[awr-uh-tawr-ee-oh, -tohr-, or-]
oratorio, musical composition employing chorus, orchestra, and soloists and usually, but not necessarily, a setting of a sacred libretto without stage action or scenery. The immediate forerunner of oratorio, Emilio del Cavaliere's sacred opera La rappresentazione di anima e di corpo applied the techniques of the newly created opera to the sacra rappresentazione, the Italian mystery play. Cavaliere's work was performed in 1600 in one of the buildings known as the oratories of St. Philip Neri. Soon afterward there developed the oratorio volgare, also in Italian, which employed a testo, or narrator, to advance the action of the story. By c.1640 the term oratorio had come to stand for the work itself rather than the place in which it was given, and 10 years later the Latin oratorio was given definitive form in the works of Giacomo Carissimi. His style was carried to France by his pupil Marc Antoine Charpentier, but the oratorio did not flourish there. Carissimi's influence is also discernible in the oratorios of Heinrich Schütz and of Handel. After Carissimi the only outstanding Italian oratorios are those of his pupil Alessandro Scarlatti, of which 14 are known. Scarlatti included recitative with developed arias in works that greatly resembled opera. Pietro Metastasio wrote a number of oratorios, several of which were set more than once. In Germany settings of the Passion assumed greater importance than the true oratorio, but the oratorios of Schütz are equaled only by those of J. S. Bach and Handel. Handel inaugurated the English oratorio, and his Messiah, although atypical among his own usually epic oratorios, became the prototype for the works of many later composers. Haydn's two great oratorios show the influence of Handel. Mendelssohn's highly dramatic Elijah and St. Paul exerted a strong influence, particularly in England, where the oratorio enjoyed great vogue throughout the 19th cent. A long succession of mediocre works, including several popular examples by Sir Arthur Sullivan, was followed by the more notable ones of Elgar and Walford Davies. Wagner, Liszt, Dvořák, Berlioz, and Franck all wrote romantic oratorios. In the 20th cent. Honegger's King David (1921) and Dance of the Dead (1940), Stravinsky's opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex (1927), Hindemith's Das Unaufhörliche (1931), William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast (1931), and Britten's War Requiem (1961) are noteworthy.

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).

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 they are sometimes staged as operas. There is little or no interaction between the characters, no props or elaborate costumes. The most important difference is their subject matter. Opera tends to deal with history and mythology, including age-old devices of romance, deception, and murder. There are many exceptions, including Saint Saens' opera, Samson et Dalila, Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron and others. Additionally, there are operas that deal with religious movements such as Meyerbeers Les Huguenots. The plot of an oratorio is often minimal and deals strictly with sacred subjects, making this form of entertainment acceptable and 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 option of musica during that period for opera buffs.

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.

Origins in Italy

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:

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)

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.

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