James Way discusses Oratorio before performing "In Native Worth and Honor Clad" from "The Creation" by Joseph Hadyn

What is oratorio?

An oratorio is a large scale work for voices and instruments.

Like opera, oratoria often have a strong narrative arc (storyline).

Unlike opera, an oratorio is generally performed without costumes, scenery, or stage direction.

Messiah by Handel is probably the most well known oratorio.


An oratorio is normally performed by:

  • solo singers
  • chorus (choir)
  • orchestra

Subject matter

Until the mid-seventeenth century, the oratorio was almost exclusively religious in subject matter. They are usually based on stories from the Bible.

Some later oratoria have a secular (non-religious) subject, for example Greek or Roman mythology.

Structure and form

Oratoria are large scale works and often have separate movements (Handel's Messiah has 53 movements).

Most oratoria feature:

  • Overture - performed by the orchestra
  • A number of arias - performed by vocal soloist
  • Recitatives - performed by vocal soloists
  • Interludes - performed by instruments
  • Choruses - performed by choir and instruments