Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


Appendix 2 -- Basses and Baritones


Bill Schneider asked: How can one tell the difference between a true bass and a bass baritone? I've been a little confused regarding what precisely the difference is, in terms of which parts in G&S are which, and how one can tell the difference in someone's voice. Thanks to anyone who wants to clear this up.

David Craven replied: I am sure that someone will provide a formal definition of these roles, but as I don't find such formal definitions particularly helpful (and no, I am not going to start the baritenor discussion again), I am going to put down how I judge roles. To me a Bass role suggests the roles with the lowest bottom range, the lowest tessitura (essentially the average place where it sits) and the darkest colour. With rare exception, the colour and bottom is really too much for Gilbert and Sullivan, and these very rare singers (for a true bass is rarer than most types of tenors) are generally only in limited types of grand opera. A bass-baritone will sit a tad bit, if at all higher in the lowest note, the tessitura will be a bit higher and the colour will be much less dark. There are a number of different weights possible for a bass-baritone, and for the most part, a middle weight bass-baritone is dark enough (bassy enough if you will) for most G&S parts.

Baritones are yet another step up the spectrum, and usually are required to be able to carry a lighter colour down into the lower parts of the bass clef, but it is rare to find a baritone with an extension which goes down into ledger lines below the bass clef. Most G&S tenor roles fall within the compass, if not the tessitura of operatic baritones, but the range is a bit off.

Next up the line either comes tenors (and the subsets of tenors) if you are a traditionalist, or Baritenors if you are using a term which is not accepted in more conservative musical circles, but which has a great deal of acceptance in other areas. "Baritenors" tend to have an extended upper range on top and the tessitura of several of the lower end tenors, but with a heavier more baritone like sound. (Of course if you do not accept the term Baritenor, than apply this definition to whatever type of Baritone name the traditionalists assign to this class)

In other words, its a difficult issue based on top and bottom notes, tessitura, and weight. Depending on the various characteristics, you will see some degree of overlap.


Page created 2 May 1998