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This score for Handel's Lascia chio pianga shows the simple accompaniment for a recitative; much of the time, the basso continuo (the lower staff in bass clef) play half notes and whole notes underneath the vocalist's recitative part. Handel, Lascia ch'io pianga autograph score, 1711.jpg
This score for Handel's Lascia chio pianga shows the simple accompaniment for a recitative; much of the time, the basso continuo (the lower staff in bass clef) play half notes and whole notes underneath the vocalist's recitative part.
A recitative from J.S. Bach's Cantata 140, "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme".

Recitative ( /ˌrɛsɪtəˈtv/ , also known by its Italian name "recitativo" ( [retʃitaˈtiːvo] )) is a style of delivery (much used in operas, oratorios, and cantatas) in which a singer is allowed to adopt the rhythms and delivery of ordinary speech. Recitative does not repeat lines as formally composed songs do. It resembles sung ordinary speech more than a formal musical composition.

Opera Artform combining sung text and musical score in a theatrical setting

Opera is a form of theatre in which music has a leading role and the parts are taken by singers, but is distinct from musical theater. Such a "work" is typically a collaboration between a composer and a librettist and incorporates a number of the performing arts, such as acting, scenery, costume, and sometimes dance or ballet. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble, which since the early 19th century has been led by a conductor.

An oratorio is a large musical composition for orchestra, choir, and soloists. Like most operas, an oratorio includes the use of a choir, soloists, an instrumental ensemble, various distinguishable characters, and arias. However, opera is musical theatre, while oratorio is strictly a concert piece – though oratorios are sometimes staged as operas, and operas are sometimes presented in concert form. In an oratorio the choir often plays a central role, and there is generally little or no interaction between the characters, and no props or elaborate costumes. A particularly important difference is in the typical subject matter of the text. Opera tends to deal with history and mythology, including age-old devices of romance, deception, and murder, whereas the plot of an oratorio often deals with sacred topics, making it appropriate for performance in the church. Protestant composers took their stories from the Bible, while Catholic composers looked to the lives of saints, as well as to Biblical topics. Oratorios became extremely popular in early 17th-century Italy partly because of the success of opera and the Catholic Church's prohibition of spectacles during Lent. Oratorios became the main choice of music during that period for opera audiences.

A cantata is a vocal composition with an instrumental accompaniment, typically in several movements, often involving a choir.


Recitative can be distinguished on a continuum from more speech-like to more musically sung, with more sustained melodic lines. The mostly syllabic recitativo secco [upper-alpha 1] ("dry", accompanied only by continuo, typically cello and harpsichord) is at one end of a spectrum, through recitativo accompagnato (using orchestra), the more melismatic arioso, and finally the full-blown aria or ensemble, where the pulse is entirely governed by the music. Secco recitatives can be more improvisatory and free for the singer, since the accompaniment is so sparse; in contrast, when recitative is accompanied by orchestra, the singer must perform in a more structured way.

Melisma is the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession. Music sung in this style is referred to as melismatic, as opposed to syllabic, in which each syllable of text is matched to a single note. An informal term for melisma is a vocal run.

In classical music, arioso[aˈrjoːzo] is a category of solo vocal piece, usually occurring in an opera or oratorio, falling somewhere between recitative and aria in style. Literally, arioso means airy. The term arose in the 16th century along with the aforementioned styles and monody. It is commonly confused with recitativo accompagnato.

Aria musical piece for a single voice as part of a larger work

In music, an aria is a self-contained piece for one voice, with or without instrumental or orchestral accompaniment, normally part of a larger work.

The term recitative (or occasionally liturgical recitative) is also applied to the simpler formulas of Gregorian chant, such as the tones used for the Epistle, Gospel, preface and collects; see accentus.

Gregorian chant Form of song

Gregorian chant is the central tradition of Western plainchant, a form of monophonic, unaccompanied sacred song in Latin of the Roman Catholic Church. Gregorian chant developed mainly in western and central Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries, with later additions and redactions. Although popular legend credits Pope Gregory I with inventing Gregorian chant, scholars believe that it arose from a later Carolingian synthesis of Roman chant and Gallican chant.

Epistle The letters in the New Testament from Apostles to Christians are usually referred to as epistles

An epistle is a writing directed or sent to a person or group of people, usually an elegant and formal didactic letter. The epistle genre of letter-writing was common in ancient Egypt as part of the scribal-school writing curriculum. The letters in the New Testament from Apostles to Christians are usually referred to as epistles. Those traditionally attributed to Paul are known as Pauline epistles and the others as catholic epistles.

Gospel description of the life of Jesus, canonical or apocryphal

Gospel originally meant the Christian message itself, but in the 2nd century it came to be used for the books in which the message was set out. The four canonical gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—were probably written between AD 66 and 110, building on older sources and traditions, and each gospel has its own distinctive understanding of Jesus and his divine role.. All four are anonymous, and it is almost certain that none were written by an eyewitness. They are the main source of information on the life of Jesus as searched for in the quest for the historical Jesus. Modern scholars are cautious of relying on them unquestioningly, but critical study attempts to distinguish the original ideas of Jesus from those of the later authors. Many non-canonical gospels were also written, all later than the four, and all advocating the particular theological views of their authors.


The first use of recitative in opera was preceded by the monodies of the Florentine Camerata in which Vincenzo Galilei, father of the astronomer Galileo Galilei, played an important role. The elder Galilei, influenced by his correspondence with Girolamo Mei on the writings of the ancient Greeks and with Erycius Puteanus on the writings of Hucbald [1] and wishing to recreate the old manner of storytelling and drama, pioneered the use of a single melodic line to tell the story, accompanied by simple chords from a harpsichord or lute.


In poetry, the term monody has become specialized to refer to a poem in which one person laments another's death.

The Florentine Camerata, also known as the Camerata de' Bardi, were a group of humanists, musicians, poets and intellectuals in late Renaissance Florence who gathered under the patronage of Count Giovanni de' Bardi to discuss and guide trends in the arts, especially music and drama. They met at the house of Giovanni de' Bardi, and their gatherings had the reputation of having all the most famous men of Florence as frequent guests. After first meeting in 1573, the activity of the Camerata reached its height between 1577 and 1582. While propounding a revival of the Greek dramatic style, the Camerata's musical experiments led to the development of the stile recitativo. In this way it facilitated the composition of dramatic music and the development of opera.

Vincenzo Galilei Italian lutenist, composer and music theorist

Vincenzo Galilei was an Italian lutenist, composer, and music theorist, and the father of astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei and the lute virtuoso and composer Michelagnolo Galilei. He was a seminal figure in the musical life of the late Renaissance and contributed significantly to the musical revolution which demarcates the beginning of the Baroque era.

In the Baroque era, recitatives were commonly rehearsed on their own by the stage director, the singers frequently supplying their own favourite baggage arias which might be by a different composer (some of Mozart's so-called concert arias fall into this category). This division of labour persisted in some of Rossini's works; the secco recitatives for The Barber of Seville and La Cenerentola were composed by assistants. [2]

Baroque music Style of Western art music

Baroque music is a period or style of Western art music composed from approximately 1600 to 1750. This era followed the Renaissance music era, and was followed in turn by the Classical era. Baroque music forms a major portion of the "classical music" canon, and is now widely studied, performed, and listened to. Key composers of the Baroque era include Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, Claudio Monteverdi, Domenico Scarlatti, Alessandro Scarlatti, Henry Purcell, Georg Philipp Telemann, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Arcangelo Corelli, Tomaso Albinoni, François Couperin, Giuseppe Tartini, Heinrich Schütz, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Dieterich Buxtehude, and Johann Pachelbel.

Insertion aria

An insertion aria is an aria sung in an opera for which it was not composed. It was a practice that began in the seventeenth century and continued actively through the late 19th century and sporadically through the 20th century. The insertion aria could replace an existing aria, or might be added to an opera. All insertions were planned in advance. They might be composed by the same composer of the opera, or might have been written by a different composer, with or without the knowledge of the opera's composer. Most insertions were of arias; infrequently non-operatic songs were inserted. Insertions could consist of arias, duets, ensembles, even entire scenes. Although men and women singers used insertion, women are the ones most remembered for the practice. The years 1800–1840 represent the apex of influence that women singers exerted over the operatic stage, influencing most aspects of opera performances, including insertions.

<i>The Barber of Seville</i> 1816 opera by Gioachino Rossini

The Barber of Seville, or The Useless Precaution is an opera buffa in two acts by Gioachino Rossini with an Italian libretto by Cesare Sterbini. The libretto was based on Pierre Beaumarchais's French comedy Le Barbier de Séville (1775). The première of Rossini's opera took place on 20 February 1816 at the Teatro Argentina, Rome, with designs by Angelo Toselli.


Secco recitatives, popularized in Florence though the proto-opera music dramas of Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini during the late 16th century, formed the substance of Claudio Monteverdi's operas during the 17th century, and continued to be used into the 19th century Romantic era by such composers as Gaetano Donizetti, reappearing in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress . They also influenced areas of music outside opera from the outset; the recitatives of Johann Sebastian Bach, found in his passions and cantatas, are especially notable.

Jacopo Peri Italian composer and singer

Jacopo Peri, known under the pseudonym Il Zazzerino, I was an Italian composer and singer of the transitional period between the Renaissance and Baroque styles, and is often called the inventor of opera. He wrote the first work to be called an opera today, Dafne, and also the first opera to have survived to the present day, Euridice (1600).

Giulio Caccini Italian composer

Giulio Romolo Caccini, was an Italian composer, teacher, singer, instrumentalist and writer of the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras. He was one of the founders of the genre of opera, and one of the most influential creators of the new Baroque style. He was also the father of the composer Francesca Caccini and the singer Settimia Caccini.

Claudio Monteverdi 16th and 17th-century Italian composer

Claudio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi was an Italian composer, string player and choirmaster. A composer of both secular and sacred music, and a pioneer in the development of opera, he is considered a crucial transitional figure between the Renaissance and the Baroque periods of music history.

In the early operas and cantatas of the Florentine school, secco recitatives were accompanied by a variety of instruments, mostly plucked fretted strings including the chitarrone, often with a pipe organ to provide sustained tone. Later, in the operas of Vivaldi and Händel, the accompaniment was standardised as a harpsichord and a bass viol or violoncello. When the harpsichord was gradually phased out over the late 18th century, and mostly disappeared in the early 19th century, many opera-houses did not replace it with the fortepiano, a hammered-string keyboard invented in 1700.

Instead the violoncello was left to carry on alone, or with reinforcement from a double bass. A 1919 recording of Rossini's Barber of Seville , issued by Italian HMV, gives a unique glimpse of this technique in action, as do cello methods of the period and some scores of Meyerbeer. There are examples of the revival of the harpsichord for this purpose as early as the 1890s (e.g. by Hans Richter for a production of Mozart's Don Giovanni at the London Royal Opera House, the instrument being supplied by Arnold Dolmetsch), but it was not until the 1950s that the 18th-century method was consistently observed once more. In the 2010s, the early music revival movement has led to the re-introduction of harpsichord in some Baroque performances.

Accompagnato (or obbligato)

Mozart's Ombra Felice (1776), which uses the orchestra to accompany the recitative. Ombra felice Refrain.TIF
Mozart's Ombra Felice (1776), which uses the orchestra to accompany the recitative.

Accompanied recitative, known as accompagnato or stromentato, employs the orchestra as an accompanying body. The composer writes an arrangement for the orchestra musicians. As a result, it is less improvisational and declamatory than recitativo secco, and more song-like. This form is often employed where the orchestra can underscore a particularly dramatic text, as in Thus saith the Lord from Händel's Messiah ; Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were also fond of it. A more inward intensification calls for an arioso; the opening of "Comfort ye" from the same work is a famous example, while the ending of it ("The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness") is secco.

Sometimes a distinction is made between the more dramatic, expressive, or interjecting 'orchestral recitative' (recitativo obbligato or stromentato) and a more passive and sustained 'accompanied recitative' (recitativo accompagnato). [3]

Post-Wagner uses

Later operas, under the influence of Richard Wagner, favored through-composition, where recitatives, arias, choruses and other elements were seamlessly interwoven into a whole. Many of Wagner's operas employ sections which are analogous to accompanied recitative.

Recitative is also occasionally used in musicals, being put to ironic use in the finale of Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera . It also appears in Carousel and Of Thee I Sing .

George Gershwin used it in his opera Porgy and Bess , though sometimes the recitative in that work is changed to spoken dialogue. Porgy and Bess has also been staged as a musical rather than as an opera.

Instrumental recitative

Recitative has also sometimes been used to refer to parts of purely instrumental works which resemble vocal recitatives, in terms of their musical style. In an instrumental recitative, one instrument (or group of instruments) are given the melody line (akin to the role of the singer) and another instrument (or group of instruments) are given the accompaniment role. One of the earliest examples is found in the slow movement of Vivaldi's violin concerto in D, RV 208 which is marked 'Recitative', although it is perhaps more virtuosic and flashy than most operatic recitative. C. P. E. Bach included instrumental recitative in his "Prussian" piano sonatas of 1742, composed at Frederick the Great's court in Berlin. In 1761, Joseph Haydn took his post at Esterhazy Palace and soon after composed his Symphony No. 7 ("Le Midi") in concertante style (i.e. with soloists). In the second movement of that work, the violinist is the soloist in an instrumental recitative.

Ludwig van Beethoven used the instrumental recitative in at least three works, including Piano Sonata No. 17 (The Tempest), Piano Sonata No. 31, and perhaps most famously in the opening section of the Finale of his Ninth Symphony. Here, Beethoven inscribed on the score (in French) "In the manner of a recitative, but in tempo." Leon Plantinga argues that the second movement of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto is also an instrumental recitative, [4] although Owen Jander interprets it as a dialogue. [5]

Other Romantic music era composers to employ instrumental recitative include Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (who composed a lyrical, virtuosic recitative for solo violin with harp accompaniment to represent the title character in his orchestral Scheherazade ) and Hector Berlioz (whose choral symphony Roméo et Juliette contains a trombone recitative as part of its Introduction).

Arnold Schoenberg labeled the last of his Five Pieces for Orchestra , Op. 16, as "Das obligate Rezitativ" (English: "The obbligato recitative"), and also composed a piece for organ, Variations on a Recitative, Op. 40. Other examples of instrumental recitative in twentieth century music include the third movement of Douglas Moore's Quintet for Clarinet and Strings (1946), the first of Richard Rodney Bennett's Five Impromptus for guitar (1968), the opening section of the last movement of Benjamin Britten's String Quartet No. 3 (1975), and the second of William Bolcom's 12 New Etudes for Piano (1977–86).

See also

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  1. plural: recitativi secchi
  1. Hope 1894, p. ??
  2. Gossett 2006, p. 249
  3. Deane L. Root (ed.). "Orchestral recitative". Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online . Oxford University Press.(subscription required)
  4. Plantinga 1996, p. 186
  5. Jander 1985, pp. 195–212