Guide to oratorio


There's nothing like a big orchestra, choir and soloists and some moving and stirring music to set the pulse racing. Graeme Kay gives the background to this much-loved art form.

What is an oratorio?

Traditionally, an oratorio was a setting of a religious text for soloists, choir and orchestra; however, the term now encompasses non-religious works for similar forces.

Common to all oratorios is the framing of the work within a dramatic context, but without scenery, costumes or props. The chorus often has more to do, and because there is less need to propel characters through actions and events, the sung texts tend both to further the narrative and reflect upon it.

What are the origins of the term oratorio?

It comes from the Roman Oratory of the Congregazione dell'Oratorio - a prayer hall in which, as early as 1640, works were being performed which included narrative, dialogue and singing.

What is an opera-oratorio?

This is where the terminology can become confusing. Stravinsky called his Oedipus Rex an 'opera-oratorio', intending it to be performed on a stage, but statically. Also, some commentators use 'opera-oratorio' to denote oratorios which have been staged.

'If I had the power I would insist on all oratorios being sung in the costume of the period - with a possible exception in the case of The Creation.'- Sir Ernest Newman

A good example is Handel's Semele. Handel picked up a libretto by William Congreve for a stage production, with music by John Eccles, which had never happened. His reworking, in oratorio form, was not intended to be staged; indeed, the first staging was in Cambridge in 1925. Semele is now a popular work in the repertory of many opera houses.

There were Cambridge stagings of Handel's oratorios Jephtha, Susanna, Saul and Solomon - and when the Handel Opera Society was founded in 1955, it continued the tradition.

Top 10 oratorios:

  1. Handel - Messiah
  2. Mendelssohn - Elijah
  3. Haydn - The Creation
  4. Bach - Christmas Oratorio
  5. Elgar - The Dream of Gerontius
  6. Handel - Israel in Egypt
  7. Haydn - The Seasons
  8. Handel - Solomon
  9. Beethoven - Christ on the Mount of Olives
  10. Tippett - A Child of Our Time

What are the problems of staging oratorios?

The main problems for the director lie in moving the action forward coherently when much of the material consists of static set-pieces - especially true in the case of the chorus material.

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