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Sprechgesang pertains to a musical method wherein the vocalist crosses between reciting and singing in performing a musical piece. It is usually compared to chanting, as both are very similar in reciting the text, while still using musical elements like rhythm and pitch. The technique is not uncommonly used in operas. Sprechgesang can be performed as a solo performance, a duet, or even by a choral group.
The concept of the sprechgesang originated from Germany, where the field of opera and theater flourished in the 1800s, a century after the likes of Mozart and Beethoven became established classical musicians. The word itself is translated as “spoken song.” The method is often confused or interchanged with another technique called the “sprechtimme,” or the “spoken voice,” although the latter is more declamatory than singing. This is because musical elements, particularly the tone of the lyrics, are not given much importance in sprechtimme, as opposed to the sprechgesang.
Many historical accounts attribute the beginnings of sprechgesang to Richard Wagner, a 19th-century musician who became one of the most influential and pioneering musicians in the world. One of Wagner’s goals was to bring together the styles of recitativo and aria, or speech and melody, probably to enrich his “music dramas” and further develop the moods within the narrative. The method of “speech singing,” however, became more prevalent in the 1900s, when German composer Arnold Schoenberg used the technique in his melodrama “Pierrot Lunaire,” given that his main performer, Albertine Zehme, was more of an actress than a singer. It is also interesting to note that the “spoken song” technique coincided with the rise of German “hip-hop,” which often includes rapping in the songs.
One important reason why sprechgesang is often used in melodrama and comedic operas is it can evoke and emphasize certain emotions, primary factors in expressionist art. Singing is generally very controlled and is required to be pleasurable to the ear, but the act does not necessarily permit and convey extreme emotions. The method of “spoken song,” however, allows the performer to revert to speech to express extreme happiness, fear, or grief. For example, the performer can use high-pitched tones with fast talking to convey happiness, but create low and lilting moans to express immense grief.
Sprechgesang as a singing technique can be very difficult to achieve, more so because there is no definite explanation as to how it should be correctly done. The method allows the performer to use elements of ordinary speech, but the end result should not be as such. No specific pitches are employed, but the performance should still contain a “musical” touch, and is often required to keep a certain rhythm.