Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Joys of Bassi: Matti Salminen and Samuel Ramey

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post marked the birth, on June 20, 1843, of the Russian operatic basso Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky.  Considered in his lifetime to be among the greatest bass singers of his time, Fyodor Stravinsky’s memory has been almost entirely eclipsed by that of his son, the composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971).

Fyodor Stravinsky died in 1902 at the age of 59.  Sadly, he never recorded.  But yesterday’s post on Fyodor Stravinsky got me to thinking about my favorite bassi, and thus today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes featuring Matti Salminen and Samuel Ramey.  (Yes, of course, there are tens of other bassi deserving of our attention.  In the spirit of sharing, I would ask you to name your favorite bass singers and recordings in the comments below.)

Samuel Ramey (born 1942) conducting a masterclass at Wichita State in 2015
Samuel Ramey (born 1942) conducting a masterclass at Wichita State in 2015

The Bass

The bass is the lowest male singing voice, the lowest vocal range of all voice types.  Leading bass roles run a certain dramatic gamut, from old, wise, and perhaps priestly men (Mozart’s Don Alfonso from Cosí fan tutte and Sarastro from The Magic Flute); to old and foolish men (Pergolesi’s Uberto in La Serva Padrona and Rossini’s Dr. Bartolo in The Barber of Seville); to comic relief foolish men (Mozart’s Leporello in Don Giovanni); to older men of royalty (Wagner’s King Marke in Tristan und Isolde and Berlioz’ Priam Les Troyens) to very bad men (Verdi’s Grand Inquisitor from Don Carlos and von Weber’s Kasper in Der Freischütz); to forces of supernatural evil (Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele in Mefistofele and Berlioz’ Méphistophélès from The Damnation of Faust).

The standard bass vocal range is understood as spanning the two octaves from the “E” immediately above middle “C” to the “E” an octave and a sixth below middle “C.” (This is, as well, the standard range of the double bass or contra bass. Not incidentally, this is the range for which the bass clef was invented!)  

However, as is always the case with vocal categories, there are nuances galore when it comes to identifying the range, vocal weight, and color of various bass singers.  At its most “basic” (pardon), there are three different sorts of bass singers: the standard bass, with the two-octave range “E” to “E” as identified above; the bass-baritone (high bass), who can sing up to “G” above middle “C”; and the basso profondo (low bass), who can sing down to the “C” two octaves below middle “C.” (Although as we observed in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, some bassi profondi – also-known-as oktavists in Russia – can sing lower still, down to the “A” two octaves and a third below middle “C” and even lower!)…

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