Rachmaninoff’s Ultra-low B-flat

I’m sitting in the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg, one of the most striking domed cathedrals in Russia. It’s adorned with beautiful orthodox religious murals and icons. It’s five to eight on the evening of the 12th August 2015. I’m waiting for a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers by the Choir of Smolny Cathedral to begin.1 I’m here to subject my whole being to this awe-inspiring work and its spiritual imperatives. In addition to the grandeur, I’m here to hear a particular type of voice, and to listen out for a particular passage sung by those voices. Let me explain:

Spilled Blood 2

People differ in the degree of their exceptional attributes. It might be a blue-black skin worn like a light velvet cloak, the squarest of jawlines, a natural elegance, an incisive mind, shining white teeth or eyes so green they can be mistaken for emeralds. Alas, personal attributes are unfairly distributed at birth. We cannot yet, given a set of progenitors at our disposition, predict the combination of excellence or disappointment that will crystalise out in the offspring. It all depends on the vagaries of the roll of the genetic dice, or on some Designer should you so believe.

And so it is with the human voice. Although there isn’t such a thing as a voice print, our voices are one of our most individuating features.2 Apart from vocal weight (voice agility), timbre (voice colour), quality (e.g. creaky) and register, voices can from a musical perspective be categorised into vocal ranges. Vocal range is the full spectrum of notes that a singer is able to produce, from the bottommost to the uppermost note, that is, the distance between the highest and lowest pitches that a singer is able to sing comfortably and with projection. Vocal range is narrower than vocable compass, which is a more extreme range of an individual’s voice, consisting of utterable vocal sounds measured from the lowest croak to the highest obtainable squeak, the outer ambits of which have no musical usefulness.3

Traditionally in Western Music, voices are divided into different categories according to natural range. Females are either sopranos, altos or contraltos, and males are classically sorted into counter-tenors, tenors, baritones and basses.4,5 The lowest note expected of a bass at volume in classical opera is E2, that is the E two octaves below middle C.6,7 But there is a category of singer that can go deeper than that, and they are the contrabasses.8 They are rare specimens, but there is a tradition in which, although still rare, they are more commonly found. These are the oktavists of Russian Orthodox choral music.9

Smolny Choir 2

My trip to Russia would not be complete without listening to them. Luckily this performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vespers was on. I know the work well. It is a seminal work, considered the “the greatest musical achievement of the Russian Orthodox Church”, requiring the cumulative powers of a musical genius who studied ancient chant before tackling the task. The self-same Rachmaninoff who practised his feared third piano concerto on a silent keyboard on a ship to America, the heavy internal mechanism of the piano having being removed.

Rachmaninoff’s Vespers is written for a four-part choir and is divided into fifteen movements that include three styles of chant. It is rich in harmony. At one point in the seventh movement, the choir is divided into eleven vocal parts. There is passion, the highest of passages, the most silent of turns, polyphony and rapid mood changes. It is balm for the spirit. But there’s a passage in the fifth movement that’s particularly exceptional. In the fifth movement, Rachmaninoff demands a low B-flat (B♭1) from the choir.10 When he showed the score to a few musician friends, they expressed astonishment, asking where he would find the singers to reach such low notes. “They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas”, one of them said (rarer even than emerald-green eyes!). Rachmaninoff replied that he knew the voices of his countrymen, and the great man found them, having a vast country through which to trawl in his search.

Vespers Programme 12Aug2015

I’m sitting quietly in a magnificent cathedral in St Petersburg, all expectant, breathing shallowly. At exactly 8PM the choir files in. Conductor Anton Maksimov enters and takes a bow. All settle down, silence descends, then the choir attacks. High energetic voices, chanting, gripping and desperately imploring the mercy of God to have pity on us. “Oh come, let us worship, Praise the Lord, oh my soul…!!!”. Great tension and emotion, anguish and solace. And so the waves of the Vespers ebb and flow over us. The fifth movement breaks, and I am waiting for it on high alert. I’m waiting for the passage at the end where the counterbasses must negotiate a descending scale that comes to rest on the ultra-low B-flat. It approaches. Here, it’s starting; the basses are falling and falling and falling… and fall to the rock bottom foundation of the whole edifice – B♭1.11

Rachmaninoff Vespers CD

Rachmaninoff’s low note rumbles in my chest, reverberates in my body and shakes me all up from scalp to toes. In a forceful demonstration of the elevating power of music, it tosses, turns and churns me into transcendence. 12

Yes, I have a soul.

Oooooooooooo

Notes:

  1. Sergei Rachmaninoff, Russian composer 1873 – 1943. Note that, like Tchaikovsky and other Russian names, there are variant spellings of Sergei Rachmaninoff (Sergey Rachmaninov?). The spelling is invariant in the Cyrillic alphabet (Сергей Васильевич Рахманинов); it all depends on how the name is transliterated into the Latin alphabet. The Vespers are the evening prayers of the church, and is one of the five canonical hours. The work is actually more accurately an All Night Vigil, and is scored for unaccompanied choir.
  2. “There is no such thing as a voice print. It’s a very dangerous term. There is no single feature of a voice that is indelible that works like a fingerprint does” – Dr Paul Foulkes, expert forensic speech analyst, University of York. See ttp://www.infoniac.com/science/voice-analysis-cannot-identify-someone-with-certainty-on-its-own.html
  3. See ‘Singwise, understanding Vocal Range, Vocal registers and Voice types, a Glossary of Vocal Terms.’ Singwise is an information-based resource for singers by vocal technique instructor Karyn O’Connor  http://www.singwise.com/cgi-bin/main.pl?section=articles&doc=UnderstandingVocalRangeRegistersAndType.
  4. “In opera or solo classical music, often only the parts of the range that are considered musically useful are counted as part of the range. ‘Usefulness’ with regards to range in classical style singing is defined by consistency of timbre and the ability to ‘project’ the pitches effectively… if any pitch cannot be properly carried (i.e. heard over an orchestra without amplification), it is not considered part of the range. While a singer may have access to many more notes both above and below his or her ‘useful range’, those notes are not necessarily counted or used when singing classical song selections. The range of vocal tones that can be rendered with some degree of musicality may also be referred to as ‘singable compass’”. – Karyn O’Conner in Singwise.
  5. Voice range correlates with gender but not with the physical size of the singer. So you have huge Pavarotti with an effortlessly high tenor range, and I’ve heard waifs of men with deep voices. The key determinant is the length and structure of the vocal chords, an attribute with which we’re born, like those green eyes…
  6. Middle C is C4, the beginning of the fourth octave. Typically, the singing range for a bass singer is F2-E4. Within opera, the lowest note in the standard bass repertoire is D2, sung by the character Osmin in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, but few roles fall below F2. – Wikipedia.
  7. For some humour on the bass voice see the Uncyclopedia entry ‘Bass (voice’) at http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Bass_%28voice%29
  8. A bass that can sing G1 or lower is known as a sub-bass or contrabass singer, or a basso profundo. Oktavists have a vocal range which extends down to A1 (an octave below the baritone range) and sometimes to F1 (an octave below the bass staff). Because the voice usually takes a long time to develop and grow, low notes sound most resonant and full when the singer matures to forty or fifty years of age; thus oktavists are often older men. – Wikipedia.
  9. You can hear the power of the Russian Oktavist in this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8qu4OOQ_Dc https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8qu4OOQ_Dc. There is also a lot of Russian Orthodox Church music on Youtube as eg. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WsxxJNpZtHA.
  10. That is, the third B-flat below middle C on a keyboard. It is low! Incidentally, Rachmaninoff requested that the fifth movement of his Vespers be sung at his funeral.
  11. For you to get feel for the music, I tried to append the opening bars of the Vespers as well as the last minute or so of the fifth movement to demonstrate the cascade to the low B-flat. WordPress however does not allow the uploading of that type of file. A recording I can recommend is by the St Petersburg Chamber Choir, conducted by Nikolai Korniev, 1994 Philips Classics Productions.
  12. Giving a title to my ID missives is always a challenge. Graeme Comrie, a friend and scriptwriter who does an edit of the pieces before I circulate them, came up with the biblical “Low and B-hold”! I toyed with ‘B-flat and Elevating’… both puns that might have worked, but in the end I opted to keep Rachmaninoff in the title.
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