16th Century

An extended musical setting of a sacred, usually non-liturgical, text. Except for a greater emphasis on the chorus throughout much of its history, the forms and styles of oratorio tend to approximate to those of opera in any given period, but the normal manner of performance is without scenery, costumes or action.

Oratorio originated in the informal meetings, or 'spiritual exercises', of the Congregazione dell' Oratorio in Rome, founded in the 1550s by St. Filippo Neri. The name comes from the oratory or prayer hall in which the meetings were held. Music, particularly laude, helped attract people and membership spread to other cities. Important in introducing the new monodic style was the performance at the Chiesa Nuova in Rome of Cavalieri's sacred opera, "Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo" (1600). But the most important type of oratory music during the next 50 years was sacred dialogue of the kind in Anerio's "Teatro armonico" (1619).

17th Century

By the mid-17th century two types had developed. The oratorio volgare (written in the vernacular), in Italian, is represented by Carissimi's "Daniele", Marazzoli's "S Tomaso" and similar works attributed to Foggia and Luigi Rossi. Lasting some 30-60 minutes, they were performed in two sections, separated by a sermon; their music resembles that of contemporary operas and chamber cantatas. The oratorio latino, in Latin, was first developed at the "Oratorio del Crocifisso", related to the church of San Marcello in Rome; the most significant composer is Carissimi, whose "Jephte" may be considered the first masterpiece of the genre. Like most other Latin oratorios of the period, it is in one section only.

By the 1660s oratorio was established, and until circa 1720 it flourished in religious and secular surroundings. Handel's "La resurrezione" (1708) was given at the Ruspoli residence in Rome, and oratorios by Alessandro Scarlatti, Caldara and many others were given in similar locations. Other centers were Bologna, Modena, Florence and Venice; composers include F. Gasparini, Vivaldi and many leading opera composers. Their oratorios are mostly in two sections, lasting circa 90-120 minutes, with librettos based mainly on the Bible, hagiography and moral allegory. Musical style is akin to that of the opera, with few choruses and many da capo arias.

Outside Italy, the Italian oratorio was primarily a Lenten substitute for opera at the Roman Catholic courts of central Europe, notably Vienna, where oratorios were performed in a chapel during services. A related genre was the one-section sepolcro, in which the Passion story was narrated in a chapel, at Easter, with scenery, costumes and action. The leading composer of oratorios and sepolcri at Vienna was Antonio Draghi; another was Caldara, who set oratorio texts by the court poets, Zeno and Metastasio.

18th Century

Only in the early 18th century was a clearly defined genre of 'Oratorium', with German text, accepted in German concert life and Lutheran services. One root was the historia, exemplified by Schütz's settings of the Christmas, Passion and Easter narrations. From the mid-17th century composers began including music with non-biblical texts; this resulted in the 'oratorio Passion', a genre that culminated in the Passions of Bach. Other antecedents of German oratorio were the sacred dramatic dialogue, which sometimes served as a Lutheran motet, and the oratorio-like works performed as Abendmusik in Lübeck under Buxtehude.

Hamburg was the chief center for the early 18th-century German oratorio in spite of opposition to Keiser's setting of Hunold's "Der blutige und sterbende Jesus" (1704). A direct successor was Brockes's Passion oratorio, set by Handel, Keiser, Telemann, Mattheson and others. Such composers made more prominent a use of the chorus than did Italian composers and also introduced chorales. The works Bach called 'Oratorium' stand outside the true oratorio tradition.

Although it had an antecedent in the sacred dialogue, English oratorio was essentially Handel's creation - a synthesis of elements from the English masque and anthem, French classical drama, Italian opera seria and oratorio volgare, and the German Protestant oratorio. For Handel 'oratorio' normally meant a three-act dramatic work on a biblical subject, with prominent use of the chorus, performed as a concert in a theatre. It originated, almost by accident, when in 1732 Handel's intention of presenting a revised stage version of his earlier "Esther" was thwarted by the Bishop of London's ban. Its success in a concert version prompted Handel to compose two more in 1733, and his other English oratorios followed in 1738-52. Of these, "Messiah" (1742) is the best known, though as a setting of a purely biblical, non-dramatic text it is not representative of Handelian oratorio. Few Englishmen attempted to emulate Handel's mastery of oratorio, though there are examples by Greene, Arne and Stanley.  (See The Oratorios of Handel)

Charpentier, who studied with Carissimi in Rome, appears to have been the first French composer of oratorios; he preferred the terms 'historia', 'canticum', 'dialogue' or 'motet' for oratorio-like works apparently performed as extended motets during festive masses, at church concerts and at private Lenten gatherings. The chorus is of special importance as narrator, crowd and commentator. Few oratorios were composed in France during the 50 years following Charpentier's death in 1704.

In Italy and Vienna, oratorio volgare predominated in the late 18th century, with the emphasis on solo singing. The Dresden court played an important role in cultivating the pre-Classical and Classical oratorio. The Lutheran oratorio continued to function liturgically, as a substitute for the cantata, and in public concerts at Hamburg (under Telemann and C.P.E. Bach), Berlin (where Graun's "Der Tod Jesu" was performed almost annually) and Lübeck. The music of Haydn's late oratorios, "The Creation" and "The Seasons", reflects his experience of Handelian oratorio in London.

19th - 20th Centuries

After 1800 fewer major composers devoted their main energies to oratorio, but the genre continued to occupy a central place, especially in England and Germany, with the emphasis on massive performances at music festivals. The oratorios of Spohr and Mendelssohn took their place beside Handel's and Haydn's in the repertory of large choral societies, but after Mendelssohn the musical history of oratorio becomes more and more an account of individual masterpieces, among which Berlioz's "L'enfance du Christ" (1854), Liszt's "Christus" (1853-66), Elgar's "The Dream of Gerontius" (1900), Schönberg's "Die Jakobsleiter" (1917-22), Honegger's "Le roi David" (1923) and Walton's "Belshazzar's Feast" (1931) are particularly significant. Stravinsky's 'opera-oratorio' "Oedipus rex" (1926-7) is the most successful of modern attempts to apply certain characteristics of the oratorio to secular ends.