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Sprechgesang and Sprechstimme (German for spoken-song and spoken-voice) are musical terms used to refer to an expressionist vocal technique between singing and speaking. Though sometimes used interchangeably, sprechgesang is a term more directly related to the operatic recitative manner of singing (in which pitches are sung, but the articulation is rapid and loose like speech), whereas sprechstimme is closer to speech itself (not having emphasis on particular pitches).[1]



The term sprechgesang is more closely aligned with the long used musical techniques of recitative or parlando than is sprechstimme. Where sprechgesang is used in this way, it is usually in the context of the late Romantic German operas or "music dramas" that were composed by Richard Wagner and others in the 19th century. Thus sprechgesang is often simply a German alternative to recitative.[2]

Nonetheless, opera critics sometimes employ the term sprechgesang in a pejorative sense, using it to condemn a style of Wagnerian singing where the over-articulation of the words of a musical passage (such as an aria) chops up the passage's smooth flow. This style of singing was particularly prevalent at Germany's Bayreuth Festival in the 1890s and early 1900s, and it received the unflattering nickname of the "Bayreuth bark". (The Bayreuth bark has almost died out.)

Sprechgesang is not a word that was used by the 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg, but it is frequently used by commentators to refer to the sprechstimme employed in some of his musical works. As such, the two terms have become interchangeable in this specific context.

Since the early 1990s in Germany, sprechgesang has gained a new pop-culture meaning of "German-language rap music".


The earliest known use of the technique is in Engelbert Humperdinck's 1897 melodrama Königskinder,[citation needed] but it is more closely associated with the composers of the Second Viennese School. Arnold Schoenberg asks for the technique in a number of pieces: the part of the Speaker in Gurre-Lieder (1911) is written in his notation for Sprechstimme, but it was Pierrot Lunaire (1912) where he used it throughout and left a note attempting to explain the technique. Alban Berg adopted the technique and asked for it in parts of his operas Wozzeck and Lulu.


In the foreword to Pierrot Lunaire (1912), Schoenberg explains how his Sprechstimme should be achieved. He explains that the indicated rhythms should be adhered to, but that whereas in ordinary singing a constant pitch is maintained through a note, here the singer "immediately abandons it by falling or rising. The goal is certainly not at all a realistic, natural speech. On the contrary, the difference between ordinary speech and speech that collaborates in a musical form must be made plain. But it should not call singing to mind, either."[3] For the first performances of Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg was able to work directly with the vocalist and obtain exactly the result he desired, but later performances were problematic. Schoenberg had written many subsequent letters attempting to clarify, but he was unable to leave a definitive explanation and there has been much disagreement as to what was actually intended. Pierre Boulez would write, "the question arises whether it is actually possible to speak according to a notation devised for singing. This was the real problem at the root of all the controversies. Schoenberg's own remarks on the subject are not in fact clear."[4] Schoenberg would later use a notation without a traditional clef in the Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte (1942), A Survivor from Warsaw (1947) and his unfinished opera Moses und Aron, which eliminated any reference to a specific pitch, but retained the relative slides and articulations.


In Schoenberg's musical notation, sprechstimme is usually indicated by small crosses through the stems of the notes, or with the note head itself being a small cross.

Schoenberg's later notation (first used in his Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte, 1942) replaced the 5-line staff with a single line having no clef. The note stems no longer bear the x, as it is now clear that no specific pitch is intended, and instead relative pitches are specified by placing the notes above or below the single line (sometimes on ledger lines).

Berg notates several degrees of Sprechstimme, e. g. in Wozzeck, using single-line staff for rhythmic speaking, five-line staffs with x through the note stem, and a single stroke through the stem for close-to-singing sprechsimme.

In modern usage, it is most common to indicate Sprechstimme by using "x"'s in place of conventional noteheads.[5]

Kurt Weill adopted Sprechstimme to accommodate Lotte Lenya's distinctive, though non-lyric, voice for her part as Jenny in Die Dreigroschenoper. Macheath's part also employs the technique.

See also


  1. ^ Wood, Ralph W.. Concerning "Sprechgesang", Tempo, new series no. 2, December 1946. (pp. 3-6)
  2. ^ Wood, 1946: "'Sprechgesang' means a 'parlando' manner of singing, and indeed is translated in standard dictionaries as 'recitative,' whereas 'sprechstimme' in itself simply means 'speaking voice'".
  3. ^ Schoenberg, Arnold. Verklärte Nacht and Pierrot Lunaire. Dover Publications. New York, 1994. ISBN 0-486-27885-9 (p. 54)
  4. ^ Boulez, Pierre. Orientations. Faber and Faber. London, 1986. ISBN 0-571-14347-4 (From the essay Speaking, Playing, Singing, written 1963, pp. 330-335)
  5. ^ Read, Gardner. Musical Notation. Taplinger Publishing, New York, 1979. ISBN 0-8008-5453-5 (p. 288)

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

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Sprechgesang m. (genitive Sprechgesangs or Sprechgesanges, plural Sprechgesänge)

  1. Sprechgesang, "spoken song" - a technique of vocal production halfway between singing and speaking
  2. vocals in rap music, toasting

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