An oratorio, by definition, is an extended musical setting of a sacred text (usually a non-scriptural re-telling of a bible story) made up of dramatic, narrative and contemplative elements, those three features being expressed by chorus, recitative and aria respectively. The genre is very similar to opera but with a sacred rather than a secular or mythological text, and the absence of scenery, costumes, choreography and movement. Oratorios are performed statically in the manner of a concert (often in an ecclesiastical building) and were at the height of their popularity in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries, and in Britain from the 1730s, directly because of Handel. An eighteenth century description of oratorio states that it is ‘a musical drama whose subject must be scriptural, and in which the solemnity of church music is agreeably united with the most pleasing Aires for the stage’.

Their roots can be traced back to the musical settings of sacred text found in the medieval mystery and miracle plays. Spurred on by the reforming spirit of the twenty-five sessions of the counter-Reformation body known as the Council of Trent, held in Italy and presided over by various Popes between 1545 and 1563, early musical orations (L’Oratio Musicale), or the telling of sacred stories with music, emerged in Florence and Rome. Of particular importance for the history of the oratorio was the performance, in 1600, at the Oratory of the Chiesa Nuova (New Church) of Cavalieri’s sacred opera Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo (Representation of the Soul and Body). This is the earliest known performance of a sacred text in which portions for a solo voice are set to music in a monadic (single-line) way. By the 1640s these orations had turned into dialogues in which more than one solo voice was used to represent more than one different character – the voices singing not simultaneously, but alternately. By 1659 two distinct types had emerged: the Oratorio Latino, and the Oratorio Volgare, using Latin and Italian texts respectively. The Latin texts were usually straight passages of biblical scripture, whereas the Italian texts were poetic stanzas re-telling Old Testament bible stories in the vernacular. Both were usually divided into two sections, known as the prima parte and the seconda parte, and often a sermon was preached in between them. The Italian composer Carissimi (1605-1674) was the first to introduce a chorus into his oratorios in order to add dramatic context to the stories. By the 1670s, orations (or oratorios such as this) were a firmly established form throughout Italy, and by the 1690s this had spread across the Alps to Germany, Austria and France, where the genre was also referred to variously as cantata musicale, componimento sacro, and dramma sacro.

Through the early eighteenth century, as well as being performed in churches and oratories, oratorios were also being performed in the private palaces and theatres of noblemen, and in other secular spaces. With the exception of the passion story, the vast majority of story content was drawn from the Old Testament. From about 1700 most oratorios required between three and six solo voices to deliver the text, with four being by far the most popular number, plus a chorus. Recitative was the vehicle for conversation and dialogue, and to move the events of the plot along, whilst arias (and sometimes duets) were for reflection on the events of the plot and for religious contemplation. Choruses added dramatic context. As the Baroque period progressed, and the size and range of the orchestra grew, composers began to illustrate some of the drama with orchestral colour and instrumental texture. The many cantatas of J.S. Bach, written weekly from 1723 when he arrived in Leipzig to provide music and structure to Sunday morning worship at the Thomaskirche, can be regarded as mini-oratorios, having all of the musical elements of oratorio at the time, albeit with a condensed structure, plus the Lutheran addition of congregational chorales, or hymns.

The oratorio largely fell out of favour in the classical and early romantic period, opera – especially comic opera, being much preferred. A revival was begun by Elgar, in part to satisfy a growing demand generated by the rising popularity of Victorian provincial choral societies, with large-scale oratorios such as The Dream of Gerontius, The Apostles and The Kingdom. In the twentieth century, Benjamin Britten flirted with the genre with his Parody Cantatas Rejoice in the Lamb, Cantata Misericordium and St Nicholas. Other notable twentieth-century examples include Belshazzar’s Feast by William Walton, A Child of Our Time by Sir Michael Tippett, Sancta Civitas by Vaughan Williams and La Transfiguration by Messiaen. Other less popular and less prominent examples exist by Hindemith, Stravinsky, Debussy and Prokofiev.


Aberdeen Bach Choir
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