Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Recitative is an interesting musical genre that was developed specifically to handle the need to set a lot of words, often in ordinary prose rather than verse. Its origins were in the research that members of the Florentine Camerata did into Greek drama. Based on the idea that the ancient Greeks actually sung, not just the choruses, but all of the texts of their dramas, the late-sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Italians tried to re-invent the music. In the process they came up with a lot of new forms and genres including the very idea of opera. Let it not be said that musical experimentation is sterile!

Here is an early example of the kind of thing they came up with. This is not pure recitative, but the words and vocal line certainly dominate:

Here is a more typical kind of early recitative by Monteverdi:

The most important thing is the words, so the melody just serves to heighten the normal rise and fall of expressive speech. The accompaniment is bare bones chords and there is no audible pulse as the chords are pitch and place-holders inserted between vocal phrases.

Bach, as you might expect, gives us a much more elaborate example. Here is the Evangelist describing the rending of the veil of the temple from the St. Matthew Passion. The recitative is the first minute and a half of the clip and it is followed by a chorus.

Here is the beginning of the score:

Click to enlarge

Sorry for the blurry bits; couldn't get the book to lie flat on the scanner. As you can see, there is a very active bass line, put there to depict the rending. You will notice little numbers above the longer bass notes. These indicate what notes the player should use to fill out the harmony. The first 6 indicates a first inversion chord. Since it is over an E note, that means a C major chord.

Since there always seems to be some prosy text to get through, at least if the whole musical work is to be sung, the recitative had quite a long history, persisting right into the operas of Rossini. There are analogous passages even in Wagner and more ironic usages in Kurt Weil. Beethoven was a particular master of using the style of recitative, which has the feeling of speaking to us directly, in purely instrumental music. The third movement of his Piano Sonata in A major, op 110 begins with a very expressive instrumental recitative:

The use of the voice in a less melodic, more speech-like manner also returned in the 20th century in numerous contexts. I'll pick out two utterly different examples. The first is a kind of speech-song style that has a similar effect to recitative. Schoenberg called it "sprechstimme" and used it in Pierrot Lunaire:

And for my final example, the inimitable Tom Waits with a song that would be recitative if jazz had such a thing. Here it is, the only product you will ever need, "Step Right Up":

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