An oratorio is a large musical composition including an orchestra, a choir, and soloists. Like an opera, an oratorio includes the use of a choir, soloists, an ensemble, various distinguishable characters, and arias. However, opera is musical theatre, while oratorio is strictly a concert piece—though oratorios are sometimes staged as operas, and operas are sometimes presented in concert form. In an oratorio there is generally little or no interaction between the characters, and no props or elaborate costumes. A particularly important difference is in the typical subject matter of the text. Opera tends to deal with history and mythology, including age-old devices of romance, deception, and murder, whereas the plot of an oratorio often deals with sacred topics, making it appropriate for performance in the church. Protestant composers took their stories from the Bible, while Catholic composers looked to the lives of saints. Oratorios became extremely popular in early 17th century Italy partly because of the success of the opera and the Church's prohibition of spectacles during Lent. Oratorios became the main choice of music during that period for opera audiences.



1600, Origins of the oratorio

Although medieval plays such as the Ludus Danielis, and Renaissance dialogue motets such as those of the Oltremontani had characteristics of an oratorio, the first oratorio is usually seen as Emilio de Cavalieri's Rappresentatione di Anima. Monteverdi composed Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda which can be considered as the first secular oratorio.

The origins of the oratorio can be found in sacred dialogues in Italy. These were settings of Biblical, Latin texts and musically were quite similar to motets. There was a strong narrative, dramatic emphasis and there were conversational exchanges between characters in the work. Giovanni Francesco Anerio's “Teatro harmonico spirituale” (1619) is a set of 14 dialogues, the longest of which is 20 minutes long and covers the conversion of St. Paul and is for four soloists: Historicus (narrator), tenor; St. Paul, tenor; Voice from Heaven, bass; and ananias, tenor. There is also a four part chorus to represent any crowds in the drama. The music is often contrapuntal and madrigal-like. Philip Neri’s Congregazione dell'Oratorio featured the singing of spiritual laude. These became more and more popular and were eventually performed in specially built oratories (prayer halls) by professional musicians. Again, these were chiefly based on dramatic and narrative elements. Sacred opera provided another impetus for dialogues, and they greatly expanded in length (although never really beyond 60 minutes long). Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo is an example of one of these works, but technically it is not an oratorio because it features acting and dancing. It does, however contain music in the monodic style. The first oratorio to be called by that name is Pietro della Valle’s “Oratorio della Purificazione”, but due to its brevity (only 12mins long) and the fact that its other name was “dialogue”, we can see that there was much ambiguity in these names.


During the second half of the 17th century, there were trends toward the secularization of the religious oratorio. Evidence of this lies in its regular performance outside church halls in courts and public theaters. Whether religious or secular, the theme of an oratorio is meant to be weighty. It could include such topics as Creation, the life of Jesus, or the career of a classical hero or biblical prophet. Other changes eventually took place as well, possibly because most composers of oratorios were also popular composers of operas. They began to publish the librettos of their oratorios as they did for their operas. Strong emphasis was soon placed on arias while the use of the choir diminished. Female singers became regularly employed, and replaced the male narrator with the use of recitatives.

By the mid-17th century, two types had developed:

Lasting about 30–60 minutes, oratorio volgares were performed in two sections, separated by a sermon; their music resembles that of contemporary operas and chamber cantatas.

The most significant composer of oratorio latino was Giacomo Carissimi, whose Jephte is regarded as the first masterpiece of the genre. Like most other Latin oratorios of the period, it is in one section only.

The late baroque oratorio

In the late baroque oratorios increasingly became "sacred opera". In Rome and Naples Alessandro Scarlatti was the most noted composer. In Vienna the court poet Metastasio produced annually a series of oratorios for the court which were set by Caldara, Hasse and others. Metastasio's best known oratorio libretto La passione di Gesù Cristo was set by at least 35 composers from 1730-1790. In Germany the middle baroque oratorios moved from the early-baroque Historia style Christmas and Resurrection settings of Heinrich Schütz, to the Passions of J. S. Bach, oratorio-passions such as Der Tod Jesu set by Telemann and Carl Heinrich Graun. After Telemann came the galante oratorio style of C. P. E. Bach.

The oratorio in Georgian Britain

The Georgian era saw a German-born monarch and German-born composer define the English oratorio. George Frideric Handel, most famous today for his Messiah, also wrote other oratorios based on themes from Greek and Roman mythology and biblical topics. He is also credited with writing the first English language oratorio, Esther. Handel's imitators included the Italian Lidarti who was employed by the Amsterdam Jewish community to compose a Hebrew version of Esther.

The Victorian oratorio

Britain continued to look to German for its composers of oratorio. The Birmingham Festival commissioned various oratorios including Felix Mendelssohn's Elijah in 1846, later performed in German as Elias.

Stainer's Crucifixion (1887) became the stereotypical battlehorse of massed amateur choral societies. Though Elgar tried to revive the genre in the first years of the next century.

20th Century oratorios

Oratorio returned haltingly to public attention with Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex (1927) in France, Franz Schmidt's The Book with Seven Seals (Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln) (1938) in Germany. Postwar oratorios include Arthur Honegger Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher, Krzysztof Penderecki St. Luke Passion, René Clemencic Kabbala, Osvaldo Golijov La Pasión según San Marcos. Oratorios by popular musicians include Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio.


Oratorios usually contain:

  • An overture, for instruments alone
  • Various arias, sung by the vocal soloists
  • Recitative, usually employed to advance the plot
  • Choruses, often monumental and meant to convey a sense of glory. Frequently the instruments for oratorio choruses include timpani and trumpets.

Selected list of notable oratorios

(ordered chronologically by year of premiere)

See also


  • Bukofzer, Manfred F. Music in the Baroque Era. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc, 1947.
  • Smither, Howard. The History of the Oratorio. vol. 1-4, Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of N.C. Press, 1977-2000.
  • Deedy, John. The Catholic Fact Book. Chicago, IL: Thomas Moore Press, 1986.
  • Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy, grovemusic.com (subscription access).
  • Hardon, John A. Modern Catholic Dictionary. Garden City, NY: Double Day and Co. Inc., 1980.
  • New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.
  • Randel, Don. "Oratorio". The Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 1986.
  • McGuire, Charles Edward. Elgar's Oratorios: The Creation of an Epic Narrative. Aldershot: Ashgate Press, 2002.
  • McGuire, Charles Edward. "Elgar, Judas, and the Theology of Betrayal." In 19th-Century Music, vol. XXIII, no. 3 (Spring, 2000), pp. 236-272.

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • ORATORIO — Une des définitions les plus précises de l’oratorio est fournie par Sébastien de Brossard dans son Dictionnaire de musique (1703): «C’est une espèce d’opéra spirituel, ou un tissu de dialogues, de récits, de duos, de trios, de ritournelles, de… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • Oratorio — • A musical composition for solo voices, chorus, orchestra, and organ, to a religious text generally taken from Holy Scripture. Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight. 2006. Oratorio     Oratorio …   Catholic encyclopedia

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  • oratorio — oratorio, ria adjetivo 1. Área: retórica De la oratoria o del orador: arte oratorio, tono oratorio, estilo oratorio. sustantivo masculino 1. Área: religión Parte de una casa o de un edificio público destinada a la oración, donde …   Diccionario Salamanca de la Lengua Española

  • oratorio (1) — {{hw}}{{oratorio (1)}{{/hw}}agg. 1 Dell oratore, dell eloquenza: arte oratoria. 2 (est.) Retorico, ampolloso: stile –o. oratorio (2) {{hw}}{{oratorio (2)}{{/hw}}s. m. 1 Edificio o piccolo edificio, spesso annesso a chiese o a conventi, per le… …   Enciclopedia di italiano

  • Oratorio — Or a*to ri*o, n. [It., fr. L. oratorius belonging to praying. See {Orator}, and cf. {Oratory}.] [1913 Webster] 1. (Mus.) A more or less dramatic text or poem, founded on some Scripture nerrative, or great divine event, elaborately set to music,… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • oratorio — (n.) long musical composition, usually with a text based on Scripture, 1727 (in English from 1640s in native form oratory), from It. oratorio (late 16c.), from Church L. oratorium (see ORATORY (Cf. oratory) (n.2)), in reference to musical… …   Etymology dictionary

  • oratório — adj. 1. Relativo à oratória. 2. Próprio de orador. • s. m. 3. Móvel em forma de armário para imagens devotas. 4. Capela doméstica. 5. Lugar de oração. 6. Lugar onde os condenados à morte passam o seu último dia de vida. 7. Drama sacro lírico …   Dicionário da Língua Portuguesa

  • oratorio — has the plural form oratorios …   Modern English usage

  • oratorio — ► NOUN (pl. oratorios) ▪ a large scale musical work on a religious theme for orchestra and voices. ORIGIN Italian, from the musical services held in the church of the Oratory of St Philip Neri in Rome …   English terms dictionary

  • oratorio — [ôr΄ə tôr′ē ō΄, är΄ə tôr′ē ō΄] n. pl. oratorios [It, lit., small chapel (< LL(Ec) oratorium: see ORATORY, sense 2): from the performance of such compositions at the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri in Rome] a long, dramatic musical composition,… …   English World dictionary