The Lament Bass: From Purcell to Guettel
Updated: Feb 22
What do 17th century composer Henry Purcell, theatre veterans Andrew Lloyd Webber and Adam Guettel, and iconic rock band the Beatles all have in common? These are composers and musicians from vastly different eras with widely divergent musical styles. And yet, some musical ideas are so timeless that they cross boundaries of style and medium. So put on your music theory hats, folks, because today we're talking about the lament bass!
Let's break this down in the simplest possible terms. What even is a bass line anyway? The bass is the lowest note in a chord and it's important because it's the foundation of the whole harmony. When analyzing a chord, we actually use the bass to determine precisely what kind of chord it is. See the example below, for instance. Each of the chords below consist of the same three notes: C, E, and G - your basic C Major chord. And yet, the positioning of the bass note changes the way we label the chord. In the first example, the bass note is a C. We call this a root position chord. In the next one, the bass note is an E. Now the chord is a first inversion C Major chord. And the third example where the bass has moved to the G, (you can probably see where I'm going here) that's a second inversion C Major chord. And it's more than just a label - the positioning of the bass note affects the entire flavor of the chord. The root position chord is more stable than the second inversion and would be used in different circumstances within a composition.
The bass notes, or lowest notes of each chord, have been highlighted in red.
So now that we understand what the bass is, let's look at what it can do. There are certain harmonic motions that are pretty common in music theory, and the movement from the tonic to the dominant is really, really popular with composers of all eras and genres. Tonic and dominant are technical terms, but to put it simply, we're talking about the movement between the first note of the scale and the fifth. If you remember your Sound of Music (Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do!) then it might help to know that this is the movement from Do to Sol. There are two ways to get from Do to Sol using stepwise motion - you can go up (Do Re Mi Fa Sol) or you can go down (Do Ti La Sol). We call this a step-descent bass when the composer has chosen to move down from Do to Sol.
Somewhere along the line, a composer or two realized that although moving from Do to Ti to La to Sol was cool, it would be even cooler to move by half steps. Half steps are the smallest intervallic movement possible. Essentially, that bass is taking its sweet time to get from Do to Sol. In solfege terms that's Do Ti Te La Le Sol. In this particular alignment, the step descent bass is commonly referred to as the lament bass. You see, composers realized that this whole harmonic descent thing works waaay better in a minor key (think of it as a sad key), and something about that droopy harmonic movement made their compositions sound particularly somber - hence the lament.
One of the best and most famous examples of the lament bass can found in English composer Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas. At the end of Act III, Dido is distraught over the departure of her lover Aeneas. "When I am laid in earth," she sings, addressing her maid Belinda, "May my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast. Remember me! But ah! Forget my fate." Dido's heartbreak (spoiler alert) is going to kill her in the end, so this particular aria, popularly known as Dido's Lament, is sort of a swan song for her, a last goodbye. It doesn't get much sadder than this.
Excerpt from Henry Purcell's 17th century opera Dido and Aeneas with step-descent bass highlighted in red.
Reference the musical score above to see exactly how the lament bass operates. Watch how it descends gracefully from G to F# to F to E to E♭ to D (Do Ti Te La Le Sol). Also in evidence in Purcell's masterpiece is another common feature of the lament bass - a drone-like repetition of this descent pattern. We call this an ostinato. The ostinato is important - we'll get to that in a moment, but for now we'll put a pin in it.
Where else can we find the step-descent bass? Well, once you know what you're looking for, you'll start to notice it popping up all over the place. American popular tunes such as "The Erie Canal" and "Hit the Road, Jack" make use of the descent bass. You'll also find it in George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" from the Beatles' White album - the weeping guitar of the text perhaps suggesting to Harrison the idea of a lament. It also makes an appearance in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, during Jesus' second act lament "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)." Presumably Weber felt it appropriate that Jesus might, like Dido, lament his fate a bit in this moment.
Victoria Clark sings "Dividing Day" in the Original Broadway Cast Recording of The Light in the Piazza
One of my very favorite applications of the lament bass can be found in Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza. Midway through Act I, we are given a bit more insight into the fraught relationship of protagonist Margaret (played brilliantly by Victoria Clark in the original cast) and her husband, Roy. Plaintively, she sings, "I can see the winter in your eyes now, telling me: 'Marg'ret, we did it. You curtsied, I bowed. We are together. But no more love- no more love allowed.'" The winter in your eyes? Yikes. This is a time for a lament if ever there was one.
The lament bass is featured right from the get-go in this particular piece. You can hear the bass descend from G to F# to F to E to E♭ to D under the very first text of the piece ("Dashing as the day we met..."). Guettel actually takes this idea even further, continuing the step-descent bass all the way back down to the tonic G. And like Purcell, Guettel employs an ostinato, repeating the descent bass over and over again throughout the remainder of the piece.
Excerpt from Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza with step-descent bass highlighted in red.
Why the ostinato? The repetition is certainly a key element of the lament bass both in Dido's Lament and in "Dividing Day" and in many of its other iterations throughout music history. I'd like to think that the repetition of this somber bass line with its accompanying chromatic harmonies is part of what makes these pieces so tragic. There is a sense of inevitability in the repetition, an indication that the subject truly feels there is no escape from the current despair. This is certainly true of Dido who has resigned herself to a lonely death in the wake of her lover's departure. Knowing what we do about the history of the lament bass and the application of that bleak ever-repeating ostinato pattern, the repetition of the lament bass in "Dividing Day" can provide greater insight for the actor into Margaret's state of mind. She is not simply questioning her marriage, but coming to terms with the fact that her relationship cannot be salvaged at this point. This is the musical language of a woman who has resigned herself to a loveless marriage.
It can be fun to look for the shared musical idioms that pop up across genres over the course of music history. Who would have thought that George Harrison, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Henry Purcell might borrow from the same musical traditions? But more importantly, it can be useful to the working actor to not only study these musical traditions, but to consider how the application of an age-old musical concept such as the lament bass can inform character. By understanding the traditional application of the lament bass in the 17th century, we are given greater insight into the thoughts and motivations of a character written in the 21st.