Independent Study in Music History, Spring 2006










Meter Fluctuation in Lully’s Recitative


By: Rémi Castonguay 


Hunter College, City University of New York                                  May 24, 2006






In the last few decades, the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully have been the object of  renewed interest. In turn, this revival triggered a thorough investigation of what lies at the core of Lully’s work: recitative. Indeed, the French master’s recitative technique has been the subject of interesting debates among specialist of the French Baroque. Much of the issues revolve around Lully’s use of fluctuating meter. This article aims at presenting different aspects influencing the use of meters in Lully’s operas.


To this day, French Baroque musicologists still use the divisions of recitative established by Rousseau and his contemporaries in the second half of the 18th century. Since these divisions are crucial to an understanding of French recitative, and also have an effect on meter usage, they will be introduced at the beginning. The second part will provide a closer look at the importance of text in recitative and how it too, influences the use of meters. Subsequently, a look at musical examples and French theories of meter in the 17th century will help to draw a picture of how different meters relate to each other and how certain passages of recitative can be conceived. More specifically, a particular focus will be granted to the alternation of meter signs C, *, and 2. I will argue that these signs have to be considered differently depending on where they occur in the musical flow (e.g. within récitatif simple, at the frontier of récitatif simple and mesuré).


French recitative has traditionally been divided in three large categories: récitatif simple, récitatif accompagné, and récitatif mesuré.[1] This model was first developed by Estève (1753) and almost simultaneously by Rousseau (1768) who’s work served much later on as a basis to Paul-Marie Masson’s studies in the 1930s.[2] As explained by Charles Dill, evidence of a critical language for discussing recitative in France does not appear until the mid-eighteenth century. Therefore, Rousseau’s views were built one century after the creation of recitative by Lully and based on performances or scores largely different from their original version. Neverteless, this division is still widely employed in music literature. Here is an overview of these divisions:[3]


  1. Récitatif simple is accompanied by a continuo and contains frequent meter changes.

Example 1: Example of récitatif simple or ordinaire; J.-B. Lully, Thésée, Prologue: "Contre un héros…”


  1. Récitatif accompagné is divided in two categories: récitatif accompagné solennel and récitatif accompagné pathétique. While the first type (solennel) only employed the orchestra to punctuate the action with simple chord progressions, the latter (pathétique) exhibited agitated rhythmic accompaniment and was used in intense dramatic moments, scenes of confusion like madness, magic scenes and other moments. Récitatif accompagné also made use of frequent meter changes as the example below shows.


Example 2: Example of récitatif accompagné solennel: J.-B. Lully, Roland, Acte IV, scène 2: “Qu’elle parle de moi sous un nom…”


  1. Récitatif mesuré is used in passages with regular and is often reserved for the most lyrical or expressive moment where textual repetitions are found.


Example 3: Example of récitatif mesuré: J.-B. Lully, Atys: Acte I, Scène 3, “L’ardeur des conquests nouvelles…”





 The definition of récitatif mesuré remains problematic to this day. In the 18th century, as those categories were being defined, there seems to have been already a share of confusion. As Rousseau explains, these two words, recitative and mesuré, don’t seem to belong together or rather contradict each other. Rousseau also talks of this style as a recitative accompanying the accompaniment:

Ces deux mots sont contradictoires: tout récitatif où l'on sent quelque autre mesure que celle des vers n'est plus du récitatif. Mais souvent un récitatif ordinaire se change tout d'un coup en chant, et prend de la mesure et de la mélodie; ce qui se marque en écrivant sur les parties a tempo ou a battuta. Ce contraste, ce changement bien ménagé produit des effets surprenants. [-128-] Dans le cours d'un récitatif débité, une réflexion tendre et plaintive prend l'accent musical et se développe à l'instant par les plus douces inflexions du chant; puis, coupée de la même manière par quelque autre réflexion vive et impétueuse, elle s'interrompt brusquement pour reprendre à l'instant tout le débit de la parole…On mesure encore le récitatif, lorsque l'accompagnement dont on le charge, étant chantant et mesuré lui-même, oblige le récitant d'y conformer son débit. C'est moins alors un récitatif mesuré que, comme je l'ai dit plus haut, un récitatif accompagnant l'accompagnement.[4]


As mentioned earlier, the categories of recitative are somewhat arbitrary and anachronistic as they were established a long time after the death of Lully. In that regard, Rousseau’s influential Dictionnaire de la musique (1768) was published eighty years after the death of Lully. Did the composer think in such categorized ways or did he conceive recitative as an organic phenomenon where “each passage…is by its nature a unique experience”?[5] In other words, is every moment of recitative a little universe?  When analyzing passages, what is important to realize is that the differentiation between, the different types of recitative, especially between recitative simple and mesuré, is often difficult to establish. French recitative, as Teleman once described it, “flows continuously, bubbling forth like champagne.”[6] Nevertheless, this differentiation must be made since it influences directly the use of meters.

Beyond the organization exposed above comes an element that is crucial to the understanding of French recitative: the importance of the text. French recitative is ‘ruled’ by the text in very intricate ways. It is commonly acknowledged that Lully modeled recitative, at least partly, on the highly stylized declamation of spoken theatre of his days. Baptiste also inherited the French traditions of metric freedom (as in the 16th-century musique mesurée), stressing the lyric accents of the text by marking both the rhyme and the caesura. The French vers is indeed dividable in two hemistiches: in a vers of twelve feet the division is of two hemistiches of six feet while in a vers of ten feet the hemistiches are usually of four and six feet. In Lully’s music, the last syllable of each hemistich is usually accented.

In her seminal article about French Baroque recitative, Lois Rosow explains that a look at Lully’s recitative:

reveals the essence of the relationship between line structure in the libretto and metrical notation in the score: though there are exceptions, in most cases the rhyme of the line falls on a downbeat or on the second stress of a bar (e.g.: third beat in a C bar). Furthermore, the caesura in a long line is likely to receive a metrical accent in the music as well[7]


In a more recent article, Rosow clarifies that while the rhyme almost always corresponds to a strong beat in the music, the caesura and other “mobile secondary accents” are emphasized through different means; pitch or agogic, harmonic or metric accents.[8]

Another important aspect of Lully’s recitative lies in the asymmetry of Quinault’s poetry. Indeed, his libretti abound in alexandrines that vary in actual number of spoken syllable because of the mandatory pronunciation of ‘the muted e’ at the end of feminine verses. Hence, many verses can actually be measured to thirteen feet rather than twelve.[9] Similarly, lines of six and eight feet often add up to seven or nine syllables. Hence, as Rosow argues, this asymmetry combined with need of bar-line placement dictated by caesurae and the rhymes, has for effect the use of fluctuating meters.[10] Rosow explains furthermore that while setting Quinault’s poetry to music, Lully followed the tradition of 17th-century air de cour:

in which frequent alternation between bars of duple and triple metre, even in the middle of phrases, reflects a virtual absence of metrical regularity in the poetry. Since the bar-lines are determined by the irregular accentuation of the verse, it is not surprising that passages of recitative designed to approximate speech rhythms are notated with frequent changes of meter. The metrical fluctuations are not, as is sometimes said, purely notational – the bars notated in triple metre contain music in triple metre – but the subtle interplay of fixed and secondary accents in the poetry means that the listener usually cannot tell where the bar-lines come.[11]


A question can obviously occur to the reader: why not avoid fluctuating meters by manipulating durations without breaking the rules explained above?  In a study of Lully’s Alceste, Claude Palisca attempts to give answers to that question. By comparing a number of alexandrines’ and octonaries’ text setting, Palisca demonstrates that “the number of syllables in a poetic line does not determine the duration of the musical line.”[12] In his sampling, Palisca showed that Lully was taking anywhere from four and half to eight beats of quarter notes to set alexandrines and octonaries of variable length. In his opinion, it is clear that: “This range of musical line-lengths demonstrate that the alternation of different verse-types did not force Lully into mixed meters, because there is a great variety within a given syllabic count.”[13] Logically, Palisca concludes that the composer could have easily set all the text to regular meter.[14]

What accounts, then, for the fluctuation of meters? In Palisca’s opinion, the rate of declamation “…depends, at least much of the time…on the meaning and mood of a line.”[15] To convey these moods or meaning, Lully’s recitative, as Palisca observes, uses rates of declamation varying from one line to the other: at times, a rate of one sixteenth-

note per syllable is used while at other times, a mode of one eighth-note per syllable will usually prevail. This speaks to the association of speed and note values related to meter signs, which will be discussed later.

Palisca’s observations obviously conflict with Rosow’s approach. I believe that, rather than simply conforming meter to obey the poetry’s accents, Lully also consciously chose the meters to which he set his recitative. In using meter changes, Lully not only approximated text declamation in the French tradition but also signified subtle changes of mood signaled in the text.

Example 4 below illustrates this idea. In the first few measures, starting where the meter changes to C, Idas talks directly to his friend Atys. In a conversational mode, Idas invites him to admit his love for Sangaride—“Atys don’t pretend, I know your secret. Don’t fear, I am discreet.” To set this text, Lully used sixteenth-notes. After this brief passage, a change of meter to 2 corresponds to an alteration of the mood and tone. Idas tells a story to Atys “In a solitary and dark wood, the indifferent Atys thought he was alone. Under a thick bush, I was dreaming in the shade. I heard him speak of Love.” The change in mode of speech is implied in the text as Idas tells the story as if Atys was not present—referring to his friend as ‘Atys’ or ‘him’ instead of just saying ‘you’. To this poetry charged with somber and dreamy descriptions, Lully appropriately avoided the use of sixteenth-notes and chose to set the text using long note values. The word “sombre" for example is set to values adding up to six quarter notes.




Example 4: J.-B. Lully, Atys, Act I, scène 2:, “Atys ne feignez plus, Je sçay vôtre secret.”



This example illustrates a possible change of rate in declamation corresponding to the change of mood or meaning. It also shows a good example of something that Lully does frequently: a change of meter from 4/4 to 2/2 (or C to ). This type of change often occurs at cadences but in this case, it clearly denotes a change of character.


One can legitimately ask how these meters relate to each other. Are note values equivalent from one meter type to the next? Interestingly, Rousseau says that:

On ne mesure point le récitatif en chantant; cette mesure, qui caractérise les airs, gâterait la déclamation récitative: c'est l'accent, soit grammatical, soit oratoire, qui doit seul diriger la lenteur ou la rapidité des sons, de même que leur élévation ou leur abaissement. Le compositeur, en notant le récitatif sur quelque mesure déterminée, n'a en vue que de fixer la correspondance de la basse-continue et du chant, et d'indiquer à peu près comment on doit marquer la quantité des syllabes, cadencer et scander les vers. Les Italiens ne se servent jamais pour leur récitatif que de la mesure à quatre temps, mais les Français entremêlent le leur de toutes sortes de mesures.[16]


Rousseau’s statement points to a concept of qualitative meter emphasizing the importance of text over music in simple recitative. This view is corroborated by a number of other authors of the 18th century.[17]  In that vein, many authors of the 18th century also insist on the difference between song (chant) and recitative. In terms of actual practice, Rousseau’s comments remain vague despite their interest. In addition, a look at French theory treatises of the late 17th century cannot give us definitive answers to these issues. However, they can help better understand some of the elements of practice of those days. By the late 17th century, the old proportional system had practically disappeared and new practices of metrical notation were slowly starting to coagulate. What all theorists of the time agreed upon was that specific meter signatures should be associated to specific tempi: “Or le signe qu’on met au commencement d’une pièce, marque à la fois; combien il doit y avoir de notes dans chaque mesure, à combien de temps elle doit se battre, et quel mouvement, c’est-à-dire quelle vitesse ou quelle gravité il faut donner la pièce."[18] Simultaneously, many French theorists also agreed upon the discouraging gap between theory and practice: “Mais c’est particulièrement dans ce qui regarde le mouvement des pièces, que les musicians prennent des libertés contre leurs principes.”[19] Table 1 below, summarizes the views of a few French theorists of that era.[20] The table organizes duple meters from the slowest to the fastest and triple meter in the same fashion.

Table 1: The views on Rhythm of four French Music Theorists of the late 17th Cent.



E. Loulié

C. Masson

J.P. Freillon-Poncein (1700)

M. Saint-Lambert (1702)





4 beats. No specified speed but the author implies it that it is slow.



4 slow beats when used in recitative. (this is deduced from some of the author’s comments.)


“signe majeur”, 4 slow beats (grave)


“signe majeur”, 4 slow beats (graves).





4 fast beats but the practice of the time was to beat two slow beats



2 slow beats or 4 fast ones


2 slow beats, a little faster than 2


2 beats. The beats are the same speed as that of C. Hence, the notes are one times faster.




2 slow beats (this is deduced of what is said about)


Generally fast (faster than)


2 slow beats


2 beats, one time faster than*.


Slower than 3/4

“fort gravement”


Slower than 3/4


3 slow beats (graves, as C)



The bottom digit will determine how fast is the beat (e.g.: 3/1 is slower than 3/4)



3 slow beats


3/4 is slightly faster than 3/2.

1 time faster than 3/2 but at the same time equal to C. 


Table 1 indicates that theorists agreed at the very least on the meter sign C, also referred to as “signe majeur.” All four theorists define it as four slow beats (graves). Measures in 3, almost systematically used for 3/4, prove more elusive but most theorists seem to define that marking as three slow beats. Other markings as 2 or  prove more difficult to define. Table 1 generally indicates that C was considered slower than  and that  was slower than 2. However, the views of Freillon-Poncein, as well as those of Muffat (1695), a theorist not represented in this table, differ. Indeed, these two theorists present meter sign 2 as slower than .

In her article about metrical notation in Lully’s recitative, Lois Rosow says that “Nothing better exemplifies the state of flux of the metrical system in Lully’s era than the utter lack of agreement among French theorists regarding the relationship between and 2/2.” [21] Rosow, nevertheless, considers the approach of French theorist Etienne Loulié that she summarizes as follows:[22]




In brief, the model indicates that in recitative passages, a quarter note in C is the same value as a quarter note in 3, or a half note in , 2, or 3/2. This model seems to be based on Loulié’s words: “When the composer changes meter to fit the words, so that certain long syllables will fall on strong beats, the beat of one meter should be equal in duration to the beat of another meter.”[23] In most cases, Rosow says, Loulié’s rule will apply. However, taking a case-by-case approach, she demonstrates that this rule cannot be applied uniformly. She provides a few examples of exceptions to Loulié’s rule grounded largely on text-based explanations. The example below is one that Rosow presents as a possible exception to Loulié’s rule (I have taken the continuo out for practical purposes.) She argues that the meter sign 2 was conceived by Lully to be slightly faster than *. Rosow proposes that “At the text ‘I lose all hope, I shall never be able to see her’, 2 gives way to*, perhaps indicating a slight allargando, in which, the tempo decreases a bit but not by half.”[24]

Example 5: J.-B. Lully, Prosperpine, Act 2, scene 4: “Elle n’en peut sortir…”



Example 4, given earlier, does not seem to qualify as an exception similar to that exemplified by Rosow above. At the same time, it contradicts the views of 17th century’s French theorists. Indeed, as seen earlier, when considering the text the 2/2 bars of example 4 can hardly be construed as being sung at a much faster speed than the preceding 4/4 bars. Perhaps example 4 corresponds to passages “where metrical changes seem designed primarily to indicate some sort of disjunction, perhaps a surprise, perhaps a parenthetical remark.”[25]  This agrees with Denise Launay’s view that suggests a close examination of the text when changes of meters correspond to a rupture in discourse.[26]

Finally, it should be said that briefly following the excerpt of example 4, a passage of recitative mesuré can be found. The 2/2 section of example 4 can in fact be considered as “announcing” this following section. Therefore, close attention should be paid to those fluctuations of meter that occur at the frontier of recitative simple and mesuré.


Such a passage, similar to example 4, can be found in Thésée. In example 6 below, the meter marking C is followed by *. Theoretically, the * passage should be sung twice as fast as what precedes but considering the text, it seems unlikely to be the case. While the passage in C talks about enemy, rage, and hits, the * passage sets the text “Value to my eyes has sweet charms.” While the passage in * is clearly récitatif mesuré—the meter remains stable for a while and there is text repetition on the next page—the passage in C is clearly récitatif simple.[27] The earlier example 4 and example 6 below raise an interesting question. Do meter changes residing at the frontier of recitative simple and mesuré carry a different meaning than those located within recitative simple? I would like to argue for such a distinction. However, the proof resides in an extensive examination of Lully’s work, which is beyond the scope of this article.

Example 6 : J.-B. Lully, Thésée, Act I, Scene 5 : "L’ordre du Roy m’engage…"

In regards to the difference between C, *, and 2, one aspect is then left to observ. We should identify passages where such meter fluctuations are found in recitative strictly of the ordinary kind. The excerpt below, from Lully’s Thésée, shows an interesting alternation of C and * in récitatif simple. [28]


Example 7 : J.-B. Lully, Thésée, Prologue: "Hélas! Hélas! Les Amours n’y sont pas…"




Example 7 leads one to believe that even in strict ordinary recitative, C and *had tempo implications that did not involve the 2:1 mentioned by Loulié. By strictly respecting that ratio, the eighth, quarter, and half notes of the * bars become respectively equivalent to the sixteenth, eighth, and quarter notes of the C bars. In other words, at the meter change, the listener would not hear any changes of speed. Therefore, Lully must have conceived C and * in a ratio different than 2:1. In later operas, it should be said, Lully favored the sign 2 (2/2) over *. Examples such as example 8 show that the composer must also have conceived of 2 as not acting in a 2:1 ration in relation to C.

Example 8 : J.-B. Lully, Isis, Act I, Scene 5 : "Mais il doit s’expliquer autrement…"

Rosow attributes those shifts of meter from C to * or C to 2 as matching “sudden exclamations” or interjections.[29] I argue that such passages are so frequent that it seems unlikely that this explanation alone could match every case. Loulié’s theory of a 2:1 ratio, as we just saw, is unlikely to explain all passages. As George Houle also explains:

“A 2:1 ratio between C and * does not necessarily indicate a change of speed or of rhythmic quality, since notes of double size are usually found when the tactus is twice as fast. A perceptible change in the speed of the music does occur if the tactus is somewhat faster. In order to be precise, this change would need to be represented by a ratio more mathematically complex than 2:1, the proportion specified by many writers for the diminution *.[30]


This study of recitative provides only hints at the signification of meters in Lully’s work. I hope to have provided new avenues for further exploration. A systematic and comprehensive look at the music however, can only give us better answers. I also argue that a detailed look at the text, through the lenses of literary theory such as rhythmopoeia and other 17th Century theories of text declamation would provide invaluable insights into Lully’s composition process. These projects remain, however, beyond the scope of this article. I would like to propose nevertheless, that rather than starting from the music and trying to explain the use of fluctuating meters, one should start from the text as the composer did, and theoretically deduce how certain passages were set to music. It seems indeed likely that Lully would have written bars in after deciding of rhythms matching the words. Finally, let me warn the reader about any attempt at systematization in a domain where each moment of music should be treated as a little universe.

[1] Charles Dill, “Eighteenth-Century Models of French Recitative.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 120 (1995): 323-50; see p. 233.

[2] Paul-Marie Masson, L’opéra de Rameau (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972.)

[3] This overview is largely indebted to Charles Dill’s article mentioned above and to: Monson, Dale E., Jack Westrupt, and Julian Budden: 'Recitative : Up to 1800: History, Grove Music Online, Accessed March 15, 2006, <http://>

[4] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Dictionnaire de Musique: Tome second, N-R. In Oeuvres complètes de J. J. Rousseau, mises dans un nouvel ordre, avec des notes historiques et des éclaircissements, ed. V. D. Musset-Pathay (Paris: P. Dupont, 1824), 13: 1-155; see p. 127-8, Accessed March 15, 2006 <>.

[5] Patricia Howard, “Lully and the Ironic Convention.” Cambridge Opera Journal 1 (1989): 139-53; see p. 143.

[6] Quoted in Lois Rosow, “French Baroque Recitative as an Expression of Tragic Declamation.” Early Music 11/4 (Oct. 1983): 468-79, see p. 468.  

[7] Idib., p. 469.

[8] Lois Rosow, “Lully.” Grove Music Online, Accessed 16 April 2006, <>.

[9] Nevertheless, we still refer to these verses as alexandrines.

[10] It should be said also that the syllabic style of French recitative has a role in that equation.

[11] Rosow: “Lully.” Grove Music Online, Accessed April 1, 2006 <>

[12] Claude V Palisca, Studies in the History of Italian Music and Music Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 502.

[13] Ibid.

[14] It should also be said that Italian opera composers, dealing with asymmetrical verses, namely settenario and endecasyllabo, did not resort to the use of fluctuating meters.

[15] Palisca, Studies in the History of Italian Music and Music Theory, p. 502.


[16] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Dictionnaire de Musique: Tome second, N-R. In Oeuvres complètes de J. J. Rousseau, mises dans un nouvel ordre, avec des notes historiques et des éclaircissements, ed. V. D. Musset-Pathay (Paris: P. Dupont, 1824), 13: 1-155; see p. 122, Accessed March 15, 2006 <>. 

[17] For an extensive look at this subject: Borel, E. “L’interprétation de l’ancien récitatif français.” Revue de musicologie 12/37 (1931): 13-21.

[18] Michel de Saint-Lambert,. Les principes du clavecin: contenant une explication exacte de tout ce qui concerne la tablature & le clavier (Paris: Ballard, 1702), p. 15. 

[19] Ibid. p. 24.

[20] Table I is by no means exhaustive but it is rather meant to give an overview of a few theorists’ views.

[21] Lois Rosow, “The Metrical Notation of Lully’s Recitative.” In Jean-Baptiste Lully.  Congress Report from the 1987 meeting in Heidelberg and Saint-Germain-en-Laye, ed. Jérôme de La Gorce and Herbert Schneider. Neue Heidelberger Studien zur Musikwissenschaft no. 18.  (Laaber, Germany: Laaber Verlag, 1990), 405-422. see p. 405.

[22] Loulié applied his rule to airs but Rosow, following Peter Wolf’s suggestions applies it to recitative. She makes a convincing case of its pertinence in that context.

[23] Etienne Loulié, “Supplément des principes ou elements de musique.” [circa 1696], F-Pn, f. fr. n. a. 6355, fol. 138v, quoted in Launay, Denise. “Les rapports de tempo entre mesures binaries et mesures ternaires dans la musique française (1600-1650).” Fontes Artis Musicae 12/2-3 (May-Dec. 1965): 166-94; see p. 185.

[24] Rosow, “The Metrical Notation of Lully’s Recitative.” p. 409. 

[25] Ibid., p. 410.

[26] Denise Launay, "Les rapports de tempo entre mesures binaires et mesures ternaires dans la musique française (1600-1650)." Fontes Artis Musicae 12 (1965).

[27] The earlier example 4 also “announced” a recitative mesuré that happened a few measures later.

[28] With time, Lully utilized less and less * favoring instead 2/2. This coincides with publication…

[29] Rosow, “The Metrical Notation of Lully’s Recitative.” p. 410.

[30] George Houle, Meter in Music, 1600-1800: Performance, Perception, and Notation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 14.