On Singing Recitative

Apart from having a good voice and singing well, the singing of recitative probably most easily divides the good from the ordinary; the artist from the journeyman. Every singer is made aware from the beginning of his or her training of the two main types of recitative – secco and accompanied – but few are helped much beyond this juncture until they meet a repetiteur or a coach. At this point they have to be lucky to find someone who understands the subject well.

Secco recitative belongs to Italian opera buffa and to music intended to be performed in that style. The accompaniment is continuo only. The guiding principle is the natural rhythm of the spoken sentence, and where the notes of the composer seem to conflict with or contradict it, an intelligent compromise between the two directions must be reached. A rule of thumb in these circumstances is to try to find out what the composer wants, and why his version differs from the norm. If a solution to this conundrum cannot be found, only then resort to another rhythm. Composers do not put marks on paper by accident! Generally, the note values are a guide to the relative values of the syllables. Provided the difference is not too great the values can be distorted slightly, but only to redirect the rhythm better toward that of the spoken sentence.

In accompanied recitative the orchestra accompanies the singer, and of course he or she is conducted as well. Measures in which the orchestra plays are in time, those where the singer imitates the orchestra or vice versa are also strict. Unaccompanied measures can be looser in rhythm if the meaning is enhanced thereby, otherwise they should also be in time. In this context it should be noted that all French recit is strict (again with the proviso about unaccompanied measures). Infrequently in French music, the word recit is written in Italian – recitativo. In this case it can mean that here the Italian secco rules apply. This is particularly so when both the French – recit, and the Italian – recitativo, appear in the same piece.

The style of certain composers’ recitative is open to argument – J S Bach in particular. It is known that he based his writing for solo voices on Italian models – in my view, surely also the recitative? Handel was of course a composer of Italian operas before he wrote oratorios in English. The secco and orchestral recit in these works should follow Italian tradition. Wagnerian recitative is always strict – read his notes on Der Fliegender Holländer! – and so is Verdi’s. Britten’s is in time also, even when he marks ‘freely’, only the pulse is free, the note values are not.

When singers meet repetiteurs the convention is that the repetiteur or coach is a better educated musician that the singer. This is not always the case – especially so in the matter of singing. The convention can often work to a singer’s discomfort when he or she is nagged and harried to ‘speak’ recitative to satisfy the repetiteurs notions of perfection. For a singer the parlando style for secco is the last of three phases, the first two of which the singer must have done before meeting the coach.

First, he or she must speak the text through several times, until the rhythm of the spoken sentence is totally clear and natural. Next he or she must sing the notes and syllables slowly, making sure of the placing of every separate sound until every phrase is ‘sung in’, and the singing muscles are grooved in their action. Then, only then, should the speed be increased gradually until the ultimate parlando speed is reached. In this way faulty placements and lack of proper support on certain awkward corners of the recit. can be avoided. ‘Hasten slowly’ is a good motto.

© 2003, Neil Howlett