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The Oratorio: A Brief History

As the Oratorio Society of Virginia celebrates its 50th season in 2017, it’s worth exploring the origins of our namesake musical genre, from which several great choruses feature in our May 14th concert.

An oratorio is a large, dramatic musical composition for orchestra, choir and soloists. If that sounds a lot like an opera, you’d be making a just comparison, but there are a number of important and distinguishing differences.

Arias feature in both opera and oratorios, but they feature more prominently in opera, and the choir plays a larger and usually omnipresent role in an oratorio.

Operas deal with stories that have historical, mythical or nationalistic themes, while oratorios deal most often with Biblical or religious themes. Protestant oratorio composers profile stories from the Bible, whereas Catholic ones sometimes feature the lives of saints.

The most critical difference between opera and oratorio is the way in which each work is staged. Opera is musical theatre, with dialogue and staged action between characters, and with elaborate and changing sets, that generally takes place in a theatre setting. An oratorio can be, and often is, performed in a church, with a concert setting that includes a choir that stays on stage or at the altar, and main characters who sing arias and more limited recitative, but otherwise do not directly interact with each other.

In fact, the word “oratorio” comes from the Italian for “pulpit” or “oratory”, and it was in early-17th century Italy that the musical form saw its genesis and rapid rise to popularity. Ironically, it was the earlier success of Italian opera that enhanced the prominence of the oratorio: a prohibition by the Catholic Church on the promotion of staged “spectacles”, such as opera, during Lent that was enacted in the early 1600s fueled the popularity of church-based oratorios.

Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674) was an Italian composer of oratorios, a member of the Roman School who wrote in an early Baroque style. By the time of Carissimi’s rise to prominence, two main types of oratorios had developed: oratorio volgare, with Italian texts, and oratorio latino, with Latin texts. Carissimi wrote oratorios of both types, but his Jephte (1648) is a classic example of oratorio latino.

Jephte relates the story of Jephtha from the Old Testament Book of Judges in a single, extended section. The structure of the oratorio, with a narrator, soloists and chorus backed by organ continuo, is considered by musicologists as the archetype of the early-Baroque oratorio latino.

George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) was at the height of his powers as a composer in England roughly a century after Carissimi, and like the Italian, he found initial artistic and commercial success as a composer of opera. Dwindling returns from his opera productions (at one time Handel owned three opera production companies) forced Handel to consider less-costly oratorios. Like his Italian predecessor, Handel found oratorios to be very popular with concert-goers, even though no prohibition on the production of operas existed in England at the time.

Messiah is Handel’s most beloved and well-known oratorio, and it premiered in Dublin in April 1742. Handel had spent most of the previous fall and winter in Ireland at the behest of the Duke of Devonshire, then Lord-Lieutenant of the Kingdom of Ireland. With its Dublin debut an unqualified success, Messiah met with a considerably cooler reaction at its London debut about a year later.

Handel’s best-known work has grown steadily in both popularity and scholarly regard ever since its London nadir. If Carissimi’s Jephte, was the archetype of the Baroque oratorio, Handel’s Messiah was its apotheosis. Modern-day NY Times music critic Allan Kozinn has called it “a model marriage of music and text.”

An interesting parallel in the lives of Carissimi and Handel is the story of Jephtha as the basis of a well-known oratorio for both composers. Handel’s last oratorio, composed during a period of declining health (including near-debilitating blindness), was Jephtha, in 1752. It was considered as much a masterpiece as his earlier works.

Handel’s close association with the development of the oratorio meant that England remained the spiritual home of the genre for much of the Classical and Romantic eras, when the oratorio often took a back seat to a resurgence of secular opera and other sacred music forms, such as the requiem mass. Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah (1846), one of the few 19th century oratorios, was in fact commissioned by the Birmingham Festival.

Sir Edward Elgar attempted a large-scale revival of the oratorio during Victorian-era Britain, but into the twentieth century, Russian composers largely took up the gauntlet. Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (1927), with its musical setting of the classic Greek tragedy, represents the drift of the modern oratorio away from purely Biblical or religious themes.

Into the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the revival of the oratorio has continued, with composers continuing to redefine the genre. Former Beatle Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio (1991) was a semi-autobiographical tale, opening to great fanfare and considerable commercial success, if more muted critical regard.

From Carissimi’s Jephte, to Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah, the Oratorio Society’s May 14th concert will feature excerpts from many iconic examples of the oratorio, a dynamic and living musical genre, the beating heart of which is the chorus.