What is recitative?

Most often used in opera and oratorio, recitative is a type of singing in which the soloist adopts the rhythm and delivery of ordinary speech to move the plot forward. The vocalist is guided by the free rhythm of the words, so the instrumental accompaniment is fairly minimal.

This differs substantially from the more formal aria form in opera, which is fundamentally a musical vehicle rather than a plot device, and as such prioritises more complex melody, rhythm, harmony and instrumentation. In aria, the singer may repeat words and phrases to fit with the musical structure.

When did recitative first appear?

Inspired by oratory, recitative developed in the late 1500s as an opposing form to the polyphonic (many-voiced) style of 16th-century choral music.

What are the two types of recitative?

Recitativo secco

Recitativo secco (dry recitative) is sung with a free rhythm dictated by the accents of the words. Accompaniment, usually by continuo (cello and harpsichord), is simple and chordal. Popularised in Florence during the late 16th century, the style was often found in Claudio Monteverdi's operas during the 17th century, and continued to be used into the 19th century by such composers as Gaetano Donizetti.

Recitativo stromentato or accompagnato

Recitativo stromentato or accompagnato (accompanied) has stricter rhythm and more involved, often orchestral, accompaniment. Used at dramatically important moments, it is more emotional in character. Its vocal line is more melodic, and often it leads into a formal aria. Examples include ‘Thus saith the Lord’ from Handel's Messiah; and Haydn and Mozart were also fond of it.

When did recitative go out of fashion?

By the mid to late 1800s, composers like Verdi, Wagner and Puccini were pushing the limits of recitative and aria conventions, blurring the distinct boundaries found in most operas of the previous 200 years.

Photo: The Marriage of Figaro at Florida Grand Opera in 2019 © Daniel Azoulay


Charlotte SmithEditor of BBC Music Magazine

Charlotte Smith is the editor of BBC Music Magazine. Born in Australia, she hails from a family of musicians with whom she played chamber music from a young age. She earned a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from London's Royal College of Music, followed by a master’s in English from Cambridge University. She was editor of The Strad from 2017 until the beginning of 2022, and has also worked for Gramophone Magazine and as a freelance arts writer. In her spare time, she continues to perform as an active chamber musician.