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An octavist or oktavist sometimes referred to as contrabass (Russian: октавист; also called sub-bass in southern gospel groups or a cappella contemporary Christian groups) is a type of male singer who sings an octave below the normal bass part, especially typical of Russian Orthodox vocal music. This voice type has a lower vocal range than that which the Western school of music terms "basso profondo". Indeed, a singer of this voice type sings a full octave below the first-bass register, having an optimal comfortable vocal range of A1-E3 ( an octave below the bass staff )[citation needed], though some reach as far down as F1 and an absolutely rare few even lower. It is most common to use this term to refer to classically trained singers.

Because the voice usually takes a very long time to develop and grow, low notes sound resonant and full and sometimes extremely loud (Russian octavists), when the singer is around 40 or even 50 years of age; thus the part is often reserved to older men.[1] This practice and tradition is illustrated in the CD "Basso Profondo From Old Russia". On the sixth track, "Do Not Reject Me In My Old Age" (Ne Otverzhi Mene) by Pavel Chesnokov, the oktavist soloist sings a G1.[2]

Approximate vocal range of an operatic basso profondo, middle C to (C2), vocal range of a Russian Octavist, middle C to (G1) and rarely to (F1), most Octavists have an optimal comfortable vocal range of A1-E3


Pavel Chesnokov divides the bass section into these groups:[citation needed]

  1. baritones ;
  2. light basses ;
  3. strong basses ;
  4. strong basses with a good low register;
  5. oktavists with medium range , power and a soft sound; and
  6. strong and deep oktavists.

So it makes sense to put most basses who fall in between E2 and C2 in the third and fourth groups, depending on their power. Groups 4 and 5 are considered Basso profondos, leaving group 6 as the proper oktavists .


Parts for basses have included notes as low as the B-flat two octaves and a tone below middle C (B1), for example in the Rachmaninov Vespers, G below that (e.g. Measure 76 of Ne Otverzhi Mene by Pavel Chesnokov), or F below those in Kheruvimskaya pesn (Song of Cherubim) by Krzysztof Penderecki. This last song, written by Penderecki, is very rarely performed, as it is extremely rare to find a man who can sing a contra F-note.

Along with a third oktavist, Sergei Kochetov, Vladimir Miller and Mikhail Kruglov recently recorded a number of classic Russian folk songs and similar music, singing them in a low-pitched key. The idea was to invoke the old oktavist tradition which dates back to the Tzar's court, where there would be several oktavists assembled to sing when called upon. The trio also sang in a number of concerts as a part of the project.[citation needed]

In 2005, Paul Mealor composed "De Profundis", based on Psalm 130, and which was commissioned by George Chittenden. This was first performed by him at St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, 6 August 2005. Recently, the St.Petersburg chamber choir recorded the album "Tranquillity Voices of deep calm." The soloist, Tim Storms, hits an E1, one of the lowest notes recorded. It is, however, disputed whether Storms could classify as an octavist as such, taking into account that he comes from the American gospel tradition and that he has not been trained as a classical singer, which makes him dependent on microphone amplification when singing low notes, where as the typical octavist would not require amplification. It should also be mentioned that there are recordings of Russian music where lower notes than the E1 is sung, as Michail Zlatopolski is recorded singing a C1 with the Don Kosaken Choir, and also a little known Russian choir, All the Afflicted, can be heard on YouTube with one bass singing a faint B0, without a microphone.

Notable Russian oktavists[edit]

Notable octavists from other countries[edit]

Oktavists in other genres[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Croan, Robert (7 October 2010). "The basses of 'the Barber'". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 17 October 2010. 
  2. ^ "Orthodox Singers Male Choir". Basso Profondo from Old Russia. Retrieved 21 February 2013. G1 occurs at 6:36 - 6:40 
  • Basso Profondo From Old Russia, Liner Notes, Russian Season, CD: RUS 288 158, 1999. Accessed 8 January 2009.

Further reading[edit]

  • Morosan, Vladimir Choral Performance in Pre-revolutionary Russia, UMI Research Press, 1986. ISBN 0-8357-1713-5
  • Rommereim, J. C., "The Choir and How to Direct It: Pavel Chesnokov's magnum opus", Choral Journal, Official Publication of the American Choral Directors Association, XXXVIII, no. 7, 1998