical world. However from the evidence of this work the conversion was genuine. He doesn’t just set the words, but adds to them to emphasise the message.
The Gloria section starts with the children’s chorus singing a deceptively calm passage, then the soloists come in rather more forcefully, after which the full choir reintroduce the main theme from the opening. It all then goes full tilt until you can tell you are coming to the end when there is a huge cadence and the tempo slows. The soloists sing a short passage in unison then the movement climaxes with a thrilling series of rising passages starting low down in the basses with the other parts coming in one by one, culminating in a massive E flat chord with plenty of top B flat.
This last section is tricky when singing from scores that only contain chorus parts. The change of pulse is difficult to pick up and for the basses in choir 2 we are the first to come in in this final passage and bear a particular responsibility. What was most confusing the first time I sang it, was the conductor giving a huge down beat the bar before we came in. It turned out that this was for the children’s choir who were singing separate words from all the other singers. I had by then listened to the piece plenty of times and had never heard them at that point. When Mahler wrote it, it must have been a bumper year for the Vienna Boys Choir.
At the time of writing I have signed up to perform the piece later in the year. It will be difficult to attend enough rehearsals, but I am going to have to find a way because I love the piece so much.
Brahms: A German Requiem – 3 Herr, lehre doch mich
I first heard this piece sung by Leicester Bach Choir when I was about 16 and really enjoyed it. So I bought a recording not long after with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the bass soloist, which I still have, copied onto my iPod. I already knew the middle movement as the anthem “How lovely is thy dwelling place”.
I have now sung it several times, both in German and English, and find it enjoyable from beginning to end. It is technically quite demanding in places and we are singing virtually the whole time, but is generally easy on the voice. I feel that Brahms has the ability as much as any composer to give pleasing melodic lines to all parts. Often you find him in homophonic passages holding back one part, so that a few bars later the other parts can pause and they can hold the stage while they catch up.
I have also twice acted as page-turner for the arrangement of the work for piano duet. It was quite scary but I enjoyed being part of the performance almost as much if I had been singing. The first time was with Malmesbury Singers, conducted by Iain Duffin; the second was with Bath Camerata this time with Iain in the bass line. He admitted that he had sometimes woken in the night with a cold sweat thinking about this movement, particularly the fugue at the end. I can understand that as it requires great concentration as a singer and as a page-turner, so I can’t imagine what it must be like as a conductor.
The soloist has a prominent role in the first half of the movement, which is a setting of a psalm that begins “Lord, let me know mine end”. The first chorus entry is quite simple, but each subsequent section gets more agitated till it comes to an extended passage with the words “Now, Lord, what is my hope?”. What follows could technically be described as a link passage to the final fugue, but the way he sets the words “My hope is in Thee” with each chorus part singing a series of rising scales that they can all enjoy, culminating in a big cadence, is exquisite. Then the fun really starts.
The problem with fugues is because each part comes in separately, there is a tendency for them to set their own tempo. In addition if it is a tricky entry singers may be concentrating too hard to pay attention to the conductor. Here the main theme is quite long and wide ranging and goes at quite a lick, and Brahms introduces all sorts of variations on it. It is in a solid 4 beats to the bar till about 3 bars from the end, and there is a constant pedal D which has the effect of driving the piece forward. Once you get to know it it is a great sing, and the basses have a special flourish right at the end.
Mozart: Mass in C Minor – Cum Sancto Spiritu
The challenges in singing Mozart are more often than not the subtleties and nuances and getting to the heart of the music, rather than technical aspects. Bath Bach Choir could probably produce an adequate performance of the Requiem in two or three rehearsals. However we recently spent a whole term on it and the result was a memorable concert that we could all be proud of. A number of years ago I turned on the radio in the middle of a performance that struck me as boring in the extreme. They were singing all the right notes but with no feeling. When it finished I discovered it was Herbert von Karajan with the Vienna this that and the other. Clearly they had played and sung it countless times and had lost any passion for the music.
However this Cum Sancto Spiritu is a complicated piece, and I am probably a masochist for including it. It is ten minutes of technical agility and concentration interspersed with moments of panic. There is no let-up, and while you may get a few bars rest, it gives you time to worry about the next fancy passage about to come up.
It starts with the bass introducing the fugue subject in semibreves – nice and calm. The tenors then take over the tune with the basses singing the counter-subject which is rather faster. As the different parts come in, it all gets more and more complicated. Usually there are one or more parts singing the semibreve theme providing an anchor while the faster stuff is happening around them. About half way through, the tenors launch into 8 bars of quavers while all is calm around them. When they have finished the altos take over followed by the sopranos, and finally the basses with a longer passage than all the other parts. It is thrilling to hear, but stretches a choir to the limits. Not so long ago I attended a performance, and as this section approached, even though I was several rows back in the audience, I could feel the tension rising in the choir.
It’s a bit like running a marathon or climbing a mountain. You might not appreciate all the challenges at the time, but it is so rewarding when you reach the end.
MacMillan: St John Passion – Peccantem me quotidie
I have included this because of the way the music captures the text and the singer can convey the emotion of it. The words are:
“As I sin daily and do not repent, the fear of death causes me anguish because there is no redemption from hell. Have mercy, O God, and save me.”
The first section is based around a 4 note rising phrase, starting with the basses on bottom E and then taken up by the other parts, which is repeated getting higher and higher and also speeding up until all voices are at the top of their range. It then gradually dies down and we sing “miserere mei” pp, before fff tutta forza “et salva me” accompanied by a very agitated orchestra. The final “salva me” starts on a huge discord but resolves into a regular B flat minor, but the timps have the final say with a crescendo back to ff.
The St John is a very challenging work to sing, in particular the movement that comes before this. People who have sung it are likely to start to panic at the mention of the word “astiterunt”. For me, singing this movement makes it all worthwhile. There is also the fact that for the basses at least, most of the really difficult bits are behind us.
Britten: War Requiem – Sanctus
One of Nigel Perrin’s favourite instructions is “never louder than beautiful”. I suspect that has not always been the case when I have sung this movement.
As in the Bach B Minor Mass, the falling octave is a significant motif, principally in the basses, but also in the opening soprano solo. She declaims powerfully the words of the Sanctus to the accompaniment of an unusual range of percussion implements.
The second basses then come in muttering the words “Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua” very softly on bottom F sharp with the rest of the choir coming in one by one rising in a glorious crescendo. This leads into a passage that the composer marks “Brilliant”. While the rest of the choir are singing “Hosanna in excelsis”, the basses then just declaim “Sanctus” over and over again each time starting at a different pitch, rising or falling a tone or a semitone but always ending on D. Eventually the music gets softer and leads straight into the Benedictus. This is mostly very soft, with the soprano soloist leading the way and the choir mainly responding to what she has just sung eventually dying away to a ppp.
What follows is something that basses live for. There is a huge entry from percussion and lower strings, and we come in with our “Sanctus” on upper C sharp to D and back down the octave. It is only marked f, but because we are backed by full brass, we have to give it everything we have got. Then while the rest of the choir sing their hosannas, we repeat the “Sanctus” several times at the same pitch. The section ends with jubilant voices of “Hosanna in excelsis” from the whole choir.
This then leads into a Wilfred Owen poem that is the darkest section of the whole work. Something Britten does so skilfully is to contrast the joy in heaven with the despair on earth. By writing about the Sanctus I hope I am not trivialising the profundity of the music. You can appreciate its power and still enjoy yourself.
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