Today at the second Sunday Palo Alto singing (which took place on a first Sunday, which I’ll explain in a minute), we had two tenors, two trebles, one alto, and four basses. This, to my ear, is an almost perfectly balanced proportion of voices. As William Billings said in his essay “To the several Teachers of Music” in The Singing Master’s Assistant, Lesson XIII:
“ONE very essential thing in Music, is to have the parts properly proportioned; and here I think we ought to take a grateful notice, that the Author of Harmony has so curiously constructed our Organs, that there are about three or four deep voices suitable for the Bass to one for the upper parts, which is about the proportion required in the laws of Harmony….” (The Complete Works of William Billings vol. II, ed. Hans Nathan [Boston: American Musicological Society / Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1977], p. 18)
That’s not far from the proportion that we had in today’s class, and we sounded wonderful. Billings is right: the laws of harmony are such that a group of singers sounds its best with a big bass section. In Western harmony, the bass grounds all the other voices, and big bass sound — “majestic,” Billings calls it — makes every other voice sound better. And yes, as a bass who loves to sing bass, I am biased — but try it sometime, have twice as many basses as any other part, or three times as many, and see how good you sound.
And why was the second Sunday singing on the first Sunday? We’ll be singing at the San Francisco Free Folk Festival next week, supporting Terry and Peter in their Sacred Harp workshop.
[Posted a week late, due to heavy work commitments.]