An oratorio is a large musical composition including an orchestra, a choir, and soloists. The oratorio was somewhat modeled after the opera. Their similarities include the use of a choir, soloists, an ensemble, various distinguishable characters, and arias. However, opera is musical theatre, while oratorio is strictly a concert piece—though oratorios are sometimes staged as operas, and operas are sometimes presented in concert form. In an oratorio there is generally little or no interaction between the characters, and no props or elaborate costumes. A particularly important difference is in the typical subject matter of the text. Opera tends to deal with history and mythology, including age-old devices of romance, deception, and murder, whereas the plot of an oratorio often deals with sacred topics, making it appropriate for performance in the church. Protestant composers took their stories from the Bible, while Catholic composers looked to the lives of saints. Oratorios became extremely popular in early 17th century Italy partly because of the success of the opera and the Church's prohibition of spectacles during Lent. Oratorios became the main choice of music during that period for opera audiences.
During the second half of the 17th century, there were trends toward the secularization of the religious oratorio. Evidence of this lies in its regular performance outside church halls in courts and public theaters. Whether religious or secular, the theme of an oratorio is meant to be weighty. It could include such topics as Creation, the life of Jesus, or the career of a classical hero or biblical prophet. Other changes eventually took place as well, possibly because most composers of oratorios were also popular composers of operas. They began to publish the librettos of their oratorios as they did for their operas. Strong emphasis was soon placed on arias while the use of the choir diminished. Female singers became regularly employed, and replaced the male narrator with the use of recitatives. Eventually, Monteverdi composed Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda which is considered to be the first secular oratorio.
George Frideric Handel, most famous today for his Messiah, also wrote secular oratorios based on themes from Greek and Roman mythology. He is also credited with writing the first English language oratorio, Esther.
The origins of the oratorio can be found in sacred dialogues in Italy. These were settings of Biblical, Latin texts and musically were quite similar to motets. There was a strong narrative, dramatic emphasis and there were conversational exchanges between characters in the work. G.Fanerio’s “teatro harmonico spirituale” is a set of 14 dialogues, the longest of which is 20 minutes long and covers the conversion of St. Paul and is for four soloists: Historicus (narrator), tenor; St. Paul, tenor; Voice from Heaven, bass; and ananias, tenor. There is also a four part chorus to represent any crowds in the drama. The music is often contrapuntal and madrigal-like. Philip Neri’s Congregazione dell'Oratorio featured the singing of spiritual laude. These became more and more popular and were eventually performed in specially built oratories (prayer halls) by professional musicians. Again, these were chiefly based on dramatic and narrative elements. Sacred opera provided another impetus for dialogues, and they greatly expanded in length (although never really beyond 60 minutes long). Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo is an example of one of these works, but technically it is not an oratorio because it features acting and dancing. It does, however contain music in the monodic style. The first oratorio to be called by that name is Pietro della Valle’s “Oratorio della Purificazione” , but due to its brevity (only 12mins long) and the fact that its other name was “dialogue”, we can see that there was much ambiguity in these names.
By the mid-17th century, two types had developed:
Lasting about 30–60 minutes, oratorio volgares were performed in two sections, separated by a sermon; their music resembles that of contemporary operas and chamber cantatas.
The most significant composer of oratorio latino is Giacomo Carissimi, whose Jephte is regarded as the first masterpiece of the genre. Like most other Latin oratorios of the period, it is in one section only.
Oratorios usually contain:
- An overture, for instruments alone
- Various arias, sung by the vocal soloists
- Recitative, usually employed to advance the plot
- Choruses, often monumental and meant to convey a sense of glory. Frequently the instruments for oratorio choruses include timpani and trumpets.
List of notable oratorios
(ordered chronologically by year of premiere)
- Antonio Vivaldi, Juditha triumphans RV 644 (1716)
- Johann Sebastian Bach, the Christmas Oratorio (1734)
- Johann Adolph Hasse Serpentes ignei in deserto - (1735, 1736 or 1739)
- George Frideric Handel, Esther (1732)
- George Frideric Handel, Deborah (1733)
- George Frideric Handel, Saul (1739)
- George Frideric Handel, Israel in Egypt (1739)
- George Frideric Handel, Messiah (1741).
- George Frideric Handel, Samson (1743)
- George Frideric Handel, Judas Maccabaeus (1747)
- George Frideric Handel, Joshua (1748)
- George Frideric Handel, Jephtha (1752)
- Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Die Israeliten in der Wüste (1769)
- Joseph Haydn, The Creation (1798)
- Joseph Haydn, The Seasons (1801)
- Ludwig van Beethoven, Christ on the Mount of Olives (1803)
- Felix Mendelssohn, St. Paul (1836)
- Robert Schumann, Paradise and the Peri (1843)
- Felix Mendelssohn, Elijah (1846)
- Hector Berlioz, L'enfance du Christ (1854)
- Franz Liszt, Christus (1862–1866)
- Théodore Dubois, Les sept paroles du Christ (1867)
- Igor Stravinsky's "opera-oratorio" Oedipus Rex (1927)
- Artur Kapp, Hiiob (Job) (1929)
- William Walton, Belshazzar's Feast (1931)
- Franz Schmidt, The book with seven seals (oratorio) (Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln) (1938)
- Alexandre Tansman, Isaïe le prophète (1950)
- Hans Werner Henze, Das Floß der Medusa (1968, rev. 1990)
- Lorenzo Ferrero, Le néant où l'on ne peut arriver (1976)
- Wynton Marsalis "Blood on the Fields" (1997)
- Eric Idle and John Du Prez, Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy) (2007)
- Bukofzer, Manfred F. Music in the Baroque Era. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc, 1947.
- Smither, Howard. The History of the Oratorio. vol. 1-4, Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of N.C. Press, 1977-2000.
- Deedy, John. The Catholic Fact Book. Chicago, IL: Thomas Moore Press, 1986.
- Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy, grovemusic.com (subscription access).
- Hardon, John A. Modern Catholic Dictionary. Garden City, NY: Double Day and Co. Inc., 1980.
- New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.
- Randel, Don. "Oratorio". The Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 1986.
- McGuire, Charles Edward. Elgar's Oratorios: The Creation of an Epic Narrative. Aldershot: Ashgate Press, 2002.
- McGuire, Charles Edward. "Elgar, Judas, and the Theology of Betrayal." In 19th-Century Music, vol. XXIII, no. 3 (Spring, 2000), pp. 236-272.