See G. P. Upton, The Standard Oratorios (1888); P. M. Young, The Oratorios of Handel (1949); H. E. Smither, A History of the Oratorio (1987).
Large-scale musical composition on a sacred subject for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra. The term derives from the oratories, community prayer halls set up by St. Philip Neri in the mid 16th century in a Counter-Reformation attempt to provide locales for religious edification outside the church itself, and the oratorio remained a nonliturgical (and non-Latin) form for moral musical entertainment. The first oratorio, really a religious opera, was written in 1600 by Emilio del Cavaliere, and the oratorio's development closely followed that of opera. Giacomo Carissimi produced an important body of Italian oratorios, and Marc-Antoine Charpentier transferred the oratorio to France in the later 17th century. In Germany the works of Heinrich Schütz anticipate the oratorio-like Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach. The most celebrated oratorio composer was George Frideric Handel; his great English works include the incomparable Messiah (1742). Handel inspired Franz Joseph Haydn's great Creation (1798) and exerted great influence on the 19th-century oratorio, whose composers include Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, and Franz Liszt. Though the oratorio thereafter declined, 20th-century oratorio composers included Edward Elgar, Igor Stravinsky, Arthur Honegger, and Krzysztof Penderecki.
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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 a creation myth, 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 become 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(narator), 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 Congegatione della 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 et 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 Purificatione” , 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:
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:
(ordered chronologically by year of premiere)