Recitative (Italian Recitativo; German, Recitatif; from the Latin Recitare).

A species of declamatory music, extensively used in those portions of an opera, an oratorio, or a cantata, in which the action of the drama is too rapid, or the sentiment of the poetry too changeful, to adapt itself to the studied rhythm of a regularly constructed aria.

The invention of recitative marks a crisis in the history of music, scarcely less important than that to which we owe the discovery of harmony.

Whether the strange conception in which it originated was first clothed in tangible form by Jacopo Peri, Giulio Caccini, or Emelio del Cavalieri, is a question which has never been decided.

Thus first launched upon the world, for the purpose of giving a new impetus to the progress of art, this particular style of composition underwent less change, during the last 400 years, than any other.

Recitative was supported by the lightest possible accompaniment, originally a figured bass.

Its periods were molded with reference to nothing more than the plain rhetorical delivery of the words to which they were set; melodious or rhythmic phrases being carefully avoided as not only unnecessary but absolutely detrimental to the desired effect – so detrimental that the difficulty of adapting good recitative to poetry written in short rhymed verses is almost insuperable, the jingle of the meter tending to crystallize itself in regular form with a persistency which is rarely overcome except by the greatest masters.

The best poetry for recitative is blank verse; and that the same intervals, progression, and cadences have been used over an dover again by composers who, on other matters, have scarcely a trait in common.

The best way to illustrate this is by example from some of the greatest writers of the 17, 18th, and 19th centuries, premising that, in phrases ending with two or more reiterated notes, it was the custom to sing the first as an appoggiatura, a note higher than the rest.



The universal acceptance of these, and similar figures, by composers of all ages, from Peri down to Wagner, sufficiently proves their fitness for the purpose for which they were originally designed.

The staunch conservatism of recitativo secco goes even further than this. Its accompaniment has never changed.

The chief modification of the original idea which found favor was when the harpsichord and the pianoforte were banished form the opera orchestra, and the accompaniment of recitativo secco was confined to the principal violoncello and double bass; the former filling in the harmonies in light arpeggios, while the latter confined itself to the simple notes of the basso continuo.

In this way the recitatives were performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre for more than half a century by Lindley and Dragonetti, who always played at the same desk, and accompanied with a perfection attained by no other artists in the world, though Charles Jane Ashley was considered only second to Lindley in expression and judgment.

The general style of their accompaniment was exceedingly simple, consisting only of plain chords, played arpeggiando; but occasionally to two old friends would launch out into passages as elaborate as those shown in the following example; Dragonetti playing the large notes, and Lindley the small ones.


This simple kind of recitative was a free in the 19th century as it was in the 17th century from the trammels imposed by the laws of modulation. It is the only kind of music which need not begin and end on the same key. As a matter of fact it usually begins upon some chord not far removed from the tonic harmony of the aria or concerted piece which preceded it; and ends in or near the key of that which is to follow; but its intermediate course is governed by no law whatever beyond that of euphony.

Recitatives of this kind are usually written without the introduction of sharps or flats at the signature ; since it is manifestly more convenient to employ any number of accidentals that may be needed.

As the resources of the orchestra increased, it became evident that they might be no less profitably employed in the accompaniment of highly impassioned recitative than in that of the aria or chorus; and thus arose a new style of rhetorical composition, called accompanied recitative, in which the vocal phrases, themselves unchanged, received a vast accession of power, by means of elaborate orchestral symphonies interpolated between the, or even by instrumental passages designed expressly for their support.

The first example of it seems to be in Landi’s ‘San Allesio’ (1634), and its advantages in telling situations were so obvious that it was immediately adopted by other composers, and at once recognized as a legitimate form or art – not, indeed, as a substitute for simple recitative as a means of producing powerful effects, in scenes, or portions of scenes, in which the introduction of the measured aria would be out of place.

Scarlatti’s accompaniments exhibit a freedom of thought immeasurably in advance of the age in which he lived.

Sebastian Bach’s recitatives, though priceless as music, are more remarkable for the beauty of their harmonies than for that spontaneity of expression which is rarely attained by composers unfamiliar with the traditions of the stage.

Handel’s on the contrary, though generally based upon the simplest possible harmonic foundation, exhibit a rhetorical perfection of which the most accomplished orator might well feel proud.

Haydn’s ‘Creation and ‘Seasons’ owe half their charm to their pictorial recitatives.

Mozart was so uniformly great, in his declamatory passages, that it is almost impossible to decide upon their comparative merits.

Yet even this invention failed to meet the needs of the dramatic composer or to exhaust his ingenuity. It was reserved for Gluck to strike out another form of recitative, destined to furnish a more powerful engine for the production of a certain class of effects than any that had preceded it. He first conceived the idea of rendering the orchestra and the singer to all outward appearance entirely independent of each other; of filling the scene with a finished orchestral groundwork, complete in itself, and needing no vocal melody to enhance its interest, while the singer declaimed his part in tones which, however artfully combined with the instrumental harmony, appeared to have no connection with it whatever; the resulting effect resembling that which would be produced if, during the interpretation of a symphony, some accomplished singer were to soliloquize aloud in broken sentences, in such a way as to neither take an ostensible share of the performance nor to disturb it by the introduction of irrelevant discord. An early instance of this may be found in ‘Orfeo.’

By a process of natural development, this style led to another, in which the recitative, though still distinct from the accompaniment, assumed a more measured tone, less melodious than that of the air, yet more so than that used for ordinary declamation.

Gluck used this kind of Mezzo recitativo in ‘Iphigeni en Tauride.’ Spohr employed it freely, almost to the exclusion of symmetrical melody in ‘Die letzten Dinge.’