From New World Encyclopedia

An oratorio is a large musical composition art form for orchestra, vocal soloists and chorus, usually with a narration that unifies the dramatic story. It differs from an opera in that it does not use theatrical scenery, costumes, or acting stylizations. The oratorio, however, closely mirrors the opera in musical style and form, except that choruses are more prominent in oratorios than in operas. It was the use of the choruses which gave composers a unique commentation for the depiction of Biblical stories. One of the most known of the oratorios is the 'Messiah' by George Frideric Handel, a massive work reflecting teachings from the New Testament. The peak periods for the composition of oratorios were the seventh and eighteenth centuries when the Baroque period was experiencing its height in the consummation of the grandeur and splendor in its art forms.


Since the word, 'oratorio', was derived from the Italian word for a location for prayer, most oratorios from the common practice period to the present day have biblical themes or strong spiritual subjects. Handel composed oratorios based on themes from the Old Testament such as 'Saul', 'Joshua', 'Israel in Egypt', and 'Judas Maccabaeus'. Yet, Handel and other composers composed secular oratorios based on themes from Greek and Roman mythology. The oratorio usually unfolds under the direction of a speaker or narrator usually with arias, recitatives, duets, trios, quartets, quintets, and choruses. Whether religious or secular, the theme of an oratorio is meant to be weighty, and can include such topics as the creation of the world, the life of Jesus, or the career of a classical hero or biblical prophet.

The plot of an oratorio is often minimal, and some oratorios are not narratives at all. While operas are usually based on a dramatic narrative, in oratorios the aesthetic purpose of the narrative is more often to provide organization and significance to a large musical work. For example, in Handel's oratorios, he has "the chorus - the people - the center of the drama. Freed from the rapid pace imposed by stage action, each scene and concomitant emotions are expanded to vast dimensions. The chorus touches off the action, and then reflects upon it. As in Greek tragedy it serves both as protagonist and ideal spectator. The characters are drawn larger than life-size. Saul, Joshua, Deborah, Judas Maccabacus, Samson are archetypes of human nature—creatures of destiny, majestic in defeat as in victory."

Early history

By the mid-seventeenth century, two types had developed:

  • The oratorio volgare (in Italian) - with the following representative examples:
    • Giacomo Carissimi's Daniele;
    • Marco Marazzoli's S Tomaso;
    • similar works written by Francesco Foggia and Luigi de Rossi.

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

  • The oratorio latino (in Latin) - first developed at the Oratorio del SS. Crocifisso, was related to the church of San Marcello al Corso in Rome.

The most significant composer of oratorio latino is 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.


Oratorios usually contain:

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

List of notable oratorios

(ordered chronologically by year of premiere)

  • Johann Sebastian Bach, the Christmas Oratorio (1734)
  • Johann Adolf Hasse, "Serpentes ignei in deserto" (1735, 1736 or 1739)
  • George Frideric Handel, Israel in Egypt (1739), notable for being the source of the earliest known recording of classical music, made in June 6, 1888 on a wax cylinder.
  • Handel, Messiah (1741). This is by far the most familiar and widely performed of oratorios, at least in English-speaking countries.
  • Handel, Samson (1743)
  • Handel, Judas Maccabaeus (1747)
  • Joseph Haydn, The Creation (1798)
  • Haydn, The Seasons (1801)
  • Felix Mendelssohn, Elijah (1846)
  • Hector Berlioz, L'Enfance du Christ (1854)
  • Igor Stravinsky's opera, "Oedipus rex" (1927)
  • Artur Kapp, Hiiob (Job) (1929)

Advantages of the Oratorio

The oratorio as a large dramatic narrative composition for orchestra, vocal soloists and the chorus were most loved by those who were acquainted with the teachings from the Old Testament. Even though oratorios were large scale productions, oratorios were different from operas in that they were less expensive to produce with no expensive operatic staging, machinery or costumes. Thus they attracted audiences from all economic phases of life, which constantly reinforced the biblical scenarios and stories for all to enjoy.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Crowther, Victor. The oratorio in Modena. Oxford: Clarendon Press; NY: Oxford University Press, 1992. ISBN 0-198-16255-3
  • Machlis, Joseph. The Enjoyment of Music. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1977. ISBN 0-393-09125-2
  • Pahlen, Kurt, Weiner Pfister, Rosemarie Konig, and Thurston J. Dox. The world of the oratorio: Oratorio, Mass, Requiem, Te Deum, Stabat Mater, and large cantatas. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1990. OCLC 20220562
  • Smither, Howard E. A history of the oratorio. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977-2000. ISBN 0-807-81274-9


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