The earliest compositional use of the technique was in the first version of Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1897 melodrama Königskinder (in the 1910 version it was replaced by conventional singing), where it may have been intended to imitate a style already in use by singers of lieder and popular song, but it is more closely associated with the composers of the Second Viennese School. Arnold Schoenberg asks for the technique in a number of pieces: the part of the Speaker in Gurre-Lieder (1911) is written in his notation for sprechstimme, but it was Pierrot Lunaire (1912) where he used it throughout and left a note attempting to explain the technique. Alban Berg adopted the technique and asked for it in parts of his operas Wozzeck and Lulu.
In the foreword to Pierrot Lunaire (1912), Schoenberg explains how his Sprechstimme should be achieved. He explains that the indicated rhythms should be adhered to, but that whereas in ordinary singing a constant pitch is maintained through a note, here the singer “immediately abandons it by falling or rising. The goal is certainly not at all a realistic, natural speech. On the contrary, the difference between ordinary speech and speech that collaborates in a musical form must be made plain. But it should not call singing to mind, either.”
For the first performances of Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg was able to work directly with the vocalist and obtain exactly the result he desired, but later performances were problematic. Schoenberg had written many subsequent letters attempting to clarify, but he was unable to leave a definitive explanation and there has been much disagreement as to what was actually intended. Pierre Boulez would write, “the question arises whether it is actually possible to speak according to a notation devised for singing. This was the real problem at the root of all the controversies. Schoenberg’s own remarks on the subject are not in fact clear.”
Schoenberg would later use a notation without a traditional clef in the Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte (1942), A Survivor from Warsaw (1947) and his unfinished opera Moses und Aron, which eliminated any reference to a specific pitch, but retained the relative slides and articulations.
In Schoenberg’s musical notation, Sprechstimme is usually indicated by small crosses through the stems of the notes, or with the note head itself being a small cross.
Schoenberg’s later notation (first used in his Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte, 1942) replaced the 5-line staff with a single line having no clef. The note stems no longer bear the x, as it is now clear that no specific pitch is intended, and instead relative pitches are specified by placing the notes above or below the single line (sometimes on ledger lines).
Berg notates several degrees of Sprechstimme, e. g. in Wozzeck, using single-line staff for rhythmic speaking, five-line staffs with x through the note stem, and a single stroke through the stem for close-to-singing sprechstimme.
In modern usage, it is most common to indicate Sprechstimme by using “x”‘s in place of conventional noteheads.