On the Coaching, Accompanying and Conducting of Recitative

A few introductory thoughts on the art of coaching and performing recitative


The backbone of opera, baroque through the 18th century, was the recitative.  However, its function shifted from the primary expressive device of early baroque operas (such as in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo) to a more supportive, albeit crucial function of propelling the storyline between set musical numbers (arias and ensembles).  Although recitative assumes a role that seems subservient to the ‘numbers’ (at least in the minds of both singers and audience), the importance of recitative in opera must not be dismissed.  Its necessity to the comprehension and pacing of the story at hand requires great skill from the musicians involved; skills that are often overlooked in favor of the dominating musical forms of the opera.

Two types of recitative can be found throughout the literature.  The secco recitative is a speech-like setting of (usually) substantial amounts of dialogue.  Its sole function is to advance the plot and provide whatever background is necessary for better comprehension of the sentiments expressed in the musical numbers.  It is usually fairly syllabic, imitating the rhythmic drive of conversational speech, and is accompanied solely by chords or occasional gestures on a keyboard instrument (often harpsichord); although some secco recitative may employ a continuo group which adds a bass instrument (such as cello) to the mix (doubling the bass notes of the harpsichord).  However, this addition is often impractical and unnecessary and, perhaps, best left for particularly decorative moments such as the recitative preceding Figaro’s “Se vuol ballare” in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro.  In this particular instant, the notation of the continuo changes from it’s customary skeletal indication, that of a single note with figured bass indications accompanying the singers, to a formal rhythmic ‘dialogue’ with the singer (indicative of Mozart’s treatment of the orchestra [including continuo] as an active participant in the drama).  This passage is therefore ‘heightened’ in its effectiveness by adding a cello to the harpsichord as Figaro himself assumes an air of authority and control as he deciphers the Count’s intentions toward Susanna.  The rhythmic assertion in this passage leans toward the second type of recitative.

The accompagnato recitative is a more stylized treatment of text that lies somewhere between the speech-like quality of secco recitative, and the fully lyrical, sung quality of the aria which usually follows.  The function of accompanied recitative is slightly different in that it usually expressed a state of intense emotion (such as heartache, despair, longing, etc.) that leads to a monologue in the form of an aria of small ensemble.  In other words, accompanied recitative does not seek to relay a large amount of necessary, but often uninteresting, text.  Instead, accompagnato recitative often serves as a vehicle to bridge secco recitative and a musical number by the dramatic introduction of the orchestra, which punctuates heightened text and becomes a ‘partner’ with the singer in conveying the elevated sense of emotion. 

The singer may find the delivery of accompanied recitative easier as it allows for a straightforward vocal approach.  Although it is still largely syllabic, and requires strong, declamatory diction, the voice itself may be fully employed in concert with the orchestra which is accompanying (or assisting in the commentary).  However, there are certain pitfalls in the arena of secco recitative which prey on many singers.  This includes an adjusted use of the voice to a speech-like quality as demanded by the characteristics of secco recitative. 

Secco recitative must be delivered parlando, introducing just enough voice to project and precisely denote pitch without confusing the recitative with an aria.  Since the purpose of this type of recitative is to imitate speech and deliver text, a singer can struggle with issues of stamina over an evening’s entertainment if he/she attempts to ‘sing’ their way through such dialogue.  Instead, great emphasis should be placed on the expressive use of diction to ‘project’ the voice into the theater.  Since there is nothing but a harpsichord or piano accompanying (with fairly sparse textures), clear diction will assist in making the voice seem bigger in this context.  By clearly articulating initial consonants in particular, greater expression can be articulated without having to rely on the full voice.   Likewise, a mindful attention to the text will further convey the expressive meaning of the sentiment.

One useful exercise in deciphering the expressive direction of any recitative is to ask the singers to speak through the scene in English (or their native language at least).  This is an especially useful exercise in staging rehearsals where, combined with the staging, the pacing can be worked out in great detail.  Asking the singer to speak through the recitative accomplishes several goals.  First, it reveals the singer’s knowledge of the text and its dramatic elements.  Without a clear, internal understanding of the thoughts being expressed there is no possibility of a convincing performance being delivered.  The recitative is speech, and speech has clearly defined inflections based on the expressive hierarchy of particular words (simply imagine the difference in how one might articulate the words “I love you” compared to “I hate you” in any conceivable situation).  A literal, word for word translation should not be sought during this exercise (although the singer should be able to give one if asked), but rather an idiomatic translation should be expected on the spot so that the characters can interact in English, just as they hope to in Italian (or whichever language the opera may be performed in).  During this exercise, motivations and reactions of characters can be explored, pacing determined, and countless nuances explored and decided upon that bring the scene to life dramatically. 

Regarding the pacing of secco recitative there seem to be conflicting attitudes that largely stem from views toward theatre and music in general.  One convention is to expedite the process by traversing recitative as quickly as possible.  The objective of this approach is to get to the musical numbers (which the audience is impatiently waiting for) more quickly.  One method of achieving this is something of a convention to double the note values; that is to say treat eighth- notes as sixteenths, sixteenths as thirty-seconds, etc.  Of course, this approach is not conductive to drama and is divorced from any determination to relate the text of the story to the opera in any fashion.  Recitative advances the action and tells the story of the opera and, therefore, should be treated with more care.  As a result, the pacing should not be so fast that it loses its sense of speech.  Dialogues between characters must have a forward momentum, but retain a flexibility and rhythm related to the meaning of the text and the dramatic intentions of the scene.  In addition, the speed of ‘speech’ between characters must resist the ‘musical’ temptation to match tempo.  Different people speak in differing tempi and by incorporating this truth into recitative, a greater kinship to spoken dialogue is established.  Once the singers have worked out the dramatic inflections of the text in English, and then applied their understanding to the original language, the recitative can become an engaging part of the opera.  If the pacing is more naturally consistent with the story, and delivered expressively and intelligently, then it will be more accessible to the audience that otherwise will become disengaged while waiting for their favorite aria to begin.  It is this inextricable relation between the devices of singing and expression that is crucial to the successful presentation of secco recitative.

The pacing of the recitatives can, to an extent, be influenced by the person accompanying them.  By conscientiously applying certain gestures from the keyboard (such as short, blocked chords beneath the singer’s line), the accompanist can entice the singer to move certain lines forward more quickly.  This is especially useful at cadences where a singer may be inclined to take time for a seemingly musical reason that, perhaps, does not really exist in the stream of dialogue.  Particularly at dominant-tonic cadences, a singer may ‘feel’ musically that the music should pause, despite the fact that the discourse continues largely uninterrupted.  Although secco recitative is notated in fairly straight-forward manner, the speech-like character does demand a rhythmic flexibility dictated by the nuances of speech.  In these cadential instances, the proper technique is to play a “foreshortened cadence” which is the rapid articulation with the singer of the V-I cadence in blocked chords.  This will assist in creating a sense of urgency that the line (thought) must continue, and keep the singer from lapsing into a lyrical treatment of the notated passage.  However, when a thought does come to a certain sense of closure, or dramatically requires a certain punctuation, then the use of a “delayed cadence” is employed.   Winton Dean’s essay on baroque performance practice rightly illustrates that the delayed cadence was an accepted practice through Mozart.  Often, one finds that, despite the convention of notating the V-I cadence beneath the pitches of the singer’s part, the composer will provide a significant rest in the voice part after a particular thought is completed.  It is in this rest that the continuo should sound the two chords as an element of exclamation or to provide some dramatic sense of finality.  In this way, the accompanist also functions as a participant in the drama of recitative.

While the function of the accompanist of secco recitative is first, and foremost, to provide the harmonic context for the singers through a combination of short blocked chords, or slightly sustained or rolled chords (always dictated by the text and pacing), the accompanist should also  participate in the dialogue by illuminating certain key sentiments of the text (especially in Mozart).  By adding tasteful embellishments and figurations in selected places, the accompanist canact to underline certain emotions, illuminate double-entendre, paint musical imagery and provide a stylistic ‘rim-shot’ to humorous text.  Certain common figurations include long, slow, elaborate arpeggiations during overtly romantic, swooning passages; martial figures for heroic statements, etc.  (Although admittedly overindulgent, in one performance of Le Nozze di Figaro, after “Aprite, presto aprite”, which concludes with Cherubino running, then leaping out the window in a frantic escape, I announced the following recitative by referencing the famous ‘Lone Ranger’ tune from the overture to William Tell. [The process of referencing other music can, of course, be found within the musical text of the supper scene of Don Giovanni and does not need to be precluded from accompaniments in secco recitative]).  Of course, any participation on the part of the accompanist should never interfere or upstage the singer.  However, when thoughtfully engaged with the stage, such accompaniment can continue to assist in pacing while keeping both singers and audience engaged in the musical material. 

Nowhere is the partnership of stage and accompaniment in recitative more clear than in the orchestral interjections of the accompagnato recitative.  In Laurel Zeiss’ dissertation on the accompanied recitative in Mozart’s operas, she asserts that the equality between orchestra and singer found in this type of recitative is unequalled in any other vocal genre (including, presumably, the arias and ensembles themselves).  She observes that the majority of accompanied recitatives include some sort of exclamation, such as “O Dio!” or “Ah!” that are indicative of the heightened emotional state of the character.  Such heightened expression requires an exaltation of accompaniment and, hence, the orchestral contribution provides a significant contribution to the dramatic impact of the text as well as serving as a unifying device between these exclamations and the musical number to follow.  For example, when Donna Anna realizes Don Giovanni is the man who murdered her father, her exclamations of “Oh Dei” could not be supported by mere continuo.  Instead, Mozart unleashes the orchestra in fits of terror that convey, perhaps more effectively than Donna Anna’s words to Don Ottavio, the violence and horror of this revelation.  Only through such treatment does the ensuing ‘rage’ aria in D Major hold its dramatic weight (which surely would be diminished without the outbursts of the recitative).

What makes the accompagnato recitative challenging for the conductor is the combination of the rhythmic flexibility of the vocal part (as demanded by the text), and the precision required to maintain good ensemble within the orchestra.  Gustav Meier, the renowned conducting teacher, has often said that accompanied recitative is the one technique a conductor must regularly practice.  With that said, there are many successful conductors who do not possess a solid recitative technique.  The result is that these conductors will often attempt to ‘straight-jacket’ singers by requiring rhythmic/metrical adherence that is inconsistent with the dramatic context, the demands of the text, or even performance practice; all in an effort to maintain integrity of the ensemble due to faulty conducting technique. 

The governing rule of conducting recitative can be expressed in the same terms as describing any fundamental instrument technique:  being in the right place at the right time!  What is required in this instance is a mastery of conducting both passive and active beats.  If passive gestures are clearly passive, no orchestral player will be inclined to play during a rest or an ‘empty’ bar.  Likewise, clearly marking empty bars with a passive gesture (especially in early rehearsals or with inexperienced players) can assist in keeping those players who are required to count several bars of rest oriented and together.  During these empty bars (or rests) the conductor must use a process of ‘running ahead’ of the singer with his passive beats until two beats before the orchestra plays.  Once in position, the conductor floats on that gesture until the singer ‘catches-up”.  At the precise moment, the conductor is already in position to give a clear, ‘active’ prep for the orchestras entrance.  In this way, the orchestra will enter together confidently, in tempo (if applicable) and with the singer without the conductor having to dictate the rhythm or tempo of the vocal line.  In essence, the conductor simply ensures that he is in place to ‘catch’ the singer at the right time. 

Beyond this fundamental technique of conducting recitative, conductors must also decide (like keyboard accompanists in secco recitative) about where to place certain chords in relation to the singer’s line.  The above mentioned recitative between Donna Anna and Don Ottavio offers several examples of places where one may chose a “delayed” entrance of the orchestra.  Common in accompanied recitative will be such a passage where the singers final syllables cross the bar line, overlapping with a dramatic entrance of the orchestra.  An accepted convention is to delay the orchestra’s entrance until after the singer has articulated his/her last syllable.  Although this seems to betray the notation (since we cannot expect a meter of 5/4 in Mozart), it serves a practical function in allowing us to actually hear the final words or syllables which will likely be lost if the loud exclamations of the full orchestra were to be played simultaneously.   Such an ‘interruption’ is justifiable if the context allows, but otherwise the text should be allowed its expression before the orchestra picks up its commentary.  It is, after all, the expression of the text that is of utmost importance in either form of recitative.  When handled properly, by singer, coach/accompanist or conductor, recitative serves an important function in a powerful way.