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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.

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

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(ordered chronologically by year of premiere)

See also


  • 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, (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.

External links


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

ORATORIO, the name given to a form of religious music with chorus, solo voices and instruments, independent or at least separable from the liturgy, and on a larger scale than the cantata. Its early history is involved in that of opera (see Aria and Opera), though there is a more definite interest in its antecedents. The term is supposed, with good reason, to be derived from the fact that St Filippo Neri's Oratory was the place for which Animuccia's setting of the Laudi Spirituali were written; and the custom of interspersing these hymns among liturgical or other forms of the recitation of a Biblical story is certainly one of several sources to which the idea of modern oratorio may be traced. Further claim to the "invention" of the oratorio cannot be given to Animuccia. A more ancient source is the use of incidental music in miracle-plays and in such medieval dramatic processions as the 12th-century Prose de L'Ane, which on the 1st of January celebrated at Beauvais the Flight into Egypt. But the most ancient origin of all has hardly been duly brought into line, although it is the only form that led to classically artistic results before the time of Bach. This is the Roman Catholic rite of reciting, during Holy Week, the story of the Passion according to the Four Gospels, in such a manner that the words of the Evangelist are sung in Gregorian tones by a tenor, all directly quoted utterances are sung by voices appropriate to the speakers, and the responsa iurbae or utterances of the whole body of disciples (e.g. "Lord, is it I ?") and of crowds, are sung by a chorus. The only portion of this scheme that concerned composers was the responsa turbae, to which it was optional to add polyphonic settings of the Seven Last Words or other special utterances of the Saviour. The narrative and the parts of single speakers were sung in the Gregorian tones appointed in the liturgy. Thus the settings of the Passion by Victoria and Soriano represent, in a very simple form, a perfect solution of the art-problem of oratorio, as that problem presented itself to an age in which "dramatic music," or even "epic music," would have been a contradiction in terms. It has been aptly said that the object of the composer in setting such words as "Crucify Him" was not to express the feelings of an infuriated crowd, but rather to express the contrition of devout Christians telling the story; though this view must be admitted to be, like the 16th-century music itself, decidedly more modern than the quaintly dramatic traditional methods of performance. As an art-form this early Passion-music owes its perfection primarily' to the church. The liturgy gives body to all the art-forms of 16th-century church music, and it is for the composer to spiritualize or debase them by his style.

With the monodic revolution at the beginning of the 17th century the history of oratorio as an art-form controlled by composers has its real beginning. There is nothing but its religious subject to distinguish the first oratorio from the first opera; and so Emilio del Cavaliere's Rappresentazione di anima e di corpo (1600) is in no respect outside the line of early attempts at dramatic music. In the course of the 17th century the differentiation between opera and oratorio increased, but not systematically. The gradual revival of choral art found its best opportunity in the treatment of sacred subjects; not only because it was with such subjects that the greatest 16thcentury choral art was associated, but also because these subjects tended to discourage such vestiges of dramatic realism as had not been already suppressed by the aria form. This form arose as a concession to dire musical necessity and to the growing vanity of singers, and it speedily became almost the only possibility of keeping music alive, or at least embalmed, until the advent of Bach and Handel. The efforts of Carissimi (d. 1674) in oratorio clearly show the limited rise from the musical standards of opera that was then possible where music was emancipated from the stage. Yet in his art the corruption of church music by secular ideas is far more evident than any tendency to elevate Biblical music-drama to the dignity of church music. Normal Italian oratorio remains indistinguishable from serious Italian opera until as late as the boyhood of Mozart. Handel's La Resurrezzione and Il Trionfo del Tempo contain many pieces almost simultaneously used in his operas, and they show not the slightest tendency to indulge in choral writing. Nor did Il Trionfo del Tempo become radically different from the musical masques of Acis and Galatea and Semele, when Handel at the close of his life dictated an adaptation of it to an English translation with several choral and other numbers interpolated from other works. Yet between these two versions of the same work lies more than half the history of classical oratorio. The rest lies in that specialized German art of which the text centres round the Passion and the music culminates in Bach; after which there is no very dignified connected history of the form, until the two streams, sadly silted up, and never afterwards quite pure, united in Mendelssohn.

One feature of the Reformation in Germany was that Luther was very musical. This had the curious result that, though the German Reformation was far from conservative in its attitude towards ancient liturgy, it retained almost everything which makes for musical coherence in a church service; while the English church, with all its insistence on historic continuity, so rearranged the liturgy that no possible music for an English church service can ever form a coherent whole. We are accustomed to think of German Passion-music as typically Protestant; yet the four Passions and the Historia der Auferstehung Christi of H. Schutz (who was born in 1585, exactly a century before Bach) are as truly the descendants of Victoria's Passions as they are the ancestors of Bach's. The difference between them and the Roman Catholic Passions is, of course, eminently characteristic of the Reformation: the language is German (so that it may be "understanded of the people"), and the narrative and dialogue is set to free composition instead of to forms of Gregorian chant, though it is written in a sort of Gregorian notation. Schiitz's preface to the Historia der Auferstehung Christi shows that he writes his recitative for solo voices, though he calls it Chor des Evangelisten and Chor der Personen Colloquenten. The Marcus Passion is, on internal evidence, of doubtful authenticity, being later in style and quite stereotyped in its recitative. But in the other Passions, and most of all in the Auferstehung, the recitative is wonderfully expressive. It was probably accompanied by the organ, though the Passions contain no hint of accompaniment at all. In the xx. 6 Auferstehung the Evangelist is accompanied by four viole da gamba in preference to the organ. In any case, Schutz tells us, the players are to "execute appropriate runs or passages" during the sustained chords. Apart from their remarkable dramatic force, Schatz's oratorios show another approximation to the Passion oratorio of Bach's time in ending with a nonscriptural hymn-chorus, more or less clearly based on a choraletune. But in the course of the work the Scriptural narrative is as uninterrupted as it is in the Roman Catholic Passions. And there is one respect in which the Auferstehung, although perhaps the richest and most advanced of all Schiitz's works, is less realistic than either the Roman Passions or those of later times; namely, that single persons, other than the Evangelist, are frequently represented by more than one voice. In the case of the part of the Saviour, this might, to modern minds, seem natural as showing a reverent avoidance of impersonation; and it was not without an occasional analogy in Roman Catholic Passion-music (in the polyphonic settings of special words). But Schiitz's Passions show no such convention; this feature is peculiar to the Auferstehung; and, while the three holy women and the two angels in the scene at the tomb are represented realistically by three and two imitative voices, it is curious to see Mary Magdalene elsewhere always represented by two sopranos, even though Schutz remarks in his preface that "one of the two voices may be sung and the other done instrumentaliter, or, si placet, simply left out." Shortly before Bach, Passion oratorios, not always so entitled, were represented by several remarkable and mature works of art, most notably by R. Keiser (1673-1739). Chorale-tunes, mostly in plain harmony, were freely interspersed in order that the congregation might take part in what was, after all, a musical church service for Holy Week. The feelings of devout contemplative Christians on each incident of the story were expressed in accompanied recitatives (arioso) leading to arias; and the Scriptural narrative was sung to dramatic recitative and ejaculatory chorus on the ancient Roman plan, exactly followed, even in the detail that the Evangelist was a tenor.

The difference between Bach's Passions and those of his predecessors and contemporaries is simply the difference between his music and theirs. Where his chorus represents the whole body of Christendom it has as peculiar an epic power as it is dramatic where it represents with brevity and rapid climax the responsa turbae of the Scriptural narrative. Take, for example, the double chorus at the beginning of the Passion according to St Matthew, where one chorus calls to the other to "come and behold" what has come to pass, and the other chorus asks "whom?" "what?" "whither?" to each exhortation, until at last the two choruses join, while above all is heard, phrase by phrase, the hymn "0 Lamm Gottes unschuldig." Still more powerful, indeed unapproached even in external effect by anything else in classical or modern oratorio, is the duet with chorus that follows the narrative of the betrayal. Its tremendous final outbreak in the brief indignant appeal to heaven for the vengeance of damnation on the traitor is met by the calm conclusion of the Evangelist's interrupted narrative and the overpowering tenderness of the great figured chorale ("0 Mensch bewein' dein' Siinde gross"), which ends the first part with a call to repentance. Such contrasts might seem to be but the natural use of fine opportunities furnished by the librettist; but the composer appears to owe less to the librettist when we find that this chorale originally belonged to the Passion according to St John, where it was to follow Peter's denial of Christ. To modern ears the most striking device in the Matthew Passion is that by which the part of Christ is separated from all the rest by being accompanied with the string band, generally at a high pitch, though deepening at the most solemn moments with an effect of sublime euphony and tenderness. And a peculiarly profound and startling thought, which has not always met with the attention it deserves, is the omission of this musical halo at the words "Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani." These points are aesthetically parallel with Wagnerian Leit-motif, though entirely different in method. (See Opera.) In his amazing power of declamation Bach was not altogether unanticipated by Keiser; but no one before or since approached him in sustained elevation and variety of oratorio style. Analogies to the forms of Passion music may be found in many of Bach's church-cantatas; a very favourite form being the Dialogus; as, for instance, a dispute between a fearing and a trusting soul, with, perhaps, the voice of the Saviour heard from a distance; or a dialogue between Christ and the Church, on the lines of the Song of Solomon. The Christmas Oratorio, a set of six closely connected church-cantatas for performance on separate days, is treated in exactly the same way as the Passions, with a larger proportion of non-dramatic choruses expressive of the triumphant gratitude of Christendom. Many of the single churchcantatas are called oratorios. If it were not that Bach's idea of oratorio seems to be definitely connected with that of dialogue,' there is really no reason in musical terminology why the B minor Mass should not be so called, for it can never have been liturgical either in a Roman Catholic or in a Protestant church. But in all respects it stands alone; and we must now return to Handel's far more heterogeneous work, which forms the staple of almost everything else that has been understood by oratorio until the most recent times.

Handel discovered and matured every possibility of oratorio as an art-form, except such as may now be brought to light by those composers with whom the influence of Wagner is not too overwhelming for them to consider how far his principles are applicable to an art unconnected with the stage. Handel shows, us that a definite oratorio style may exist in many different degrees. He was evidently impressed by the German forms of Passion-music as combining the utmost dramatic interest with the most intense contemplative devotion; and it is significant that it was after he came to England, and before his first English oratorio, that he set to music the famous poetic version of the Passion by Brockes, a version which had been adopted by all the German composers of the time, and which, with very necessary and interesting improvements of taste, was largely drawn upon by Bach for the text of his Johannes-Passion. Handel's Brockes-Passion does not appear ever to have been performed, though Bach found access to it and made a careful copy; and it is difficult to see what motive, except interest in the form, Handel had for composing it. At all events it furnishes an important connecting-link between Bach's solution of the problem of oratorio and the various other solutions which Handel afterwards produced so successfully. He soon discovered how many kinds of oratorio were possible. The freedom from stage restrictions admitted of subjects ranging from semi-dramatic histories, like those of Saul, Esther and Belshazzar, to cosmic schemes based exclusively on the words of the Bible, such as Israel in Egypt and the Messiah. Between these types there is every gradation of organization; and it may be added, every gradation between sacred and secular subjects and treatment. The very name of Handel's first English oratorio, Esther, with the facts of its production as a masque and the origin of its libretto in. Racine, show the transition from the stage to the church; and a really scandalous example of the converse transition may be found by any one rash enough to look for the source of some of Haman's music in the Brockes-Passion. Roughly speaking we may reduce the types of Handelian oratorio to a convenient three; not divisible among works as wholes, but always evident here and there. Firstly, there is the semioperatic method, in which the arias are the utterances of characters in the story, while the conception of the chorus rarely diverges from that of multitudes of actors (e.g. Athalia, Belshazzar, Saul, &c.). The second method is a more or less recognizable application of the forms of the Passion-music to other subjects, without, however, the conception of a special role of narrator, but (as, for instance, in "Envy, eldest born of Hell" in Saul) with the definite conception of the choruses as descriptive of the feelings of spectators rather than of actors. Handel's 1 It is possible that a false etymology may by Bach's time have given this colour to the word oratorio. Schatz inscribes a monodic sacred piece "in stilo Oratorio," meaning "in the style df recitative." audience demanded an inconvenient number of arias, most of which are clumsily accounted for by a conventional assignment to dramatic roles with a futile attempt at love-interest; which makes many of the best solos in Saul and Joshua rather absurd. The third Handelian method is that which has since become embodied in the modern type of sacred or secular cantata; a series of choruses and numbers on a subject altogether beyond the scope of dramatic narrative (as, for instance, the greater part of Solomon), and, in the case of the Messiah and Israel in Egypt, treated entirely in the words of Scripture.

After Bach and Handel the history of oratorio becomes disjointed. The rise of the sonata style, which brought life to the opera, was almost wholly bad for the oratorio; since not only did it cause a serious decline in choral art by distracting attention from that organization of texture which is essential even to mere euphony in choral writing (see Counterpoint and Contra Puntal Forms), but its dramatic power became more and more disturbing to the essentially epic treatment demanded by the conditions of oratorio. Bach and Handel (especially Handel) were as dramatic in characterization as the greatest epic poets, and were just as far removed from the theatre. Any doubt on this point is removed by the history of Handelian opera and the reforms of Gluck. But the power of later composers to rise above the growing swarms of 18th-century and 19th-century oratorio-mongers depended largely on the balance between their theatrical and contemplative sensibilities. Academicism naturally mistrusted the theatre, but, in the absence of any contemplative depth beyond that of a tactful asceticism, it has then and ever since made spasmodic concessions to theatrical effect, with the intention of avoiding pedantry, and with the effect of encouraging vulgarity. Philipp Emanuel Bach's oratorios, though not. permanently convincing works of art, achieved a remarkably true balance of style in the earlier days of the conflict; indeed, with judicious reduction to the size of a large cantata, Die Israeliten in der Witste (1769) would perhaps bear revival almost better than Haydn's Tobias (1774), in spite of the superior musical value of that ambitious forerunner of The Creation and The Seasons. These two great products of Haydn's old age owe their vitality not only to Haydn's combination of contrapuntal and choral mastery with his unsurpassable freedom of movement in the sonata style, but also to his priceless rediscovery of the fact (well known to Bach, the composer of "Mein glaiibiges Herze," but since forgotten) that, in Haydn's own words, "God will not be angry with me for worshipping him in a cheerful manner." This is the very spirit of St Francis of Assisi, and it brings the naively realistic birds and beasts of The Creation into line with even the Bacchanalian parts of the mainly secular Seasons, and so removes Haydn from the dangers of a definitely bad taste, which began to beset Roman Catholic oratorio on the one hand, and those of no taste at all, which engulfed Protestant oratorio on the other.

From the moment when music became independent of the church, Roman Catholic religious music, liturgical or other, lost its high artistic position. Some of the technical hindrances to greatness in liturgical music after the Golden Age are mentioned in the article Mass; but the status of Roman Catholic nonliturgical religious music was from the outset lowered by the use of the vulgar tongue, since that implied a condescension to the laity, and composers could not but be affected by the assumption that oratorio belonged to a lower sphere than Latin church music. With this element of condescension came a reluctance to foster the fault of intellectual pride by criticizing pious verse on grounds of taste. Even in Protestant England this reluctance still causes educated people to strain tolerance of bad. hymns to an extent which apostles of culture denounce as positively immoral: but the initial impossibility of basing a non-Latin Roman Catholic oratorio directly on the Bible would already have been detrimental to good taste in religious musical texts even if criticism were not disarmed. It must be confessed that Protestant taste (as shown in the texts of many of Bach's cantatas) was often unsurpassably bad; but in its most morbid phases its badness was mainly barbarian, and could either be ignored by composers and listeners, or easily improved away, as Bach showed in his alterations of Brockes's vile verses in the Passion according to St John. But the bad taste of the text of Beethoven's Christus am Oelberge (The Mount of Olives, c. 1800) is ineradicable, for it represents the standpoint of writers who may be very devout and innocent, but whose purest source of sacred art has been the pictures of Guido Reni. It was one thing for Sir Joshua Reynolds to admire the wrong period of Italian art: he had his own access to great ideas; but for Beethoven's librettist, who had no such access, it was very different. The real sacred subject has no chance of penetrating through a tradition which is neither naïve nor ecclesiastical, but is simply that of a long-tolerated comfortable vulgarity. An operatic tenor represents the Saviour; an operatic soprano represents the ministering angel; and in the garden of Gethsemane the two sing an operatic duet. The music is brilliant and well worthy of Beethoven's early powers, but he afterwards greatly regretted it; and indeed its circumstances are intolerable, and the English attempt at a new libretto (Engedi, or David in the Wilderness) only substituted ineptitude for irreverence.

Schubert's wonderful fragment Lazarus (1820) suffers less from the sickliness of its text; for the music seizes on a certain genuine quality aimed at by all typical Roman Catholic religious verse-writers, and embodies it in a kind of romantic mysticism unexampled in Protestant oratorio. Modern literature shows this peculiar strain in Cardinal Newman's Dream of Gerontius, just as Sir Edward Elgar's setting of that poem to music of Wagnerian continuity and texture presents the only parallel discoverable later or earlier to the slightly oppressive aroma of Schubert's unique experiment.' Lazarus also surprises us by a rather invertebrate continuity of flow, anticipating early Wagnerian opera; indeed, in almost every respect it is two generations ahead of its time; and, if only Schubert had finished it and allowed it to see publicity, the history of 19th-century oratorio might have become a more interesting subject than it is.

The ascendancy of Mendelssohn, as things happened, is really its main redeeming feature. Mendelssohn applied an unprecedented care and a wide general culture to the structure and criticism of his libretto (see his correspondence with Schubring, his principal helper with the texts of St Paul and Elijah), and was able to bear witness of his new-found gospel according to Bach by introducing chorales into St Paul as well as by disinterring and performing Bach's works. But he had not the strength to rescue oratorio from the slough into which it had now fallen, no less in Protestant than in Roman Catholic forms.

As the interest in Biblical themes becomes more independent of church and dogma, oratorio once more tends to become confused with Biblical opera. The singular fragrance and tenderness of the best parts of Berlioz's little masterpiece L'Enfance du Christ (put together from sections composed between 1847 and 1854) give it high artistic value; but if "oratorio" means "sacred music" Berlioz was incapable of anything of the sort; for the Christianity of his Grande Messe des moms and his Te Deum is the Christianity of Napoleon; and, if oratorio means a consistent treatment of a legend or subject in terms of musical epic, Berlioz can never fix his attention long enough to remember how he began by the time he has got half way through. Though Berlioz's essay in oratorio is not quite so irresponsible a vocalsymphonic-dramatic medley as his Romeo et Juliette and Damnation de Faust, it unmistakably marks a transition towards the complete secularizing of the Bible for musical purposes. But the long-continued prejudice in England against the representation of religious subjects on the stage has wrought peculiar confusion in the theory of their romantic treatment in music. It may be noted as a curiosity that Saint-Saens's Biblical opera, Samson et Dalila (written in 1877), after being known in England for many quiet years as an oratorio, suddenly, in 1910, was permitted by the censor of plays, under royal command, to be produced at Covent Garden for what it was intended. It may 1 Schubert's well-known cantata, Miriam's Siegesgesang, has been discussed as a small oratorio; but it is of slight artistic and no historic importance.

even be suggested that this occurred just early enough to prevent Strauss's Salome from being regarded by the British public as an oratorio.

The earnest efforts of Cesar Franck prevented French oratorio from drifting entirely towards the stage; and meanwhile year by year Brahms's Deutsches Requiem (completed, except for one movement, in 1868) towers ever higher above all choral music since Beethoven's Mass in D, and draws us away from the semi-dramatic oratorio towards the musically perfectible form of an enlarged cantata in which a group of choral movements is concentrated on a set of religious ideas differing from liturgical forms only in free choice of text. Within the essentially non-theatrical limitations of dramatic or epic oratorio, we may note the spirited new departures of Sir Charles Stanford in Eden (1891), and of Sir Hubert Parry in Judith (1888), Job (1892) and King Saul (1894), which showed that Wagnerian Leitmotif and continuity might well avail to produce an oratorio style standing to Mendelssohn as Wagner stands to Mozart, if musical interest be retained in the foreground. Freedom from the restrictions of the stage also means absence of the resources of the stage, so that Wagnerian Leitmotif is no sufficient substitute for formal musical coherence when the audience has no action before its eyes. Accordingly these leaders of the English musical renascence are by no means exclusively Wagnerian in their oratorios. A fine and typical example of their peculiar non-theatrical resources may be seen in the end of King Saul, where Parry (who, like Wagner, is his own librettist) makes the Witch of Endor foresee the battle of Gilboa, and allows her tale to become real in the telling: so that it is followed immediately by the final dirge. (D. F. T.)

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Simple English

An oratorio is a piece of music for orchestra, choir and solo singers. It usually tells a story from the Old Testament. An oratorio may be about two hours long: a whole concert. It is rather like an opera, but whereas an opera is acted out in costume on a stage, an oratorio is sung and played in a concert hall or church. The oratorio as we know it was created in the 18th century. The words were normally in the composer’s own language, not in Italian like most operas were at that time.

The word "oratorio" had been used many centuries ago for music-dramas performed in churches in western Europe. In Italy oratorios and operas were both being composed in the 17th century. In Germany composers like Heinrich Schutz and, later, Johann Sebastian Bach were writing Passions which tell the story of the crucifixion. These are not usually called “oratorios” but they are similar.

The first important composer of oratorios was George Frideric Handel. Handel, who was born in Germany, had become English. Handel had written a lot of operas, but in 1732 he started to write oratorios instead and quite suddenly people became very interested in oratorios. He used the same sort of music as in his operas: the work would start with an overture (an introduction on the orchestra) and then there would be recitative (the bits that told the story), arias (songs for the solo singers) and choruses for the choir. The chorus was very important in oratorios: they got more to sing than in most operas. This meant that choral societies became very popular, and this tradition spread from England (where Handel lived) to other countries in Europe. Handel’s most famous oratorio is Messiah. Unlike most of his other oratorios, the story is not from the Old Testament. It tells the story of the birth, life and death of Jesus. In Britain Handel’s Messiah is traditionally performed around Christmas. Other oratorios by Handel include: Deborah, Saul, Samson, Judas Maccabaeus and Solomon. Handel composed all these oratorios to English texts.

In the 19th century the oratorio was very popular. At the turn of the century Joseph Haydn wrote some of his best music in his two oratorios: Die Schöpfung (The Creation) (1798) and Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) (1801). Mendelssohn wrote St Paul, Elijah and the Hymn of Praise. Dvořák, Berlioz and Gounod are among the most important Romantic composers of oratorio, and in the 20th century famous oratorios include Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius (1900), Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1931) and Tippett’s Child of our Time (1941).


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