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History of the Oratorio

  • Period: Jul 21, 1515 to

    Filippo Neri

    Filippo Neri is an Italian saint and religious leader who founded the Congregazione dell'Oratorio. As this congregation grew in popularity they constructed an oratory in the church for sacred performances. The music performed in the oratory was designed to both educate and entertain, and additionally was intended to gather people to the spiritual exercises that the Congregazione performed.
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    Germany, 18th century

    German oratorios during the 18th century had a lot more variety than the Italian oratorios of the same time period, including up to five sections and a free intermingling of recitative, arioso, and aria styles. The notable oratorio composer of this time was Joseph Haydn, the composer of Die Schöpfung (The Creation). The harmonic freedom in these oratorios is notable, and The Creation characterizes Haydn’s interpretation of Handel’s music, with a simpler musical approach.
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    Giacomo Carissimi

    Plorate filii Israel
    The most important composer in mid-17th-century Rome, Carissimi established the characteristic features of the oratorio latino and influenced most of the European composers that followed him. Carissimi is known for his skill in the use of rhetorical figures in music.
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    Earliest Oratorios

    The first oratorios started appearing in the early 17th century, notably Anerio’s "Teatro armonico spirituale di madrigali" (Rome, 1619), a work containing many works similar in musical content to mid 17th century oratorios. In the years immediately following this, two types of oratorio came about, the latino and volgare forms which differed primarily by the language in which they were composed. The latino texts were Latin, while volgare texts were composed in Italian.
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    The Italian Oratorio

    Juditha triumphansThe oratorio had a more rigid structure from 1660-1720, as the libretto was comprised of an extended poem of about 350-450 lines, which when performed lasted about one and a half to two hours. Most librettos came from the Bible, hagiography (the lives of saints), and moral allegory. The biblical texts tended to come from the Old Testament.
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    The English Oratorio 17th and 18th Century

    Shall We the God of Israel Fear?The word ‘oratorio’ in England meant a musical work that used a three-act dramatic text based on a sacred subject. The chorus was a prominent part of most English oratorios, and the man who progressed the English oratorio the most was George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). The English oratorio came to its unstaged nature completely by accident, when the Bishop of London prevented Handel from putting on staged oratorios.
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    The French Oratorio

    There was little interest in France for dramatic sacred music until the late 17th century. One of the first composers of French oratorio was Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a student of Carissimi in Rome. He was one of the only French oratorio composers, and composed around 22 oratorios which mostly featured a double chorus.
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    Alessandro Scarlatti

    Scarlatti is generally considered to be the founder of the Neapolitan school of 18th century opera. His contributions to oratorio are great, most of the compositions written for Rome. He wrote six Latin oratorios, notably for a double chorus.
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    Antonio Caldara

    Caldara was one of the most prolific contributers to the Viennese oratorio as a genre. He gradually shifted away from this style to a more lyrical approach as he grew older and more experienced.
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    Antonio Vivaldi

    Vivaldi's sacred music is not quite as widespread as the rest of his compositions, but it is worth noting how his operatic experience influenced his sacred works. His pieces highlight the instrumental parts, particularly the violins, and thus the chorus serves mainly as a declamatory part with homophony.
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    George Frideric Handel

    During Handel’s lifetime his only staged oratorio was the first performance of Esther at the Crown and Anchor Tavern. As Howard E. Smither states in “A History of the Oratorio,” “[Esther] differed from the continental oratorio traditions in a number of respects, foremost among them the prominent role of the chorus.” (Smither, 188) Handel composed one of the most influential oratorios ever, Messiah, as well as more dramatic oratorios such as Judas Maccabeus, Alexander Balus, and Joshua.
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    England and America, 19th century

    During the 19th century many selections of oratorios from foreign composers were making their way to England by way of various music festivals. The more popular foreign works were Haydn’s Creation, Spohr’s Calvary, and Mendelssohn’s St Paul and Elijah. At this point in history the models for new oratorios were Mozart, Handel, and Haydn. At the same time, composers in America were struggling to compose oratorios of their own.
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    The 20th century

    Paul McCartney's "Liverpool Oratorio"During the turn of the century some composers returned to the format of Carissimi, with two sections and Latin texts, like Lorenzo Perosi. Other oratorios followed in Wagner’s harmonically rich wake, such as Gerontius by Elgar. Another notable composer of this time period was Arthur Honegger, known for his use of individual scenes and a concise use of melody and rhythm.