Soap-box: The Baritone Part

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soapboxThe standard method for arranging in the barbershop style sees three of the four parts constrained by particular rules. The lead has the tune, the bass goes below the lead and takes the root or the fifth of the chord, and the tenor should sit on top and move by small intervals, never greater than a fourth.

This means that the baritone part gets, as the cliché has it, all the left-over notes. It hops above and below the lead line to fill in the chord, and is constrained neither by rules of pitch content (it can take any note in the chord) nor type of movement (it can move by any interval). So it is defined entirely in negative terms – it is what all the other parts are not.

As I discussed in Chapter 8 of The British Barbershopper, the resultant character of the lines contributes significantly to the stereotype of the baritone as a rather idiosyncratic type of personality. They think of things in slightly kooky, counter-intuitive ways, as a result of singing all these unpredictable lines; they are both clever (the lines can be tricky to sing) and daft (the lines may not make much musical sense in themselves).

However, I’m increasingly of the view that this stereotype also has the effect of letting arrangers off the hook. There is no cultural expectation on us to produce singable, musically coherent lines for baritones to sing, and so we stop short of solving all the technical problems that arranging presents. Classical harmony and counterpoint demands control over both vertical and horizontal parameters of the music, so barbershop’s obsession with harmony to the exclusion of voice-leading is arguably just a cop-out. Just because some of our geekier friends pride themselves on being able sing whatever illogical nonsense we throw at them doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for musical elegance in all four parts.

These days I look to the baritone part as a way to test the overall musical decisions. If it has a sense of integrity as a line to sing – some shape, some relationship with lyric, some sense of traveling somewhere – then that gives us good news about the validity of the chord and voicing choices. If it lurches about all over the place like a novice roller-skater in a hilly park, then the chances are there are opportunities for better chord choices (where better = both more artistic and more performable) that the arranger has missed.

But surely the joy of watching a section of glasses-clad baritones move their shoulders uncontrolablly and struggle to find their note is far more personally rewarding than a muscally elegant baritone line?....=p

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