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How Low Can You Go?: The Lowest Sounds in Classical Music

Turn up your subwoofers, because we're exploring the depths of the bass staff!

We're entering a deep well by looking at music from the bass staff.

This week, the Ether Game Brain Trust is all about that bass! We’re looking at the depths of the bass staff, in an especially subterranean show we’re calling “How Low Can You Go?” Turn up your subwoofers for this playlist of especially low sounds:

  • The Octobass – The octobass might seem like a mythical beast, but it was in fact a real instrument that even Hector Berlioz wrote about! In his treatise on orchestration, Berlioz spends some time discussing new instruments in the mid 19th century, including the monumental octobass. This abnormally large cousin to the double bass was invented by French luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. Like many double basses of the 19th century, the octobass had only three strings. Unlike the double bass however, the octobass measured over 11 feet tall and had to be operated through complex pedals in order to press down the strings. The lowest pitch on the octobass is so low that its fundamental exceeds the range of human hearing, but is still audible through overtones.


  • Paul Dukas (1865–1935), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Contrabassoon) – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is one of the most well-recognized pieces of classical music, made famous by Disney’s Fantasia in 1940. The plot of the cartoon is faithful to the original poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. As the sorcerer finishes his work for the day, the apprentice continues to fetch pails of water for his master. When the sorcerer retires, the apprentice tries to use magic to make a broomstick do the rest of the work for him, but soon the workshop is filled with water. Dukas’ symphonic poem is also regarded as one of the first orchestral pieces to treat the contrabassoon as an independent instrument. Capable of the same range as the tuba, the contrabassoon had previously been used to double a bass line and add extra depth to orchestration. Dukas takes advantage of the instrument’s deep buzzing tone for comedic effect, providing the contrabassoon with a solo passage to represent the broomstick coming to life.


  • Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), Concerto for Bass Tuba and Orchestra in F Minor – The tuba didn’t catch on as an orchestral instrument until the mid to late 19th century, with the first modern tuba appearing in the late 1830s. Wagner picked up on the instrument right away when he used it in The Flying Dutchman in 1843, and it soon began to spread in Germany. However in France and England, many composers there preferred the ophecleide, a now defunct instrument that was essentially a long bugle. Ophicleides were popular in an orchestra, but not as a solo instrument. Instead, a small tuba-like instrument called the Euphonium became popular among virtuoso soloists, especially in England. These Euphonium virtuoso techniques were later applied to the tuba by people like Philip Catelinet, the principal tubist for the London Symphony Orchestra. So when Vaughan Williams finally created a tuba showcase concerto in 1955, Catelinet was more than up to the task.


  • John Philip Sousa (1854–1932), The Gladiator March (Sousaphone) – If you were to hear this march by John Phillips Sousa live or in a parade, you would probably hear it accompanied by one of the most iconic brass instruments of the low brass section: the sousaphone. Developed in 1893 by Sousa and James Welsh Pepper, the instrument is a staple of American military and marching bands, replacing the tuba with a bass horn that wraps around the performer and projects sound through a forward facing bell. Sousa called for the invention of a new marching tuba after he became dissatisfied with its predecessor: the Helicon. The helicon was basically a small tuba that sacrificed tone for comfort while marching. Sousa fixed this problem by giving his marching tuba a gigantic bell that rested above and behind the shoulder of the player. The first sousaphones were made of brass but more modern instruments are constructed of fiberglass, making it lighter and more comfortable to play.


  • Giovanni Bottesini (1821–1889), Concerto No. 2 in B Minor for Double Bass and Orchestra – Bottesini was one of the few double bass players of the Romantic era to receive wide acclaim. Until he took the stage, the double bass had been relegated to the orchestra, generally believed to be too cumbersome for the virtuosic solo music of the 19th century. Bottesini wowed audiences with his lightning-fast ability to move up and down the fingerboard of the bass, as well as his use of harmonics, horn-like tones that allowed the instrument to sound in the treble range when played by lightly touching fundamental pitches on the string. Bottesini likely wrote his concerto to show how the double bass was capable of producing music at a level of virtuosity comparable to the violin. This earned him a nickname: “The Paganini of the Double Bass.” Bottesini had actually begun his music education as a violinist, but switched to double bass in order to receive a scholarship to study in Milan.


  • Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943), All-Night Vigil (Vespers): V. Kievan Melody (“Nunc Dimittis”) – You may have come across the term “basso profundo,” a super low operatic bass. In Russian choral music, however, there’s a different term for those vocal subwoofers: an oktavist. And oktavists can put many so-called basso profundos to shame. The Russians seem to have a certain propensity for the ledger lines below the bass staff. The basses in their choirs are famously deep—the term “oktavist” comes from the fact that these singers usually perform an octave lower than regular bass parts. This style is popular in the Russian Orthodox church, and can be heard in Rachmaninoff’s famous sacred choral work the All-Night Vigil, otherwise known as the “Vespers.” This movement of the Vespers is the Russian version of the Latin canticle “Nunc Dimittis,” and in it, the oktavists step down all the way to a low B-flat. This note is a whole step lower than the lowest note on a cello!


  • Pavel Chesnokov (1877–1944), “Do Not Cast Me Off In My Old Age,” Op. 40, No. 5 – You think Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote some low notes? Check out the low notes in this piece by Pavel Chesnokov. Chesnokov wrote hundreds of sacred choral works with prominent parts for the deep bass oktavists. This oktavist aria “Do Not Cast Me Off In My Old Age” comes from one of Chesnokov’s sacred concertos, and is the lonely lament of an old man. The bass soloist here is a guy named Glenn Miller (and no, not the famous big band musician). Miller is currently a professional organist at a church in Michigan, but he moonlights as a basso profundo soloist because he’s one of the only people around who can actually sing the low Gs called for in this Chesnokov aria.


  • Thurl Ravenscroft, “You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch” – You might not recognize the name Thurl Ravenscroft, but you’ll certainly recognize his extraordinarily low voice. He’s the man behind the famous Dr. Seuss Christmas song “You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch,” although he was never credited on the original recording. (In fact, many people believed it was either Boris Karloff or Tennessee Ernie Ford singing those low notes.) Thurl Ravenscroft built an entire career providing thundering bass tones when it was needed. He was the original voice of Tony the Tiger, the Frosted Flakes spokes-feline, growling the catchphrase “They’re Grrrrrreat!” He provided the bass parts on many pop songs in the 1950s, including Rosemary Clooney’s “This Ole House” and the soundtrack to South Pacific. And he was a frequent voice-over artist for Disney, working on Pinocchio, Alice In Wonderland, The Lady And The Tramp, and many of the rides in Disneyland.


Looking for more bass? Check out this week’s podcast!



Music Heard On This Episode


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