Patter song

The patter song is a staple of comic opera, but it has also been used in musicals and other situations. It 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). 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. The best-known patter songs come from the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.


The type of rapid patter described above seems to have originated in Italian opera of the baroque era, specificaly 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. Even later examples are found in the comic operas of Rossini and Donizetti. In these there is no “patter song” as such – 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 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

Gilbert had a soft spot for Don Pasquale 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 Lord Chancellor’s "Nightmare song", "When you're lying awake" in Act 2 of Iolanthe;
  • The Sorcerer's song, "My Name is John Wellington Wells" in Act 1 of The Sorcerer; and
  • the trio "My eyes are fully open to my awful situation" in Act 2 of Ruddigore, which contains the lines "This particularly rapid unintelligible patter/ Isn’t generally heard, and if it is, it doesn’t matter". This trio is known as the "Matter-Patter Trio".

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 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 travestied 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), 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.

After Gilbert and Sullivan

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 share many of the characteristics of patter songs as well, such as Barenaked Ladies' "One Week", "Pinch Me", Rolf Harris' "Court of King Caractacus", Reunion's "Life is a Rock", R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It", Shirley Ellis's "The Name Game", or Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire".

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