The patter song is characterized by a moderately fast to very fast tempo with a rapid succession of rhythmic patterns in which each syllable of text corresponds to one note (there are few or no melismatic passages). It is a staple of comic opera, especially Gilbert and Sullivan, but it has also been used in musicals and other situations.
The lyric of a patter song generally features tongue-twisting rhyming text, with alliterative words and other consonant or vowel sounds that are intended to be entertaining to listen to at rapid speed, and the musical accompaniment is lightly orchestrated and fairly simple, to emphasize the text. The song is often intended as a showpiece for a comic character, usually a bass or baritone (with or without choral interjection). The singer should be capable of excellent enunciation in order to show the song to maximum effect.
A form of rapid patter occurred in the parabasis in ancient Greek comedies. The word "patter" derives from the Pater Noster, or Lord’s Prayer, "which Catholics recited ... rushing through the words as quickly as possible" since medieval times. Rapid patter songs are heard in Italian opera of the baroque era, specifically opera buffa. A familiar example is Bartolo's "La vendetta" in Act 1 of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, which contains the tongue-twisting "Se tutto il codice" section near the end. Later examples are found in the comic operas of Rossini and Donizetti. These are not "patter songs" throughout – the patter is reserved for the cabaletta section of a multi-part number. The best-known examples are:
- the "Tutti mi chiedono" section in Figaro’s Largo al factotum from Act 1 of Rossini's The Barber of Seville (1816), and the "Signorina, un'altra volta" section in Bartolo's "A un dottor della mia sorte" in the same Act.
- the end (starting at "Mi risveglio a mezzogiorno") of Don Magnifico's "Sia qualunque delle figlie" in Act 2 of La Cenerentola (1817), and the whole of the short sextet "Quello brontola e borbotta" in the same Act.
- the last section of each of Pasquale's and Malatesta's verses in their duet "Cheti, cheti, immantinente" in Act 2 of Donizetti's Don Pasquale (1843), plus a reprise in which they sing their patter simultaneously.
Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs
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Gilbert wrote several opera parodies before he moved on to comic operas with Arthur Sullivan. Sullivan was also familiar with Italian opera and included a patter song in his first comic opera, Cox and Box (1867). George Bernard Shaw, in his capacity as a music critic, praised "the time-honored lilt which Sir Arthur Sullivan, following the example of Mozart and Rossini, chose for the lists of accomplishments of the Major-General in The Pirates or the Colonel in Patience." Well known examples of rapid-fire, tongue-tripping Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs are:
- Major-General Stanley’s song, "I am the very model of a modern Major-General" in Act 1 of The Pirates of Penzance (1879);
- The Lord Chancellor’s "Nightmare song", "When you're lying awake" in Act 2 of Iolanthe (1882);
- The Sorcerer's song, "My Name is John Wellington Wells" in Act 1 of The Sorcerer (1877);
- The trio "My eyes are fully open to my awful situation" in Act 2 of Ruddigore (1887), which contains the lines "This particularly rapid, unintelligible patter/ Isn’t generally heard, and if it is, it doesn’t matter"; and
- The Colonel's song "If you want a receipt for that popular mystery" in Act 1 of Patience (1881).
Some numbers in the G&S canon are classified as patter-songs by aficionados, although they may not contain all of the attributes listed in the definition above. These are often songs telling how the character rose to an undeserved distinguished position, or they may contain a catalogue or list. The model here may be the middle section, starting “È questo l'odontalgico”, of Doctor Dulcamara’s "Udite, Udite, o rustici" in Act 1 of Donizetti’s L'elisir d'amore (1832), a work that Gilbert had burlesqued early in his career in Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack. This was not intended to be sung at great speed and is thus more of a precursor of, for example, "When I, good friends, was called to the bar" (Trial by Jury) or "As some day it may happen" (The Mikado), than are the examples of the "rapid-fire" patter above.
Most of the G&S patter songs are solos for the principal comedian in the cast, and were originally performed by George Grossmith. Anna Russell’s "How to write your own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera" contains an affectionate parody of a G&S patter song.
Later patter songs
Apart from G&S tunes set to different words, such as Tom Lehrer's listing of the chemical elements to the tune of the Major General's Song, later patter-songs can be found in early twentieth-century operettas, such as Edward German's Merrie England and in a number of musicals. Particularly good examples include "Tchaikovsky (and Other Russians)" in Weill’s Lady in the Dark and "Getting Married Today" in Stephen Sondheim's Company. Another good example is Professor Harold Hill's song in The Music Man, "Ya Got Trouble". Some rock and pop songs contain a rapid-fire passage similar to earlier patter songs, such as Barenaked Ladies' "One Week", Reunion's "Life is a Rock", R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)", Shirley Ellis's "The Name Game", Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire", Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up" and the Mothers of Invention's "Let's Make the Water Turn Black".
- Aristophanes Wasps, Douglas MacDowell (ed), Oxford University Press 1978, p. 27
- "Albert Bergeret’s NYGASP keeps Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas pattering on", The Washington Post, October 25, 2013
- Stedman, p. 62
- Shaw, George Bernard (1981). Laurence, Dan H., ed. Shaw's Music: The Complete Musical Criticism of Bernard Shaw 2. London: Max Reinhardt. p. 492. ISBN 0-370-31271-6.
- Shepherd, Marc. Review and analysis of Russell's G&S parody, the Gilbert and Sullivan Discography
- Stedman, Jane W. (1996). W. S. Gilbert, A Classic Victorian & His Theatre. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816174-3.