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An oratorio (Italian pronunciation: [ora

ˈtɔːrjo]) is a large musical composition for
orchestra, choir, and soloists.[1] Like most
operas, an oratorio includes the use of a
choir, soloists, an instrumental 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
the choir often plays a central role, and
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, as
well as to Biblical topics. Oratorios
became extremely popular in early 17th-
century Italy partly because of the success
of opera and the Catholic Church's
prohibition of spectacles during Lent.
Oratorios became the main choice of
music during that period for opera


The word oratorio comes from the Latin

verb orare, to pray. Hence oratory. The
musical composition was "named from
the kind of musical services held in the
church of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in
Rome (Congregazione dell'Oratorio) in the
latter half of the 16th cent."[2]

1600, origins

Although medieval plays such as the

Ludus Danielis, and Renaissance dialogue
motets such as those of the Oltremontani
had characteristics of an oratorio, the first
oratorio is usually seen as Emilio de
Cavalieri's Rappresentatione di Anima, et di
Corpo. Monteverdi composed Il
Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda
which can be considered as the first
secular 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. Giovanni Francesco Anerio's Teatro
harmonico spirituale (1619) 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, 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
Purificazione, but due to its brevity (only 12
minutes long) and the fact that its other
name was "dialogue", we can see that
there was much ambiguity in these names.


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
By the mid-17th century, two types had

oratorio volgare (in Italian) –

representative examples include:
Giacomo Carissimi's Daniele
Marco Marazzoli's S Tomaso
similar works written by Francesco
Foggia and Luigi Rossi

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.
oratorio latino (in Latin) – first developed
at the Oratorio del Santissimo
Crocifisso, related to the church of San
Marcello al Corso in Rome.

The most significant composers of

oratorio latino were in France Marc-Antoine
Charpentier and in Italy 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.

Late baroque

In the late baroque oratorios increasingly

became "sacred opera". In Rome and
Naples Alessandro Scarlatti was the most
noted composer. In Vienna the court poet
Metastasio produced annually a series of
oratorios for the court which were set by
Caldara, Hasse and others. Metastasio's
best known oratorio libretto La passione di
Gesù Cristo was set by at least 35
composers from 1730–90. In Germany the
middle baroque oratorios moved from the
early-baroque Historia style Christmas and
Resurrection settings of Heinrich Schütz,
to the Passions of J. S. Bach, oratorio-
passions such as Der Tod Jesu set by
Telemann and Carl Heinrich Graun. After
Telemann came the galante oratorio style
of C. P. E. Bach.
Georgian Britain

"Hallelujah" chorus from Handel's


Recorded in 1916.

Problems playing this file? See media


The Georgian era saw a German-born

monarch and German-born composer
define the English oratorio. George Frideric
Handel, most famous today for his
Messiah (1741), also wrote other oratorios
based on themes from Greek and Roman
mythology and Biblical topics. He is also
credited with writing the first English
language oratorio, Esther. Handel's
imitators included the Italian Lidarti who
was employed by the Amsterdam Jewish
community to compose a Hebrew version
of Esther.

Victorian era

Britain continued to look to Germany for

its composers of oratorio. The
Birmingham Festival commissioned
various oratorios including Felix
Mendelssohn's Elijah in 1846, later
performed in German as Elias. German
composer Georg Vierling is noted for
modernizing the secular oratorio form.[3]

John Stainer's The Crucifixion (1887)

became the stereotypical battlehorse of
massed amateur choral societies. Edward
Elgar tried to revive the genre around the
turn of century with the composition of
The Light of Life (Lux Christi), The Dream of
Gerontius, The Apostles and The Kingdom.


Oratorio returned haltingly to public

attention with Igor Stravinsky's Oedipus
Rex in Paris (1927), William Walton's
Belshazzar's Feast in Leeds (1931), Paul
Hindemith's Das Unaufhörliche in Berlin
(1931), Arthur Honegger's Le Roi David and
Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher in Basel (1938),
and Franz Schmidt's The Book with Seven
Seals (Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln) in
Vienna (1938). Michael Tippett's oratorio A
Child of Our Time (first performance, 1944)
engages with events surrounding the
Second World War. Postwar oratorios
include Dmitri Shostakovich's Song of the
Forests (1949), Sergei Prokofiev's On
Guard for Peace (1950), Vadim Salmanov's
Twelve (1957), Krzysztof Penderecki's St.
Luke Passion (1966), Hans Werner Henze's
Das Floß der Medusa (1971), René
Clemencic's Kabbala (1992), and Osvaldo
Golijov's La Pasión según San Marcos
(2000). Mauricio Kagel composed Sankt-
Bach-Passion, an oratorio about Bach's life,
for the tercenary of his birth in 1985.

Oratorios by popular musicians include

Léo Ferré's La Chanson du mal-aimé (1954
and 1972), based on Guillaume
Apollinaire's poem of the same name, and
Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio

Twenty-first century
When Dudley Buck composed his oratorio
The Light of Asia in 1886, it became the
first in the history of the genre to be based
on the life of Buddha.[4] Several late 20th
and early 21st-century oratorios have
since been based on Buddha's life or have
incorporated Buddhist texts. These include
Somei Satoh's 1987 Stabat Mater,[5] Dinesh
Subasinghe's 2010 Karuna Nadee, and
Jonathan Harvey's 2011 Weltethos.[6] The
21st century also saw a continuation of
Christianity-based oratorios with John
Adams's El Niño and The Gospel According
to the Other Mary. Other religions
represented include Ilaiyaraaja's
Thiruvasakam (based on the texts of Hindu
hymns to Shiva). Secular oratorios
composed in the 21st century include
Nathan Currier's Gaian Variations (based
on the Gaia hypothesis), Richard Einhorn's
The Origin (based on the writings of
Charles Darwin), Jonathan Mills' Sandakan
Threnody (based on the Sandakan Death
Marches), and Neil Hannon's To Our
Fathers in Distress. The oratorio Laudato
si', composed in 2016 by Peter Reulein on
a libretto by Helmut Schlegel, includes the
full Latin text of the Magnificat, expanded
by writings of Clare of Assisi, Francis of
Assisi and Pope Francis.[7][8]

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.

See also
List of oratorios
Music for the Requiem Mass
Mass (liturgy)
Mass (music)
Oratorio Society (disambiguation)

1. Oxford English Dictionary: "A large-
scale, usually narrative musical work
for orchestra and voices, typically on a
sacred theme and performed with
little or no costume, scenery, or
2. Oxford English Dictionary.
3. "The History of Music" . Retrieved
9 February 2012.
4. Smither, Howard E. (2000). A History
of the Oratorio: The Oratorio in the
Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries ,
pp. 453 and 463. University of North
Carolina Press. ISBN 0807825115
5. The New York Times (3 April 1987).
"Oratorio Merges Christ and Buddha" .
Retrieved 3 May 2013.
6. Clements, Andrew (22 June 2012).
"Weltethos – review" . The Guardian.
Retrieved 3 May 2013
7. Reulein, Peter; Schlegel, Helmut
(2016). Laudato si' / Ein
franziskanisches Magnificat. Limburg
an der Lahn: Dehm Verlag. p. 230.
ISBN 978-3-943302-34-9. ISMN 979-0-
8. "Festkonzert zum Jubiläum des
Referates Kirchenmusik / Laudato si'
– Oratorium von Peter Reulein
(Uraufführung)" (in German).
Liebfrauen, Frankfurt. 2016. Retrieved
19 October 2016.
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.
McGuire, Charles Edward. Elgar's
Oratorios: The Creation of an Epic
Narrative. Aldershot: Ashgate Press,
McGuire, Charles Edward. "Elgar, Judas,
and the Theology of Betrayal." In 19th-
Century Music, vol. XXIII, no. 3 (Spring,
2000), pp. 236–272.

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