Oratorio through the centuries

Print edition : July 29, 2005

ORATORIO is a large-scale musical composition on a sacred or semi-sacred subject, for solo voices, chorus and orchestra, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. The encyclopaedia entry says that an oratorio's text is usually based on the scriptures, and the narration necessary to move from scene to scene is supplied by recitatives sung by various voices to prepare the way for airs and choruses.

A basically dramatic method is used in all successful oratorios, though they may or may not be produced with theatrical action. What distinguishes it from opera is that, unlike in opera, oratorio does not have scenery, costumes or acting. While operas are usually based on a dramatic narrative, the aesthetic purpose of the narrative in oratorios is more often to provide organisation and significance to a large musical work. The oratorio may be performed in both churches and concert halls. Whether religious or secular, oratorios have weighty themes, which can include the creation of the world, the life of Jesus, or the career of a classical hero or a biblical prophet.

In oratorio, there are three principal schools: the Italian, essentially a form of religious opera; the German, developed from treatments of the Passion story (on the suffering and death of Jesus); and the English, synthesised by the composer George Frideric Handel from several forms. Rappresentazione di anima et di corpo (The Representation of Soul and Body) by Emilio del Caverliere, produced in 1600, is the earliest surviving oratorio. This oratorio had in it dramatic action, including ballet.

In German, oratorio efforts began with Heinrich Schutz, a composer whose style is a blend of German and Italian elements. Based on Gospel subjects, the oratorios of Schutz showed great powers of emotional expression. In his Eastern Oratorio (1623), he retained the old convention of setting the words of each character for two or more voices. A century later came Johann Sebastian Bach's two great Passion oratorios. The Passion according to St. John (first performed in 1724) and the Passion according to St. Matthew (1729) have been written on a greater scale and enriched by the introduction of the later Italian aria. Bach's another prominent work is The Christmas Oratorio.

In English, most of the oratorios of G.F. Handel, an opera composer, use biblical stories put into modern librettos. His oratorios were influenced by opera, masque and Greek tragedy. Although churches did not approve of stage action, opera singers played Handel's oratorios in theatres without any church connection. Handel also wrote secular oratorios based on themes from Greek and Roman mythology. Israel in Egypt (1739), Messiah (1742) and Samson (1743) are some of Handel's notable oratorios.

After Bach and Hande, oratorio did not any more represent a vital, creative tradition in Europe, barring some major attempts by Joseph Haydn. The influence of Handel's oratorios and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's operas blended with Haydn's own mastery of symphonic style made his Die Schopfung (The Creation; 1798), a masterpiece. The only oratorio of Ludwig van Beethoven, Christus am Olberg (Christ on the Mount of Olives; 1803) was not a success. Elijah (1846) of German composer Felix Mendelssohn is one of the 19th century oratorios still performed. Sir Edward Elgar's Dream of Gerontius (1900) is considered one of the masterpieces of 20th century oratorio. A number of works, generally secular in content, came from the Soviet Union and the East European communist countries and China. Polish composer Krzysztof Pendereci's St. Luke's Passion is a significant oratorio.

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