In choral music written perhaps by those lacking personal familiarity with choirs and choral singing, I often encounter terrible chord voicing and unintelligent texture-mongering chiefly involving gross misuse of the bass section.
Just because the bass is the lowest voice part doesn’t mean one can achieve full strength and balance in the chorus by keeping them pinned somewhere below C3, no matter how many f’s are slapped together to form a dynamic indication. Like other voice types, basses, too, are not able to as easily achieve richness and fullness of tone in the basement of the tessitura.
Brahms understood this. In Ein deutsches Requiem (II), he voices a loud choral unison with the accompaniment of full orchestra in this way:
Note how he graciously allows the bass section to actually sing rather than grumble along. Nothing is quite so irritating for the choral basses as the insistence of many modern composers that they growl-scream for fifty bars at a time on or around low G at fortissimo along with a full orchestra sawing and blasting away, knowing that their visceral efforts to contribute to the sound will ultimately be in vain.
And now, a contrasting, quiet unison minus sopranos voiced in the following way, a little later in the movement:
Here the basses must return to their usual dungeon, but it is intelligently asked of them in the service of a soft, dark line.
In poorly thought-out choral music, it is not at all uncommon to come across the following type of voicing:
This is a situation which renders the bass section practically useless, especially in music which is accompanied by large forces but to some extent even in an unaccompanied context as well. A bass section cannot hope to achieve more than a stout mezzo forte at that pitch in relation to, say, what the tenors will achieve at their station in the chord. The voicing could be vastly improved by simply moving the basses up one octave.
Again, I repeat: as with the other voice types, for basses lower does *not* mean louder.
One of Brahms’ favorite solutions was to split the bass section into an octave at a closing cadence, a compromise which allows the capable members of the section to contribute low end to the choral timbre by taking the lower pitch, while the rest can contribute volume and fullness at the upper pitch. For example, note the following cadence from the motet “Warum ist das Licht gegeben,” Op. 74, Nº. 1:
At the forte dynamic indicated, this three-part bass voicing will produce a vibrant timbre in the section to support divided high tenors while still allowing the basses to easily balance with the rest of the chorus.
There is nothing wrong with exploiting the unique lower register of the bass voice—but even the Russians, those hardy masters of the thunder from under, recognize the importance of delivering the effect at piano or less in most cases. Basses don’t want to be tenors, but they do like to be heard where possible.
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