Patter song
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
Comic opera
Comic opera denotes a sung dramatic work of a light or comic nature, usually with a happy ending.Forms of comic opera first developed in late 17th-century Italy. By the 1730s, a new operatic genre, opera buffa, emerged as an alternative to opera seria...

, especially Gilbert and Sullivan
Gilbert and Sullivan
Gilbert and Sullivan refers to the Victorian-era theatrical partnership of the librettist W. S. Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan . The two men collaborated on fourteen comic operas between 1871 and 1896, of which H.M.S...

, but it has also been used in musicals
Musical theatre
Musical theatre is a form of theatre combining songs, spoken dialogue, acting, and dance. The emotional content of the piece – humor, pathos, love, anger – as well as the story itself, is communicated through the words, music, movement and technical aspects of the entertainment as an...

 and other situations.

The lyric of a patter song generally features tongue-twisting
A tongue-twister is a phrase that is designed to be difficult to articulate properly, and can be used as a type of spoken word game. Some tongue-twisters produce results which are humorous when they are mispronounced, while others simply rely on the confusion and mistakes of the speaker for their...

 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
Baritone is a type of male singing voice that lies between the bass and tenor voices. It is the most common male voice. Originally from the Greek , meaning deep sounding, music for this voice is typically written in the range from the second F below middle C to the F above middle C Baritone (or...

 (with or without choral interjection). The singer should be capable of excellent enunciation in order to show the song to maximum effect.


The type of rapid patter described above seems to have originated in Italian opera
Italian opera
Italian opera is both the art of opera in Italy and opera in the Italian language. Opera was born in Italy around the year 1600 and Italian opera has continued to play a dominant role in the history of the form until the present day. Many famous operas in Italian were written by foreign composers,...

 of the baroque era
Baroque music
Baroque music describes a style of Western Classical music approximately extending from 1600 to 1760. This era follows the Renaissance and was followed in turn by the Classical era...

, specifically opera buffa
Opera buffa
Opera buffa is a genre of opera. It was first used as an informal description of Italian comic operas variously classified by their authors as ‘commedia in musica’, ‘commedia per musica’, ‘dramma bernesco’, ‘dramma comico’, ‘divertimento giocoso' etc...

. A familiar example is Bartolo's "La vendetta" in Act 1 of Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart , baptismal name Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart , was a prolific and influential composer of the Classical era. He composed over 600 works, many acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, piano, operatic, and choral music...

's The Marriage of Figaro
The Marriage of Figaro
Le nozze di Figaro, ossia la folle giornata , K. 492, is an opera buffa composed in 1786 in four acts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with Italian libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, based on a stage comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais, La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro .Although the play by...

, which contains the tongue-twisting “Se tutto il codice” section near the end. Even later examples are found in the comic operas of Rossini
Gioacchino Rossini
Gioachino Antonio Rossini was an Italian composer who wrote 39 operas as well as sacred music, chamber music, songs, and some instrumental and piano pieces...

 and Donizetti
Gaetano Donizetti
Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti was an Italian composer from Bergamo, Lombardy. His best-known works are the operas L'elisir d'amore , Lucia di Lammermoor , and Don Pasquale , all in Italian, and the French operas La favorite and La fille du régiment...

. In these there is no “patter song” as such – the patter is reserved for the cabaletta
Cabaletta describes the two-part musical form particularly favored for arias in 19th century Italian opera, and is more properly the name of the more animated section following the songlike cantabile. It often introduces a complication or intensification of emotion and/or plot. Some sources...

 section of a multi-part number. The best-known examples are:
  • the “Tutti mi chiedono” section in Figaro’s Largo al factotum
    Largo al factotum
    Largo al factotum is an aria from The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini, sung at the first entrance of the title character; the repeated "Figaro"s before the final patter section are an icon in popular culture of operatic singing...

     from Act 1 of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville
    The Barber of Seville
    The Barber of Seville, or The Futile Precaution is an opera buffa in two acts by Gioachino Rossini with a libretto by Cesare Sterbini. The libretto was based on Pierre Beaumarchais's comedy Le Barbier de Séville , which was originally an opéra comique, or a mixture of spoken play with music...

    (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
    La Cenerentola
    La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo is an operatic dramma giocoso in two acts by Gioachino Rossini. The libretto was written by Jacopo Ferretti, based on the fairy tale Cinderella...

    (1817), and the whole of the short sextet “Quello brontola e borbotta” in the same Act.
  • The last section of each of Pasquale and Malatesta’s verses in their duet "Cheti, cheti, immantinente" in Act 2 of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
    Don Pasquale
    Don Pasquale is an opera buffa, or comic opera, in three acts by Gaetano Donizetti. The librettist Giovanni Ruffini wrote the Italian language libretto after Angelo Anelli's libretto for Stefano Pavesi's Ser Marcantonio ....

    (1843), plus a reprise in which they sing their patter simultaneously.

Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs

W. S. Gilbert
Sir William Schwenck Gilbert was an English dramatist, librettist, poet and illustrator best known for his fourteen comic operas produced in collaboration with the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan, of which the most famous include H.M.S...

 had a soft spot for Don Pasquale
Don Pasquale
Don Pasquale is an opera buffa, or comic opera, in three acts by Gaetano Donizetti. The librettist Giovanni Ruffini wrote the Italian language libretto after Angelo Anelli's libretto for Stefano Pavesi's Ser Marcantonio ....

and must have known this last duet. Examples of G&S patter songs along the lines of the above can be found in:
  • Major-General Stanley’s song, "I am the very model of a modern Major-General" in Act 1 of The Pirates of Penzance
    The Pirates of Penzance
    The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. The opera's official premiere was at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City on 31 December 1879, where the show was well received by both audiences...

  • The Lord Chancellor’s "Nightmare song", "When you're lying awake" in Act 2 of Iolanthe
    Iolanthe; or, The Peer and the Peri is a comic opera with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It is one of the Savoy operas and is the seventh collaboration of the fourteen between Gilbert and Sullivan....

  • The Sorcerer's song, "My Name is John Wellington Wells" in Act 1 of The Sorcerer
    The Sorcerer
    The Sorcerer is a two-act comic opera, with a libretto by W. S. Gilbert and music by Arthur Sullivan. It was the British duo's third operatic collaboration. The plot of The Sorcerer is based on a Christmas story, An Elixir of Love, that Gilbert wrote for The Graphic magazine in 1876...

    ; and
  • the trio "My eyes are fully open to my awful situation" in Act 2 of Ruddigore
    Ruddigore; or, The Witch's Curse, originally called Ruddygore, is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It is one of the Savoy Operas and the tenth of fourteen comic operas written together by Gilbert and Sullivan...

    , which contains the lines "This particularly rapid, unintelligible patter/ Isn’t generally heard, and if it is, it doesn’t matter".

Several of the other G&S patter songs are of this "rapid-fire" kind. Some other numbers in the G&S canon, however, are classified as patter-songs by aficionado
Fan (person)
A Fan, sometimes also called aficionado or supporter, is a person with a liking and enthusiasm for something, such as a band or a sports team. Fans of a particular thing or person constitute its fanbase or fandom...

s, 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
L'elisir d'amore
L'elisir d'amore is an opera by the Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti. It is a melodramma giocoso in two acts...

(1832), a work that Gilbert had burlesqued early in his career. This was not intended to be sung at speed and does not contain tongue-twisters, and is thus more of a precursor of, say, "When I, good friends, was called to the bar" (Trial by Jury
Trial by Jury
Trial by Jury is a comic opera in one act, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It was first produced on 25 March 1875, at London's Royalty Theatre, where it initially ran for 131 performances and was considered a hit, receiving critical praise and outrunning its...

), 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
George Grossmith
George Grossmith was an English comedian, writer, composer, actor, and singer. His performing career spanned more than four decades...

. Anna Russell
Anna Russell
Anna Russell, née Anna Claudia Russell-Brown was an English–Canadian singer and comedienne. She gave many concerts in which she sang and played comic musical sketches on the piano...

’s "How to write your own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera" contains an affectionate parody of a G&S patter song.

After Gilbert and Sullivan

Apart from G&S tunes set to different words, such as Tom Lehrer
Tom Lehrer
Thomas Andrew "Tom" Lehrer is an American singer-songwriter, satirist, pianist, mathematician and polymath. He has lectured on mathematics and musical theater...

's listing of the chemical element
The Elements (song)
"The Elements" is a song by musical humorist Tom Lehrer, which recites the names of all the chemical elements known at the time of writing, up to number 102, nobelium. It can be found on his albums Tom Lehrer in Concert, More Songs by Tom Lehrer and An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer...

s to the tune of the Major General's Song, later patter-songs can be found in early twentieth-century operettas, such as Edward German
Edward German
Sir Edward German was an English musician and composer of Welsh descent, best remembered for his extensive output of incidental music for the stage and as a successor to Arthur Sullivan in the field of English comic opera.As a youth, German played the violin and led the town orchestra, also...

’s Merrie England
Merrie England (opera)
Merrie England is an English comic opera in two acts by Edward German to a libretto by Basil Hood. The patriotic story concerns love and rivalries at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, who is portrayed as jealous of the affection of Sir Walter Raleigh for Bessie Throckmorton. Its sunny depiction of...

and in a number of musicals. Particularly good examples include "Tchaikovsky (and Other Russians)
Tchaikovsky (song)
"Tschaikowsky " is a patter song with lyrics by Ira Gershwin and music by Kurt Weill, first performed by American comedian Danny Kaye in the 1941 Broadway musical Lady in the Dark...

" in Weill
Kurt Weill
Kurt Julian Weill was a German-Jewish composer, active from the 1920s, and in his later years in the United States. He was a leading composer for the stage who was best known for his fruitful collaborations with Bertolt Brecht...

’s Lady in the Dark
Lady in the Dark
Lady in the Dark is a musical with music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and book and direction by Moss Hart. It was produced by Sam Harris. The protagonist, Liza Elliott, is the unhappy female editor of a fashion magazine, Allure, who is undergoing psychoanalysis...

and "Getting Married Today" in Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Joshua Sondheim is an American composer and lyricist for stage and film. He is the winner of an Academy Award, multiple Tony Awards including the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, multiple Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and the Laurence Olivier Award...

's Company
Company (musical)
Company is a musical with a book by George Furth and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The original production was nominated for a record-setting fourteen Tony Awards and won six....

. Another good example is Professor Harold Hill's song in The Music Man
The Music Man
The Music Man is a musical with book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson, based on a story by Willson and Franklin Lacey. The plot concerns con man Harold Hill, who poses as a boys' band organizer and leader and sells band instruments and uniforms to naive townsfolk before skipping town with...

, "Ya Got Trouble
Ya Got Trouble
"Ya Got Trouble" is a song by Meredith Willson from the 1957 Broadway musical The Music Man, and its 1962 filmed version The Music Man. It is one of the most popular and recognizable songs in the musical, and Robert Preston's performance in the film is admired...

". Some rock
Rock music
Rock music is a genre of popular music that developed during and after the 1960s, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States. It has its roots in 1940s and 1950s rock and roll, itself heavily influenced by rhythm and blues and country music...

 and pop
Pop music
Pop music is usually understood to be commercially recorded music, often oriented toward a youth market, usually consisting of relatively short, simple songs utilizing technological innovations to produce new variations on existing themes.- Definitions :David Hatch and Stephen Millward define pop...

 songs share many of the characteristics of patter songs as well, such as Barenaked Ladies
Barenaked Ladies
Barenaked Ladies is a Canadian alternative rock band. The band is currently composed of Jim Creeggan, Kevin Hearn, Ed Robertson, and Tyler Stewart. Barenaked Ladies formed in 1988 in Scarborough, Ontario, then a suburban municipality outside the City of Toronto...

' "One Week", "Pinch Me
Pinch Me
"Pinch Me" is the title of a song by the Canadian rock band Barenaked Ladies. It was released in August 2000 as the first single from their 2000 album, Maroon, which was a follow-up to their hit album, Stunt. As such, "Pinch Me" is often regarded as an attempted follow-up to the hit single "One Week"...

", Rolf Harris
Rolf Harris
Rolf Harris, CBE, AM is an Australian musician, singer-songwriter, composer, painter and television personality.Born in Perth, Western Australia, Harris was a champion swimmer before studying art. He moved to England in 1952, where he started to appear on television programmes on which he drew the...

' "Court of King Caractacus", Reunion's "Life is a Rock", R.E.M.
R.E.M. was an American rock band formed in Athens, Georgia, in 1980 by singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry. One of the first popular alternative rock bands, R.E.M. gained early attention due to Buck's ringing, arpeggiated guitar style and Stipe's...

's "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
"It's the End of the World as We Know It " is a song by the rock band R.E.M., which appeared on their 1987 album Document, the 1988 compilation Eponymous, and the 2006 compilation And I Feel Fine... The Best of the I.R.S Years 1982–1987...

", Shirley Ellis
Shirley Ellis
Shirley Ellis is an American soul music singer and songwriter of West Indian origin. She is best known for her novelty hits "The Nitty Gritty" , "The Name Game" and "The Clapping Song"...

's "The Name Game
The Name Game
"The Name Game", or "The Banana Song", is a children's singalong rhyming game that creates variations on a person's name. It was written by U.S...

", Billy Joel
Billy Joel
William Martin "Billy" Joel is an American musician and pianist, singer-songwriter, and classical composer. Since releasing his first hit song, "Piano Man", in 1973, Joel has become the sixth best-selling recording artist and the third best-selling solo artist in the United States, according to...

's "We Didn't Start the Fire
We Didn't Start the Fire
"We Didn't Start the Fire" is a song by Billy Joel. Its lyrics are made up from rapid-fire brief allusions to over a hundred headline events between March 1949 and 1989, when the song was released on his album Storm Front...

" or Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello , born Declan Patrick MacManus, is an English singer-songwriter. He came to prominence as an early participant in London's pub rock scene in the mid-1970s and later became associated with the punk/New Wave genre. Steeped in word play, the vocabulary of Costello's lyrics is broader...

's "Pump It Up
Pump It Up (Elvis Costello song)
"Pump It Up" is a song by Elvis Costello. It originally appeared on Costello's second album This Year's Model which was the first he recorded with The Attractions.- Lyrics :...


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