Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.
Hallelujah! Can you believe that song has been around for over 270 years? It's a classic, used in everything from movies to commercials to the traditional church setting. Handel's famed 'Hallelujah Chorus' is from a larger work called 'Messiah'. With choirs, solo singers, and orchestra, you might have thought this was an opera, but its religious topic and simple staging are the hallmarks of an oratorio. An oratorio is a dramatic musical work based on a religious theme. Most were narratives that were taken from the Bible and arranged into musical prose. Because they were developed in Italy, and specifically in the Roman Catholic Church, the text of the oratorio was originally Latin or Italian.
You can think of it like the religious counterpart of the opera. However, there were some major differences between the oratorio and the opera. While the opera became known for its extravagance, the oratorio was almost never staged. Oratorios rarely used scenery, action, or even costumes. Also, where the opera relies solely on the characters' dialogue and action for storytelling, the oratorio used a narrative singer to help tell the story. This was probably helpful to whoever was writing the oratorio, since there aren't that many speaking roles in the Bible.
Although oratorios were based on religious topics, they were not always performed in the church. They were often performed in concert halls and occasionally in royal courts.
Originating in the mid-1500s, the oratorio was the latest iteration of Catholic sacred music. The oratorio was more or less a descendent of the musical plays that were popular during the Counter Reformation. It was unintentionally developed in Rome as part of informal worship that took place in the oratory of the church. This is actually how the oratorio got its name in the first place and is a handy way to remember that it's based on religious themes. The praise songs sung during the meetings proved to be effective in retaining and recruiting new members at a time when non-traditional singing wasn't exactly the Church's cup of tea. The non-liturgical singing grew into the idea of the oratorio. The first officially recognized oratorio is accredited to Emilio de Cavalieri, who composed 'La rappresentazione di anima, et di corpo' (The representation of soul and body) in the year 1600.
The oratorio continued to mature, and by the mid-17th century, standards developed. Oratorios were typically 30-60 minutes long and were performed in two sections, with a sermon in between.
By the 18th century, popular composers were writing oratorios lasting 90 to 120 minutes, about the same length as a modern movie. The text was based either on the Bible, a saint, or a moral allegory. These were written in a more operatic style to satisfy the Italian public while staying within the church's ban on opera. Most of the music was sung by a solo voice with a few choral interludes.
Oratorios also began to spread across the continent and were used in Roman Catholic courts as a substitute for opera during Lent, particularly in Vienna. The oratorio also became an acceptable part of the Lutheran church in Germany. The German composers tended to use a bit more of the chorus. The use of chorus proved to be influential to a young Georg Frederich Handel, who single-handedly created the English oratorio.
Near the end of the Baroque period, Handel moved from Germany to England on a short 47 year trip. In the 1730s, he basically created a new version of an oratorio, bringing elements of English music, French drama, and Italian and German styles of oratorio. It was also sung in English rather than in Italian, which helps when one is trying to get patronage beyond the snobbery in London. The English oratorio was usually biblical, had three acts, and made more frequent use of the chorus than previous styles.
Composer and Examples
While Handel is probably the best known composer of oratorios, he certainly couldn't have done it without a few Italians before him. Roman composers Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674) and Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) both contributed to the richness of the Italian oratorio. Carissimi was one of the originators of the oratorio. In particular, he was a leading composer of Latin oratorios. His oratorio 'Jepthe', written in 1648, is characteristic of the mid-17th century style. Orchestra was not yet part of the style, and relying only on a few instruments and voice, Carissimi masterfully fills the sound with alternating solos and choruses. Composing a bit later, Scarlatti made full use of the orchestra while incorporating the operatic style of singer and accompaniment.
In the end, it's really Handel who takes the cake. His expressive vocal solos perfectly embodied the emotional drive that was paramount to Baroque music. Perhaps the most important part of his oratorios, however, was the use of the chorus. Handel was influenced by the choral traditions in England, and he just happened to be genius at composing for them. Handel wrote many oratorios, but even in 1742, 'Messiah' was a winner. Shockingly, he wrote the entire piece in just three weeks. The oratorio is unique in that it does not tell a story. Instead, it is about the Christian idea of redemption as explained through the Old Testament through the life of Christ.
The oratorio provided the would-be opera-goers with a way to enjoy the budding emotional vocal style in a way that satisfied the restrictions set by the church. The religiously-themed dramatic musical works written by greats like Carissimi, Scarlatti, and Handel had the church singing, 'hallelujah' throughout the Baroque period.
When you have completed this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define and recognize the oratorio in church music
- Describe the styles of the various famous composers of oratorio
- Explain the importance of 'Messiah' to Handel and the Baroque period
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