Bass lover Brahms would be blown away: composers have been heavily favouring bass instruments for quite some time now. Bernhard Gander lives out his death metal-inspired predilection for carrion and the macabre in pieces such as morbidable II (une charogne) for solo contrabass clarinet and bass (2015). DW22. Winterlicht for bass flute and double bass (2010) and DW25. …more Loops for U for solo double bass (2014) both testify to Bernhard Lang’s love of low notes. And a further piece from Lang’s DW series1, DW28. … loops for Davis for bass clarinet and orchestra (2016), joins Alexander Schubert’s Codec Error for 2 percussionists, double bass, lights, and electronics among the world premières to take place at this year’s Donaueschingen Festival. Bass is all the rage. Early signs of a rising interest in accumulations of low frequencies among composers of contemporary music included Helmut Lachenmann’s Harmonica for large orchestra with solo tuba (1981) and Luigi Nono’s Post-praeludium per Donau for tuba and live electronics (1987), and such pieces were followed by Jonathan Harvey’s Still for tuba and electronics (1995), Olga Neuwirth’s Ondate II for 2 bass clarinets (1998) and Spleen II for bass flute (1999), and Michael Jarrell’s Assonance VIII for amplified bass or contrabass flute and 4 percussionists (1998), to name just a few.
Contemporary music’s love of low frequencies and hence bass instruments—often alone, or sometimes appearing en masse such as with the Low Frequency Orchestra—is probably due to the weakening of tonality. Long since gone are the times when the bass was still a true bass, solid and powerful in its sound. As early as those reprises in Brahms’s works that begin with a six-four chord, the bass ceased to provide definition and a foundation. And the blurring of the bass’s traditional function since then has made it considerably more attractive. It’s now allowed to be soft and to float, and to occasionally even get lost in the overall sound.
Before the bass attained the considerable power it had during the heyday of tonal music, however, the tenor had been the most important voice in vocal music settings. It had taken the soprano as its partner. Together, these two parts were the ruling lady and lord. Their shoes cost something; they were of leather. Happily united, they were fond of singing in parallel sixths. The bass, by contrast, lived together with the alto in the servants’ quarters, and both bass and alto wore wooden shoes. In their daily homophonic “singing from the book”2, only one part—that of the tenor—was notated, while all others were oriented thereupon. To the bass usually fell the role of alternating between thirds and fifths below the tenor part. But as the part-hierarchy began to shift, along came initial recommendations meant specifically for the writing of bass parts. One of these was formulated by Zarlino during the mid-16th century with polychoral writing in mind. He recommends having each choir’s bass move counter to the other, “or occasionally also in thirds”. And he also holds that writing one of the basses at a fifth interval to another bass’s part “would be very awkward”, due to possible parallels and also because of “possible dissonances” between the parts of a given choir.3 Attention was no longer being devoted exclusively to how parts related to the tenor part.
It was more or less from that point onward that the bass began assuming control—which it would then maintain for over three centuries. The attendant practice of designating simultaneously heard notes as chords and also (shortly after 1600) naming them coincided with the advent of the basso continuo. Starting from the register set by the basso continuo player’s own sound-producing body, it was assured that his own point of view would define how harmony was conceived—the view from the lowest (and thus, one might say, most masculinely connoted) part to the higher ones. Terms such as “sixth chord”, after all, refer to what is to be played above and in addition to the bass note. So everything was derived from the bass. And for this reason, movements without bass from this period represent something special. It’s telling that we don’t really have a typical way of expressing the absence of other parts: one doesn’t say “without tenor”, “without soprano”, or “without alto”, because their presence or absence was not so crucial—the harmony imagined and named from the perspective of the bass was, after all, the basis of the composition. And without the bass, there was no harmonic foundation. If a missing upper part makes a movement of a given piece merely incomplete, a movement with its bass missing is often simply wrong from a compositional standpoint in tonal music. And things remained that way for a long time: if a string quartet’s cellist is sick in bed and her colleagues rehearse a Haydn quartet without her, the result will be forbidden chord inversions, uncharacteristically weak cadences, and passages where it’s extremely difficult to figure out how to play in tune. Whenever the composer actually intends the cello to rest—usually just for a few measures—the viola takes over and must then follow the compositional rules usually followed by the bass instrument. But the fact that the viola is only pretending and is not, in fact, a true bass instrument is indicated by the cute German name for such passages in its parts: Bassettchen [with “-ettchen” being a double-diminutive—the French “ett(e)” and the German “chen”]. In cases where a deep bass was absent for the entire piece or lengthy passages, however, the viola-bass or bass played by other small instruments was no longer considered a charming stand-in: this kind of Bassettchen embodied a reference to someone who no longer had ground beneath their feet, or the state of being forsaken by God. The career of higher voices was none the worse for this warning with an upward-pointing finger, and it can be easily heard how musical interpretation and composition have reacted to each other all the way through to this day. The fact that the tonal music era saw the development of an increasinglyflatter part-hierarchy, especially around the fin de siècle, also had consequences for how older repertoire was played. It had more than occasionally been the case that the orchestras with which Mozart performed boasted overpoweringly strong bass sections. By contrast, Karajan’s high-gloss recordings, in particular, projected the modern idea of a perfect balance between all parts back onto the world of Viennese classicism, and it is in perhaps even greater clarity that one hears this shift in sonic priorities among organists, when they update the registration for the composed octave by employing a floating, ethereal sound.
But even in the golden bass era of major and minor, too much bass would have pushed composing to tonality’s outer limits. And both songs and arias for bass easily descended into archaisms, sociolects, or grotesques. Where the singing bass doubled the instrumental bass, like in the extra-bleak initial opening parallelisms of Zelter’s König von Thule in which Sarastro accompanies himself “happily and cheerfully” to “the better land” with the fundamentals of a sequence of descending fifths, or where Marcel from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots goes radical (in the sense that he extinguishes virtually all harmony), the melodies simultaneously become one with and fall victim to their own foundations.
- DW stands for Differenz/Wiederholung [Difference/Repetition] and is a reference by Lang to French philosopher Gilles Deleuze.
- See Barwnabé Jaime, Chanter sur le livre. Manuel pratique d’improvisation polyphonique de la Renaissance (XVe et XVIe siècle), Lyon 20142.
- Gioseffo Zarlino, Istitutioni harmoniche (1558/62, Book 3, Chapter 66), in: Gioseffo Zarlino. Das musiktheoretische Gesamtwerk II, translated (into German) and commented by Christoph Hohlfeld, distributed as a typescript, Hamburg ca. 1993, p. 268.