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The recitative (from Italian recitare "to carry out ") is a chant in opera , cantata , mass or oratorio that approximates speaking . It has existed in various forms since around 1600. Its development is closely linked to that of the figured bass ( basso continuo ).

During the recitative, the singer is free to declaim the text rhythmically . There are two forms of recitative: The secco recitative is only accompanied by a basso continuo and allows great rhythmic freedom. In the Accompagnato recitative, the singer is accompanied by an orchestra , which participates in the composition of the interpretation of the sung content, which results in stricter rhythmic ties.

In the opera seria , the recitative is the carrier of the stage action. Even if the recitative fell out of fashion from around 1840 due to the development of the well- composed opera and the disappearance of the basso continuo, it is still part of opera and oratorio today .

The new music of the 20th and 21st centuries then tied back strongly to the traditional models and subjected them to a variety of new compositional interpretations.


The recitative arose with the opera in Florence at the end of the 16th century and developed from monody , the separation of solo voice and accompaniment. The psalmody and the madrigal should be mentioned as further predecessor forms . Throughout Baroque music , the recitative was the place for narrative and dialogical elements in a multi-movement work. Moods and reflections, on the other hand, were the content of the aria and other closed forms that later developed.

The recitative consists more of a “saying” ( Diegesis ); an aria, a choir or a dance number rather from a “showing” ( mimesis ). This juxtaposition points to a processing of Platonic and Aristotelian theory in its creation time around 1600 (cf. Jacopo Peri and the Florentine Camerata ). It was believed that the declamation of ancient drama was enlivened in this way.

In Claudio Monteverdi's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (1624) a narrator ( Testo , “text” ) reports the action in a recitative, and the fight between the main characters is “shown” in dance inserts that run parallel to the narrative. The later clear interface between recitative and aria and the renunciation of intermediate forms (such as the arioso ), on the other hand, are a consequence of the quasi "industrial" production of operas, which existed around the first third of the 17th century.

A known type of recitative is e.g. B. the evangelist's account in a passion . In between, the actors like Christ or the people themselves have their say in arias and choirs (which meant a clear departure from the medieval condemnation of mimesis, because the salvation event was once only supposed to be told, not shown, see medieval theater ).

In Opera seria and Opera buffa , the recitative is the place of the action, i.e. the narrative and the dialogues, while the arias, with few exceptions, are static considerations. This separation dissolves in the mixed final ensembles at the end of the acts , which became more and more extensive at the end of the 18th century.

In opera, the recitative of the number opera has been replaced by well- composed forms in which the distinction between recitatives and closed forms is blurred (e.g. in Richard Wagner's ).


Characteristic musical features of the recitative are:

  • Syllabic declamation, d. H. a note falls on each text syllable.
  • It is "without any repetition" ( Johann Mattheson , 1725). The melody corresponds to the ups and downs of natural spoken language. Some of the figures in it keep recurring and could also be improvised by the Italian singers of the 18th century.
  • The measure in the Italian recitative is basically straight; but the course of the melody is not subordinate to the measure, but is structured according to the text by cuts and pauses. The French recitative follows the rules of declamation in the French language and stays in time, which adapts to the text through frequent changes (see French opera ).
  • No key unity. In addition to the dramaturgical function, the recitative also has the musical function of changing the key between two individual movements.


The recitative is accompanied by the continuo group. This consisted of several keyboard instruments and plucked string instruments to reproduce the harmonies and bass instruments to reproduce the bass voice. The appropriate casts are still controversial today and depend heavily on financial resources. The exclusive accompaniment of the recitatives by harpsichord and cello originated in performance practice in the 19th century.

Secco and Accompagnato

A secco recitative (Italian recitativo secco , from secco “dry”; also recitativo semplice , from semplice “simple”) is accompanied only by the figured bass . Great importance is attached to a particular language proximity. Around 1753 the opera was still considered to be music with a sound, so the intelligibility of the text and the appropriate declamation were in the foreground. The Secco recitative can be accompanied more individually than the Accompagnato recitative, especially when the singers have lost their memories, who under the pressure of the opera production in the 18th and 19th centuries. Century were not uncommon. The secco recitative is increasingly disappearing in 19th century opera, but still appears in Giuseppe Verdi's Un giorno di regno (1840).

An Accompagnato recitative (Italian recitativo accompagnato , from accompagnare “to accompany”), or Accompagnato for short , is accompanied by melodic instruments or even by the whole orchestra . Here the sung text, such as the emotion felt, is reflected in the instrumental or orchestral language. This type of recitative has been gaining in importance since the second half of the 18th century, for example in Gluck's or Antonio Salieri's operas . The Tell a was pointing superimposed on that one tone painting called. The common interpretation and affirmation of what was said through the musical gestures of an instrument choir gained increasing importance before the French Revolution (see also melodrama ).

In Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion , Jesus is depicted with Accompagnato-Recitativo, while the Gospel report is otherwise performed secco.

It is controversial whether an Accompagnato was often improvised and the surviving examples only represent the rare, particularly significant cases in which the improvisation was fixed in writing. The frequent contemporary warnings against excessive dressing show that such improvisations were common.

Instrumental recitative

Sometimes the term "instrumental recitative" is used for declamatory rather than melodic passages in instrumental music. Probably the most striking example comes from the 9th Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven , where in the finale the double basses "recite" the text words later sung by the solo tenor on their instruments and the listener only learns afterwards what the meaning of the notes is.

20th and 21st centuries

In the 20th and 21st centuries, new varieties of recitative emerged in New Music , which were often explicitly linked to the Baroque period (and there in particular to Monteverdi ) - but which sometimes also took up the claim of the time to revive ancient models. Various intermediate forms of singing and speaking attack the declamatory element of the traditional recitative. The stylistic spectrum ranges from Carl Orff ( Prometheus and other works) to Arnold Schönberg (e.g. Pierrot Lunaire ).

Due to the influence of aleatoric and improvisational composition techniques, the importance of a metrically unbound "Accompagnato" increases: Instead of following a predefined meter , accompanying instruments nestle up against a metrically flexible or "cadenting" solo instrument. Examples of this can be found, for example, in Witold Lutosławski or Karlheinz Stockhausen .

An important part of instrumentally accompanied plays chant with a whole range of subtle nuances between speaking and singing in the late works of Mauricio Kagel ( A letter , ... the 24.xii.1931 , from the mattress grave and many others). Here there is also a conscious, often ironically broken reflection on historical models (for example in a recitative aria for a singing harpsichordist ). The Kagel student Bernhard König introduces an additional, social and human reading of "accompaniment" into the tradition of this genre ( Accompagnato - The Art of Accompanying ).

The more non-European musical cultures come into focus in the 20th and 21st centuries, the more the reference to the European-Baroque form of the recitative is put into perspective as just one of many possible sources. The metrically free instrumental accompaniment to a recitatory vocal line or a “speaking” melody is just as anchored in Japanese or Arabic music as it is in various varieties of jazz .

See also


  • Wilibald Gurlitt, Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht (Ed.): Riemann Music Lexicon. Material part. Mainz: Schott 1968. pp. 799-801.
  • Stefan Drees: About the speaking of the instruments. On the history of the instrumental recitative. Peter Lang GmbH, Frankfurt am Main 2007, ISBN 978-3-631-56478-3

Web links

Wiktionary: recitative  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations