Falling bass lines and ground basses

April 2, 2009

For the first week of my music theory course, we have focused on songs with falling bass lines.

Today, we started with the so-called air on a G string by J.S. Bach. As an amusement, I quizzed what a G string was in context of a strip club, and Marcos correctly answered that it referred to a slim garment etc. I thought is odd that actually the thinnest string on a violin is an E string, so why don’t they call them E strings?
J.S. Bach: Air on a G string

When I grew up, the almost cartoon-like figure of a black-cloaked man with wild white hair as conductor was most likely created by Leopold Stokowsky, who conducts in Disney’s FANTASIA. Listen to the bass line that repeats over and over. That is what a passacaglia is: it is a variation form. The composer composes the bass line and jams over it. This orchestration is by Leopold himself, here rather elderly.

JS Bach/Stokowski: Passacagila and Fugue (Passacaglia only)

There are famous falling bass songs from the 1960s that people my age know, and you may hear from time to time on oldies radio stations. The most famous are:

Procol Harum: A Whiter Shade of Pale

Jerry Jeff Walker: Mr Bojangles

And then there are the great Beatles falling bass songs:

Lennon and McCartney: Day in the Life

Lennon and McCartney: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Lennon and McCartney: For No One

Rufus Wainwright loves falling bass music.

Rufus Wainwright: Dinner at Eight

Rufus Wainwright: “Complainte de la butte

[If you like Rufus’s Complainte, check out the original;]

And who can forget the young Billy Joel’s famous:

Billy Joel: Piano Man

And some of you old 60s die-hards will remember one of my favorite:

Procol Harum: Salty Dog

Because my class is full of so many students of different backgrounds, their first assignment may be in any style for any instrumentation. But it must feature a falling bass line.

Today I introduced the ground bass. While I listened to this next performance by Jessye Norman, my t-shirt was wet from tears. I pulled it together to play it for my class, and let many of them cry instead.

Henry Purcell: DIDO and AENEAS – When I am laid in earth (“Dido’s Lament”)

A popular song that shares a very similar bass line served as a palate cleanser:

Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman: MARY POPPINS “Chim Chim Cheree

Next week we will experience the crucifixion and another ground bass composition by studying:

J.S. Bach: B minor Mass “Crucifixus

I want to know more falling bass songs from all genres. Let me know if you can think of more.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Brad Wood April 3, 2009 at 1:55 pm

On the G string, wiki:

“The origin of the term “G-string” is obscure. Since the 19th century the term geestring referred to the string which held the loincloth of American Indians [1]and later referred to the narrow loincloth itself. William Safire in his Ode on a G-String quoted the usage of the word “G-string” for loincloth by Harper’s Magazine 15 years after Beadle’s and suggested that the magazine confused the word with the musical term G-string (i.e., the string for the G note). Safire also mentions the opinion of linguist Robert Hendrickson that G (or gee) stands for groin, which was a taboo word at these times.”

For more descending bass lines, I think one of the loveliest pieces of the period is Biagio Marini’s Passacaglia a 4, available on Capriccio Stravagante’s Monteverdi e il suo Tempo CD, and an earlier recording by Musica Antiqua Köln, Early Italian Violin Music.

Brad Wood April 6, 2009 at 10:48 am

I had that CD with me yesterday, but missed you guys at Mark’s by a few minutes, thanks in part to a car fire that made the last 4 miles of the trip take about half an hour 🙁

There is also a fabulous ending to one of the Monteverdi selections that has some awesome suspensions. No wonder a number of his contemporaries were shaking their heads!

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