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Recitative (pronounced /ˌrɛsɪtəˈtiːv/, also known as recitativo in Italian [retʃitaˈtiːvo]) refers to a vocal style frequently employed in operas, oratorios, and cantatas. This style enables singers to adopt the rhythms and delivery of ordinary speech, setting it apart from more formally composed songs. As a result, recitative more closely resembles sung speech than a structured musical composition.

Recitative can be categorized along a continuum from speech-like to more musically sung, featuring increasingly sustained melodic lines. On one end of the spectrum is the mostly syllabic recitativo secco, which is accompanied solely by continuo instruments like the cello and harpsichord. Moving along the continuum, recitative evolves into recitativo accompagnato (featuring orchestral accompaniment), the more melismatic arioso, and finally culminates in the full-blown aria or ensemble where the music entirely dictates the pulse. Secco recitatives allow for greater improvisation and freedom for the singer due to the sparse accompaniment, while orchestral accompaniment necessitates a more structured performance.

In addition to its use in operatic contexts, the term recitative (or occasionally liturgical recitative) is applied to simpler Gregorian chant formulas, such as the tones for the epistle, gospel, preface, and collects. This usage is commonly referred to as accentus.


An example of recitative can be found in the famous opera “The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In Act 1, Scene 2, Figaro, one of the main characters, sings a recitative called “Se vuol ballare” (“If you want to dance”). The recitative sets the scene and conveys the character’s thoughts and emotions using a speech-like rhythm:


Se vuol ballare, signor Contino,

il chitarrino le suonerò,

sì, sì, signor, sì, sì, signor.

Se vuol venire nella mia scuola

la capriola le insegnerò,

sì, sì, signor, sì, sì, signor.

(English translation) Figaro:

If you want to dance, sir Count,

I’ll play the little guitar for you,

Yes, yes, sir, yes, yes, sir.

If you want to come to my school,

I’ll teach you the somersault,

Yes, yes, sir, yes, yes, sir.

In this recitative, Figaro reveals his plan to outsmart the Count who wants to seduce Figaro’s bride-to-be, Susanna. The recitative allows Figaro to express his thoughts in a speech-like manner, setting the stage for the more musically structured aria that follows.

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