An extended musical setting of a sacred text made up of dramatic, narrative and contemplative elements. Except for a greater emphasis on the chorus throughout much of its history, the musical forms and styles of the oratorio tend to approximate to those of opera in any given period, and the normal manner of performance is that of a concert (without scenery, costumes or action). The oratorio was most extensively cultivated in the 17th and 18th centuries but has continued to be a significant genre.
2. Early oratorio in Italy: Anerio’s ‘Teatro’.
3. ‘Oratorio volgare’.
4. ‘Oratorio latino’: Carissimi and his contemporaries.
5. Italy and Spain, c1650–c1720.
6. The Italian oratorio and ‘sepolcro’ in Vienna.
7. Protestant Germany, Baroque.
8. Handel and the English oratorio.
9. Charpentier and the oratorio in France.
10. Italian oratorio at home and abroad, early Classical and Classical styles.
11. Germany, early Classical and Classical styles.
12. France and elsewhere, early Classical and Classical styles.
13. Germany, Scandinavia and eastern Europe, 19th century.
14. France and the Low Countries, 19th century.
15. England and America, 19th century.
16. Italy and Spain, 19th century.
17. The 20th century.
HOWARD E. SMITHER
Distant antecedents of the oratorio may be found in the musical settings of sacred narrative and dramatic texts in the Middle Ages: the liturgical drama, the Divine Office for saints’ feasts, the Passion and the dialogue lauda. Medieval miracle and mystery plays, as well as rappresentazioni sacre, are also related to the oratorio, but the real beginnings of the genre are to be found in the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods, where an ever-increasing interest in settings of dramatic and narrative texts gave rise first to opera and then to oratorio. Such texts were widely used for polyphonic madrigals in the 16th century (e.g. Andrea Gabrieli, Tirsi morir volea) and for monodic madrigals, dialogues and dramatic cantatas in the 17th century (e.g. Monteverdi, Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda). Sacred music, too, was affected by this new tendency, as may be seen in the increasingly dramatic treatment of the Passion, and in the laude, spiritual madrigals and motets that use dramatic and narrative texts, all of which may be considered antecedents of the oratorio. Lassus, for example, composed motets on the stories of the finding of Jesus in the Temple, the raising of Lazarus, the marriage feast at Cana, the Annunciation and Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Fili quid fecisti nobis sic, Fremuit spiritus Jesus, Nuptiae factae sunt, Missus est angelus and Qui sunt hi sermones, respectively); these motets are related by text, but not by music, to the history of the oratorio. In the first three decades of the 17th century, however, dialogues were composed to Latin texts based on similar biblical stories, but with greater dramatic emphasis in the new monodic style. Both in text and music such works are often close to the genre later known as oratorio, but they are brief, are normally found in motet books (e.g. Severo Bonini’s ‘Dialogo della madonna e del angelo’ in his Primo libro de motetti a tre voci, Venice, 1609), and were intended to be used in church as motets.
Although oratorio has traditionally been considered to have originated within the context of Filippo Neri’s Roman oratory (see below), recent research has pointed to its origin in the pan-Italian tendency towards greater emphasis on the dramatic element in sacred music. In Florence in the late 16th century and the early 17th, for example, the Compagnia dell’Arcangelo Raffaello performed dialogues comparable to those heard in Rome, and dialogue texts were composed by several Florentine poets, including Ottavio Rinuccini, Alessandro Ginori, Benedetto Rigogli and Benedetto Buonmattei (Hill, 1979). Yet Rome was particularly active in the cultivation of sacred dialogues and oratorios, and appears to have been the locale in which the genre acquired its name.
In Rome, the immediate social context from which the oratorio emerged was provided by the spiritual exercises of the Congregazione dell’Oratorio, founded by Filippo Neri (1515–95). Responding to the reforming spirit of the Council of Trent, Neri began in the 1550s the informal meetings, or spiritual exercises, for which he was to become famous. In the earliest period these meetings, for prayer and the discussion of spiritual matters, comprised only a few men, Neri’s close friends and followers, and took place in his quarters at the church of S Girolamo della Carità. Those present for the exercises sang spiritual laude for entertainment, which Neri no doubt remembered from his Florentine boyhood, and which he considered an important element in the exercises. As the spiritual exercises grew in popularity, larger quarters were necessary, and thus an oratory (from Latin oratio, ‘prayer’), or prayer hall, was constructed in a space above the nave of the church. In 1575 Neri and his followers, more numerous by then, were officially recognized by Pope Gregory XIII as a religious order, the Congregazione dell’Oratorio, and were given the historic church of S Maria in Vallicella, which was soon replaced by a new one still known as the Chiesa Nuova . For the rest of Neri’s life and until the mid-18th century, the Congregazione dell’Oratorio continued to increase in strength and prominence, first in Italy, then throughout Europe and in other parts of the world. Music continued to be important in the oratories, particularly those in Italy. Sung in the 16th century by both the congregation and professionals (later only by professionals), the music functioned as edifying entertainment and was intended to attract people to the spiritual exercises.
Throughout the second half of the 16th century, as in the earliest meetings, laude continued to be performed in the spiritual exercises of Neri’s oratory more frequently than any other genre. These are usually quite simple three- and four-part pieces in popular poetic and musical styles, but sometimes they are more complex polyphonic works (seeLauda). Between 1563 and 1600 nine different lauda books and four reprints were published specifically for the oratorians’ use. Giovanni Animuccia composed two of the books, Francisco Soto de Langa compiled probably five, and Giovenale Ancina two. The laude predominated in the exercises, but the more sophisticated motet and madrigale spirituale were not excluded, particularly for the musically elaborate oratorio vespertino, which took place in the oratory after Vespers on feast days during the winter months. Some of the finest musicians of Rome volunteered their services for the oratorio vespertino; there is some evidence that Palestrina may have been active in these exercises. Towards the end of the 16th century the laude used in the spiritual exercises reflected the pervading interest of the period in narrative and dramatic texts. Alaleona (Storia dell’oratorio, 1908), Pasquetti (L’oratorio musicale, 1906) and Schering (Geschichte des Oratoriums, 1911) saw a direct line of evolution, within the oratory, from the laude with narrative and dramatic texts to the oratorio in the Italian language. The number of laude with such texts, however, is by no means as significant as it once appeared to be, and the hypothesis that the oratorio evolved directly from the lauda within the confines of the oratory is now unconvincing; rather, the origin of the oratorio seems more satisfactorily explained as resulting from the general tendency to incorporate dramatic elements into music for oratories.
Of special importance for the history of the oratorio was the performance, in 1600 at the oratory at the Chiesa Nuova, of Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo. This is the earliest known performance in an oratory of a large-scale dramatic work in which the solo portions are set to music in the new monodic style. Despite the location of its first performance and its significance for the development of oratorio, however, the Rappresentatione is not itself an oratorio, as Burney and many historians after him imagined it to be. The work – with its scenery, costumes, acting and dancing – is much longer and more elaborate than works that later came to be called oratorios (in 1600 the term ‘oratorio’ was not yet used to designate a musical composition). The widespread misconception of Cavalieri’s famous work has led to the erroneous assumption in some writings that the earliest oratorios were staged in the manner of operas. Rather than being an oratorio, Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione has been shown to form part of the oratorian tradition, which extended from the late 16th century to the late 17th, of using young boys as actors in spiritual plays, usually during Carnival (Morelli, 1991, pp.82–7). Some such plays included musical insertions, others intermedi, and still others, like Cavalieri’s, were sung throughout. Another study (Gianturco, 1995, pp.175–7) argues that Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione was the earliest ‘moral opera’.
Apart from laude, little is known of the repertory performed in the spiritual exercises of the oratorians during the first decade of the 17th century, but the second and third decades are well represented by madrigali spirituali and dramatic dialogues composed for the oratorians by G.F. Anerio and others.
2. Early oratorio in Italy: Anerio’s ‘Teatro’.
In the 16th century and the first half of the 17th, the word ‘oratorio’ most commonly referred to the building (the oratory) and the spiritual exercise that took place within it. The meaning of the word was eventually broadened, however, to include the new musical genre used in the services, and the earliest documented use of it to mean a musical composition was in 1640. In that year the Roman Pietro della Valle wrote in a letter to the Florentine theorist G.B. Doni that he had composed an ‘Oratorio della Purificatione’ for the oratory of the Chiesa Nuova. The work is only about 12 minutes long, however, and is called a dialogue rather than an oratorio in its manuscript source. Della Valle’s use of both terms, ‘dialogue’ and ‘oratorio’, illustrates the kind of terminological ambiguity that was prevalent in the mid-17th century.
About 20 years before della Valle’s Purificatione a number of works appeared in Anerio’s Teatro armonico spirituale di madrigali (Rome, 1619) that closely resemble many of those called oratorios in the 1640s and 1650s. The 94 compositions in this ‘Spiritual Harmonic Theatre of Madrigals’ all have poetic texts that are dramatic at least in a general sense, and all are based on biblical or hagiographical sources. The texts show some relationships to those of the 16th-century laude, but they tend to be longer and more dramatic. 14 of the madrigals are marked ‘dialogo’, and at least seven of these are sufficiently extended and close enough in conception to the oratorio of the mid-century to be termed oratorios: Deh non vedete voi, Deh pensate ò mortali, Diteci pastorelli, Due figli un padre havea, Eccone al gran Damasco, Il vecchio Isach and Mentre su l’alto monte. The longest and most dramatically developed of these, requiring about 20 minutes in performance, is Eccone al gran Damasco, based on the story of the conversion of St Paul. This work employs soloists for individuals (Narrator, tenor; Saul, tenor; Voice from Heaven, bass; and Ananias, tenor), a double eight-part chorus for groups within the drama (soldiers and angels) as well as for non-dramatic comments and reflections, and a five-part instrumental ensemble to play a ‘Combattimento con voci & instromenti’ and to double the final chorus. The music of this work, and of the Teatro compositions in general, is in a concertato madrigal style, with relatively conservative, contrapuntally influenced sections for solo voice and organ bass accompaniment. It is chiefly this conservative element, and the lack of distinction between recitative and aria styles, that distinguishes these early oratorios from those of the 1640s and 1650s. These works from the Teatro are oratorios not only in general conception but in function as well, for Anerio composed this book at the request of Oratio Griffi, the maestro di cappella of S Girolamo della Carità, for use in the vespertino services of the oratory of that church; there is also clear evidence that the book was used in the oratory at the Chiesa Nuova. Griffi was the author of the book’s dedication to the deceased Neri, in which he spoke of Neri’s use of music ‘to draw, with a sweet deception, the sinners to the holy exercises of the Oratory’, and this was the purpose of the Teatro.
Other works that appear to have been performed in the oratory at the Chiesa Nuova are more than 100 pieces found in three Roman manuscripts (I-Rn Mus.25 and 26 and I-Rv Z.122–30; Morelli, 1991, pp.67–72). All have Italian texts set for four to eight voices and continuo. Some are laude, but others are madrigali spirituali in the form of dramatic dialogues comparable with those in Anerio’s Teatro. Among the composers represented in these manuscripts are Felice and G.F. Anerio, Giovanni de Macque, Ruggiero Giovannelli and Francesco Martini. Further evidences of the repertory of the Roman oratory are found in two inventories (dated 1620 and 1622) of music owned by the Congregazione dell’Oratorio in Bologna, which generally sought to follow the practices of the original congregation in Rome. These works suggest that a considerable amount of monodic music, some with dramatic texts, was used in the oratories of both Rome and Bologna during the second decade of the 17th century. Among the printed volumes listed in the inventory are Paolo Quagliati’s Affetti amorosi spirituali (Rome, 1617), and G.F. Anerio’s Selva armonica (Rome, 1617), Ghirlanda di sacre rose (Rome, 1619) and Teatro.
3. ‘Oratorio volgare’.
By the mid-17th century two closely related types of oratorio had developed, the oratorio latino and the oratorio volgare, using texts in Latin and Italian respectively. In Rome at this period the oratorio latino appears to have been fostered exclusively in the services of the aristocratic Oratorio del SS Crocifisso (see below), not related to but probably influenced by the oratories at the Chiesa Nuova and S Girolamo della Carità. The last-named oratories, on the other hand, seem to have concentrated on the oratorio volgare, which aimed at a broader spectrum of the Roman public.
It is clear from the records of the oratory at the Chiesa Nuova that music became increasingly important and elaborate there in the 1620s and 1630s under the leadership of the well-known soprano virtuoso and oratorian Girolamo Rosini (1581–1644), prefect of music for the oratory from 1623 until his death. Nevertheless, from the time of Anerio’s Teatro to 1630 no extant music is known that documents the further development of the oratorio volgare. Several librettos and musical compositions dating from about 1630 to 1640, however, reveal some of the developments of that decade. The poet Ottavio Tronsarelli’s Drammi musicali (Rome, 1632) includes four sacred texts that might have been intended to be set to music for performance in oratories; three of these are in one section or ‘act’ (La figlia de Iefte, La contessa delle virtù and L’essequie di Christo), and a fourth, Faraone sommerso, is a large work in three sections. In Domenico Mazzocchi’s Madrigali (Rome, 1638) and his Musiche sacre e morali (Rome, 1640) there appear musical settings of portions of a long epic-lyrical poem by Giovanni Ciampoli (1589–1643), Coro di profeti, per la festa della SS Annuntiata, cantata nell’Oratorio della Chiesa nuova. The entire libretto was first published posthumously in Ciampoli’s Poesie sacre (Bologna, 1648). There is reason to believe that Mazzocchi may have set the entire text to music for the oratory and selected only these excerpts for publication. This large libretto in three sections, although not called an oratorio in its source, clearly deserves that name for its remarkable length (over 500 lines of poetry) and its essentially narrative and contemplative character. Della Valle’s contribution to the oratorio volgare, his Dialogo della Purificatione (I-Rn Mus.123), is exceptionally brief, as mentioned above, consisting of only 59 poetic lines. Apart from being the earliest extant work to be referred to as an oratorio, it is also a curious piece of experimental music: it is one of della Valle’s works in which he attempted to revive ancient Greek tunings, and its performance requires specially constructed instruments if the composer’s intentions are to be fully realized. Two librettos by the poet Francesco Balducci (1579–1642), La fede: oratorio and Il trionfo: oratorio, have the distinction of being the earliest printed works to bear the term ‘oratorio’ in their titles as genre designations. Both were published posthumously in the second volume of Balducci’s Rime (Rome, 1645–6). La fede is a narrative dramatic poem of over 450 lines in two sections, labelled ‘Parte prima’ and ‘Parte seconda’. The poem is based on the Old Testament story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, and includes long narrative parts marked ‘Historia’, as well as roles for Abraham, Isaac, a chorus of virgins and a chorus of sages. Il trionfo is less than half as long as La fede and consists of only one section; it is essentially a contemplative, lyrical and allegorical work glorifying the Virgin, with a chorus, two brief passages labelled ‘Historia’ and only one other solo role, that of the Virgin.
Among the most advanced examples of the oratorio volgare in the mid-17th century are the following: Carissimi’s Daniele; an anonymous Daniele (possibly by Francesco Foggia); Marco Marazzoli’s S Tomaso: oratorio à 5; two anonymous works, Giuseppe and Oratorio per la Settimana Santa (the earliest known oratorio based on the Passion); and S Caterina (attributed to Marazzoli in Mischiati, 1962–3). The texts of these works are poetic and are based on the Old Testament, New Testament and hagiography; all are dramatic and include several characters in addition to a chorus (probably sung by an ensemble of the soloists), which represents the roles of groups within the drama and at times comments on the dramatic action. Most of these works include narrative lines labelled ‘Testo’, set for a soloist. All are divided into two sections, identified either as ‘Prima’ and ‘Seconda parte’ or ‘Prima’ and ‘Seconda cantata’, and each section concludes with a chorus, sometimes called a ‘madrigale’ in the manuscript source. Such works were performed without scenery or action, and, when they were given in an oratory, a sermon was preached between the two sections. The time required for the performance of these oratorios ranges from about 30 minutes to slightly more than an hour. The music is like that of operas and secular cantatas of the period; recitative, arioso and aria styles are all used, and the blending of two or even all three of these within a relatively brief passage is common. Among the arias the formal procedures used are the through-composed, strophic variation, ground bass and ABA forms, various rondo-like schemes, and binary forms with repeated sections. Ensembles and choruses use both imitative and chordal styles in the manner of the late polyphonic madrigal. Some of the works call for no instruments other than those used for the basso continuo; when other instruments are specified, they are two violins, normally used for introductions to oratorios, supporting passages during choruses and ritornellos for choruses, ensembles and arias; rarely do they accompany a solo voice.
Among the works of the mid-century that do not conform to the norm of the 17th-century oratorio volgare, generally because of their more contemplative texts, are Carissimi’s Oratorio della SS Vergine and Marazzoli’s Per il giorno della resurrezione: oratorio à 6. A number of brief compositions (in one section of about eight to 12 minutes) of the mid-century resemble the normal oratorio volgare in virtually every respect except length; although some of these were certainly performed in oratories, they are rarely called oratorios in their sources (e.g. della Valle’s Purificatione, mentioned above; Mario Savioni’s brief Oratorio per ogni tempo is an exception). Rather, they were usually given a variety of other names, such as ‘cantata’, ‘concerto’ or ‘dialogo’. Examples are Savioni’s Concerti morali e spirituali a tre voci (Rome, 1660); in the preface of this publication the composer promised to follow these works with a book of madrigali spirituali for five voices, to be sung at the end of each concerto, ‘thus, cantatas for oratories will be completed’. He made good his promise in his Madrigali morali e spirituali (Rome, 1668). Other works differing from oratorios only in their brevity were published in Agostino Diruta’s Poesie heroiche morali e sacre (Rome, 1646) and Teodoro Massucci’s Dialoghi spirituali (Rome, 1648).
4. ‘Oratorio latino’: Carissimi and his contemporaries.
From the musical standpoint the oratorio latino and volgare are not separate genres but one genre in different languages. Both developed in the first half of the 17th century in Rome, and some of the same composers set oratorio texts in both languages, using the same style for both types. From the literary standpoint, however, the oratorio volgare and latino differ considerably in the earliest period of their development: the former uses a poetic text throughout, as is normally true of laude, madrigals, cantatas and operas, but the latter employs a text largely in prose, as do most motets. Thus motets with narrative and dramatic texts, as described above, might be considered the chief antecedents of the oratorio latino.
The Roman oratory in which the oratorio latino first developed, the Oratorio del SS Crocifisso (near and related to the church of S Marcello), was the meeting place of a religious society of Roman noblemen called the Arciconfraternita del SS Crocifisso, founded in the 16th century. The Arciconfraternita’s chief ceremonies in which music was prominent were those on the five Fridays of Lent. There is no known record of the compositions performed at the Crocifisso during the late 16th century and early 17th; evidently no corpus of music was composed specifically for this oratory, as the laude and Anerio’s Teatro were for the oratories of the Chiesa Nuova and S Girolamo della Carità. Since Latin was the favoured language for the musical texts, however, motets were probably used. Among the musicians in charge of the music at the Crocifisso in the late 16th century and early 17th were some of Rome’s most famous composers in both the stile antico and moderno; they included Palestrina, Marenzio, G.F. Anerio, Quagliati, G.M. and G.B. Nanino, Ottavio Catalani, Paolo Tarditi, Stefano Landi, Giovannelli, Virgilio Mazzocchi, Foggia, Loreto Vittori, Carissimi and others. Since the oratorio was beginning to develop at S Girolamo della Carità and the Chiesa Nuova in the first third of the century, as Anerio’s Teatro indicates, it is reasonable to assume that it was also developing at this oratory and that some of the motets performed there in the same period were Latin dialogue motets with dramatic texts, like those mentioned above. In fact, the librettist Arcangelo Spagna, in his early 18th-century sketch of the origin and history of the oratorio latino, traced its origin directly to motets that were used as substitutes for parts of the liturgy: ‘The Latin oratorios, in the beginning, were like those motets which are continually sung in the choirs of the religious and formerly were heard on every feast day instead of the antiphons, graduals and offertories’.
By 1639 oratorios appear to have been performed in the Crocifisso, for in that year the French viol player André Maugars visited the oratory and heard two musical settings of biblical stories, one from the Old Testament before the sermon and another from the New Testament after the sermon. In 1640 della Valle entered in his diary an account of a performance at the Crocifisso of a work which he called his ‘Dialogo di Esther’; but he also referred to it as an oratorio in a letter to Doni the same year, and again in a letter of a few years later. The music, which has not survived, is the earliest composition with a Latin text known to have been called an oratorio by its composer. From della Valle’s comments about his Esther, it appears to have been similar in conception and duration to his Purificatione, mentioned above.
Carissimi was the most significant composer of Latin oratorios in the mid-17th century. His reputation and influence as an oratorio composer extended beyond Rome and Italy to northern Europe in his own time, and more of his Latin oratorios are extant than of any of his contemporaries. Scholars have differed considerably in regard to the number of Carissimi’s works with Latin texts that might justifiably be classified as oratorios, chiefly because all of the composer’s autograph manuscripts of his oratorios are lost and the surviving copies, mostly French sources, bear inconsistent and questionable genre designations. (For a survey of conflicting opinions regarding the number of Latin oratorios by Carissimi, see Smither: ‘Carissimi’s Latin Oratorios’, 1976.) Nevertheless, if one classifies as oratorios all of Carissimi’s Latin works that are similar in text, musical setting and duration to other composers’ works called oratorios in Italian sources of mid-17th-century Rome, one arrives at a total of 13 works which, with varying degrees of proximity to the norm of the genre, may be called oratorios. Of these 13, eight may be classed as oratorios without qualification: Baltazar, Ezechias, Diluvium universale, Dives malus, Jephte, Jonas, Judicium extremum and Judicium Salomonis. These are the longest of Carissimi’s oratorios, and they require the largest performing groups, most of them making considerable use of the chorus. According to the approach to classification suggested above, five other works may be considered oratorios with the qualification that they are exceptional because of their brevity: Abraham et Isaac, Duo ex discipulis, Job, Martyres and Vir frugi et pater familias. The works of this group make less use of chorus; because of their brevity the term ‘motet’ would suit them as well as ‘oratorio’.
All of Carissimi’s Latin oratorios are in one section only, which is normal for the Latin oratorio of the mid-century. Eight of the texts are based on stories from the Old Testament, two on those from the New Testament and three on fragments from both; two of the texts are non-biblical. Those based on biblical stories employ primarily narrative and dialogue texts (i.e. with few contemplative sections); the narrative passages, sometimes designated ‘Historicus’, are set to music for one or more soloists, an ensemble or a chorus, and the characters in the drama are represented by soloists. Exact biblical quotations of more than one or two verses are rare, but extended biblical paraphrases are common. Important in the general structure of Carissimi’s oratorios are repetitions of instrumental ritornellos, of choruses, and of solo passages in aria style. The styles of the solo parts range from relatively simple recitative through a more expressive recitativo arioso to that of a clearly structured aria. Carissimi set some passages of considerable length in only one of these styles, but he more often mixed them within a single solo to express changing attitudes in the text, a procedure also employed in the oratorio volgare and in opera of this period. Relatively long, independent sections in aria style that may be called arias (but are never so called in the sources) are normally through-composed, or in AB, ABB or strophic-variation forms. The chorus plays a more prominent role in Carissimi’s Latin oratorios than in most of those of his contemporaries. Usually the chorus represents a group of individuals in the drama; at times, however, it functions as a narrator or as a commentator on the action. The choruses range in size from three parts to triple choruses in 12 parts. They are predominantly chordal, and their rhythm is usually based on the accents of the text; fugal texture plays only an incidental role. In the double and triple choruses an antiphonal style is used, often with quick alternations of the choruses in which the entering chorus begins on the final pitches of the concluding one. Of special interest in Carissimi’s oratorios is his careful attention to the declamation and expression of the text; he was particularly skilful in the use of rhetorical figures in music.
Most important among Carissimi’s contemporaries for their Latin oratorios were Domenico Mazzocchi (seven oratorios, most of which are called dialogues, in his Sacrae concertationes, Rome, 1664), Virgilio Mazzocchi (one oratorio, Ego ille quondam, in D. Mazzocchi’s Sacrae concertationes and in I-Bc Q45; his Beatum Franciscum in the same manuscript is better classed as a motet than an oratorio), Marazzoli (five oratorios in I-Rvat Chigi Q.VIII.188), Foggia (two oratorios in I-Bc Q43) and Bonifatio Gratiani (two oratorios in I-Bc Q43). Gratiani’s are the only known Latin oratorios in two sections by a composer active in the mid-17th century.
5. Italy and Spain, c1650–c1720.
By the 1660s the oratorio was a firmly established genre not only in Rome but also in other Italian cities, and its cultivation beyond the Alps had begun. Oratorios continued to function in a more or less devotional context in oratories; during the course of the later 17th century and early 18th, however, they were performed with increasing frequency in the palaces of noblemen, where they functioned as quasi-secular entertainments, often as substitutes for opera during Lent when the theatres were closed.
In Rome the chief centres of oratorio performances in a devotional context continued to be the oratories, particularly those of S Girolamo della Carità, the Chiesa Nuova and the Crocifisso. These oratories had become famous musical centres by the middle of the century, and during the second half of the century oratorios began to dominate their services, making the prayer hall increasingly a place of entertainment; yet the practice of preaching a sermon between the two sections of an oratorio was retained. Oratorios were also performed at educational institutions in Rome, such as the Jesuits’ Seminario Romano and the Collegio Clementino. Performances in an essentially secular context frequently took place in the private palaces of such patrons as Queen Christina of Sweden, Cardinals Benedetto Pamphili and Pietro Ottoboni and Prince Ruspoli. In a private palace an oratorio performance was a purely secular affair, usually with refreshments served to the guests during the interval between the work’s two sections. Oratorios continued to be performed without operatic staging in this period, but the platform provided for the orchestra and singers would at times be elaborately decorated, with a painted background relevant to the subject of the oratorio; such was the stage for Handel’s oratorio La resurrezione when given at the Ruspoli residence in Rome on Easter Sunday and Monday, 1708. Fig.3 shows the stage for G.B. Costanzi’s Componimento sacro per la festività del SS Natale (libretto by Metastasio), performed in Rome at the Palazzo della Cancelleria in 1727 for the annual Christmas meeting of the Arcadian Academy. This is clearly a ‘concert’ performance: the singers are seated (while singing, with books in their hands) in the centre of an elaborately decorated stage; string instruments are placed behind them, and the other instruments are in the orchestra pit. In the Vatican Apostolic Palace, works approximating to oratorios (called oratorios in Marx, 1992, and cantatas in Gianturco, 1993) were performed on Christmas Eve in the second half of the 17th century and throughout much of the 18th. Until 1714 these tended to be in one part only; thereafter, however, most were in two parts. Among the most prominent oratorio composers active in Rome during this period were Pasquini, Stradella, Alessandro Scarlatti, Caldara and, briefly, Handel. A host of less prominent oratorio composers active there included Alessandro Melani, Antonio Masini, Ercole Bernabei, Antonio Foggia, Giovanni Bicilli, Giuseppe Pacieri, G.F. Garbi, Giuseppe Scalamani, Quirino Colombani, Gregorio Cola, G.B. Costanzi, F.C. Lanciani, Domenico Laurelli, G.L. Lulier, T.B. Gaffi and C.F. Cesarini; most of these men are named as composers in printed librettos, but few of their oratorio scores have survived. Among the oratorio librettists active in Rome were Cardinals Pamphili and Ottoboni, Sebastiano Lazarini and Arcangelo Spagna; Lazarini published a collection of ten of his librettos under the title Sacra melodia di oratorii musicali (Rome, 1678), and Spagna published at least 30 oratorio librettos, which appeared in his Oratorii overo melodrammi sacri (Rome, 1706) and I fasti sacri (Rome, 1720). Spagna is also important for his treatise on the improvement of the oratorio libretto, Discorso intorno a gl’oratori, printed at the beginning of his Oratorii overo melodrammi sacri. Silvio Stampiglia, G.B. Grappelli, Francesco Posterla, G.F. Rubini, Bernardo Sandrinelli and Francisco Laurentino also wrote librettos for Roman oratorios.
Other Italian cities important for the development of the oratorio in this period are Bologna, Modena, Florence and Venice. In Bologna, judging primarily from information given in the librettos printed there, oratorios were sponsored not only by the oratorians, at their church of the Madonna di Galliera, but by a number of other religious societies as well, including the Arciconfraternita di S Maria della Morte, the Arciconfraternita de’ SS Sebastiano e Rocco, the Venerabile Compagnia detta de’ Fiorentini, the Venerandi Confratelli del SS Sacramento, the Veneranda Compagnia della Carità, the Arciconfraternita della SS Trinità, the Veneranda Confratelli di S Maria della Cintura and the Confraternita de’ Poveri della Regina de’ Cieli. Among other places of performances were the oratory of S Domenico and the church of S Petronio. Performances of oratorios throughout the year marked a variety of occasions, including church feasts, the taking of religious vows, the visits of dignitaries and the celebration of such events as marriages or baptisms. More oratorios were performed during Lent than in any other season. Oratorios were given in both secular and sacred contexts in such Bolognese academies as the Accademia dei Unanimi, the Accademia degli Anziani and the Accademia delle Belle Lettere. Likewise in private palaces the contexts of oratorio performances were either sacred or secular. Cazzati’s Il transito di S Giuseppe, for instance, was performed in 1665, with a sermon between the two sections, in the private oratory of the palace of the Marquis Giuseppe Maria Paleotti. Yet performances in private residences in Bologna had at times much the same secular atmosphere as did those in Rome – that of social gatherings for the entertainment of the aristocracy. Nearby Modena was closely related to Bologna in its musical life, and many of the same composers were active in both cities. The most important patron of the oratorio in Modena was Duke Francesco II d’Este, and the favoured place of the oratorio performances that he sponsored was the oratory of the Congregazione di S Carlo. Modena’s period of greatest oratorio activity was 1677–1702, during which 113 performances were given (Crowther, 1992, appx 1). The repertory of oratorios given in the Bologna–Modena area included some works by composers of Rome, Venice and other cities, yet numerous local composers were also active. Among the most important were Cazzati, G.P. Colonna, Antonio Giannettini, G.A. Perti, G.B. Bononcini and Vitali. These composers and many others are represented in the Bologna and Modena libraries and archives by manuscript scores and printed librettos of oratorios. The two poets who are represented by more librettos than any other in this repertory are G.A. Bergamori and G.B. Giardini.
In Florence the Congregazione dell’Oratorio was established at the church of S Firenze in 1632 and began to perform oratorios probably in the 1650s. For the rest of the 17th century and throughout the 18th the oratorians of Florence were the most active sponsors of oratorio performances in the city. Following the lead of the Congregazione dell’Oratorio in Rome, the Florentine oratorians presented an oratorio every Sunday and on selected feast days from All Saints’ Day (1 November) to Palm Sunday (Hill, 1979). Most of these oratorios, which were by native Florentine composers, are lost, but many printed librettos survive. Oratorios were also presented in Florence by the lay confraternities, in particular the Compagnia dell’Arcangelo Raffaello, the Compagnia di S Bernardino e S Caterina, the Compagnia di S Niccolò, the Compagnia di S Jacopo, and the Compagnia della Purificazione detta di S Marco and its subsidiary, the Ospizio del Melani (Hill, 1986). Among the oratorio composers active in Florence were G.M. Casini, A.F. Piombi, G.M. Orlandini, F.M. Veracini, Carlo Arrigoni, G.N.R. Redi and Bartolomeo Felici. Of special importance among the other oratorio composers of Tuscany is G.C.M. Clari, of Pistoia (Fanelli, 1998).
In Venice the oratorians initiated their activities in 1661 in the church of S Maria della Consolazione, detta della Fava. The earliest oratorios were performed in the oratory of that church, probably as early as 1667 but at least by 1671, according to the oratorians’ extant records. The account books of the oratorians show that Giovanni Legrenzi’s oratorios were composed for them. The oratorians continued, with some interruptions, to present oratorios until the late 18th century (Arnold, 1986). Oratorios began to be performed in the conservatories of Venice in 1677, when the Ospedale degli Incurabili presented its first oratorio, Carlo Pallavicino’s S Francesco Xaverio. The majority of the oratorios given at the Venetian conservatories in the late Baroque period were in Latin; these institutions and the Crocifisso in Rome were highly exceptional in Italy for their cultivation of the oratorio latino. Among the composers of oratorios who were active in Venice in this period, in addition to Legrenzi and Pallavicino, were Pollarolo, Caldara (until 1700), Gasparini (after 1700), Lotti and Vivaldi. Among the librettists of Venetian oratorios are Bernardo Sandrinelli, Nicolò Minato (more important for Vienna than Venice), F.M. Piccioli, G.M. Giannini, Pietro Pariati, Z. Vallaresso and J. Cassetti.
The libretto of an oratorio from about 1660 to about 1720 is an extended poem of about 350–450 lines, characteristically in two sections; when set to music its performance time is about one and a half to two hours, with those in the earlier part of the period tending to be shorter than the later ones. Oratorios in three or more sections are rare; slightly less exceptional are those in only one. Brief spiritual cantatas for two or more voices, using dialogue between characters and sometimes including narrative passages, continued to be used in Italian oratories throughout the Baroque period. These are usually designated by a term other than ‘oratorio’, as may be seen in Cazzati’s Diporti spirituali per camera e per oratorii (Bologna, 1668) and G.C. Predieri’s Cantate morali e spirituali (Bologna, 1696); a few, however, are actually given the term of the larger form, as are Ghezzi’s Oratorii sacri a tre voci (Bologna, 1700) and Albergati’s Cantate et oratorii spirituali (Bologna, 1714).
The chief sources of oratorio librettos are the Bible, hagiography and moral allegory. For biblical librettos, stories from the Old Testament were much more frequently employed than from the New: of the relatively few texts based on the New Testament, those on the Passion, without narrative sections and in poetic form, appear to have been the most numerous and are found mostly in the repertory of the Bologna–Modena area. Hagiographical texts were used with increasing frequency from the mid-17th century to the early 18th until they rivalled, and with some poets and composers surpassed, the number of Old Testament texts. The prominence of hagiographical subjects for oratorios has been attributed to the influence of the Counter-Reformation in general, and to that of Jesuit dramas in particular; the latter had turned increasingly to hagiographical stories of conversion since about 1590 in an effort to further the process of conversion called for by the Council of Trent. Since the oratorio was so important in Rome within the cultural milieu of the Counter-Reformation, it is not surprising that many oratorio librettos reflect aspects of Counter-Reformation sensibility: heroism, mysticism, asceticism, gruesomeness and eroticism are all present. Most prominent are the first three of these, but gruesomeness and eroticism are occasionally found. The erotic element is important in the oratorios that stress the sensual aspects of female characters such as Susanna, Judith, Esther and Mary Magdalene and emphasize love scenes of a worldly, operatic nature. The oratorio with sensual emphasis has been termed the ‘oratorio erotico’. Until about the last decade of the 17th century narrative sections, usually labelled ‘testo’, but sometimes ‘textus’, ‘poeta’, ‘storico’ or ‘historicus’, were common in oratorio librettos; in the 18th century, however, Italian librettists virtually abandoned such narrative sections and relied exclusively on dramatic dialogue. Oratorios usually required three to five soloists throughout this period, although exceptional works in the 17th century include as many as nine to 16 solo roles. Following the lead of opera, oratorio in Italy nearly abandoned the chorus in the second half of the 17th century and the early 18th; the few choruses used in oratorios are generally quite brief, and the composer usually set the text so that they could be sung by an ensemble of the soloists who sang the dramatic roles. The requirement of a separate choral group for the performance of an oratorio is rare in Italy after Carissimi.
The development of the musical style of oratorio from about 1660 to about 1720 followed closely that of opera. This development may be divided into two phases, one from the 1660s to the 1680s, and another from the 1680s to about 1720. Even before the 1720s, early Classical style traits are clearly in evidence in the music of some oratorio composers; from the 1720s these traits grew increasingly prominent, although for some time to come they were still mixed with traits of the late Baroque style. As pointed out above, there are Roman, Bolognese-Modenese, Florentine and Venetian ‘schools’ of oratorio composers in the sense that certain composers wrote oratorios primarily for those centres. From the standpoint of musical style, however, the extant oratorios of these composers show far more similarities than differences; there seems to be a single, basic, ‘pan-Italian’ style within each phase, with only slight local variants. Thus what has often been called the ‘Venetian’ style in discussions of opera is found equally in oratorios of Rome, Florence, Bologna and Modena, as well as Venice; likewise, the so-called ‘Neapolitan’ style seems to appear as early in Venice and Rome as in Naples.
From about 1660 to about 1720 most oratorios required three to five voices to sing the solo roles, and these united in ensembles of characters and in those few numbers marked ‘coro’ or ‘madrigale’. Among the more important characteristics of the earlier phase, from the 1660s to the 1680s, are the small number of instruments normally required (either basso continuo alone, or two or three string parts plus continuo); the free intermingling of passages in recitative, arioso and aria styles; the predominance of arias accompanied only by basso continuo; the relatively brief arias in strophic, modified strophic, binary or ternary forms (the ABB1 form is the most common, while ABA and ABA1 forms are infrequent, and the designation ‘da capo’ is virtually non-existent); and the basso-ostinato unification of arias. The extant oratorios of Legrenzi (Il Sedecia, La vendita del core humano and La morte del cor penitente) clearly represent this phase in the genre’s development, as do most of those by Stradella (Ester, Susanna, S Giovanni Chrisostomo, S Editta and S Pelagia); Stradella’s S Giovanni Battista, one of the greatest works from this phase of the oratorio’s development, is exceptional for its large orchestra, using concerto grosso instrumentation.
In the 1680s and 1690s many oratorios continued to exhibit the characteristics described above, but new styles and structures grew increasingly important and dominated by the first decade of the 18th century. Among the new characteristics are the tendency to use a larger and more colourful orchestra with concerto grosso instrumentation, the predominance of orchestrally accompanied arias, the occasional use of orchestrally accompanied recitative, the regular alternation of recitatives and arias, the predominance of the da capo form for arias and small ensembles and more elaborate coloratura passages. The arias also show a clearer stylization in their expressions of such affections as rage, vengeance, militarism, joy, lamentation, love and pastoral bliss, and in their programmatic imitations of phenomena such as birdcalls, storms, wind, ocean waves and waterfalls. Early Classical tendencies (in particular the light, simple style favouring dance rhythms, balanced phrases and homophonic textures with slow harmonic rhythm) clearly appear in the second decade of the 18th century, especially in Caldara’s Roman oratorios. Of primary significance for the history of this genre are the oratorios of Alessandro Scarlatti, which reflect the development of the oratorio from the 1690s to the end of the second decade of the 18th century, except that early Classical elements are virtually absent from them. Handel’s La resurrezione (1708) is a masterly example of the contemporary oratorio volgare; Vivaldi’s Juditha (1716) mixes early Classical elements with its essentially late Baroque style and shows that the oratorio latino is identical in every musical respect to the more fashionable oratorio volgare; Caldara’s Roman oratorio S Flavia Domitilla (1713) clearly reveals early Classical features. In Spain a tradition of oratorio composition began with the works of A.T. Ortells (c1650–1706). His El hombre moribondo, El juicio particular and Oratorio sacro a la passión de Cristo señor nuestro were performed in 1702, 1703 and 1706 respectively at the Oratorio de San Felipe Neri in Valencia (Ferrer-Ballester, 1993).
6. The Italian oratorio and ‘sepolcro’ in Vienna.
Outside Italy the Italian oratorio was performed primarily in the Roman Catholic courts of central Europe, where it usually functioned as a Lenten substitute for the extremely popular Italian opera and thus was accessible only to the aristocracy. While the Dresden court and numerous smaller ones adopted the genre only in the 18th century, the Habsburg court in Vienna did so as early as the mid-17th century. Particularly prominent for its cultivation of Italian opera, the Viennese court also became the most important centre of sacred dramatic music in the Italian language outside Italy. Emperor Leopold I (1658–1705), both an avid patron of Italian music and a composer of at least nine sacred dramatic compositions, wrote the earliest oratorio known to have been performed in Vienna, Il sacrifizio d’Abramo (1660). (Leopold’s two sacred dramatic works with German texts are quite exceptional for Vienna in this period because of their language.) Other patrons of the oratorio were Leopold’s stepmother, Eleonora, who was the empress dowager, and the Emperors Joseph I (1705–11) and Charles VI (1711–40), both of whom were musicians. The most active period of oratorio cultivation closed with the death of Charles VI. Among the 17th-century composers of sacred dramatic music in Vienna, Antonio Draghi was the most prolific; others, in addition to Leopold I, were Antonio Bertali, Cesti, G.B. Pederzuoli, G.F. Sances and P.A. Ziani. Later composers (17th and 18th centuries) were C.A. Badia, F.T. Richter, P.F. Tosi and M.A. Ziani. The latest period of Baroque oratorios in Vienna, being in the second decade of the 18th century, is best represented by the works of Caldara and Fux; composers of oratorios for Vienna in this late period whose works show a mixture of late Baroque and early Classical styles are Giovanni Bononcini, A.M. Bononcini, F.B. Conti, Matteo Pallota, Giuseppe Porsile, L.A. Predieri and the elder Georg Reutter. Most important among the librettists of Viennese sacred dramatic works in the 17th century are Draghi and Minato; among the early 18th-century oratorio librettists of note are Pariati, G.C. Pasquini and Stampiglia. Of special significance are the two most famous 18th-century librettists Zeno and Metastasio (see below).
Sacred dramatic music at Vienna was identified by a number of terms, among them ‘oratorio’, ‘oratorio per il santissimo sepolcro’, ‘componimento sacro’, ‘rappresentazione sacra’ and ‘azione sacra’. The 17th-century repertory may be generally divided, however, into two related genres, the oratorio and the sepolcro. The oratorio is normally in two sections, unstaged, and similar in virtually every other respect to the oratorio volgare of the second half of the 17th century in Italy; its general function was also similar, as both were Lenten substitutes for opera, but its immediate context differed, for it was performed in a court chapel as a part of a semi-liturgical service. The 17th-century sepolcro, which was often termed ‘rappresentazione sacra’, is like the Italian oratorio in text and music, with the following exceptions: it is normally in one section only, its text is restricted to the description or interpretation of the Passion, its performances were restricted to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and it was performed with scenery, costumes and action. The principal element of the scenery was the holy sepulchre of Christ, which was usually erected in the choir of the court chapel of Eleonora and in the main court chapel, the Hofburgkapelle. (The tradition of erecting sepulchres in the churches of Vienna to commemorate the Passion and death of Christ from Maundy Thursday to Holy Saturday can be documented as early as the beginning of the 15th century.) According to stage directions in extant sources, a curtain opened at the beginning of the performance to reveal the sepulchre, and in the course of the sepolcro the members of the cast were required to perform actions appropriate to the circumstances of the drama (e.g. to weep, carry a cross, lift a veil, kneel or bring flowers). For performances of Draghi’s sepolcri (which appear to be generally characteristic of the 17th-century sepolcro) in the chapel of Eleonora, the only scenery was the sepulchre; in the Hofburgkapelle, however, the sepulchre was supplemented by a large backdrop of painted scenery (see fig.4). In the early 18th century the tradition of erecting a sepulchre was continued at the Hofburgkapelle, but the works performed at the sepulchre were usually oratorios in two sections; at least seven of Caldara’s Viennese oratorios are specified to be performed at the sepulchre.
Of special importance for the Italian oratorio in the 18th century are the libretto changes that took place at Vienna in the works of Zeno and Metastasio. As the court poet from 1718 to 1729, Zeno wrote librettos for both operas and oratorios. Among his aims as an oratorio librettist were the restriction of oratorios to subjects found in the Bible, the adherence to the Aristotelian unities of action, time and place, and the creation of spiritual tragedies which would be suitable even as spoken dramas, though intended to be set to music as oratorios. Zeno also opposed the introduction of divine personages in the oratorio. Most of Zeno’s 17 oratorio librettos were first set to music by Caldara. Zeno’s successor as court poet in 1730, Metastasio, one of the greatest poets of his time, retained many of the changes introduced by his predecessor. Of Metastasio’s eight oratorio librettos, seven were written for Vienna; two of these were first set to music by Caldara, three by the elder Reutter, one by Porsile and one by Predieri. Like Zeno, Metastasio preferred biblical subjects, and only one of his Viennese librettos, Sant’Elena al Calvario (1731), is non-biblical; Metastasio also sought to adhere to the Aristotelian unities, and he avoided introducing divine personages. But unlike his predecessor, Metastasio clearly distinguished between the libretto for an oratorio and one for a staged drama; thus his oratorio librettos tend to concentrate on the inner, psychological development of the drama, the external events themselves being outside the poetry, which only refers to them. The appropriateness of Metastasio’s oratorio librettos for an unstaged musical genre and their highly polished literary style no doubt account for their being the favoured librettos of composers of Italian oratorios throughout the 18th century.
Until the first decade of the 18th century the musical style of Viennese oratorios remained similar to that of oratorios in Italy, but in the period of Fux and Caldara the style became more elaborate. After 1716, the year of his arrival in Vienna from Rome, where his music had become increasingly galant, Caldara considerably modified his style by making it conform more closely to that of Fux, whose music had been favoured at the Viennese court for several years. In the Viennese oratorios of both composers the orchestral accompaniments and independent numbers are more elaborate than was characteristic in Italy; solo vocal lines reveal little of the early Classical element but are typical of the late Baroque period in their long, spun-out phrases; the choruses, while not more numerous, tend to be longer and more contrapuntal.
Vienna was by far the most prominent centre of oratorio cultivation in Roman Catholic, German-speaking areas, but oratorios and oratorio-like works were at times performed elsewhere in Catholic Austria and Germany. Of special importance are the early 17th-century Latin dialogues of Daniel Bollius, active at Mainz. His Latin sacred dramatic work titled Repraesentatio harmonica conceptionis et nativitatis S Joannis Baptistae … composita modo pathetico sive recitativo (?1620) has been called the ‘first oratorio in Italian style composed on German soil’ (Gottron, 1959).
7. Protestant Germany, Baroque.
German composers adopted some of the new techniques of Italian dramatic music in the early 17th century, but they were slow to develop the new genres of opera and oratorio in their own language. Only in the mid-17th century did the German oratorio tentatively begin, and not until the early 18th century did a more or less clearly defined genre identified by the term ‘Oratorium’, with a German text, begin to be recognized and accepted in German concert life and Lutheran church services. Indeed, in the early 17th century in Germany the terms ‘stylus oratorius’ and ‘actus oratorius’ referred to the art of speech; stylus oratorius designated an ‘oratorical’ or recitative style, and an actus oratorius was usually a spoken, sacred, school drama, sometimes with music, given by students learning the art of the orator. Even in the 18th century the term ‘Oratorium’ seems to have been used more freely in Germany than in Italy to designate musical settings of a greater variety of texts. Among the antecedents of the German oratorio are the historia (including the Passion with a purely scriptural text), the actus musicus, the oratorio Passion, the sacred dramatic dialogue, sacred dramas with music and the sacred opera cultivated at Hamburg in the late 17th century. The Italian oratorio, too, influenced the development of the German oratorio, particularly in the early 18th century.
One of the strongest roots of the German oratorio is the Lutheran historia, a musical setting of a scriptural story, intended for performance in church. The Passion was the earliest and by far the most important subject; the Easter and Christmas stories were of secondary importance, and others were rarely used. In the 16th century and early 17th the text of the historia was restricted to biblical narrative, except for brief introductory and concluding passages. Among the several types of musical settings for 16th-century historiae, the one most clearly an oratorio antecedent required a responsorial performance and was realistically dramatic in conception: solo chant (a liturgical recitation tone) was used for the Evangelist’s narration and the speech of the individuals, while that of two or more was set polyphonically (see Passion). In the early 17th century this type of historia sometimes adopted the basso continuo accompaniment and adapted the monodic style in such a manner that the solo vocal lines constituted a compromise between the traditional recitation tone and the new monody, as in the Evangelist’s part in Schütz’s Historia der frölichen und siegreichen Aufferstehung unsers einigen Erlösers und Seligmachers Jesu Christi (Dresden, 1623). Although this work is sometimes called Schütz’s ‘Easter Oratorio’, it is better understood as an antecedent of the oratorio: in the tradition of the Lutheran historia but unlike the contemporary oratorio libretto, its text is composed entirely of biblical quotation (except for the introductory and concluding passages). Furthermore, the work is modelled on a 16th-century historia by Antonio Scandello, and like the latter shows an unrealistic, non-dramatic approach to the text in that the speech of individuals (Jesus and Mary Magdalene) is set for two voices. (In his prefatory remarks to the work, however, Schütz allowed for a more dramatic performance by suggesting that one of the vocal parts for these roles might be instrumentally performed or even omitted.) Schütz’s Passion historia on the Seven Words of Christ (Die Sieben Wortte unsers lieben Erlösers und Seeligmachers Jesu Christi, ?1645) is much closer to the oratorio in its melodic style, which is free from the influence of chant, and in its realistic approach to the dramatic roles. Indeed, a work in which Schütz arrived at the threshold of the oratorio is his historia for Christmas (Historia der freuden- und gnadenreichen Geburth Gottes und Marien Sohnes, Jesu Christi, unsers einigen Mittlers, Erlösers und Seeligmachers, Dresden, 1664). Often referred to as the composer’s ‘Christmas Oratorio’, this work has also been called ‘the first German oratorio’ (Schering, 1911, p.148). The composition merits this claim on the basis of its length, dramatic treatment of roles and musical style in general; yet it is a historia in that its text consists entirely of biblical quotation (except for the opening and closing passages) and the Evangelist’s recitatives retain suggestions of a liturgical recitation tone.
In the mid-17th century some composers, particularly in Saxony and Thuringia, began to use the term ‘actus musicus’ for works with some of the same characteristics as those called historia. The new term was analogous to actus oratorius, mentioned above, already in use. In the second half of the 17th century the actus musicus and historia were similar in function and general structure. Both were intended to be performed during a Lutheran church service, both characteristically quoted narrative and dialogue passages drawn from a biblical story, and both could include non-biblical interpolations – either stanzas of chorales or freely composed poetry or prose. The actus musicus differed from the historia, however, in its greater use of non-biblical interpolations and greater emphasis on dramatic elements, such as musical characterization and quasi-theatrical performing practice. The historia tended to remain close to the liturgy, as a musical and dramatic elaboration of a scriptural reading, but the actus musicus was less liturgical and at times quite close to the oratorio. Andreas Fromm’s Actus musicus de Divite et Lazaro, das ist Musicalische Abbildung der Parabel vom Reichen Manne und Lazaro (Stettin, 1649) has been called ‘the first German oratorio’ by Schwartz (1898), with some justification, for its German text is dramatic and non-biblical, as are oratorio librettos, despite the fact that its theme was drawn from Luke xvi.19–25. Among the other sacred dramatic compositions of the 17th century that bear the designation ‘actus’ are Johann Schelle’s Actus musicus auf Weihnachten (1683), P.H. Erlebach’s Actus pentecostalis (1690), and four works dating from about 1690–1702: Abraham Petzold’s Actus paschalis and Actus (in Festo Michaelis), F.W. Zachow’s Actus pentecostalis and Kuhnau’s Actus Stephanicus.
From the mid-17th century composers began to insert music with non-biblical texts into their historiae, primarily the Passion historiae, a practice which resulted in what may be termed the ‘oratorio Passion’. Like the responsorial type of Passion historia, the oratorio Passion uses as its basic text the Passion story, either quoted from a single Gospel or ‘harmonized’ from the four Gospels; soloists sing the roles of the Evangelist and the individual characters, and the chorus sings the parts of the turba. The distinguishing features of the oratorio Passion are the interruption of the Gospel account by contemplative interpolations and the use of modern recitative and concertato styles, as opposed to the plainsong and a cappella styles common in the responsorial historiae. The interpolations in the earliest oratorio Passions have texts from books of the Bible other than the Gospels or from chorales. In the late 17th century and early 18th, however, the interpolations are increasingly made up of freely composed spiritual poetry, comparable with that found in Italian oratorios. The musical settings of the interpolations vary from the simplest choral and song styles to elaborate imitative and antiphonal choruses and italianate arias.
In its retention of the biblical text and its function as a part of the traditional, established liturgy, the oratorio Passion would seem to lie outside the mainstream of the oratorio’s development. Nevertheless, the combination of narrative, dramatic and contemplative elements in its text and the use of an operatic musical style make it a close relative of the oratorio. In fact, in the early 18th century Scheibe actually considered the oratorio Passion as a type of oratorio (Der critische Musikus, i, 1738, pp.159–60), but the term ‘oratorio’ (or the German ‘Oratorium’) is virtually never found on the title-page of an oratorio Passion in the Baroque era.
The earliest-known oratorio Passion is Thomas Selle’s Passio secundum Joannem cum intermediis (1643). Oratorio Passions from the second half of the 17th century include Johann Sebastiani’s Das Leyden und Sterben unsers Herrn und Heylandes Jesu Christi nach dem heiligen Matthaeo (1663; printed Königsberg, 1672), Johann Theile’s Passio nach dem Heiligen Evangelisten Matthäo (Lübeck, 1673), and an anonymous Matthäuspassion dating from between 1667 and 1683, attributed by Birke (1958) to Friedrich Funcke. From about the turn of the century are the St Matthew oratorio Passions by J.G. Kühnhausen and J.V. Meder. Numerous other oratorio Passions of the late 17th century and early 18th are extant, with the passions of J.S. Bach forming the culmination of the development. (For the German Passion oratorio, see below.)
Closely related to the Lutheran historia, and important as an oratorio antecedent, is the large corpus of sacred dramatic dialogues which sometimes functioned as motets in the Lutheran liturgy of the 17th century. Some works called dialogues in this period are, in fact, quite brief historiae, with strictly biblical texts, solo settings for individuals and either solo or polyphonic settings of narrative passages. Many more, however, differ from the historia in their texts by combining fragments from various books of the Bible, omitting the connecting narratives of biblical stories, freely paraphrasing biblical passages, combining biblical with non-biblical material (especially with chorales), or using purely non-biblical material, often with allegorical characters. Most of the 17th-century sacred dramatic dialogues in German are so brief and include so little dramatic development that they can scarcely be considered oratorios by comparison with the works in Italian and Latin that were normally so called in the same period. Among the composers of these brief works, which have been called ‘oratorio dialogues’ by Schering and others, are Schütz, Schein, Scheidt, Andreas Hammerschmidt, the younger Kaspar Förster, J.E. Kindermann, Johann Rosenmüller, J.R. Ahle, W.C. Briegel, Augustin Pfleger, Matthias Weckmann, Christoph Bernhard and Buxtehude. Among the best examples of such dialogues, and one that has been loosely called an oratorio in musicological literature, is Weckmann’s Dialogo von Tobia undt Raguel: Wo willen wir einkehren (1665), formerly attributed to Rosenmüller.
Latin dramatic dialogues, although less prominent than those in German, were also composed for the Lutheran liturgy. Of special interest in the mid-17th century are the two extended Latin dramatic dialogues of the younger Förster, Dialogus de Juditha et Holoferne and Dialogi Davidis cum Philisteo, both of which could equally well be called oratorios; a student of Carissimi in Rome, Förster adopted many elements of his master’s oratorio style.
While the function of sacred dramatic dialogues in Germany was normally liturgical, such dialogues were also performed in Hamburg in the concerts of Weckmann’s collegium musicum, founded about 1660. Another non-liturgical function of oratorio-like works is found in the performances at the Marienkirche in Lübeck known as Abendmusik. These concerts of sacred music were of special importance for the development of the oratorio from the period of Buxtehude’s activity in Lübeck (1668–1707) and throughout the 18th century. Presented during the evenings of the last Sundays of Trinity and the second, third and fourth Sundays of Advent, the Abendmusiken under Buxtehude’s direction appear to have consisted either of concerts of miscellaneous vocal and instrumental compositions or performances of large, oratorio-like works. What is known of the music performed at Buxtehude’s concerts is limited primarily to the conclusions that may be drawn from four extant librettos printed for use at the Abendmusiken and one subject of a work known to have been performed at one of these concerts. The four extant librettos are Die Hochzeit des Lammes (1678), Abdruck der Texte, welche … bey den gewönlichen Abend-Musicen … praesentiret werden (1700), Castrum doloris (1705) and Templum honoris (1705). The work known only by its subject is one which Buxtehude called, in a letter, his ‘Abend Music’ of the prodigal son, performed in 1688. The first of the librettos is clearly an oratorio, although that term was not yet used for German works, and the last two are closely related to the oratorio. The work on the story of the prodigal son might have been an oratorio. The second-named libretto, Abdruck der Texte, however, provides the texts for all five of the Abendmusiken in 1700, and it shows that each of these concerts consisted of a mixture of sacred vocal works, none of which related to the oratorio.
Hamburg was the chief centre for the cultivation of German oratorio in the early 18th century, as it was for German opera. Nevertheless, oratorio was viewed by some as an unwelcome innovation there in the first decade of the century. In 1705 Reinhard Keiser’s Der blutige und sterbende Jesus, with a text by C.F. Hunold (under the pseudonym of Menantes), met with opposition from the clergy and the city fathers when it was performed in Hamburg Cathedral. The work is a Passion oratorio, i.e. an oratorio with a poetic text, based on the biblical Passion but without biblical quotations. Influenced by the Italian oratorio and the new italianate cantata texts of Erdmann Neumeister, Hunold expressly stated that his new work was like ‘the Italian so-called oratorios’. The criticisms of this historically significant work focussed on its theatricality and its omission of the Evangelist’s narrative passages. Further controversies about oratorio came in 1705, when the Hamburg organist Georg Bronner met with opposition to his performance of an oratorio at a public concert, and again in 1710 when he was denied the use of a church for an oratorio performance. But oratorios were fully accepted in Hamburg Cathedral from 1715 when Mattheson introduced them there. In fact, his oratorios were intended to take the place of church cantatas in the liturgy of Hamburg Cathedral on important feast days or other special occasions, although they were often subsequently performed in public concerts as well. A direct successor of Hunold’s libretto is the Passion oratorio by Brockes, Der für die Sünden der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus (1712), which was set to music by numerous composers, including Handel, Keiser, Mattheson and Telemann (the settings by these four composers were performed under Mattheson’s direction at Hamburg in Holy Week of 1719).
By the second decade of the 18th century the German oratorio had become a well-established genre in Hamburg and in the Abendmusiken at Lübeck, and it was becoming increasingly popular in other areas of Germany as well. Among the more important composers of German oratorios in the late Baroque style of the first half of the 18th century are Keiser, Mattheson and Telemann, although in the oratorios of Telemann early Classical elements are sometimes prominent. The German oratorios of these composers and others in the first half of the 18th century reflect the styles and forms of the German opera of its time; they differ from contemporary Italian oratorios in that both libretto and music are marked by greater contrast and variety. The librettists were little interested in restricting their works by observing the Aristotelian unities, and their librettos seem less carefully worked out than those of Zeno and Metastasio. The subject matter is usually biblical (the Passion oratorio was more important than in Italy), and allegorical characters are frequently included. Choruses are more prominent than in the Italian oratorio and often have biblical texts; the frequent use of chorales is a distinguishing feature of the German oratorio.
There are many German works from the first half of the 18th century designated as oratorios and distinguishable as examples of the genre, but the term ‘Oratorium’ seems to have been more frequently applied to borderline cases than in Italy, i.e. to works which combine elements of the related genres of oratorio, sacred cantata, sacred dialogue and/or historia. The three works for which Bach used the term ‘Oratorium’ (Weihnachts-Oratorium bwv248, Oster-Oratorium bwv249 and Oratorium auf Himmelfahrt bwv11) illustrate this terminological freedom in Germany. All three show some relationship to the oratorio, but they are more like church cantatas (or, in the case of the Christmas Oratorio, a series of six cantatas) than oratorios in the normal 18th-century sense. Both the Christmas and Ascension works are also related to the historia; the texts of both are largely contemplative, but they include, like the historia, narrative quotations from the Bible sung by the ‘Evangelist’. The Easter Oratorio is essentially a dialogue among four people; although its duration is more like that of a cantata than an oratorio (it is a parody of a secular cantata, bwv249a), in its purely poetic text it is closer to the genre of oratorio than the other two works.
8. Handel and the English oratorio.
In 17th-century England the dramatic tendencies in music of the early Baroque period were by no means as strong as in Italy; English opera began later in the century, and sacred dramatic music did not develop beyond the brief dialogue. Among the earliest examples of English sacred dialogues are two works by John Hilton (ii), The Dialogue of King Solomon and the Two Harlots and The Dialogue of Job, God, Satan, Job’s Wife and the Messengers, possibly composed as early as 1616. Some dialogues show a relationship to the verse anthem; for instance, an extant text of a verse anthem by Richard Portman, How many hired servants, dated 1635, is based on the story of the prodigal son, in which the dialogue takes place in the verses and the narrative passages are given to the chorus. Other composers of the few known sacred dramatic dialogues in English are Henry Blowman, Benjamin Lamb, Nicolas Lanier (ii), Purcell, Robert Ramsey and John Wilson. Purcell’s only sacred dramatic dialogue is his setting of In guilty night, a text based on the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor, also set by other 17th-century composers. Thus English composers made a tentative beginning with the type of composition that might have led to a fully developed oratorio, perhaps by way of a dramatic verse anthem; they did not carry on this development, however, and when Handel arrived in England he found audiences that were unfamiliar with the form. The English oratorio is Handel’s creation, his remarkable synthesis of elements found in the English masque and anthem, the French classical drama, the Italian opera seria and oratorio volgare, and the German Protestant oratorio. Similar in some respects to oratorio on the Continent, the Handelian variety is often so strikingly different as to appear to be an independent genre.
For Handel in England the word ‘oratorio’ normally designated a musical entertainment that used a three-act dramatic text based on a sacred subject; the musical setting used the styles and forms of Italian opera and English sacred choral music, although at times modified in their new context; the chorus was considered essential and was usually prominent; and the manner of performance was that of a concert, usually at a theatre or concert hall, often with concertos performed between the acts. The greater use of the chorus and the division into three acts (Handel preferred ‘act’ rather than ‘part’ for the sections of an oratorio) are among the features that distinguish the Handelian English oratorio from the Italian oratorio. Among Handel’s exceptions to his normal meaning of the word ‘oratorio’ are its use for Israel in Egypt, Messiah and the Occasional Oratorio, all of which have non-dramatic librettos; another exception is his benefit concert in 1738, announced as ‘Mr Handel’s Oratorio’, a miscellaneous programme with no unifying plan. The Triumph of Time and Truth (1757), a revision of an Italian work, might also be considered an exception, since its text is more ethical and moral than religious, even though Act 3 includes an anthem of petition to the Lord and closes with a ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. Seven works by Handel are sometimes classified as ‘secular oratorios’: Acis and Galatea, Alexander’s Feast, Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, L’Allegro, Semele, Hercules and The Choice of Hercules. Nevertheless, none of these compositions was originally called an oratorio by its composer; in Handel’s England the term ‘secular oratorio’ was not used and would have seemed self-contradictory. Thus in a genre classification of Handel’s works based on the normal terminology used in England in his time, these seven compositions would be excluded from the oratorio category.
The English oratorio came into being quite by accident as an unstaged genre. In 1718 Handel composed Esther, a short work that borrows heavily from his Brockes Passion (1716). On the composer’s birthday in 1732 the Children of the Chapel Royal, under the direction of their master, Bernard Gates, presented a private, staged performance of Esther for the Philharmonic Society at the Crown and Anchor Tavern. Later in the same year Handel intended to present publicly a similar staged version, using the same young performers, at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, but he was prevented from doing so by the Bishop of London, Edmund Gibson. Bishop Gibson, who was dean of the Chapel Royal, considered the opera house an immoral place, and his objections were apparently to a staged performance there of a work with a sacred subject and to the participation in that performance of the boys of the Chapel Royal. Forced to compromise, Handel accepted for Esther the traditional, continental manner of presenting oratorios: the work was performed without staging, in a revised, concert version, by mature professional musicians . The success of Esther in this form prompted Handel to compose two more oratorios, Deborah and Athalia, for unstaged performances in 1733, and he retained this manner of performance for his oratorios for the rest of his life. Except for the 1732 performance of Esther, there is no precedent from Handel’s time for the 20th-century staged performances of his oratorios.
Handel did not compose another oratorio for five years, during which he continued to concentrate primarily on Italian opera. During the period 1738–45, however, he returned to oratorio, composing six works: Saul, Israel in Egypt, Messiah, Samson, Joseph and his Brethren and Belshazzar. Of these, Messiah is by far the best known and has been the most influential work since Handel’s death in shaping the popular conception of his oratorios; yet it is a setting of a purely biblical, non-dramatic text, and as such is not representative of the Handelian oratorio, which is essentially a dramatic genre. In the years 1746–8 Handel composed four oratorios of a militaristic flavour. The Occasional Oratorio, first performed in 1746, was an act of encouragement to the ruling Hanoverian regime in its struggle with the invading forces of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender. After the Hanoverian victory (1746), Handel composed Judas Maccabaeus, Alexander Balus and Joshua; in a sense, these are all ‘occasional’ oratorios, since they sought favour with a public still in a mood to celebrate conquering heroes. Handel’s late period of oratorio composition, 1748–52, includes his Solomon, Susanna, Theodora and Jephtha; Theodora is reported to have been Handel’s favourite.
The Handelian oratorio functioned as an opera substitute, in a sense, since Handel eventually abandoned Italian opera for oratorio but continued to use opera theatres and, at least for a while, opera singers. But it was not an opera substitute for the same reason that the oratorio volgare was in such cities as Rome and Venice where opera was not performed during Lent and oratorio took its place. Handel’s oratorio seasons often coincided more or less with Lent because of the sacred subject matter of the oratorios, but, during his life, operas continued to be performed during Lent in London, and his oratorios competed with them.
The librettos of Handel’s oratorios were received by their audiences as ‘unprecedented, unequalled expressions of the religious sublime’ (Smith, 1995, p.168). All the librettos but Messiah and Theodora are based on the Old Testament or the Apocrypha, and even Messiah contains more texts from the Old Testament than the New, despite its Christian theme. The Old Testament subject matter, which was considerably modified by the librettists, had a strong appeal to Handel’s audiences. Not only were they generally familiar with the stories, but they perceived a parallel between the Israelites and the English of their own time: both were intensely nationalistic and led by heroic figures, and both regarded themselves as being under the special protection of God, who was worshipped with pomp and splendour. The ‘just’ wars that the Israelites wage against the enemies of their faith in Handel’s oratorios were well understood by the oratorio audiences, for religion had long been the traditional English justification for war (Smith, 1995, p.242). Handel’s librettists were influenced by the contemporary masque, which in this period was a short English opera, but even more so by classical drama. The librettists sought to incorporate into their works much of the spirit and technique of ancient Greek drama, and especially its use of the chorus, which functions at times within the action, and at other times outside it in the role of a commentator.
The most striking feature of Handel’s choruses in the oratorios is their stylistic variety. A general classification of the choruses according to styles and procedures results in several types, including choruses with predominantly simple, homophonic texture; massive chordal effects, at times using double-chorus antiphony; predominantly fugal texture, including fugues with one to three subjects; a basso ostinato, usually varied; and a freely imitative texture, in what might be called motet or madrigal style. Nevertheless, it is difficult to find many choruses that are so consistent in their approach that they fit neatly into a single class, for there tends to be considerable variety within a chorus. Striking contrasts of texture, particularly, as well as contrasts of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic procedures within the choruses and large choral complexes are frequent; such contrasts no doubt have much to do with the general popularity of Handel’s chorus-dominated Israel in Egypt and Messiah. Handel seems always to have been acutely aware of the expressive possibilities of the words in his choruses, and his text settings abound in striking effects of word-painting and symbolism. In no other oratorio, however, did he employ as much outright pictorialism as in Israel in Egypt.
The arias and ensembles in Handel’s oratorios generally resemble those of contemporary Italian opera in the expression of their affections but less so in their structure. The virtually invariable da capo form of Italian opera seria and oratorio volgare is employed with generally decreasing frequency in Handel’s oratorios from Esther to Samson. There is considerable fluctuation in the proportion of da capo arias after Samson, but only in Susanna and Theodora are there more da capo arias than other types, and these works are both closer in several respects than Handel’s other oratorios to the oratorio volgare. The other arias tend to be in binary, ABA1, or, occasionally, in strophic form. Most of the ensembles of the oratorios are duets, although there are a few trios and quartets. Unlike the duets of opera seria and oratorio volgare, those in Handel’s oratorios are rarely in da capo form.
The French overture is the most prominent opening instrumental number of Handel’s English oratorios; 11 of his 17 oratorios begin with a French overture, at times somewhat modified. The overtures of Deborah and Judas Maccabaeus foreshadow material used subsequently in their respective oratorios, the former more clearly than the latter.
Handel borrowed heavily from his own compositions and those of others in his oratorios; such borrowing was common in his time, and his practice differed from that of his contemporaries only in degree. But in only a few instances did Handel include an entire movement, unchanged, from another composer’s work; he nearly always used the borrowed material to stimulate his imagination and developed the material in his own way. Handel was recognized in his time as the pre-eminent master of the English oratorio, and very few such works were composed by others, though there are examples by Maurice Greene, Willem De Fesch, Arne and Stanley.
9. Charpentier and the oratorio in France.
Although some of Carissimi’s oratorios were known in France by the mid-17th century, French composers of the period appear to have been little interested in sacred dramatic music. The only antecedents of the oratorio comparable with those of 17th-century Italy and Germany are a few dialogue motets by such composers as Guillaume Bouzignac and Henry Du Mont. Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a student of Carissimi in Rome, appears to have been the first French composer of oratorios. By 1672 he had returned from Rome to Paris, and some of his oratorios no doubt date from the 1670s. Charpentier called none of his compositions oratorios, but used such terms as ‘historia’, ‘canticum’, ‘dialogue’ or ‘motet’; 34 of his works have Latin dramatic texts though, and clearly relate to the history of the oratorio. Of these, at least 22 may be called oratorios with as much justification as the Latin works of his master, Carissimi, listed above, whose influence they clearly reveal. Like Carissimi’s, many of Charpentier’s oratorios are relatively brief works in one section only, such as Le reniement de St Pierre. The longer ones, such as Judith sive Bethulia liberata, Mors Saülis et Jonathae and Judicium Salomonis, are divided into two, which was more common for oratorios in Charpentier’s time. Most of Charpentier’s oratorios are based on biblical subjects, although a few are hagiographical. The librettos include narrative passages set for one or more soloists and/or chorus. Of special importance in these oratorios is the chorus, often a double chorus, which is far more prominent than in the Italian oratorio of the same period. The chorus functions not only as a narrator, but also as a turba and a commentator standing outside the action. The precise functions of most of Charpentier’s oratorios are not known, but they appear to have been performed as extended motets during festive masses, at concerts in churches (particularly the Jesuit church of St Louis) and during Lent for musical evenings at the residence of Marie de Lorraine, the Duchesse de Guise, whom Charpentier served as maître de musique.
Few oratorios appear to have been composed in France during the 50 years following Charpentier’s death in 1704. Sébastien de Brossard, in his Dictionnaire de musique (Paris, 2/1705), defined ‘oratorio’, without giving the Italian word a French equivalent, as ‘a species of spiritual opera’, and he mentioned that one by ‘Sieur Lochon has just been presented to the public’, no doubt J.-F. Lochon’s Oratorio de nativitate Christi, published in his Motets en musique, … et un oratorio (Paris, 1701), the only oratorio by a French composer to be published in the 18th century. Other oratorios dating from the first half of the 18th century by French composers are Louis-Nicolas Clérambault’s L’histoire de la femme adultère, Brossard’s Oratorio sopra l’immaculata conceptione della B. Vergina (incomplete) and the anonymous Oratoire St François de Borgia à gd. choeur sur la mort d’Isabelle reine d’Espagne; the first two are italianate in style, but the last is closer to the style of Lully. The first three have Latin texts; the last is in French.
10. Italian oratorio at home and abroad, early Classical and Classical styles.
Early Classical style traits are often present in music of the late Baroque period, as in the Roman oratorios of Caldara, but these traits become particularly prominent in works composed from the 1720s onwards by men such as Vinci, Pergolesi and Leo. This new style, with its emphasis on homophonic texture and symmetrical phrases, among other important elements, has often been referred to as that of the ‘Neapolitan school’, for some of its best exponents were trained at Naples. Nevertheless, these early Classical traits seem to appear in Venice, Rome and elsewhere as early as in Naples, and the style was favoured by numerous composers associated neither with Naples nor with Italy. This style became increasingly prominent in Italian oratorios from the 1720s on, and in the 1770s the fully developed style of the Classical period emerged. Composers of oratorios other than Vinci, Pergolesi and Leo, who were associated with Naples early in their careers and who composed in the early Classical and Classical styles are Porpora, Jommelli, Piccinni, G.F. Majo, Antonio Sacchini, Cimarosa, P.A. Guglielmi, Paisiello and Zingarelli. Among composers of oratorios whose works were in the early Classical or Classical style but were associated with other Italian centres of oratorio composition are Galuppi and Bertoni in Venice, and G.B. Casali, G.B. Costanzi and Pasquale Anfossi in Rome.
Throughout the period considered here the oratorio volgare dominated in Italy; at the Crocifisso, in Rome, where the oratorio latino had been fostered since Carissimi’s time, oratorio performances ceased after 1710, except for Holy Year 1725, and only at the conservatories in Venice did the oratorio latino continue to be used through most of the 18th century. The two-part structure of the Italian oratorio, common in the Baroque period, was retained throughout the 18th century and beyond, and the librettos of Metastasio were among the most popular of this period. The primary emphasis in oratorios continued to be on solo singing, and the chorus was little used. The chief aria form was the da capo, although it became increasingly modified late in the century. Arias emphasizing vocal display, already prominent in late Baroque oratorios, continued to be important throughout the 18th century and well into the 19th.
Of interest in later 18th-century Italy was the occasional presentation of staged performances of oratorios. Such performances eliminated an important distinction between the genres of opera and oratorio, leaving only the sacred subject matter and the two-part structure as the essential distinguishing features of the oratorio. For example, Guglielmi’s Debora e Sisara, with a libretto by Carlo Sernicola, was first performed in Lent of 1788 with operatic staging (with machines, but without dancing) at the Real Teatro di S Carlo in Naples. In the libretto printed for the performance, the work is sub-titled ‘azione sacra per musica’, a common label for oratorios of the time; characteristically for an oratorio it is divided into a prima parte and seconda parte (the word for ‘act’, common in operas, was not normally used in Italian oratorios), and except for its staging it is like the contemporary oratorio in every respect, including a closing chorus. (There is even biblical documentation, in footnotes, in the printed libretto, as is found in many oratorio librettos of the period.) Staged performances of Italian oratorios appear to have been more common in Naples than elsewhere, but they were occasionally given in other cities of Italy and abroad.
Outside Italy the Italian oratorio continued to play an important role in musical life, particularly in Vienna. The Viennese court patronage of oratorio was not as significant after the death of Charles VI (1740) as it had previously been, but Giuseppe Bonno and Salieri, among others, continued to compose oratorios for the court. With the founding of the Tonkünstler-Societät (1771), oratorios at Vienna became increasingly a part of public concert life; Haydn’s only Italian oratorio, Il ritorno di Tobia (1775), was first performed at a concert of this society. The Roman Catholic court at Dresden became one of the most significant centres of Italian oratorio cultivation outside Italy by composers in the early Classical and Classical styles. The most important contributor of oratorios at the Dresden court was the Neapolitan-trained Hasse; others before and after him who composed Italian oratorios for this court are G.A. Ristori, J.D. Zelenka, J.D. Heinichen, Joseph Schuster, Franz Seydelmann and J.G. Naumann. Italian oratorio, like Italian opera, was exported to almost every part of Europe during this period, including England, the Low Countries, Spain, Portugal and Russia.
11. Germany, early Classical and Classical styles.
German oratorios of the first half of the 18th century occasionally exhibit early Classical traits, but these did not predominate until about the middle of the century. In both its libretto and music the German oratorio in the second half of the 18th century, as in earlier times, included a greater variety of types and structures than the Italian oratorio of the same period. The librettos of German oratorios range between two extremes: the predominantly dramatic type (biblical in Protestant Germany; biblical or hagiographical in Roman Catholic areas) and the predominantly contemplative type. (The increasing use of the term ‘oratorio’ for musical settings of works with predominantly contemplative texts increased the confusion of the meanings of the terms ‘Oratorium’ and ‘Kantate’ in German usage of the late 18th century, and these terms were sometimes used synonymously.) German oratorios are divided into as many as five sections, but those with one or two are the most common. The chorus and the chorale are as prominent in German oratorios of this period as in those of the late Baroque period. The German oratorio tends to exhibit a freer intermingling of recitative, arioso and aria styles and a greater emphasis on accompanied recitative than does the Italian oratorio of the same period. Arias in da capo form and those emphasizing vocal display are less prominent than in Italian oratorios, while simple arias, often folklike in quality and reminiscent of Singspiel, are more common. The Lutheran oratorio continued in this period to function in a liturgical context, as a substitute for the cantata, and it also became increasingly popular in public concert life. Telemann performed oratorios in his public concerts at Frankfurt and Hamburg, as did his successor at Hamburg, C.P.E. Bach. At Lübeck the Abendmusiken continued to offer oratorios, and from 1772 the concerts of the Tonkünstler-Societät in Vienna included oratorios in German as well as in Italian.
German oratorios with predominantly dramatic librettos are within the mainstream of oratorio development in general, and they tend to be closer to the Italian oratorio of the period in musical treatment, as well as in text, than are those with contemplative texts. Among the oratorios with dramatic librettos written for Hamburg during this period are Telemann’s Der Tag des Gerichts (1762; libretto by C.W. Alers) and C.P.E. Bach’s Israeliten in der Wüste (1769; published in 1775; libretto by D. Schiebeler). An extremely prolific composer of oratorios of this type was J.H. Rolle, music director of the city of Magdeburg and one of the best-known oratorio composers in his time; of his approximately 25 oratorios, two are particularly noteworthy for their flexible musical forms in the service of dramatic continuity: Lazarus, oder Die Feier der Auferstehung (Leipzig, 1779) and Thirza und ihre Söhne (Leipzig, 1781). Numerous dramatic oratorios were composed for the Abendmusiken at Lübeck, including A.C. Kunzen’s Judith (1759) and Absalon (1761) and J.W.C. von Königslöw’s Joseph (1784) and Esther (1787). German oratorios composed for the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg around the middle of the century were strongly influenced, in both their texts and music, by the Italian oratorios performed in Vienna and at other Roman Catholic courts. J.E. Eberlin’s Augustinus, for example, is a setting of a German translation of an Italian libretto, La conversione di Sant’Augustino, first set by Hasse; a particularly noteworthy dramatic oratorio by Eberlin is the Passion oratorio in one section Der blutschwitzende Jesus.
The strongest influence on oratorio texts that are predominantly contemplative was the poetry of Klopstock, particularly his Messias. Librettos showing Klopstock’s influence are those in empfindsamer Stil, which emphasized the lyrical and sentimental expression of feelings evoked by religious events and experiences, as well as by scenes in nature. Many such librettos are purely contemplative, without dialogue; for these the term ‘cantata’ would seem more appropriate than ‘oratorio’, although, as pointed out above, the terms were sometimes used synonymously in 18th-century Germany. Some librettos that include narrative or dramatic elements show their affinity to the empfindsamer Stil in their emphasis on the emotional reflections of the narrator or individual characters. The central theme of many contemplative oratorios is the Messiah, particularly the events of Christmas, the Passion and Ascension. Most important among the librettists are K.W. Ramler, J.F.W. Zachariä and Herder, and the most famous libretto is Ramler’s Der Tod Jesu, a purely contemplative text, without dialogue, in one section only. C.H. Graun’s setting of Der Tod Jesu (1755), one of the best-known German oratorios in its period, was performed almost annually in Berlin on Good Friday until the late 19th century. Others who set this text were Telemann, G.A. Kreusser and J.C.F. Bach. Ramler’s Christmas oratorio, Die Hirten bei der Krippe zu Bethlehem, was set by J.F. Agricola, Telemann, C.A.F. Westenholz, D.G. Türk, J.F. Reichardt, J.C.F. Rellstab and J.L. Eybler; among those who set Ramler’s Ascension oratorio, Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu, are Agricola, Telemann, J.G. Krebs, G.J. Vogler, C.P.E. Bach and C.F. Zelter. Zachariä’s Die Tageszeiten, modelled on James Thomson’s The Seasons (later used by Haydn), is a poem of religious reflections on nature, best known in its setting by Telemann. Herder’s librettos Die Kindheit Jesu and Die Auferweckung des Lazarus were both set by J.C.F. Bach. Lyrical, sentimental texts, particularly for Passion oratorios, continued to be popular in early 19th-century Germany; F.X. Huber’s text for Beethoven’s Christus am Oelberge (1803) clearly reveals the influence of such texts, even though the work has a strong dramatic element in the dialogue.
The most significant German oratorios of the late Classical period are Haydn’s Die Schöpfung (‘The Creation’, completed in 1798) and Die Jahreszeiten (‘The Seasons’, completed in 1801), two of the finest compositions of his latest period. The Creation is based on a text that Haydn took with him from his second London visit. Originally compiled by Lidley (or Linley) from Milton’s Paradise Lost, the text was reworked in German for Haydn by van Swieten. Divided into three sections, the libretto is essentially narrative and contemplative; although it includes parts for three individuals, the Archangels Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel, they function as narrators rather than as actual characters in a drama. Two others, Adam and Eve, enter in the third section with essentially lyrical lines. The music of The Creation clearly reflects Haydn’s acquaintance with Handel’s music, and its pictorialism is sometimes comparable with that of Israel in Egypt; yet the naive simplicity in the music of The Creation distinguishes it from Handel’s more rhetorical approach and is among the work’s most attractive features. The formal structures are remarkably varied in this oratorio, the free mixtures of solo, soli and choral passages being of special interest; the harmonic freedom of the opening orchestral Representation of Chaos is remarkable for its anticipation of the harmonic practices of the 19th century. The Seasons, likewise a setting of a van Swieten reworking of an English text, by James Thomson, is less like an oratorio than The Creation. The Seasons is in four sections and is mainly a description of the four seasons; its text is not primarily religious and thus is not within the mainstream of oratorio history. It includes three rural characters, Simon, Hanne and Lucas, and a chorus. The music is often simple, reflecting at times the popular style of Singspiel. During the 19th century both The Creation and The Seasons became extremely popular as concert pieces on the Continent, in England and in North America.
12. France and elsewhere, early Classical and Classical styles.
The history of oratorio in France in the second half of the 18th century divides into two phases, the first from 1758 to the early 1760s and the second from 1774 to 1790; the second phase terminated when events of the French Revolution brought to an end the concerts spirituels, the Lenten concert series in Paris at which most French oratorios in this period were performed. The first of these two phases falls within J.-J.C. de Mondonville’s directorship of the Concert Spirituel (1755–62); five oratorios are known to have been performed in these concerts between 1758 and 1761: Mondonville’s Les Israëlites à la Montagne d’Horeb (1758), Les fureurs de Saül (1759) and Les titans (1761); J.-N.L. de Persuis’ Le passage de la Mer Rouge (1759); and P.J. Davesne’s La conquête de Jéricho (1760). The music of these five works has not survived, but printed librettos and comments about them by contemporary observers indicate that they were relatively brief works (of about 25 to 30 minutes) and that they all had French texts. Of these works only Mondonville’s Les titans is outside the mainstream of oratorio history, since it has a secular text. The term ‘oratorio’ was not consistently applied to oratorios by French composers or observers in the period, but a variety of terms were used, including ‘motet françois’, ‘poëme françois’, ‘motet françois en forme d’oratorio’, ‘oratorio françois’ and ‘hiérodrame’.
The second phase of the French oratorio, 1774–90, coincides with the period during which the concerts spirituels were under the directorship of Pierre Gaviniès, Simon Leduc and Gossec. During this period several oratorios were performed every year at the Concert Spirituel, among them the following (unless otherwise indicated, the dates are those of the first performances; most of these works were performed more than once in the period, and some many times): N.-J. Méreaux’s Samson (1774), Esther (1775) and La Résurrection (1780); G.M. Cambini’s Le sacrifice d’Isaac (1774), Joad (1775) and Samson (1779); H.-J. Rigel’s La sortie d’Egypte (1774), La déstruction de Jéricho (1778) and Jephté (1783); Gossec’s La nativité (1774) and L’arche d’alliance devant Jérusalem (1781); F.-A.D. Philidor’s Carmen saeculare (first performed in London, 1779, and in Paris the next year); Sacchini’s Esther (originally in Italian as Ester, Rome, 1777, revised in French for Paris, 1786) and Salieri’s Le jugement dernier (1787). At least 20 other composers, mostly obscure, composed oratorios for the concerts spirituels during this period. Nearly all the oratorios performed at these concerts were settings of French sacred texts; a notable exception, however, is Philidor’s Carmen saeculare, which uses a non-dramatic, classical Latin text by Horace. Such a text places this work outside the mainstream of oratorio history, but it was clearly considered an oratorio by contemporary French commentators.
Of special interest in this period are Le Sueur’s four ‘mass-oratorios’ for the feasts of Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, performed in 1786–7 at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. These highly original, experimental works were elaborate dramatic and programmatic expansions of the Ordinary of the Mass. For each one Le Sueur published an extensive booklet that described the music and his programmatic interpretation of it. The performing forces included an orchestra, chorus and soloists, and the musical numbers consisted of recitatives, arias, ensembles, and large and small choruses. The music for the mass-oratorios is lost, but the descriptions in the published booklets provide a clear notion of the compositional prcedures. Le Sueur’s Oratorio de Noël, which survives in published form, is not the same as the mass-oratorio for Christmas, but apparently borrows some of its music.
In England Handel’s oratorios were seldom given in their entirety after his death, but performances of the most popular selections from them were common. Of special importance for the provincial cultivation of Handel’s oratorios was the Three Choirs Festival, which had begun to present Handel’s oratorios during his lifetime and which became virtually a Handel festival in the late 18th century. At this festival and elsewhere, Messiah was the favoured oratorio. Handel did not found a ‘school’ of oratorio composition, and relatively few English oratorios were composed in the post-Handelian 18th century. Among the composers who contributed to the small oratorio production in this period are J.C. Smith, John Stanley, Arne, John Worgan, Charles Avison, Samuel Arnold and Luffman Atterbury.
In North America, the performance of selections from oratorios dates from the 18th century and coincides with the rise of concert life and the establishment of singing societies in the principal cities, particularly Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston. Numbers from Handel’s oratorios were occasionally performed, particularly from Messiah. It is not known when the first complete oratorio performance in America took place, but Samuel Felsted’s oratorio Jonah (printed in London, 1775) was performed in New York in 1788 and in Boston in 1789. In 18th- and 19th-century America the word ‘oratorio’ was applied not only to the genre but also to virtually any concert of sacred music. (The latter use of the term is similar to Handel’s exceptional use of it for a concert of his music in 1738.) For instance, in the public announcement of the programme in which Felsted’s Jonah was to appear at Boston in 1789, the concert itself was called ‘an Oratorio, or, Concert of Sacred Musick’, and the second half of the programme consisted of ‘The oratorio of Jonah, complete’. ‘Oratorios’ in the concert sense were presented either in public concert halls in a secular context or in churches in a context that sometimes included prayers and biblical readings.
The influence of the Italian oratorio in countries to which it was exported in the 18th century resulted, at times, in the composition of italianate oratorios by native composers in their own language. Spanish oratorios of this type, for example, were composed in 18th-century Barcelona by the successive directors of music of Barcelona Cathedral, Francisco Valls, José Pujol, José Durán and Francisco Queralt. Danish composers who wrote oratorios in their native language are P.M. Lem, H.O.C. Zinck and J.E. Hartmann.
13. Germany, Scandinavia and eastern Europe, 19th century.
A new tendency in German oratorio librettos of the 19th century is that of literary Romanticism: supernatural, mysterious, fantastic and apocalyptic scenes, themes of death and doubt, and those based on religious legends from the distant past are prominent. Oratorios with apocalyptic librettos, including passages from both the Old and New Testament, are Eybler’s Die vier letzten Dinge (text by Joseph Sonnleithner; 1810), Spohr’s Die letzten Dinge (text by Friedrich Rochlitz; 1827) and Friedrich Schneider’s Das Weltgericht (text by August Apel; 1819). Among the numerous works based on legends are Maximilian Stadler’s Die Befreyung von Jerusalem (1813) and Schneider’s Das befreite Jerusalem (1835) (both with texts based on Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata); Carl Loewe’s Die Zerstörung Jerusalems (1829), Die sieben Schläfer (1833), Gutenberg (1836), Palestrina (1841) and Johann Hus (1842) and Liszt’s Die Legende von der heiligen Elisabeth (1862).
Oratorio subjects that had long been traditional in Germany, particularly those using biblical stories, continued to be popular in the 19th century. The increasing interest in the oratorios of Handel in the first half of the 19th century contributed to the popularity of biblical oratorios, particularly those based on Old Testament stories. Bernhard Klein’s biblical oratorios, Hiob (1822), Jephta (1828) and David (1830), reveal this traditional tendency, as do Schubert’s Lazarus, oder Die Feier der Auferstehung d689 (1820, incomplete), Schneider’s Pharao (1828), Gideon (1829) and Absalon (1831), A.B. Marx’s Mose (1841) and, late in the century, Bruch’s Moses (1895). Mendelssohn’s Paulus (‘St Paul’, 1836) and Elijah (‘Elias’, 1846), both based on scriptural texts, also represent the traditional tendency in librettos; both were extremely popular works in their time, and Elijah, first performed in Birmingham, has retained its popularity to the present day in both English- and German-speaking areas. The Romantic period has also continued to favour oratorios on the theme of the Messiah, as the later 18th century had done; among the numerous Romantic oratorios on this theme are Schneider’s Höllenfahrt des Messias (1810), Loewe’s Festzeiten (1825–36) and Liszt’s Christus (in Latin, with biblical and liturgical texts; 1862–7).
The oratorio continued to be conceived primarily as a sacred genre in the 19th century, but the term itself was exceptionally applied to a purely secular work, such as Bruch’s Arminius: Oratorium (1877); three other secular oratorios by Bruch, although not identified as oratorios in their titles, are his Odysseus (1872), Achilleus (1885) and Gustav Adolf (1898). Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri (1843–5) and Der Rose Pilgerfahrt (1851), neither of which was called an oratorio by the composer, are closely related to the genre and are sometimes classified as secular oratorios. ‘Staged oratorios’, or sacred operas, continued to be exceptional in the 19th century; Anton Rubinstein’s sacred operas, Sulamith (1883), Die Maccabäer (1872–4), Moses (1887–9) and Christus (1893), are close to the oratorio in conception, despite their composer’s intention that they be staged.
The music of the 19th-century German oratorio, like the libretto, reveals a mixture of traditional and new procedures. Traditional for Germany is the use of the chorale and the emphasis on the chorus, but the performing forces tended to be far greater than in the 18th century. With the growing emphasis on performances of oratorios at music festivals in 19th-century Germany and the period’s penchant for massive performances, the composer with a festival performance in mind could expect several hundred voices in his chorus. The aspects of German musical Romanticism that are new in the oratorio of the period are essentially those of German musical Romanticism in general, and particularly of Romantic opera: the large, colourful orchestra, new harmonic and melodic styles and new approaches to motivic and structural unification. Programmatic orchestral preludes and interludes became increasingly prominent, as did ‘reminiscence’ motifs, phrases or sections, used much in the manner of the operatic reminiscence motif and leitmotif. Prominent among the oratorios of the first half of the century that point the way to the newer musical procedures are those of Schneider, particularly his Weltgericht; especially important in the second half of the century for their full development of the new techniques are Liszt’s oratorios, mentioned above, and Raff’s Welt-Ende, Gericht, Neue Welt (1879–81).
Scandinavia and eastern Europe remained heavily dependent upon other areas in the 19th century, particularly Germany, for the oratorios performed in their concerts. The following are among the few composers in Scandinavia of oratorios using the national languages: in Sweden, J.C.F. Haeffner, Pehr Frigel and Gunnar Wennerberg; in Norway, Johannes Haarklou and Catharinius Elling; and in Denmark, Hans Matthison-Hansen. The Czech Dvořák is of particular importance for his oratorio St Ludmilla (1886), composed for the Leeds Festival in England. The earliest oratorio known to have been composed in 19th-century Russia is S.A. Degtyaryov’s Minin i Pozharsky, ili Osvobozhdeniye Moskvï (‘Minin and Pozharsky, or The Liberation of Moscow’; 1811). Based on a patriotic libretto by N.D. Gorchakov, with a strong religious element, the monumental setting has a colourful mixture of Western and Russian musical elements. The large orchestra includes a Russian horn band, a large percussion section and a battalion of cannons.
14. France and the Low Countries, 19th century.
The oratorio in 19th-century France was little influenced by that of other areas. Oratorios were performed in public concert halls throughout the century, but they were also given in churches. Le Sueur’s Deborah (1828), for example, is in Latin and was intended to be performed at Mass; it incorporates the liturgical element of unison psalmodic recitation. But most oratorios of 19th-century France are in French and were intended for the concert hall. They are thus closer to the mainstream of oratorio history than those of Le Sueur; yet a Roman Catholic mystical and quasi-liturgical current runs through most of the oratorio production of France and tends to distinguish French oratorios from those of other nations. Representative of French Romantic oratorios from around the middle to the end of the 19th century are those of Ferdinand David (Moïse au Sinaï, 1846; Le jugement dernier, c1849), Antoine Elwart (Noë ou Le déluge universel, 1845), Berlioz (L’enfance du Christ, 1854), Franck (Ruth, 1843–6; La tour de Babel, 1865; Rédemption, 1871–4; Les béatitudes, 1869–79; Rébecca, 1881), Saint-Saëns (Moïse sauvé des eaux, c1851; Oratorio de Noël, 1858; Le déluge, 1875), Gounod (Tobie, 1865; Mors et vita, ?1885; La rédemption, ?1882), Massenet (Marie-Magdeleine, 1873; Eve, 1875; La Vierge, 1880; La terre promise, 1900) and Dubois (Les sept paroles du Christ, 1867; Le paradis perdu, 1879; Notre-Dame de la mer, 1897; Le baptême de Clovis, 1899).
Few composers in the Low Countries wrote oratorios before the mid-19th century. The Belgian Peter Benoit is important in the second half of the century for his Lucifer (1865), De schelde (1868), De oorlog (1873) and De Rhijn (1889). Other Belgian oratorio composers in this period are Gustave Huberti (Een laatste zonnestraal, 1874, and Verlichting, 1884) and Edgar Tinel (Franciscus, 1886–8). Among the oratorio composers in 19th-century Holland are Anton Berlijn (Moses auf Nebo, 1843) and Richard Hol (David, 1879).
15. England and America, 19th century.
The history of oratorio in 19th-century England is inseparable from that of the provincial music festivals, which were the chief institutions to cultivate oratorio composition and performance. Of particular importance is the Three Choirs Festival, which continued in the early 19th century to emphasize Handel’s works. The festivals of Birmingham and Leeds were also of special importance for the history of the oratorio. In the first half of the 19th century selections from and at times complete performances of the oratorios of foreign composers began to appear on English programmes. Among the more popular works of foreign composers were Haydn’s Creation; Spohr’s Calvary (i.e. Des Heilands letzte Stunden, first performed in London, 1837) and The Fall of Babylon (composed for the Norwich Festival of 1842); and Mendelssohn’s St Paul (performed at Liverpool in 1836, for the first time in England, and conducted by the composer at the Birmingham Festival of 1837) and Elijah (first performed at the Birmingham Festival of 1846, conducted by the composer). Foreign oratorios continued to be performed in the second half of the 19th century in England, including those of Saint-Saëns, Gounod, Liszt, Raff, Franck and Dvořák.
In early 19th-century England the stylistic and structural models for new oratorios were mainly the music of Handel, Mozart and Haydn. An outstanding oratorio from this period is Crotch’s Palestine (1805–11); basically Handelian, it nevertheless includes music that departs significantly from the model and is remarkably modern. Clarke-Whitfeld’s oratorio pair Crucifixion and Resurrection (1822, 1825) are musically among the better Handelian works of the time. From the late 1840s to the 1880s, the primary model was Mendelssohn, who had incorporated elements of Handel’s and Bach’s choral style into his own work. English oratorios of this period tend to include chorales (absent from English oratorios before St Paul and Elijah), Mendelssohnian lyricism, reminiscence motifs (or ‘representative motifs’, as they came to be called in England), greater structural flexibility than before and programmatic overtures. Representative of the period are Ouseley’s St Polycarp (1855), Costa’s Eli (1855) and Naaman (1864), Bennett’s Woman of Samaria (1867) and Macfarren’s St John the Baptist (1872). The late period, beginning in the 1880s, was the most innovatory one for English oratorio: the models of Handel and Mendelssohn tended to be abandoned, and oratorio composers struck out in directions new for England. Wagnerian principles were increasingly adopted – or at least adapted to a composer’s personal style. English oratorios became more dramatic, included more long, continuous scenes, and used more reminiscence motifs and occasionally even leitmotifs. The orchestra, increasingly liberated from its purely accompanimental role, became a more significant vehicle of expression. The fugue lost ground as an essential ingredient. Two works from the beginning of the late period are Mackenzie’s Rose of Sharon (1884) and Cowen’s Ruth (1887), both important representatives of the ‘dramatic oratorio’, which was new in 19th-century England. Among the most important works that represent the late style are Stanford’s Three Holy Children (1885) and Eden (1891), and Parry’s Judith, or The Regeneration of Manasseh (1888), Job (1892) and King Saul (1894). The Victorian period reached its peak, however, with Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (1900) (discussed below).
The earliest oratorios known to have been composed in America, Jerusalem in Affliction (1828) and The Daughters of Zion (1829), are by Filippo Trajetta (son of Tommaso Traetta), who established the American Conservatorio in Philadelphia, where his oratorios were performed. In 1841 A.P. Heinrich, among the most significant American composers of the mid-19th century, wrote The Jubilee: a Grand National Sinfonia Canonicate: Commemoration of the Landing on the Banks of Plymouth by the Pilgrim Fathers, later called The Wild Wood Spirits’ Chant, a Grand National Song of Triumph; or, The Oratorio of the Pilgrims. It is a bold, fresh, imaginative and highly creative oratorio, but Heinrich was insufficiently skilled in the craft of musical composition to do justice to his concept. This monumental work was presumably never performed in its entirety. The earliest known oratorio by an American-born composer is Jephtha (1845) by J.H. Hewitt, a modest work with essentially the same turns of melody, simple harmony and unadorned patterns of accompaniment that Hill had already established in his extremely popular parlour songs and was soon to apply in his operettas. More comparable with European oratorios, however, are George F. Bristow’s Daniel (1866), Leopold Damrosch’s Ruth and Naomi (1874), John Knowles Paine’s St Peter (1870–72), and Horatio Parker’s Hora novissima (completed 1892, first performed 1893) and The Legend of St Christopher (1898). Hora novissima is the only 19th-century American oratorio that is still performed. Unique for its subject matter is Dudley Buck’s The Light of Asia (1886), based on Sir Edwin Arnold’s blank-verse epic of the same name that treats the life of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.
16. Italy and Spain, 19th century.
The 19th century was a period of decline for the Italian oratorio. The traditional genre lingered on, with little vigour and with conservative opera seria characteristics, while the ‘staged oratorio’, or sacred opera, became increasingly popular. Among the most frequently performed sacred operas was Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto, a three-act work called an ‘azione tragico-sacra’ in its earliest version, first performed during Lent of 1818 at the Teatro S Carlo in Naples. Among the unstaged oratorios in 19th-century Italy are Simon Mayr’s Samuele (1821); Paolo Bonfichi’s Il Genesi (1826); Mercadante’s Le sette ultime parole di Nostro Signore (1841); Teodulo Mabellini’s Eudossia e Paolo, o I martiri (1845); Pietro Raimondi’s trilogy Giuseppe (1847–8), curiously experimental in that its three constituent oratorios (Putifar, Giuseppe and Giacobbe) are intended to be performed either successively or simultaneously; Giovanni Pacini’s Il trionfo di Giuditta (1854); Paolo Serrao’s Gli Ortonesi in Scio (1858); and Jacopo Tomadini’s La risurrezione del Cristo (1864).
The relatively few oratorios of 19th-century Spain appear to follow the conservative course of those in Italy, although sacred opera seems to have been less popular in Spain. Examples of the Spanish oratorio are Francisco Andreví y Castellar’s La dulzura de la virtud (before 1819) and El juicio universal (1822), Ruperto Chapí’s Los ángeles (1873) and Tomás Bretón’s El apocalipsis (1882).
17. The 20th century.
New directions were taken in oratorio composition around the turn of the century in both Italy and England. Lorenzo Perosi rejected the oratorio volgare of the 18th and 19th centuries, with its heavy dependence on opera, and in his 12 oratorios (among them La risurrezione di Cristo, 1898; La risurrezione di Lazzaro, 1898; Il natale del Redentore, 1899; La strage degli innocenti, 1900; and Il giudizio universale, 1904) he consciously returned to the format of the Carissimi period, although his scale was larger and his materials were post-Wagnerian. Most of Perosi’s oratorios are in two sections and have Latin texts, including a storico, or narration, which, in the manner of Carissimi, is distributed among various vocal parts. His aim was to achieve a more serious religious expression than had been characteristic of Italian oratorio in the previous two centuries; to this end he made use of Gregorian chant and adopted a quasi-liturgical attitude, particularly in the numerous choruses. The oratorios of the Franciscan priest Pater Hartmann (Paul Eugen Josef von An der Lan-Hochbrunn) continue in the direction established by Perosi. Of South Tyrolean origin, Hartmann was active mostly in Rome. His five oratorios (S Petrus, 1900; S Franciscus, 1901; La cena del Signore, 1904; La morte del Signore, 1906; and Septem ultima verba Christi, 1908) set Latin texts in a post-Wagnerian harmonic style. Other 20th-century Italian oratorios include Wolf-Ferrari’s Talitha Kumi (1900), Malipiero’s S Francesco d’Assisi (1921), Licino Refice’s Trittico francescano (1926), Franco Vittadini’s L’agonia del Redentore (1933), Antonio Veretti’s Il figliuol prodigo (1942) and Luigi Dallapiccola’s Job (1950).
In England, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius was not only the most important oratorio of the Victorian period but the most creative English oratorio since Handel. Based on Cardinal Newman’s poem of the same name, Gerontius is the only oratorio by a Victorian composer to have retained a position in the performing repertory up to the present day. The work is organized in two large parts, and the music is continuous throughout each. Gerontius owes far more to Wagner’s chromatic harmonic language, solo vocal style, motivic technique and orchestral-vocal synthesis than any English oratorio before it. With Gerontius the English oratorio achieved the emancipation of the orchestra from its accompanimental role. Elgar’s oratorio pair The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906) are more conventional for their biblical texts but at the same time unconventional for their continuity and structural flexibility, which continues the harmonic, melodic and orchestral style of Gerontius. Like Gerontius, they are full of reminiscence motifs, many of which appear in both works. Other important English oratorios are Vaughan Williams’s Sancta civitas (1925), Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1931), Berkeley’s Jonah (1935), Fricker’s The Vision of Judgement (1957–8), Milner’s The Water and the Fire (1961), and Tippett’s A Child of our Time (1939–41) and The Mask of Time (1980–82). Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio (1991) reflects his background in popular music.
American oratorios in the 20th century reveal a wide variety of musical styles, and most rely on traditional subjects for their librettos. Among them are Charles Sanford Skilton’s The Guardian Angel (1925), Robert Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses (1937), Stefan Wolpe’s Israel and his Land (1939), Bernard Rogers’s The Passion (1942), Franz Waxman’s Joshua (1959), Vincent Persichetti’s The Creation (1969), Dominick Argento’s Jonah and the Whale (1973) and Charles Wuorinen’s The Celestial Sphere (1980).
Among the German-language oratorios, of special interest is Schoenberg’s Die Jakobsleiter (1917–22), a religious work only in the sense that it is concerned with ultimate human strivings. Despite its imagery of Swedenborgian mysticism, its philosophy is intensely individual, and individualistic: in the first part of the work (the second remained uncomposed, though Schoenberg’s text is complete) various easy options to the struggles of living for truth are caustically dismissed. Die Jakobsleiter, unperformed until 1958, had no effect on the course of the 20th-century German oratorio, which is better represented by Franz Schmidt’s Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (1935–7) on texts from the Apocalypse. Other examples are Hindemith’s Das Unaufhörliche (1931), Blacher’s Der Grossinquisitor (1942), David’s Ezzolied (1957) and the simple ‘folk oratorios’ of Joseph Haas (Die heilige Elizabeth, 1931; Christnacht, 1932; Lebensbuch Gottes, 1934; Lied von der Mutter, 1939; and Das Jahr im Lied, 1952).
The interest in sacred composition on Baroque models that grew in Germany between the wars produced few oratorios, but in Switzerland the fruits were more plentiful and included Willy Burkhard’s Das Gesicht Jesajas (1933–5) and Conrad Beck’s Oratorium nach Sprüchen des Angelus Silesius (1934). Both apply a severe neo-Baroque technique, and Burkhard’s piece achieves great force through its stark simplicity. Though not Swiss in origin, Wladimir Vogel took a Swiss subject for his most ambitious work, the oratorio Thyl Claes, fils de Kolldrager (1938–45); it is in two parts, each lasting a whole evening, and employs his characteristic polyphonic choral speaking. More impressive among the Swiss oratorios, however, are those of Martin: Le vin herbé (1938–41), In terra pax (1944), Golgotha (1945–8) and Le mystère de la nativité (1957–9). The first is an extended work based on the Tristan legend, but its scoring is for only 12 voices and eight instruments. Golgotha uses more conventional forces in a quite original form: the Gospel narrative is unfolded in seven ‘pictures’ separated by settings of contemplative texts by St Augustine. Le mystère de la nativité is a ‘scenic oratorio’ available for stage or concert performance, and in this it looks back to Honegger’s Le roi David, composed in 1921 as a ‘dramatic psalm’ for the theatre and revised as an oratorio in 1923. The clearcut facture of this piece, the strong design of individual scenes and the lapidary use of melody and rhythm make it one of the most powerful oratorios of the 20th century. Honegger extended those techniques in Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (1935), which was written as a stage spectacle for Ida Rubinstein, though it may also be given as an oratorio.
Similarly, Debussy’s Le martyre de St Sébastien (1911), another Rubinstein commission, has often been given in concert performance with the spoken dialogue cut, but the reduction of this five-act ‘mystery’ to a one-hour oratorio is not entirely satisfactory. The fusion of genres was best achieved by Stravinsky in his ‘opera-oratorio’ Oedipus rex (1926–7). Although the subject is secular, Stravinsky’s treatment is liturgical in style, with the text sung in Latin, an important part for the chorus, and the principal actors appearing masked and stationary; the stylization and distance of the presentation are further accentuated by the vernacular commentaries given by a narrator in modern evening dress. If Oedipus rex is best regarded as an oratorio for the stage, concert performances can present the neo-classical monumentality of the music, which still leaves room for Verdian effusions.
Stravinsky’s oratorio represents a continuation of the genre’s secularization, which began in the 19th century. Politically motivated secularization enabled the oratorio to enjoy a vigorous life in Russia, where oratorios had been rare. The oratorio became a medium for the expression of heroic and at times bombastic patriotic sentiments, as in Kabalevsky’s The Great Homeland (1941–2), Myaskovsky’s Kirov is with us (1942) and Shaporin’s Story of the Battle for the Russian Land (1943–4). After World War II the demands of socialist realism produced, throughout eastern Europe, a huge number of oratorios in praise of party leaders or the proletariat. But the period also saw the composition of a few important works: Shostakovich’s Song of the Forest (1949), Prokofiev’s On Guard for Peace (1950), Sviridov’s Poem in Memory of Sergei Yesenin (1955–6) and Pathetic Oratorio (1959), and Shnitke’s Nagasaki (1958).
Elsewhere, new departures in the oratorio continued after World War II. Messiaen’s La transfiguration (1969) almost dispenses with narrative and with solo voices for an immense, meditative theological exposition drawing on texts from the Bible, the Roman liturgy and Aquinas, and on musical materials characteristic of all periods in the composer’s career. Notable among the oratorios of younger composers are Penderecki’s Dies irae (1967) and Henze’s Das Floss der ‘Medusa’ (1968), an ‘oratorio volgare e militare’ to a politically revolutionary text. Yet perhaps the most far-reaching innovation was made by Krenek in Spiritus intelligentiae sanctus (1955), a Pentecost oratorio realized on magnetic tape.