We all know what Baroque Recitative is, don’t we?
the boring bit between the nice tunes!
And we all know how to perform it –
get through the text quickly,
ornament the cadences [Monteverdi],
eliminate all those silly rests in the middle of sentences [Handel]
All these 20th-century assumptions are roundly contradicted by period evidence. [See also Fake news & Early Opera.] Today’s Historically Informed Performers need a re-set, in which we abandon what we think we already know, and start afresh in the spirit of scientific enquiry. We must assume that we do not know what Recitative is, and we must seek period information on how to perform it.
Because all too often, rehearsal discussion relies solely on all those 20th-century wrong assumptions, evoked by the comment:
But it’s recitative, isn’t it?
The short answer is: No, it isn’t.
A long answer is coming soon, with the publication of the formal write-up of my 2017 conference paper for the Society for Seventeenth Century Music Redefining Recitative for academics, and a practical book for performers, Recitative & Rhetoric that I hope to finish next year.
This post offers a medium-length answer, clarifying what 17th-century recitative really is, and summarising period evidence on how to perform it.
What is ‘Baroque Recitative’?
The word ‘baroque’ itself is problematic: it is not a 17th-century term. In the sense of a period or style of music or art, it first appears in 1765. So whenever we use this word, we should be aware that we are imposing a later viewpoint on the earlier period.
The word ‘Recitative’ is even more difficult, because although it is a 17th-century term (in various languages), like many words, its meaning has changed over the centuries.
What is Recitative, in modern-day musicology?
The standard academic definition of
syllabic declamation over a static bass-line
works well for 18th-century opera seria, in which the contrast between Recitative and melodious or virtuosic Aria is a fundamental element of formal construction.
But when we try to apply this to the ‘first operas’ of the early seicento, it is a poor fit for what composers actually wrote. Typically we find a fluid mix of changing textures, and a great deal of music that is hard to categorise within that binary system, encouraging musicologists to apply such anachronistic terms as ‘arioso’ as they attempt to analyse music-theatrical works by Cavalieri, Monteverdi and their contemporaries.
Part of the problem is that although the contrasting use of certain kinds of Aria (see below) was a matter of formal construction – usually pre-determined by the poetic structures of the libretto – the ever-changing textures of dramatic Monody (solo singing accompanied by basso continuo) express varying emotions, whether or not those contrasts in Affekt coincide with structural units.
The modern musicological definition of 17th-century Aria is strictly limited to strophic songs over a repeating ground bass. This is a good fit with period nomenclature, aria di passacaglia, aria di romanesca etc, as well as with such formal structures as La Musica’s Prologo in Monteverdi’s Orfeo. However, this category intersects with – but does not map onto – what is usually referred to as Aria passeggiata, a floridly decorated song which may or may not have a repeating harmonic structure. Before and after the year 1600, this kind of virtuosic vocal display characterised supernatural powers: Harmony’s Prologue, Arion’s rescue by the dolphin and the Sorceress striking the moon from the sky [Victoria Archilei, Jacopo Peri and a composition by Giulio Caccini in the 1589 Florentine Intermedi] do not have a ground bass; Orfeo’s aria in Hell, Possente Spirto (1607) does; Caronte’s challenge and riposte has a ground bass but – befitting his more limited powers and lowly status – no decoration.
Nevertheless, the period definition of aria is rather different, and much more wide-ranging. And – here our modern categorisation breaks down completely – we frequently encounter aria inside a 17th-century Recitative.
What does recitare mean in the early 17th-century?
The earlist dictionaries published by the Accademia della Crusca in 1612 and 1623 define recitare in terms of reciting: reading, narrating, saying from memory. Florio’s 1611 Italian-English dictionary includes a specific reference to spoken theatre:
to recite, to rehearse, to relate, to tell by heart or without book, as players do their parts in Comedies.
For Florio, a recitante is also ‘an interlude player’.
The anonymous (c1630) guide for Il Corago Il Corago – The Baroque Opera Director uses recitare almost interchangeably with rappresentare (‘to represent or show, to play Comedies or Tragedies’ – Florio). In 17th-century theatre, as today,
recitare means ‘to act’.
And to act is ‘to imitate actions human, angelic or divine with voice and gestures’ [Il Corago]
For the Corago there are ‘three ways to act’ [recitare and rappresentare are used interchangeably in the title and body-text of Chapter VI]: without singing, just speaking; the same actions singing in a suitable style; expressing all this without the voice – i.e. mime. The existence of these ‘three ways’ confirms that recitare means ‘to act’ and not ‘to sing Recitative’.
recitativo does NOT mean ‘Recitative’
Our starting point is acting and the speaking voice of a fine actor.
The Corago confirms the simple meaning of the phrases musica recitativa – acting music – and stile recitativo – acting style. The stile musico recitativo – acting style of music – requires Monody (rather than complex polyphony), consisting of rhythmic sound articulated with regulated proportions of high and low.
The Corago again: the variety and conciseness of Monody should come as close as possible to the ordinary way of speaking, or ‘to put it better’
the way of speaking of the best actors or passionate speakers.
We should not confuse formal 17th-century speech with the ‘kitchen-sink’ style of 1960s acting, nor with the clichéd ‘naturalism’ of TV sit-coms. Historically Informed Performance of Monteverdi should imitate a great actor on the theatrical stage of Shakespeare’s own time. Handelian recitative is modelled on the grandiose style of a Georgian statesman, preacher or actor.
Addressing a large audience without amplification demands a measured delivery, with short sense-groups separated by rhetorical silences. Samuel Pepys admired Henry Lawes’ careful rhythmic notation, which he compared to printed punctuation.
The Corago examines the precise notation of Monody in terms of both pitch and rhythm. This is supported by Peri’s (1600) account of how he notates theatrical monody with pitches derived from the ‘course of speech’; and rhythms guided (as Agazzari writes in 1607) by the continuo-bass. If the matter is ‘sad or serious’, the continuo moves in note-values of minims and semibreves, maintaining the Tactus without making the voice ‘dance’ to an inappropriately lively rhythm in the bass.
What is 17th-century aria?
The period meaning of aria is not limited to ‘melodiousness’ in the everyday, modern sense, nor to a repeating ground bass in the modern musicological definition.
17th-century aria is any kind of patterning, especially rhythmic patterning
In this sense Shakespeare’s ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’ is an aria in the appropriate rhythmic patterning of a galloping anapaeste, within the recitativo [acting] of the entire speech. In Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Proserpina includes a moment of aria at the crucial words of her recitativo speech, persuading Plutone to release Euridice from Hell. The composer’s patterning in both voice and continuo is cued by metrical patterning in short poetic lines: fa ch’Euridice torni / a goder di quei giorni
in contrast to the declamation over Tactus note-values in the previous and subsequent lines. This is 17th-century aria in the midst of – indeed, within – 17th-century recitativo.
Monteverdi’s genere rappresentativo [theatrical genre] – for example the Lamento della Ninfa – does not indicate a device of formal structure (e.g. ‘Recitative’ as opposed to ‘Aria’ in the later, 18th-century sense) nor a musical texture (declamation over a static bass): the Lamento della Ninfa contains an aria over a ground bass in triple metre. Rather, it defines a genre: theatrical music, intended to be performed in ‘show style’ stile rappresentativo, to be ‘acted out’ – recitativo.
What is the 17th-century terminology?
It’s worth being careful with terminology, in order to avoid imposing modern categories onto period creativity.
The music-dramas of Monteverdi’s period were not called ‘opera’, and even the designation musica recitativa was rarely used: ‘the adjective rappresentativo was the term most widely employed.’ [F.W. Sternfield A note on the stile recitativo, RMA 1983/1984] Cavalieri’s (1600) Anima & Corpo is a Rappresentatione; Peri wrote Le Musiche sopra l’Euridice del Signor Ottavio Rinuccini Rappresentate: Caccini’s setting of the same libretto is composta in stile rappresentativo; Monteverdi’s Orfeo is favola in musica (a story in music), the printed libretto adds that favourite word rappresentata.
The great variety of Monody that we find in the ‘acting music’ of this ‘show’ style is named (and analysed in depth) by the Corago as modulazione. Peri describes ‘the flow of speech’, il corso della favella that this modulazione imitates in musical notation.
Peri explains that the bass moves – more or less, or remains static, depending on the affetti [contrasting passions, emotions] – in the time of those modi and accenti [short melodic figures] which are used in being sad, in being happy again and similar. So all the fast-changing variety of textures in the rich spectrum from declamation over a static bass to lively dance-tunes are best analysed as expressions of affetto, rather than as building blocks of formal construction.
We should be alert to the various types of aria that occur within all the various textures of Monody in the ‘acting style’. Any patterning of melody, bass or rhythm is a moment of aria; little dance-like patterns repeated a few times are ariette; a singer or super-human character (Orfeo is both, of course) may sing a strophic aria; similarly, Prologues usually have a strophic design with intervening ritornelli.
Most of this musica rappresentativa represents characters’ speech. But we should also recognise diegetic songs – where stage-characters act out the singing of a song as part of the drama. Such songs are often, but not always aria. In Orfeo, the triumphant marching song Qual honor with its walking bass is an aria in praise of the cetra (the mythical lyre, and inspiration for real-life continuo instruments) over a ground-bass. But the protagonist’s love-song to Euridice begins with declamation over a static bass: nowadays we might (confusingly) call this Recitative, but it represents a character singing a song in the most up-to-date vocal style of Monteverdi’s time, the ‘new music’ of Monody.
Better modern-day terminology
It’s worth side-stepping familiar, but misleading modern terms, to avoid leaping from unexamined assumptions to false conclusions.
Not Opera, but Music-drama
Not Recitative, but Monody (for modulazione) or Dramatic Music (for musica recitativa)
Patterning, walking-bass, ground bass, dance-rhythms etc are all examples of 17th-century aria. It’s helpful to have words available for these features, so that we can recognise and respond to any kind of aria that might be present.
Similarly, we need to have academic analysis and practical discussions in rehearsals linking changes of affetto with changes of texture – in particular, changes in the movement of the bass. The phrases “movement of the bass” and “flow of speech” usefully characterise continuo and vocal lines respectively, avoiding the less appropriate term ‘melody’.
All too often, Rhythm is not discussed at all! So let’s all have a Good Time (sic) by correcting that fatal omission. The concepts of Tactus and of Good & Bad syllables/notes are fundamental,
Consonance and Dissonance are essential in Monody, even though some of the normal rules of harmony are not observed in this style.
The interplay of Rhythm and Dissonance, and the collaboration between singer and continuo are especially important for Suspensions.
What do we find in 17th-century music-drama?
Once we are equipped with appropriate terminology, it’s much easier to recognise what we see in the music of Cavalieri, Caccini, Peri, Monteverdi and their contemporaries. In the best-known early music-drama, Orfeo (1607), Monteverdi’s music follows the formal design of the libretto and expresses passions that change from line to line, sometimes from word to word.
The Prologue features the Personification of Music, and is a strophic aria over the repeating structure of a ground bass. The static bass at the beginning indicates a serious matter.
In the second strophe, the bass moves fast for nobil’ ira [noble anger], moderately for amore, is static for the serious power of posso, moves moderately in strange harmonies for ‘the most frozen minds’.
In the final strophe, the bass stops moving at non si mova.
See also The Philosophy of La Musica and La Musica hypnotises the Heroes.
The beginning of Act I has a static bass, indicating a serious matter.
Monteverdi ‘Orfeo’ Act I
Faster changes in harmony (even though the bass-note remains static) suggest more urgent passions at oggi fatto e pietosa l’alma gia si sdegnosa de la bell’ Euridice [now the soul of beautiful Euridice – previously so spiteful – has become merciful]. Movement of the bass through bitter sharps characterises Orfeo’s sighing and crying for her in the Arcadian woods.
The Nymph evokes the Muses over a static bass, indicating another serious matter, made more gentle by the change to the soft Hexachord (modern F major).
But the steady movement of the continuo-bass at Ma tu gentil cantor indicates a more relaxed mood, inviting Orfeo himself to sing.
Orfeo’s song is in the latest style of rhetorical monody – not an Aria – and begins with a static bass, as he evokes Apollo with appropriate seriousness. The bass moves happily at lieto e fortunato amante [happy and fortunate lover]. The parallel rhetorical structures of the text Fu ben felice il giorno …. e piu felice l’hora [Happy was the day… and happier was the hour] receive the musical patterning of 17th-century aria, a repeated figure in both the Flow of Speech and the Movement of the Bass.
Act II begins with a charming sequence of diegetic songs, in dance-like arias with strophic repeats and instrumental ritornelli. The movement of the bass is slow for Orfeo’s Ecco pur ch’a voi ritorno [this is notated in steady C, even though many modern performers take it much too fast, as if it were in tripla 3/2] suggesting a certain melancholy of nostalgia, but the movement increases for the shepherds’ duets, as the passions become more active.
The arrival of the Messaggiera, announcing Euridice’s death, is marked by the sudden change to a slow-moving bass (indicating a sad and serious matter) in hard-hexachord harmonies.
I suggest that such historically informed description, linking the movement of the bass to changes in affetto, is more revealing for academic analysis and more useful to performers than any anachronistic discussion of ‘Recitative’ and ‘Aria’.
How should we perform 17th-century dramatic monody?
Equipped with appropriate terminology, we are better able to recognise typical features of the rappresentativo style, and can more readily understand how to respond as performers, linking what we see in musical scores to what we read in performance practice treatises.
In many performances today, there is little or no respect for composers’ notated rhythms. But just as we admire Monteverdi’s ensemble writing and the brilliant ornamentation of Possente Spirto, so we should recognise his genius for setting the Italian language, comparable to Lully’s excellence in setting French and Purcell’s skill in setting English.
How to perform ‘Recitative’???
Of course, period performers did take certain liberties with composed material. For example, they added their own graces and divisions to songs and ensemble-music [though generally not in rappresentativa music]. Such ornamentation is guided by principles explained in period treatises, and must remain with the rules of counterpoint and the underlying rhythm of Tactus.
So it should be for our modern-day performances of dramatic music: there are certain liberties that are permitted, even encouraged, by historical sources. But we must be guided by period principles, inspired by notated examples, and remain within the boundaries of style and the measure of Tactus.
Musica rappresentativa is NOT ‘do as you please’!
Caccini (1601) declares the priorities of the Nuove musiche [new music] to be Text & Rhythm. Many sources prioritise the Rhetorical concept of Action – gesture, facial expression, contrasts of vocal tone-colour, body posture and movement.
The composers’ notation is a rich source of information. When we choose to depart from it, we should double-check that our personal input follows period principles.
Imitation of Speech
Dramatic Monody imitates the speaking style of a fine actor in a baroque theatre. The composed score indicates an ideal declamation by describing (as precisely as notation allows) the rhythms and pitch contours of such stylised speaking. We do not have to create our own ‘speech rhythms’, and we should certainly not re-model the Flow of 17th-century Speech in imitation of modern-day conversation or film dialogue.
Baroque speech-making was highly Rhetorical. Declamation was pitched and timed to carry without amplification in a theatre seating up to a thousand [Cavalieri]. This need not imply vibrato in the (speaking) voice, but it does require frequent silences as the long sentence is broken up into short sense-groups. If we think of the Shakespearian style of the generation of John Gielgud, or even the portentious – and memorable! – declarations of movie super-heroes – “I’ll be back!”; “No, I am your father!”; “Space, the final frontier…” we can begin to move away from conversational and microphone styles towards vocal and text-based charisma.
We need to understand every single word of the Text, not just the overall meaning of sentences, but the function of each individual word.
The articulation of musica rappresentativa demands special attention to good/bad syllables and single/double consonants. In particular, we should avoid false accents on bad syllables, especially the weak final syllable at cadences.
Singers should vary their tone-colour according to the meaning of the words. Il Corago recognises that this can be difficult for some singers, and modern vocal training emphasises consistency, rather than variety, of tone-colour. A good starting exercise is to imagine telling a fairy-story to young children.
The dramatic timing of musica rappresentativa is measured by Tactus, even though singers should not actually beat Tactus with their hand whilst they are acting. [Singers did routinely beat Tactus in madrigals, even in solo songs, but not when representing a character in music-drama – Il Corago.]
Tactus is ‘regular, solid, stable, firm … clear, sure, fearless, and without any perturbation” [Zacconi 1592]. Almost all period images of vocal performance (and many of instrumentalists studying their part in advance) show the Tactus hand, palm outwards, ready to move up and down in the slow, steady minim beat typical of the early 17th century.
There was no conductor in 17th century music – of course! It is the continuo who ‘guide and direct the whole ensemble of voices and instruments’ [Agazzari 1607, here].
Driving the Time
Nevertheless, in such expressive genres as Toccatas, continuo-madrigals and dramatic music, the Tactus could change according to the affetto. These changes were still managed by Tactus (see Frescobaldi Rules) and were almost certainly small (see Houle 1987 Meter in Music 1600-1800). Caccini uses a slower Tactus only once, in all his example songs, Frescobaldi specifies very limited situations where changes can occur – essentially between different movements. Since the composer would already have set agitated texts to short notes, and languid texts to long notes, any Affekt-based change in Tactus will tend to exaggerate written contrasts in note-values.
What can be used more frequently is the kind of rhythmic alteration within the regular Tactus, for which Caccini gives many examples. The common feature of these examples is that long notes are made extra-long, short notes extra-short. Once again, the composer’s contrasts in note-values are exaggerated.
Caccini’s ‘cool’ manner of singing is a style of vocal production, halfway between speech and song. [The truth about Caccini’s sprezzatura] In just one instance in his example songs, he combines this with senza misura, where the voice-part floats freely over the measured bass. This jazz-like effect is notated clearly by Monteverdi, usually only once or twice per song. [Monteverdi, Caccini & Jazz]
Cavalieri, Caccini, Peri, Monteverdi, Il Corago and other period sources advise both singers and continuo-players to avoid ornamentation in dramatic music. Cavalieri and Caccini give examples of simple cadential ornaments which are used very sparingly. The trillo – and almost all 17th-century ornamentation – accelerates towards the final note rather than slowing down. The modern cliché of a tenor cadence decorated with a upwards jump of a fourth, linear descent, and a slowing trillo is not supported by period evidence.
Prologue-roles, aria-singers and characters with divine or supernatural powers can add more ornamentation.
Many 17th-century sources emphasise the supreme importance of clear communication of the text, in order to convey emotions to the audience. Monteverdi is frequently praised for his expressive word-setting (harmonies and rhythms!). Caccini advises crescendo and/or diminuendo on a single note on exclamatory words, Ahi! Deh! etc. Emotions in Early Opera.
From Demosthenes via Cicero and Quintilian to the 17th century, Rhetoricians prioritise Action: posture and movement, facial expressions and what we nowadays call Baroque Gesture. Although we tend to view Gesture as a bolt-on extra, a special option for a particularly HIP production, period sources regard Action as fundamental, built-in to composers’ notation and performers’ training. Rhetorical gestures and stylised posture were an everday part of courtly etiquette, and can be observed in many baroque images.
This is a complex subject that requires considerable study and practice, but it’s easy to add some fundamental principles into any vocal performance:
- Stand still, diagonally-on (not square) to your audience, with your weight on one leg
- Hold your music with the LEFT hand, leaving your elegantly shaped RIGHT hand free to gesture
- Imagine that you see in front of you the scene you are describing, and point at what you talk about.
For my free on-line course in Historical Action and Baroque Gesture, start here!
So now we can all be ready for the next time a singer or stage director says:
But it’s recitative, isn’t it?