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Oratorio.

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.
1. Antecedents.
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 Engl
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.
Oratorio
3. ‘Oratorio volgare’.
By the mid-17th century two closely related types of oratorio had developed, the
oratorio latino and the
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
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).
Oratorio
Carissimi was the most significant composer of Latin oratorios in the mid-17th
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.
Oratorio
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 (see Rome, fig.15) 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
1 1
ABB form is the most common, while ABA and ABA 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).
Oratorio
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).
Oratorio
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.
Oratorio
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 (see fig.5). 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
1
binary, ABA , 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.
Oratorio
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.