A musical composition for solo voices, chorus, orchestra, and organ, to a religious text generally taken from Holy Scripture
Oratorio, as at present understood, is a musical composition for solo voices, chorus, orchestra, and organ, to a religious text generally taken from Holy Scripture. The dramatic element contained in the text depends for its expression on the music alone.
The tradition that the oratorio originated in St. Philip Neri’s oratory has recently been attacked, notably by the historian and critic E. Schelle, in “Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik” (Leipzig, 1864). The chief point he makes is that the oratories of San Girolamo and Santa Maria in Vallicella, at Rome, were unsuitable for the performance of sacred dramas. In refutation, it suffices to recall the established fact that Emiglio del Cavaglieri’s rap prasentazione sacra, “Anima e corpo”, had its first performance in the Vallicella (Chiesa Nuova) in 1600, five years after the death of St. Philip. Although the name oratorio was not applied to the new form until sixty years later (Andrea Bontempi, 1624-1705), there is an unbroken tradition connecting the exercises established by St. Philip with the period when the new art-form received its definite character. While in the sixteenth century liturgical polyphonic music reached its highest development, secular music boasted only one ensemble or choral form, the madrigal. The spirit of the Renaissance, that is the revolt against the domination of the arts by the spirit of the Church, led to the restoration of Greek monody, and gradually perfected compositions for one or more voices and instruments which ultimately culminated in the opera.
St. Philip, realizing the great power of music, provided in the rule for his congregation, “that his fathers together with the faithful, should rouse themselves to the contemplation of heavenly things by means of musical harmony”. He seized upon the good in the new trend and made it the foundation of a new form upon which he, perhaps unconsciously, put a stamp retained ever since. He practically created a style midway between liturgical and secular music. His love of simplicity caused him to oppose and counteract the prevailing artificial semi-pagan, literary, and oratorical style which had its musical counterpart in the display of contrapuntal skill for its own sake practiced to so great an extent at that time. He drew to himself masters like Giovanni Annimuccia and Pier Luigi da Palestrina, formed them spiritually, and bade them set to music, in simple and clear style, for three or four voices, short poems in the vernacular, generally written by himself, and called “Laudi spirituali”. Many of these were preserved by F. Soto di Langa, a musician and a disciple of the saint. Their performance alternated with spiritual reading, prayer, and a sermon by one of the fathers, by a layman, or even by a boy. From these exercises, which attracted enormous crowds, and obtained great renown throughout Italy, it was but a step to the Commedia harmonica “Amfiparnasso”, by Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605), a dialogue in madrigal form between two choirs (first performed at Modena in 1594), and the rap prasentazione sacra “Anima e corpo”, by Cavaglieri. The latter consisted of short phrases for a single voice, more varied in form than the recitativo secco, but not yet sufficiently developed to have a distinct melodic physiognomy, accompanied by instruments, and choral numbers, or madrigals. Similar productions multiplied rapidly. Wherever the Oratorians established themselves they cultivated this form to attract the young people. The municipal library of Hamburg contains a collection, gathered by Chrysander, of twenty-two different texts which originated with the disciples of St. Philip during the second half of the seventeenth century. Even more active in the creation and propagation of these musico-dramatic productions throughout this period were the Jesuits, who, especially in Germany, used these musical plays in their schools and colleges every-where. Up to the latter part of the seventeenth century the burden of the texts for these compositions was either a legend, the history of a conversion, the life of a saint, or the passion of a martyr.
Among those who cultivated, or helped in developing, the oratorio in Italy were Benedetto Ferrari (1597-1681), “Samsone”; Agostino Agazzari (1578-1640), dramma pastorale, “Eumelio”; Loreto Vitorii (1588-1670) “La pellegrina costante”, “Sant’ Ignazio Loyola”. Giacomo Carissimi (1604-74), through whom the oratorio made a notable advance, was the first master to turn to Holy Scripture for his texts. His works, with Latin or Italian texts, many of which have been preserved (see Giacomo Carissimi) together with those of his contemporaries, show practically the same construction as is followed in the present time: recitatives, arias, duets, and terzettos, alternating with single and double choruses and instrumental numbers. The historicus or narrator (in some scores designated by the word testo, “text”) has replaced scenic display and dramatic action. Carissimi’s orchestration exhibits a resourcefulness and charm before unknown. His oratorio “Jephtha” (in an arrangement by Dr. Immanuel Faisst) was performed successfully at Leipzig as recently as 1873. After him, the greatest Italian master was Alessandro Scarlatti (1659-1725) a pupil of Francesco Provenzale and Carissimi. Chief among his works are “I dolori. di Maria” and “Il Sacrificio d’Abramo”.
About this time the leadership passed to Germany, where Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672) had previously prepared the soil by his compositions known as “Passion music” and other works resembling the Italian oratorio. Others who had received their formation in Italy, but whose activity was chiefly confined to Germany, and who transplanted the oratorio thither, were Ignatius Jacob Holzbauer (1711-83), “Bethulia liberata”; Johann Adolphe Hasse (1699-1783), “La Conversione di S. Agostino” etc.; Antonio Caldara (1670-1736); Nicolo Jomelli (1714-1774); Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1634-1704), a pupil of Carissimi and a gifted composer, wrote, besides a large number of works for the church, eighteen oratorios in the style of his master which had great vogue in France. His “Reniement de St. Pierre” has recently been revived with great success in Paris, and has since been published. In the hands of Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), the oratorio becomes identified with Protestant worship in Germany. Contemporary with George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) he wrote twenty-four oratorios, intended to be divided into two parts by a sermon, the whole constituting a religious service. His texts were mostly taken from Scripture. Biblical events are brought into conjunction and contrasted with contemporary happenings, and a moral is drawn. Others who cultivated the oratorio form, particularly in Protestant Germany, were George Philip Telemann (1681-1767), Constantine Bellermann (1696-1758), and Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707).
Through Handel the oratorio attained a position in musical art more important than at any previous period in its history and never surpassed since. In his hands it became the expression of the sturdy Saxon faith unaffected by the spirit of doubt latent in the religious revolt of the sixteenth century. Formed in Germany and Italy, he united in a preeminent degree the highest creative gifts. The most productive period of his life was spent in England, and, after having cultivated the opera for a number of years, he finally turned to the oratorio, producing a series of works (“The Messiah”, “Israel in Egypt“, “Saul“, “Jephtha”, “Belshazar”, “Samson” etc.) unrivalled for heroic grandeur and brilliancy. It may be said that they express the national religious ideal of a Protestant Christian people more adequately than does their form of worship. This undoubtedly accounts for the interest taken in oratorio performances by the people in England and in Protestant Germany. Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) produced two of the greatest oratorios which we possess: “The Creation” and “The Seasons”. While composed to secular texts, they breathe the most tender piety and joy through an inexhaustible wealth of lyric and lofty music. A third oratorio, “Ritorno di Tobia”, on a Biblical text, has not the same importance, nor does Mozart (1756-91), in his only oratorio, “Davidde penitente”, attain the artistic level of most of his productions. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote one oratorio, “The Mount of Olives”, which shows him at his best.
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-47), in “Elijah” and “St. Paul”, returns to the early Protestant feature of letting the supposed congregation or audience participate in the performance by singing the chorales or church hymns, the texts of which consist of reflections and meditations on what has preceded. From this period the oratorio begins to be cultivated almost exclusively by Catholics. Franz Liszt (1811-86), with his “Christus” and “Legende der Heiligen Elizabeth“, opens up a new and distinctly Catholic era. France, which, since the days of Charpentier, had practically neglected the oratorio, probably on account of the opera appealing more strongly to French taste and temperament, and because of the lack of amateur singers has, within the last thirty years, furnished a number of remarkable works. Charles-Francois Gounod (1818-93) with his “Redemption“, and “Mors et Vita”, gave a renewed impetus to the cultivation of the oratorio. The “Samson and Delilah” of Camille Saint-Satins (1835-) may be performed either as an oratorio or as an opera; as opera it has attained the greater favor. Jules Massenet (1842-) has essayed the form with his “Eve” and “Mary Magdalen“, but his style is entirely too sensational and melodramatic to carry the text. Gabriel Pierne’s (1863-) “Children’s Crusade” and the smaller work, “The Children at Bethlehem”, have both obtained great popularity in Europe and America.
Italy‘s sole representative of any note in more than two hundred years is Don Lorenzo Perosi (1872-), with his trilogy “The Passion of Our Lord according to St. Mark”, “The Transfiguration of Christ”, and “The Resurrection of Lazarus“, a “Christmas Oratorio”, “Leo the Great”, and “The Last Judgment”. Belgium and England have produced the three most remarkable exponents of the oratorio within the last fifty years. Cesar Auguste Franck’s (1822-90) oratorios, “Ruth”, “Rebecca”, “Redemption“, and, above all, his “Beatitudes“, rank among the greatest of modern works of the kind. Edward William Elgar (1857-) has become famous by his “Dream of Gerontius” and his “Apostles“. But Edgar Tinel (1854-) is probably the most gifted among the modern Catholics who have reclaimed the oratorio from non-Catholic supremacy. His world-famous “St. Francis of Assisi” is perhaps more remarkable for the spiritual heights it reveals than for its dramatic power. Other works of his which have attracted attention are “Godoleva” and “St. Catherine”. It is a happy omen that all these authors, in the forefront of present-day composers, command the highest creative and constructive skill which enables them to turn into Catholic channels all the modern conquests in means of expression. The Catholic Oratorio Society of New York was founded in 1904 to promote the knowledge and reproduction of oratorios that best exemplify the religious ideal.