A bass is a type of male singing voice and possesses the lowest vocal range of all voice types. According to The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, a bass is typically classified as having a range extending from around the second F below middle C to the E above middle C (i.e., F2–E4). Its tessitura, or comfortable range, is normally defined by the outermost lines of the bass clef.
Variations in bass range
Cultural influence and individual variation create a wide variation in range and quality of bass singers. Parts for basses have included notes as low as the B-flat two octaves and a tone below middle C (B♭1), for example in the Rachmaninov Vespers, and the G below that (e.g. Measure 76 of Ne otverzhi mene by Pavel Chesnokov). Many basses have trouble reaching those notes, and the use of them in works by Slavic composers has led to the colloquial term "Russian bass" for an exceptionally deep-ranged basso profondo who can easily sing these notes. Some traditional Russian religious music calls for A2 (110 Hz) drone singing, which is doubled by A1 (55 Hz) in the rare occasion that a choir includes exceptionally gifted singers who can produce this very low human voice pitch.
Many British composers such as Benjamin Britten have written parts for bass (such as the first movement of his choral work Rejoice in the Lamb) that center far higher than the bass tessitura as implied by the clef. The Harvard Dictionary of Music defines the range as being from the E below low C to middle C (i.e. E2–C4).
In choral music, voices are subdivided into first bass and second bass, no distinction being made between bass and baritone voices, in contrast to the three-fold (tenor-baritone-bass) categorization of solo voices. The exception is in arrangements for male choir (TTBB) and barbershop quartets (TLBB), which sometimes label the lowest two parts baritone and bass.
Bass roles in opera
In classical music, and particularly in opera, the following distinctions are often made among different kinds of bass voices:
Basso cantante/lyric high bass/lyric bass-baritone
Main article: Bass-baritone
Basso cantante means "singing bass". Basso cantante is a higher, more lyrical voice. It is produced using a more Italianate vocal production, and possesses a faster vibrato, than its closest Germanic/Anglo-Saxon equivalent, the bass-baritone.
- Duke Bluebeard Bluebeard's Castle by Béla Bartók
- Don Pizarro, Fidelio by Ludwig van Beethoven
- Count Rodolfo, La sonnambula by Bellini
- Blitch, Susannah by Carlisle Floyd
- Méphistophélès, Faust by Charles Gounod
- Don Alfonso, Così fan tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Don Giovanni, Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Figaro, The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- The Voice of the Oracle, Idomeneo by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Boris, Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky
- Silva, Ernani by Giuseppe Verdi
- Philip II, Don Carlos by Giuseppe Verdi
- Count Walter, Luisa Miller by Giuseppe Verdi
- Banquo, Macbeth by Giuseppe Verdi
- Zaccaria, Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi
- Fiesco, Simon Boccanegra by Giuseppe Verdi
- Ferrando, Il trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi
- Daland, Der fliegende Holländer by Richard Wagner
- The King of Scotland, Ariodante by George Frideric Handel
Hoher Bass/dramatic high bass/dramatic bass-baritone
Hoher Bass or "high bass" or often a dramatic bass-baritone.
Jugendlicher Bass (Juvenile Bass) denotes the role of a young man sung by a bass, regardless of the age of the singer.
Basso buffo/bel canto/lyric buffo
Buffo, literally "funny", basses are lyrical roles that demand from their practitioners a solid coloratura technique, a capacity for patter singing and ripe tonal qualities if they are to be brought off to maximum effect. They are usually the blustering antagonist of the hero/heroine or the comic-relief fool in bel canto operas.
Schwerer Spielbass/dramatic buffo
English equivalent: dramatic bass
Lyric basso profondo
Basso profondo (lyric low bass), is the lowest bass voice type. According to J. B. Steane in Voices, Singers & Critics, the basso profondo voice "derives from a method of tone-production that eliminates the more Italian quick vibrato. In its place is a kind of tonal solidity, a wall-like front, which may nevertheless prove susceptible to the other kind of vibrato, the slow beat or dreaded wobble."
Dramatic basso profondo
English equivalent: dramatic low bass. Dramatic basso profondo is a powerful basso profondo voice.
- Il Commendatore, Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
- Hagen, Götterdämmerung by Richard Wagner
- Heinrich, Lohengrin by Richard Wagner
- Gurnemanz, Parsifal by Richard Wagner
- Fafner, Das Rheingold and Siegfried by Richard Wagner
- Marke, Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner
- Hunding, Die Walküre by Richard Wagner
- The Varangian (Viking) Guest, Sadko by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
- The Grand Inquisitor, Don Carlo by Giuseppe Verdi
- Claggart, Billy Budd (opera) by Benjamin Britten
Bass roles in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas