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Recitative ( ), also known by its Italian name "recitativo" ( ), is a style of delivery (much used in operas, oratorios, and cantatas) in which a singer is allowed to adopt the rhythms of ordinary speech. The mostly syllabic recitativo secco ("dry", accompanied only by continuo) 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.

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 and Gospel, preface and collects.


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 the writings of the ancient Greeks 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 the baroque era, recitatives were commonly rehearsed on their own by the stage director, the singers frequently supplying their own favorite baggage aria 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 most famous works: the recitatives for The Barber of Seville and La Cenerentola were composed by assistants.


Secco recitative, 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, and continued to be used into the Romantic era by such composers as Gaetano Donizetti, reappearing in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. It 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.

In the early operas and cantatas of the Florentine school, secco recitative was accompanied by a variety of instruments, mostly plucked strings with perhaps a small organ to provide sustained tone. Later, in the operas of Vivaldi and Handel, the accompaniment was standardised as a harpsichord and a bass viol or violoncello. When the harpsichord went out of use in the early 19th century, many opera-houses did not replace it with a piano; 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 Housemarker, the instrument being supplied by Arnold Dolmetsch), but it was not until the 1950s that the 18th-century method was consistently observed once more.


Accompanied recitative, known as accompagnato or stromentato, employs the orchestra as an accompanying body. 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 Handel'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 ("The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness") is accompagnato.

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 Weill's The Threepenny Opera. It also appears in Carousel and Of Thee I Sing.

Instrumental recitative

Recitative has also sometimes been used to refer to parts of purely instrumental works which resemble vocal recitatives. Perhaps the most famous of these occurs in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, at the beginning of the last movement, where Beethoven wrote (in French) "In the manner of a recitative, but in tempo."Arnold Schoenberg labeled the last of his Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16 "The obligato recitative" and also composed a piece for organ, Variations on a Recitative opus 40. His Fourth String Quartet has a striking unison passage recalling similar examples in Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 17 (The Tempest) and Piano Sonata No. 31.

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