(from Ital. oratorio, chapel or oratory, after the place where these compositions were first performed) is the term applied to a sacred musical composition, bearing the same relation to Church music which the opera does to secular music, and, like it, consisting of airs, duets, choruses, etc. It is, in short, a spiritual opera, and holds an intermediate place between religious and secular compositions. The text is generally a dramatized religious poem, as Handel's Samson and Cimarosa's Sacrifizio d'Abramo. Sometimes it takes the form of a narrative, as Israel in Egypt; and occasionally it is of a mixed kind, as Haydn's Creation. The Messiah is a collection of passages from our received translation of the Scriptures.
Concerning the origin of the oratorio, Dr. Brown, Sir John Hawkins, and others seem to have misunderstood the pere Menestrier, who, in his work Des Representations en Musique, attributes to the pilgrims, on their return from the Holy Land, not the introduction of what we term oratorios, as those writers supposed, but of the sacred dramas called Mysteries (q.v.). The learned Jesuit is perhaps himself in error on this subject. It is Wharton's opinion that about the 8th century the merchants who frequented the fairs, employing every art to draw numbers together, were accompanied by jugglers, minstrels, and buffoons, who were the source of great amusement to the people. The clergy, thinking that such entertainments tended to irreligion, proscribed them; but their censures and fulminations being disregarded, they took into their own hands the management of popular recreations — they turned actors — and, instead of profane mummeries, presented stories taken from legends, or from the Bible (Hist. of Poetry). Voltaire conjectures that religious dramas came from Constantinople, where, about the 4th century, archbishop Gregory of Nazianzum, one of the fathers of the Church, banished plays from the stage of that city, and introduced stories from the O. and N.T. As the ancient Greek tragedy was originally a religious representation, a transition was made on the same plan, and the choruses were turned into Christian hymns. "This opinion," says the candid Wharton, "will acquire probability if we consider the early commercial intercourse between Italy and Constantinople." Admitting this, we need seek no farther for the original source of the sacred musical drama.
As regards the more recent introduction of the oratorio, Crescimbeni, in his Commentario, tells us that it is attributable to San Filippo Neri (q.v.), who in his chapel (nel suo oratorio), after sermons and other devotions, in order to allure young people to pious offices, and to detain them from earthly pleasures, had hymns and psalms sung by one or more voices. Bourdelot is rather more circumstantial on this subject. He says S. Filippo de Neri, a native of Florence, founder in 1540 of the Congregation of the Priests of the Oratory in Italy, observing the taste and passion of the Romans for musical entertainments, determined to afford the nobles and people the means of enjoying them on Sundays and festivals in his church, and engaged for this purpose the ablest poets and composers, who produced dialogues in verse on the principal subjects of Scripture, which he caused to be performed by the most beautiful voices in Rome, accompanied by all sorts of instruments. These performances consisted of airs, duets', trios, and recitatives for four voices; the subjects were, Job and his Friends, the Prodigal Son received by his Father, the Angel Gabriel with the Virgin, and the Mystery of the Incarnation. Nothing was spared to render these attractive; the novelty and perfection thereof drew a crowd of auditors, who were delighted with the performances, and contributed largely, by admission money, to the expenses incurred. Hence are derived what we now call oratorios, or sacred representations (Hist. de la Musique , 1:256). Some of these poems were printed under the title of Ludi Spirituali, and among the first authors of them was P. Agostino Manni. One of the most remarkable was entitled Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo, del Signior Emilio del Cavalieri, per recitar cantando. It was the first attempt in the recitative style, and performed in action on a stage erected in the church of Santa Maria della Vallicella, at Rome, with scenes, dances, etc., as appears from the editor's dedication to cardinal Aldobrandini, and the composer's instructions for the performance. From the latter Dr. Burney (Hist. of Music, 4:88) gives some curious extracts, among which are the following: The accompanying instruments, namely, a double lyre, a harpsichord, a large guitar, and two flutes — to be behind the scenes; but the performers are desired to have instruments in their hands, as the appearing to play would help the illusion. The books of the words were printed. Instead of the modern overture, a madrigal, with all the parts doubled, and fully accompanied, is recommended. When the curtain rises, two youths, who recite the prologue, appear. Then Time, one of the characters, comes on, and has the note with which he is to begin given him by the instruments behind the scenes. The chorus is to be placed on the stage, part sitting and part standing; and when they sing they are to be in motion, with gestures. II Corpo (the body), at the words Si che hormai alma via, throws away his ornaments. The World and Human Life are to be gayly dressed, and when divested of their trappings are to appear poor and wretched, and finally as dead carcasses. The performance may conclude with or without a dance. If without, the last chorus is to be doubled in all its parts. But if a dance is preferred, a verse beginning "Chiostri altissismi" is to be sung, accompanied reverentially by the dance. During the ritornels the four principal dancers are to perform a ballet, saltato con capriole (danced with capers), without singing. They may sometimes use the gailliard step, sometimes the canary, and sometimes the courant.
The name of Oratorios was given, some think, to these performances because they owed their birth to the Priests of the Oratory; we are, however, as already stated, more inclined to derive the term from the place, the oratorio (oratorium, oratory or small chapel), in which they were first heard. But the word does not appear to have been in use till about the year 1630, when Balducci applied it to two of his sacred poems. The unfortunate Stradella was one of the first of those who distinguished themselves in this exalted kind of composition; his Oratario di San Giovanni Battista, produced about the year 1670, is analyzed and much praised by Burney (4:105). A fine chorus from this, in five parts, is printed in the fourth volume of "The Fitzwilliam Music." The increasing popularity of the sacred drama at length induced poets of eminence to employ their pens in its service. Apostolo Zeno, the imperial poet-laureate, produced seventeen works of this kind, under the title of Azioni Sacre, most of which were set by Caldara, imperial vice-chapelmaster to Leopold I, whose reputation as a composer of sacred music stands deservedly high. The first of them, Sisara, was performed in 1717. Metastasio wrote seven Azioni, of which Caldara set two; the first, La Passione, in 1730. This was reset by Jomelli, and is justly reckoned among the best of his works. Sebastian Bach's Passions-Musik was a species of oratorio, originally performed during the service of the church, the congregation joining in the chorals. Its form arose out of the practice prevalent in the Lutheran Church of having the gospels of the day repeated on Good-Friday, and some other festivals, by different persons, in a recitative and dialogue style. SEE PASSION.
The oratorio was introduced into England in 1720, when Handel set Esther — Racine's tragedy abridged and altered by Mr. Humphreys — for the chapel of the duke of Chandos (Pope's Timon) at Cannons. Previous to this time Handel had produced an oratorio entitled La Resurrezione, which he brought out at Rome when only twenty years of age, but Esther was his first brought out in England. In 1731 it was performed by the children of the Chapel-Royal at the house of their master, Bernard Gates. The next year it was publicly produced, as appears from the following advertisement in the Daily Journal: "By his majesty's command. at the King's Theatre in the Haymarket, on Tuesday, May 2, will be performed the sacred story of Esther, an oratorio in English, formerly composed by Mr. Handel, and now revived by him, with several additions, and to be performed by a great number of voices and instruments. N. B. — There will be no acting on the stage, but the house will be fitted up in a decent manner for the audience." The success of this was of the most decided and encouraging kind. The custom of performing oratorios on the Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent is to be dated from 1737, from which time they were, with few intermissions, continued till a very recent period. By Handel himself no oratorio was produced after the appearance of Esther, until, in his fifty-third year, he became afflicted with blindness. From this his declining period of life date the great oratorios which have made his name immortal. These were performed for the most part in the Old Haymarket Theatre. Deborch was first performed in 1733; Athaliah, in 1734; Israel in Egypt, in 1738; The Messiah, in 1741; Samson, in 1742; Judas Maccabaeus, in 1746; Joshua, in 1747; Solomon, in 1749; and Jephthah, in 1751. The two crowning works were Israel in Egypt and The Messiah-the former ranks highest of all compositions of the oratorio class. The Messiah-which, ill consequence of its text being taken entirely from Scripture, was called by Handel The Sacred Oratorio, — ranks very near it in point of musical merit, and has attained an even more universal popularity; from the time when it was first brought out, down to the present day, it has been performed for the benefit of nearly every important charitable institution in Britain, and also in the U. S., though somewhat less frequently for the same purpose. Judas Maccabaeus is perhaps best known from the flowing and martial grace of that unrivalled military march, "See the Conquering Hero comes;" and Saul is associated in every one's mind with the most solemn of all funeral marches. The orchestra was but imperfectly developed in Handel's time, and his oratorios had therefore originally but meagre instrumental accompaniments; they have since been generally performed with additional accompaniments written by Mozart. Handel was succeeded in this musical speculation by his friend, J. C. Smith, who was followed by Stanley and the elder Linley. Linley and Dr. Arnold then in conjunction most successfully carried on the oratorios, which were continued by the latter on the retirement of his colleague. An opposition was now started by Ashley, who had been active as a subordinate agent at the commemoration of Handel in 1784. This person soon transformed the performances into secular and often vulgar concerts, though retaining the original name; and from that time the oratorios began to degenerate.
Great masters of oratorios are Haydn, Mendelssohn, Bach, Cimarosa, and Jomelli. Haydn composed three oratorios, The Return of Tobias, The Seven Last Words, and The Creation. The first-named work is full of sweetness and of energy, but it hardly answers to the common conditions of an oratorio; the second is rather a series of symphonies, intended to follow as many short sermons on the sentences uttered by Jesus on the cross. the text being a subsequent addition by the composer's brother, Michael Haydn. The chef-d'oeuvre, The Creation, originated in a visit to London in 1791, when Haydn heard for the first time some of Handel's compositions, then unknown in the great musician's native country. Though less grand than the oratorios of this AnglicizedGerman musical master, The Creation is full of fresh, lovely songs, bright choruses, picturesque recitatives, and exquisite instrumentation. Beethoven's sole oratorio, The Mount of Olives, is a pure drama rather than the mixed composition generally designated as oratorio. Spohr's Last Judgment, produced in 1825, contains some grand music, especial in the choruses. Costa's Eli deserves mention. But the master of modern oratorios is Mendelssohn. Indeed, his greatest works are in this line of composition, as his St. Paul and Elijah. His great ambition was to reawaken an interest in the oratorio, especially in Great Britain; and since his day oratorios are performed on a large scale at Exeter Hall, London, and at the musical festivals throughout England, with a power, precision, and perfection before unheard of, and unknown anywhere else. The greatest oratorio performances probably in the world are those of the triennial festivals at the Sydenham Crystal Palace. In the United States musical societies are aiming for a like development, and in very recent times a number of oratorios have been printed and performed. Bradbury and Mason have labored in this direction, but the most successful compositions are by J. A. Butterfield, of Chicago, who has been called to different parts of this large country, and has trained a host of musical associations with extraordinary success. Among his best compositions are Belshazzar and Ruth and Naomi. See, besides the works on music referred to, Penny Cyclop. s.nv.; Chambers, Cyclop. s.v.; Academy (Lond. 1872), p. 86; Presb. Qu. and Princet. Rev. Jan. 1875, art. viii.