In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Recitative

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Period Commentaries
  • Twentienth and Twenty-First Centuries
  • Instrumental Recitative
  • Liturgical Recitative
  • Beyond the Western High-Art Traditions

Music Recitative
John Walter Hill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0134


The English word recitative is a cognate derived from the Italian recitativo, a substantive itself derived from an adjective, as in stile recitativo, and hence from the verb recitare (“to recite” and also “to present a drama or to act in one”). In its current, modern usage, “recitative” commonly refers to a relatively small range of styles in vocal music (and their imitation in instrumental music) whose principal, defining characteristics are normally thought to include some or all of the following: exclusively or predominantly syllabic text setting, relatively narrow range within breath phrases, more pitch repetition than is normal in songlike vocal styles, avoidance of motivic or thematic recurrence and other forms of purely musical patterning, including rhythmic features that suggest a steady meter, and, above all, the employment of syllabic pacing, rhythmic durations, inflections, contours, and accentuation that mimic, to some extent, the features of speech, even if commonly the highly stylized speech of actors in tragedies and other types of verse play, comedians, orators, preachers, or reciting poets. Although recitatives and songlike segments were quite distinct in the earliest Florentine operas (1600), Roman and Venetian operas and chamber cantatas from the 1620s through the 1660s frequently feature fluid shifts among more or less expressive recitative, either declamatory or embellished arioso, and short segments in various songlike aria styles. Correlations between various types and degrees of recitative style on the one hand and various poetic meters and voices (dramatic, narrative, lyric) on the other are not always predictable during this period. The recitatives accompanied by basso continuo alone (“simple recitative”) in Italian opera of the 18th century, by contrast, always set versi sciolti (see Carter, et al., cited under General Overviews) to music normally written in C (4/4) meter, without key signature, with generally unexpressive vocal declamation mostly in eighth notes. In the same operas, “accompanied recitative” juxtaposes unaccompanied vocal phrases with interpretive, expressive orchestral interjections, or, less often, accompanies vocal declamation with sustained chords. French recitative of that time used changing meters, more precisely notated rhythm and more melodic interest; its poetry is normally set out as vers libres but avoiding the short, metrical lines sometimes found in French airs. Spanish recitado could be in either triple or duple meter and frequently contains recurring rhythmic formulas, distinctive melodic contours, melodic sequences, and expressive devices that do not depend on declamation; its poetry is always metrical. English recitative beginning in the 1660s is typically free of metrical pattering, like Italian recitative, but precise in rhythmic notation like the French kind; and English imitation of French vers libres is often employed. During the course of the 18th century, Italian-style recitative supplanted the other national varieties. Declamatory vocal writing (parlante) accompanied by continuous orchestral music became a defining element in 19th-century opera. Distinctive, language-specific declamatory styles developed in the opera repertoires of eastern Europe and Russia. The Sprechstimme used by Arnold Schoenberg descends, in spirit, from recitative. The neoclassical movement during the mid-20th century brought with it a self-conscious imitation of 18th-century recitative. The imitation of recitative in instrumental works can be traced back at least to 1669. Modern scholars have used the term “recitative” to describe the recitation tones and formulas of Jewish and Christian liturgical chanting and a wide range of traditional vocal genres and styles in various populations and cultural groups on nearly every continent.

General Overviews

No monographic history or global survey of recitative has been undertaken. The entries for this term in music encyclopedias are effectively limited to recitative in Western concert/art/theater music. The most thorough and thoughtful of these is Strohm 1998 in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Surian 1984 in Dizionario enciclopedico universal della musica e dei musicisti contains further details about recitative in Italian opera, especially of the 19th century, but is very thin in covering other national types and other genres. Palisca 1983 in Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie is not an account of recitative as it occurs in musical works but is a very thorough survey of period commentaries, from the 17th through the 19th century, that contain useful definitions of, instructions for, or references to “recitative” or its equivalent in various European languages. Neumann 1962, a short monograph, is a much more detailed and extensive survey of period commentaries with more summaries and discussions. Every history of opera, either general or limited to a single nation or period, is useful for placing recitative in the context of each type of opera as a whole. Grout and Williams 1988 is included as a major, representative, English-language survey of this type. Grove Music Online provides an indispensable overview and starting point for an orientation to the various relations between versification and recitative in several major opera languages.

  • Carter, Tim, Graham Sadler, Peter Branscome, Roger Savage, Arnold McMillin, et al. “Versification.” In Grove Music Online: Oxford Music Online.

    Covers Italian, French, German, English, and Slavonic languages. From the print source The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. London: Macmillan, 1992. Available online by subscription.

  • Grout, Donald Jay, and Hermine Weigel Williams. A Short History of Opera. 3d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

    The index contains one hundred references to recitative in operas of every century in its history and in most national traditions.

  • Neumann, Friedrich-Heinrich. Die Ästhetik des Rezitativs: Zur Theorie des Rezitativs im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert. Strasbourg, France: P. H. Heitz, 1962.

    Not an original theory but an attempt to bring together and reconcile descriptions and criticism of recitative from the 17th and 18th centuries.

  • Palisca, Claude. “Rezitativ.” In Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie. Auslieferung 8. Edited by Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht, 1–16. Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner, 1983.

    A schematic overview of the uses of the word “recitative,” with citations of period writings, including definitions, instructions for composing, criticism, and performance practice. Does not attempt detailed descriptions of types of recitatives, but is a very useful finding list of sources.

  • Strohm, Reinhard. “Rezitativ.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Sachteil. Vol. 8. 2d ed. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 224–242. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1998.

    A survey that combines a historical account of recitative and its uses in genres of most European traditions as well as references to period definitions and commentary.

  • Surian, Elvidio. “Recitativo.” Dizionario enciclopedico universal della musica e dei musicisti. Il lessico. Vol. 4. Edited by Alberto Basso, 60–63. Turin, Italy: U.T.E.T., 1984.

    A survey focused mostly upon recitative in Italian opera; especially useful for references to the Romantic period.

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