Oratorio Overview & History

Laura Lohman, Liz Diamond-Manlusoc
  • Author
    Laura Lohman

    Laura Lohman has taught university arts and humanities courses for over 10 years. She has a PhD in the history of music (University of Pennsylvania), MS in Human Resources and Organization Development (the University of Louisville), and BM in music performance (Indiana University). She holds senior human resources, affirmative action, and project management certifications.

  • Instructor
    Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

    Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

Explore oratorios. Learn the definition of an oratorio and understand its history. Discover different composers of oratorio with their styles and importance. Updated: 12/29/2021

Table of Contents


What Is an Oratorio?

An oratorio is a large-scale, sacred musical composition for solo voices, chorus and orchestra. Oratorios are performed in churches and concert halls. Though they may be performed in churches, oratorios are not intended for liturgical use. They're usually performed without costumes, action or scenery.

The Hallelujah chorus is from the oratorio Messiah.

Excerpt from the Hallelujah chorus

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  • 0:06 Oratoria Definition
  • 2:07 History
  • 5:30 Composers & Examples
  • 7:58 Lesson Summary
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History of the Oratorio

The word 'oratorio' comes from the 'oratory,' the portion of the church in which such musical performances were first given. These early performances were forms of moral entertainment initiated by Philip Neri, a sainted Italian priest of the mid-16th century. As informal types of worship, these performances helped attract people to the Catholic faith and then educate them through music. The first surviving oratorio is Emilio del Cavaliere's Rappresentazione di anima, et di corpo (The Representation of Soul and Body), which was first performed in 1600.

By the mid-17th century, the oratorio had become more standardized. Oratorios at this time were usually between 40 and 60 minutes in duration. They were often performed in two sections separated by a sermon. The texts of most oratorios were taken from the Bible. Recitatives, or music sung with speech-like rhythms, delivered narration between more tuneful arias and choruses. While the earliest oratorios in Italy had stage action, such action was dropped from oratorios there by the end of the 18th century. By then, oratorios had also been lengthened to some 90 to 120 minutes.

While oratorios were first developed in the Italian Catholic Church and had texts in Latin or Italian, over time, oratorios were also composed and performed in France and Germany. An important composer of German oratorios in the 17th century was Heinrich Schutz. His oratorios featured emotional expression, and they provided an important precedent for such 18th-century works of Johann Sebastian Bach as the Passion According to St. John and the Passion According to St. Matthew. German oratorios tended to make greater use of the chorus than their Italian counterparts, ultimately influencing George Frederic Handel's extensive use of the chorus in his own, English oratorios.

Oratorio vs. Opera

Operas and oratorios are similar, in that they use some of the same basic musical elements: recitative, arias and chorus. However, while operas are staged with action, scenery and costumes, oratorios in Italy stopped featuring stage action by the late 18th century. Typically, oratorios include a singer as a narrator to assist in telling the story. In contrast, storytelling in opera is carried out through action and dialogue. While operas address a wide range of secular subjects including history, tragedy and romance, oratorios address only sacred topics.

Oratorio Composers

Oratorio music was composed by several leading composers in Italy, Germany and England. History's most noteworthy composers of oratorios include George Frederic Handel, Giacomo Carissimi and Alessandro Scarlatti. We'll consider their work in greater detail below.

George Frederic Handel

Georg Frederic Handel created the English oratorio.

Painting of Georg Frederic Handel

The tradition of the English oratorio was created by composer George Frederic Handel, who moved to England from Germany in the 18th century. Handel's oratorios apply operatic style to Biblical stories, and were performed in theaters rather than in the church. English oratorios are commonly structured in three acts. Handel's well-known oratorios, such as Messiah (1742) and Saul and Israel in Egypt (1739), are highly regarded today due to his treatment of moral elements, their expressive solos, and Handel's frequent and effective use of the chorus. Unusually, Messiah focuses on the idea of redemption as conveyed through the Old Testament, rather than telling a linear story. The well-known ''Hallelujah chorus'' is from Handel's Messiah.

This text, from Messiah, illustrates the alternation of arias (songs), recitatives and choruses in oratorios.

Text from Messiah, by Handel

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between an oratorio and an opera?

While operas address a wide range of secular subjects, including history, tragedy and romance, oratorios address only sacred topics. Operas are staged with action, scenery and costumes, but Italian oratorios stopped featuring stage action by the late 18th century.

What is the best definition of an oratorio?

An oratorio is a large-scale, sacred, musical composition for solo voices, chorus and orchestra. Oratorios are performed in churches and concert halls, usually without costumes, dialogue or action.

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