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Harmonia Early Music

Does Your Voice Hang Low?

We've got the lowdown on music written for guys with supremely subterranean vocal ranges...

Bass singers?

Did somebody leave their truck idling in the parking lot? Oh, wait! That’s just the bass voices warming up…

This hour, we’ve got the lowdown on music written for gentlemen with supremely subterranean vocal ranges. Whether for the church or for the delight of audiences looking for a different kind of experience, there is no doubt that there’s something special about that “basso profundo” sound.

Plus, our featured release by the Vox Early Music Ensemble takes to record-setting depths with performances that include the lowest known ranges in Renaissance vocal music.


The motet “Absalon Fili Mi” is quite the problem child for musical scholars, since it has been attributed to two different and equally important fifteenth-century Franco-Flemish composers.

Josquin des Prez initially laid claim to the work, but Pierre de La Rue is a more likely candidate since the work features not only quotations from other La Rue compositions but also a closer stylistic match to La Rue’s methods.

If you listen closely to the last note of the motet, one of the bass singers (on this recording, basso profundo Glenn Miller) plunges to a staggering pitch that is a rarity in other works from the same timeframe.

[playlist-item 1]

We’ll hear more from the Vox Early Music Ensemble later in the program in our featured release.


Fumeux fume par fumée

If you are even remotely familiar with the booming, resonant bass voices of Russian Orthodox choral music, then you’ve already witnessed the power of the basso profundo.

Also known as an oktavist, these exceptionally deep-ranged vocalists not only have the notes in the basement, but the power to project those notes as a part of their normal singing range. The typical oktavist has notes that extend a full octave beneath that of an ordinary voice! And while this ability is rare, there are works dating as far back as the late fourteenth century featuring these ground-shaking guys.

During a time when musical experimentation had reached one of its avant-garde peaks, there was a society of windbag intellectuals in France that was known as the fumeurs, or “smokers.” Not literally a cigar club, the term comes from poetry set to music by some late fourteenth-century composers, referring to the foggy, smoky fumes given off by these men’s muddled thoughts and conversations.

One work that pokes fun at the fumeurs is by a composer named only as Solage in the collection of French vocal music called the Chantilly Codex. Let’s hear this progressive-minded, harmonically colorful piece, delivered by a trio of low basses.

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Johannes Ockeghem: Ace of Bass

In the fifteenth century, the role of the oktavist developed into one of more serious vocal color. Compositional mastermind Johannes Ockeghem certainly pressed his unique stamp of vocal vitality upon his motets, masses, and chansons, separating himself from the pack.

Favoring long lines of nearly unbroken horizontal quality, he also somehow managed to fold those lines gingerly over a double-edged sword of rhythmic complexity and harmonic innovation.

A staggering number of Ockeghem’s works survives in a brilliantly illuminated manuscript dubbed the Chigi Codex, and several of them feature parts prominently written for a lower voice. What distinguishes these bass lines from their wacky fourteenth-century forebearers is the attention given to the sensual qualities that can be achieved with such unique color—qualities like suffering, thoughtfulness, piety, grief, or loss.

Ockeghem was the chapel choirmaster for the French court and was also celebrated in theoretical writings at the time as a renowned bass vocalist. It stands to reason, then, that he may have very well been the oktavist that was performing the low bass parts in his own music. Tooting his own foghorn, perhaps?

[playlist-item 3]

[The addition of a very low bass to the four upper parts of the motet “Intemerata Dei mater” conveys piety and introspection in praising the Blessed Virgin Mary.]


Tinctoris’s Missa sine nomine

We’re exploring the depths of the human voice this hour.

Johannes Tinctoris was an accomplished theorist and composer responsible for penning several influential treatises throughout the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. One of his most lasting contributions to musical thought at the time was a series of books about the art and practice of composing counterpoint, citing not only other composers, but his own works as well.

He seemed to have an affinity for low voices. One mass that he wrote for three voices features a basso profundo. And while it follows his usual style of flowing and rhythmically complex counterpoint, it also makes effective use of the bass singer as a technical complement to the other two voices instead of allowing it to languish on long notes beneath everything.

[playlist-item 4]


Vox Early Music Ensemble: “Extreme Singing”

We would be remiss, indeed, if we didn’t include a featured recording that specifically focuses on these marvelous male voices about which we’ve been bragging this entire time!

The Vox Early Music Ensemble‘s 2011 recording entitled Extreme Singing contains several compositions that feature bass voices as the underpinning to a sound world of mourning and loss.

Gaspar van Weerbeke, who worked for Philip the Fair, King of Castile and Duke of Burgundy, was a late fifteenth-century composer who preferred the popular styles of Italian secular music over the smooth polyphony of his Burgundian countrymen.

Though not plummeting nearly as far down as some of the other works that we have heard so far, his setting of the Marian lament “Stabat Mater dolorosa” effectively expresses the grieving mother of Christ.

[playlist-item 1]

In contrast to Weerbeke, Pierre de La Rue offers a definitive taste of the Franco-Flemish style at its contrapuntal best. His Requiem mass stands out as an early effort to compose a complete polyphonic Requiem. A special feature of this mass is that it requires not one but two oktavistsa challenge never recorded until this release.

The Vox Early Music Ensemble presents the entirety of La Rue’s Requiem with its prescribed ranges. We have Mark Dietrich and Glenn Miller to thank for the soul-searching abyss that is encountered in this mass.

[playlist-item 1]

And here is the lowest of the low: a five-part motet-chanson with French and Latin texts that was written to deplore the death of Queen Anne of Brittany in 1514. It was composed by Franco-Flemish composer Pierre Moulu, and it contains the lowest written pitch for a vocalist from any surviving work from the Renaissance. [Turn up your sub-woofer for this one!]

This piece has been recorded for the very first time at its actual pitch by the Vox Early Music Ensemble, featuring the oktavist Glenn Miller.

[playlist-item 1]


Break and theme music

:30, The Proud Bassoon: Virtuoso Works for Baroque Bassoon and Continuo, Peter Whelan & Ensemble Marsyas, Linn Records 2014, Anonymous, Les Gentils Airs – ou Airs Connus, ajustée en duo, pour basson seul accompagné d’un clavecin – Tr. 3: Tamborin (arr. Jen-Philippe Rameua) (excerpt of 1:16)

:60, The Proud Bassoon: Virtuoso Works for Baroque Bassoon and Continuo, Peter Whelan & Ensemble Marsyas, Linn Records 2014, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, Sonata in G Major for bassoon and continuo, Op. 50 No 2 – Tr. 5: Allemanda: Allegro (excerpt of 2:45)

:30, The Proud Bassoon: Virtuoso Works for Baroque Bassoon and Continuo, Peter Whelan & Ensemble Marsyas, Linn Records 2014, Francois Couperin, Les goûts-reunis, ou Noveaux concerts: Treizième Concert – Tr. 15: Chaconne Legére (excerpt of 2:35)

Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, T.12: La Prime Estampie Royal

The writer for this edition of Harmonia is Benjamin Robinette.

Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at harmonia early music dot org.

Benjamin Robinette

Benjamin Robinette is a saxophonist, vocalist, and Zimbabwean mbira performer who holds degrees in music performance from The University of Tennessee in Knoxville, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and Texas Tech University. He founded Quartet Exordium, a saxophone consort dedicated to Medieval and Renaissance musics. He also sings English catches and glees with the Quarreling Asses.

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