The Oratorio: History and Composers

Sacred Drama for Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra

Mixed chorus performing
Wikimedia Commons

An oratorio is a sacred but non-liturgical dramatic and extended composition for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra. The narrative text is usually based on scripture or biblical stories but is not typically intended for presentation during religious ceremonies. Although the oratorio is often about sacred subjects, it may also deal with semi-sacred subjects.

This large-scale work is often compared to an opera, but unlike the opera, the oratorio typically lacks actors, costumes, and scenery. The chorus is an important element of an oratorio and the narrator's recitatives help move the story forward.

History of the Oratorio

During the mid-1500s, an Italian priest by the name of San Filippo Neri founded the Congregation of the Oratory. The priest held religious meetings that were so well attended a separate room had to be built to accommodate the participants. The room where they held those meetings was called the Oratory; later the term would also refer to the musical performances presented during their meetings.

Often cited as the first oratorio is the February 1600 presentation at the Oratoria della Vallicella in Rome, called the "Representation of Soul and Body" (La rappresentazione di anima e di corpo) and written by the Italian composer Emilio de Cavalieri (1550–1602). Cavalieri's oratorio included a staged presentation with costumes and dancing. The "father of the oratorio" title is usually given to the Italian composer Giacomo Carissimi (1605–1674), who wrote 16 oratorios based on the Old Testament. Carissimi both established the form artistically and gave it the character we perceive it today, as dramatic choral works. Oratorios remained popular in Italy until the 18th century.

Notable Composers of Oratorios

The oratorios which were written by the French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier, especially "The Denial of Saint Peter" (Le Reniement de Saint Pierre), helped establish oratorios in France. In Germany, composers like Heinrich Schütz ("Easter Oratorio"), Johann Sebastian Bach ("Passion According to Saint John" and "Passion According to Saint Matthew") and George Frideric Handel ("Messiah" and "Samson") explored this genre further.

By the 17th century, non-biblical texts were commonly used in oratorios and by the 18th century, stage action was removed. The popularity of the oratorio waned after the 1750s. Later examples of oratorios include "Elijah" by the German composer Felix Mendelssohn, L'Enfance du Christ by the French composer Hector Berlioz and "Dream of Gerontius" by the English composer Edward Elgar.


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