Characteristics of the Oratorio
An oratorio is an extended composition for vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra; the narrative text is usually based on scripture or biblical stories but is non-liturgical. 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 often doesn't have acting, 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 OratorioDuring the mid-1500s, an Italian priest by the name of San Filippo Neri founded the Congregation of the Oratory. The said priest held religious meetings that was so well attended a room had to be built to accommodate the participants. The room were they held these meetings was called the Oratory; later the term would also refer to the musical performances presented during their meetings.
Notable Composers of OratoriosEarly examples of oratorios include the "Representation of Soul and Body" (La rappresentazione di anima e di corpo) by the Italian composer Emilio del Cavaliere and the 16 oratorios based on the Old Testament written by the Italian composer Giacomo Carissimi. Oratorios remained popular in Italy until the 18th century.
The oratorios written by the French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier, especially "The Denial of St. 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 St. John" and "Passion According to St. Matthew") and George Frideric Handel ("Messiah" and "Samson") explored this genre further.
By the 17th century, non-biblical text was 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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