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  • Jay Fleming

What is an Oktavist?

Updated: Jun 16


The Origins and Context of the Oktavist

Since this website is devoted to the oktavist, this question seems an appropriate place to begin. Simply put, the term oktavist is most precisely used to refer to basses that sing down to contra B flat and lower in a choral setting. I will, however, attempt to explain the historical and cultural origins of the oktavist so that we may come to a better understanding of the term and its history. It is helpful to consider the term oktavist (sometimes anglicized as octavist) in relation to the closely related term basso profondo. Basso profondo is Italian in origin, and has a long history of clear definition within the operatic tradition, being subdivided into the categories of lyric and dramatic. The operatic basso profondo sings the darkest, heaviest roles: Osmin, the Grand Inquisitor, Sarastro. The lowest note in the standard operatic repertoire is Osmin’s D2, though on occasion one finds lower notes performed and written. The basso profondo thus sings down to low D or even low C—and he can project these notes over an entire orchestra.

While the term basso profondo comes from Italy and the opera tradition, oktavist has its roots in the choirs of Russia. Basso profondo has been used outside Italy for centuries, but oktavist has remained essentially unknown outside the Slavic world until the twenty-first century. Since the year 2000, English use of the term has increased, much in part to the internet and its resultant globalization. If we trace English usage of the term oktavist over the past century, we find almost nothing. In preparing this site, I searched the hundreds of thousands of English texts Google has digitized and found that the term oktavist only occurs in print twice between 1900 and 2000. The first instance is in a 1914 article on the Russian Cathedral Choir of St. Nicholas in New York under Ivan T. Gorokoboff. Isabel Hapgood writes:

One of the four bassos is an “oktavist” who sings a whole octave below the ordinary deep basso, reaching A; and the choir is very soon to posses one of the four great oktavists of Russia, who descends two full tones lower, to F, and balances a choir of one hundred and fifty, if required.[1]

The second use of term comes eighty-five years later in a 1999 review in BBC Magazine about Georgy Smirnov’s disc Basso Profondo from Old Russia, published that same year. My research indicates that Smirnov’s recording propelled the awareness of the oktavist into the contemporary Western consciousness. (Though the album uses the term basso profondo in its title, the liner notes describe the history of the oktavist in fascinating detail.) After Smirnov’s recording became popular, the Internet gave more attention to these voices, and one finds people everywhere discussing the oktavist. If we look at web results instead of print results, we find the same shift has occurred: before the year 1999, there is not a single web result for the term oktavist. If we search pages written since in 2000 and thereafter, however, there are over 8,000 results.[2] Accordingly, it is only since the year 2000 that the term oktavist has come into common usage outside the Russian-speaking world.

Thus, for much of history the oktavist has remained a phenomenon primarily within Russian vocal music. It makes sense to apply the term outside of Russia: we use basso profondo to describe non-Italian singers, so it is reasonable that we call unusually low choral basses oktavists even when these singers are not Russian or even performing Russian compositions. To use the term when referring to different genres, however, results in a lack of clarity, since the range and volume of the oktavist is what sets him apart, and in other genres, both range and volume are governed by an entirely different set of variables and practices. In much popular music, singers may use technology (amplification, autotune, compression) coupled with unusual vocal techniques (vocal fry) to expand their range far beyond what is useful in an unamplified context.

The oktavist does not rely on such technology to produce notes in the contra octave. As a result, his vocal technique is limited to that which can be tuned properly and heard clearly in an unamplified, live performance. Accordingly, it makes little sense to look for oktavists in the world of amplified singing. There is certainly nothing wrong with using amplification and similar technology within these genres, but to apply the term oktavist in such a context is both misleading an inexact. This is not to say that singers who do not sing choral repertoire cannot sing low notes, but rather that there are other, more accurate terms that can be used to describe these singers.[3] The origins of the oktavist accordingly inform us that this term is most appropriate used to describe those who sing the exceptionally low notes in a choral context. This most often occurs in the Russian repertoire, but as I will discuss later, there are similar traditions in other cultures.

We should note that there is considerable overlap between the terms basso profondo and oktavist. Many oktavists are basso profondi if we group their voices according to Italian terminology, and many of the premier oktavists performing today have also enjoyed success in the world of opera. Vladimir Miller, who studied under Kurt Moll, is a perfect example of this trend. While the color and timbre of the voice are extremely important when considering operatic roles, this is not so much the case for oktavists in a choral setting. The main issue is whether or not the singer has the low notes: I know of young oktavists performing in choirs today who can sing as low as a contra F despite having a more youthful sounding voice that is not as dark and heavy as a typical basso profondo of the opera. While one might not have such a singer play the role of Osmin, any choir director would be pleased to have him in the ensemble when performing Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil. In this sense, the term oktavist does not refer so much to a voice type as a role in a choir.

The Range of the Oktavist

Just how far down does the oktavist range extend? We noted that the operatic basso profondo sings down to D2 or C2 at the lowest, though lower notes have been recorded.[4] The lowest written notes in the Russian choral repertoire are substantially lower than that of opera.[5] Chesnokov explains that some of the stronger basses might sing down to a low C, thus being more analogous to what we might term basso profondo, while the oktavist range extends down to contra G.

Chesnokov’s Diagram of the Oktavist Range

As we can see here, Chesnokov did not like oktavists to utilize the upper parts of their range, judging this to sound unpleasant. Similarly, there was a persistent belief that highlighting the upper range would someone weaken the lower range of the oktavist, but this has since been discredited, as many prominent oktavists have utilized their high range with no effect on the lower range. Vladimir Miller, who studied under Kurt Moll, has written that it is actually essential to develop the upper range in order to have an overall healthy voice.

As far as requirements on the oktavist voice by Russian composers, the contra B flat at the end of Rachmaninov’s “Nyne Otpushchayeshi” is by far the most notorious note in this repertoire, but it is not the lowest. Grechaninov’s Vespers descend to A, and Sviridov has written notes as low as the F# below low C.

Sviridov's F#1 from "Predatel'stvo Iudy" - Listen Here

While it is rare to hear a note as low as F# even in the world of Russian choirs, most oktavists should be able to reach at least a B flat to perform works like Rachmaninov’s Vespers, since the note cannot be avoided on the final descent of the fifth movement.

Anyone who has listened to the choirs of Russia knows that written notes are only half of the story. As their name implies, oktavists often octave the bass line: for example, Sveshnikov’s 1965 recording of the Vespers octaves the G at the close of movement 14.[6] If a conductor has the basses to do it, he or she will often have them sing notes that are not in the score at all. Sometimes the oktavist will octave notes regardless of the conductor. A Moscow chorister recalls the following story:

In 1975, Polansky’s Chamber Choir went to the competition in Arezzo. According to the rules of the competition program except they had to sing a concert of sacred music, so included in the program was Rachmaninov’s “Rejoice, O Mother of God”. We all enjoyed listening: at the end a young Yuri Vishnyakov, loudly and confidently sang the penultimate C, but then he suddenly, spontaneously he resolved, not at the top, as is the usual, but down to the contra F. This was a surprise not only for all of us, but also for Polansky, and, I think, the most for Vishnyakov himself. The experience was absolutely stunning.[7]

Like Vishnyakov, many well known oktavists have performed and recorded notes down to contra F# or even F, and several have sung as low as E or Eb.[8] At the lowest extreme, we have Alexander Ort, who has sung down to D1 in a live performance, and Zlatopolsky, who has sung a double low C.

Zlatopolsky sings a double low C with the Verhoeff Cossack Choir

Such notes are of course faint, but audible. To sum up: the term oktavist is most precisely used to refer to basses who sing down to contra B flat and lower in a choral setting.

Oktavism and the Future of the Oktavist

Now that we have a fairly clear idea of what the oktavist is, I would like to develop the term oktavism—the title of this site. Oktavism is a term I have used to describe the fourfold relationship that produces music featuring these unique voices. The first ingredient in this relationship is of course the oktavist: the existence of such voices is a prerequisite for the production of this music. The second element of oktavism is the composers who write for the oktavist. Given the relative paucity of oktavist repertoire, new compositions for these unique singers have a large effect on the tradition: just think of the impact Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil has had upon public awareness of the Russian bass. The third factor is found in the music directors, conductors, and teachers who encourage performance and exploration of this repertoire. Given the rarity of the oktavist voice, it is often up to such men and women to undertake the formidable task of uniting performer and composition. The final element of oktavism is the audience: listeners and enthusiasts who have a love for the music produced by the oktavist voice.

As we move into the twenty-first century, we see an increase in all four elements of oktavism. Popular awareness of the oktavist has grown in recent years, in great part due to Georgy Smirnov’s Basso Profondo from Old Russia. This was the disc sparked my interest years ago and inspired me to research the oktavist. There was little to no information on the internet: I was able to track down CDs with performances by Vladimir Pasyukov and Vladimir Miller, but found little beyond this. Feeling that people should know about this exciting musical oddity, I edited excerpts from the audio of these CDs and sent them to the webmasters and webmistresses of sites devoted to opera, and received a largely positive response. Soon, someone edited the audio excerpts I had sent out together with a photo montage of Orthodox churches and posted the video to Youtube. The interest in these clips exploded, garnering hundreds of thousands of views over the coming years, as others joined in the internet’s fascination with the lowest of the low.

While the phenomenon of the oktavist gains prominence as a novelty on the internet, it also garners increased attention in the musical world: many non-Russian choirs have recently recorded Russian repertoire. All over Europe, recordings of Rachmaninov’s Vespers have been popping up, along with albums featuring even more obscure works. Ensembles in the U.K. like the Holst Singers and Tenebrae have recorded fantastic renditions by Grechaninov, Chesnokov, and others. In the U.S., choirs like Conspirare and the Illumni Men’s Chorale have recorded Russian choral masterpieces employing the amazing voice of Glenn Miller and other American oktavists. Composers have also taken an increased interest in exploring the lower end of choirs. Welsh composer Paul Mealor has begun highlighting the lower end of the choir in his work, employing basses that function quite like the oktavists of the Russian Orthodox tradition.

In recent years I have joined a Facebook group that has increased my awareness of the multifaceted world of low voices. All over the world we are finding that other cultures have a place for the low bass as well. If we look to the Romanian Orthodox church, renaissance and baroque repertoire, or even the klapa jelsa tradition of Croatia we find basses singing into the contra octave as well. Although the nature of human genetics makes any tradition focusing on such low voices a rarity, this rarity also strengthens these traditions: the voice that is so low that it is one-in-a-million occurrence will perhaps always inspire awe and interest, though at times it remains a whispered legend by necessity.

The future of the oktavist is a bright one, and I hope my website will foster greater interest in this musical phenomenon that is so uniquely and wonderfully profound.

Notes

[1] “The Russian Cathedral Choir” Harper’s Weekly. February 28 1914, p. 26.

[2] Found via searches conducted November 14, 2014, using Google. We may also note that for web results, the internet is growing as a whole, so most search results will show a great upward trend after the year 2000. The extreme uptake in the use of this term (from zero to eight thousand), however, indicates more than a normal growth in results.

[3] For example, in Southern Gospel, it is the norm for basses to use microphones in order to extend the low range as far as possible. There is no distinction made in this genre between a “normal” bass and a lower bass beyond noting the exception depth of particular basses.

[4] The lowest I am aware of is John Ames’s contra A in Somtow’s opera "Ayodhya".

[5] We should note the difference in context: the volume and stamina required by opera is generally far more demanding than that required from most choral singers.

[6] 1965 Vespers, dr. A. Sveshnikov. Movement 14: Thou Didst Rise from the Tomb.

[7] See discussion on Forumklassika.ru.

[8] A soviet-era oktavist named Streltsov was known for octaving the E flat at the end of Rachmaninov’s “Tebe Poem,” and Vladimir Miller and Alexander Ort have also octaved this note.

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