The Oratorio

General Lifespan

An oratorio is like an opera - but less. There is singing and a storyline but not much else. No staging, no costuming - sounds exciting, huh? There is some action - but you never see it - kind of like an existentialist play. All of the action is aired via a narrator (if you're Italian, you'd call this person a "testo" - if you're Latin, "storicus"*).

Other ways to tell an opera from an oratorio:
  • Oratorios have sacred text - stories based on the religious books.
    "Oratorio" literally means "hall for prayer"
  • Oratorios have more work for the chorus than operas.
    The chorus is the nameless bunch of people who aren't a character and all sing together - like a...chorus (maybe I didn't need to explain this point).
  • Oratorios have a lot of recitative.
    Recitative is the part of operas that most people make fun of. Its where a person will sing-talk lines, usually on one note, and usually pretty rapidly. Its used to get a bunch of miscellaneous text to the audience. It is rarely beautiful, but it works.

Why, then - if an oratorio is generally lamer than an opera, would it have caught on at all? Lent and the English (independently). Lent is a religious season during which (in days of yore) theaters were closed - giving the church a monopoly on entertainment.** To understand why the English popularized the oratorio, we need to look at Handel.***

Handel was busy writing operas. He had four staged in successive years - each less successful than the last.

"Hmmm... my operas aren't doing so well. Hey, oratorios are easier to write than operas - and anyone who is any good today is writing operas. If I write an oratorio, it'll be guaranteed to be performed - especially if I make it Lent-y," Handel may have thought.
[end of speculation]

This oratorio, "Israel in Egypt," was a success. Handel was later commissioned to write the "Messiah". Every English speaking person of the time loved the "Messiah" because:
  1. It was in English and
  2. it was a great piece of music (a rare combination for the composer-starved island).

The result: oratorio fever. English composers were writing oratorios for the next 150 years. The reason you haven't heard about these oratorios is that few (if any) were any good.

Composers of Oratorios
Scarlatti, Bach (JS, JCE, KPE), Telemann, Handel, Hayden, Mendelssohn, Schumann

An Oratorio is a religious opera, without the action.
* This is not a joke. I know "Storicus" sounds like a pseudo-Greek narration character from "Xena" - but, again, I am not making this up.

** Lent stories were very popular subjects of oratorios - followed by Christmas stories. Oratorios started moving away from sacred subjects in the 1800's and just never recovered.

*** Handel is not English.

Post Script: Questions

Did Schumann write oratorios?

Yep. He wrote 2 oratorios.

Das Paradies und die Peri (1843) and
Der Rose Pilgerfahrt (1851 - right around when he finally finished his 4th symphony)

I know you're thinking: Wasn't Schubert the guy who wrote masses and religious pieces and such? Well, yeah - Schumann's oratorios were secular (non-religious) oratorios.

Secular oratorios?

Yes; secular oratorios.
Don't blame me - I just research this stuff.

Didn't you just say one of the defining features of an oratorio is that it is religious?

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