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(ôrətôr`ēō), musical composition employing chorus, orchestra, and soloists and usually, but not necessarily, a setting of a sacred libretto without stage action or scenery. The immediate forerunner of oratorio, Emilio del Cavaliere's sacred opera La rappresentazione di anima e di corpo applied the techniques of the newly created opera to the sacra rappresentazione, the Italian mystery play. Cavaliere's work was performed in 1600 in one of the buildings known as the oratories of St. Philip NeriPhilip Neri, Saint
, 1515–95, Italian reformer. His original name was Filippo Romolo de' Neri. From boyhood he was religious, and in 1533 he went to Rome to study.
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. Soon afterward there developed the oratorio volgare, also in Italian, which employed a testo, or narrator, to advance the action of the story. By c.1640 the term oratorio had come to stand for the work itself rather than the place in which it was given, and 10 years later the Latin oratorio was given definitive form in the works of Giacomo CarissimiCarissimi, Giacomo
, 1605–74, Italian composer. Most of his life was spent in Rome, where he wrote chamber cantatas in a style that lasted for over a century. His Latin oratorios, of which Jephtha
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. His style was carried to France by his pupil Marc Antoine Charpentier, but the oratorio did not flourish there. Carissimi's influence is also discernible in the oratorios of Heinrich SchützSchütz, Heinrich
, 1585–1672, German composer. A pupil of Giovanni Gabrieli, he later worked with Monteverdi. Often considered the greatest German composer of the 17th cent., he was director of music at the Dresden court from 1617 until his death.
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 and of Handel. After Carissimi the only outstanding Italian oratorios are those of his pupil Alessandro Scarlatti, of which 14 are known. Scarlatti included recitativerecitative
, musical declamation for solo voice, used in opera and oratorio for dialogue and for narration. Its development at the close of the 16th cent. made possible the rise of opera.
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 with developed arias in works that greatly resembled opera. Pietro MetastasioMetastasio, Pietro
, 1698–1782, Italian poet and librettist, whose original name was Antonio Bonaventura Trapassi. A prodigy at poetic improvisation, he became court poet at Vienna in 1729.
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 wrote a number of oratorios, several of which were set more than once. In Germany settings of the Passion assumed greater importance than the true oratorio, but the oratorios of Schütz are equaled only by those of J. S. Bach and Handel. Handel inaugurated the English oratorio, and his Messiah, although atypical among his own usually epic oratorios, became the prototype for the works of many later composers. Haydn's two great oratorios show the influence of Handel. Mendelssohn's highly dramatic Elijah and St. Paul exerted a strong influence, particularly in England, where the oratorio enjoyed great vogue throughout the 19th cent. A long succession of mediocre works, including several popular examples by Sir Arthur Sullivan, was followed by the more notable ones of Elgar and Walford Davies. Wagner, Liszt, Dvořák, Berlioz, and Franck all wrote romantic oratorios. In the 20th cent. Honegger's King David (1921) and Dance of the Dead (1940), Stravinsky's opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex (1927), Hindemith's Das Unaufhörliche (1931), William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast (1931), and Britten's War Requiem (1961) are noteworthy.


See G. P. Upton, The Standard Oratorios (1888); P. M. Young, The Oratorios of Handel (1949); H. E. Smither, A History of the Oratorio (1987).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a major, usually multipart musical work for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra, which generally has a dramatic theme but which is designed for performance in concert rather than on stage. The oratorio is similar to the cantata, differing only in its greater length and more definite theme. It originated in Italy at the turn of the 17th century and was influenced by the opera and madrigal.

The oratorio with a Latin text took shape as a fusion of several liturgical motets, and the oratorio with an Italian text developed out of dramatized laude in dialogue form. At first, liturgical motets and laude were performed in special premises designed for prayer, services, discussion of sermons, and singing of sacred songs. These premises were called oratories—the term from which the name of the new genre was derived. In the sacred oratorio a biblical story performed by a soloist was combined with sections cast in dialogue form and choral sections. In Italy, the Latin oratorio reached the height of its development in the 17th century. By the beginning of the 18th century it had been almost completely replaced by the Italian oratorio. G. Carissimi and A. Scarlatti were the greatest masters of the Latin oratorio, and B. Pasquini, F. M. Veracini, A. Veracini, G. Arresti, G. Gabrieli, G. Legrenzi, G. Bononcini, and A. Stradella excelled in the composition of Italian oratorios.

In the Italian oratorio, the solo sections, recitatives, and da capo arias acquired increasing importance in the 18th century. The oratorio became similar to opera and was sometimes performed on stage. Many 18th-century Italian opera composers wrote oratorios, including A. Scarlatti, G. Pergolesi, D. Cimarosa, B. Galuppi, G. Paisiello, and A. Salieri. The German, Austrian, and French oratorios developed in the 18th century, and a special form, the passion, emerged.

G. F. Handel’s oratorios, which were written in England in the 1730’s and 1740’s, made a great contribution to the development of the genre. They united the German, the English, and, to some extent, the Italian tradition. Of outstanding importance in Handel’s creative work are his heroic oratorios with biblical texts, in which the chief motive force is the people (Israel in Egypt, the Messiah, Samson, and Judas Maccabeus). Handel also composed oratorios on texts from classical mythology. Among J. S. Bach’s works is the Christmas Oratorio. An important stage in the development of the oratorio is associated with the creative work of Haydn. Composed at the end of the 18th century, his oratorios (The Creation, The Seasons) were enriched by instrumental symphonic resources and were intended for performance not in church but in the concert hall. In the 19th century, oratorios were composed by F. Mendelssohn, H. Berlioz, F. Liszt, R. Schumann (Paradise and the Peri), C. Saint-Saëns, J. Massenet, C. Franck, C. Debussy, E. Elgar, and R. Vaughan Williams, and in the 20th century, by A. Honegger (Joan of Arc at the Stake) and E. H. Meyer (Mansfelder Oratorium).

The first Russian oratorio, Degtiarev’s Minin and Pozharskii, or Moscow Liberated, was composed in 1811. During the Soviet period, the oratorio has developed greatly and has become the favored genre for the artistic reflection of important sociohistorical events and for the comprehensible and effective presentation of significant themes. Soviet oratorios include Emel’ian Pugachev by Koval’, Tale of the Battle for the Russian Land by Shaporin, Guarding the Peace by Prokofiev, Oratorio Pathétique by Sviridov, and The Maiden and Death by Galynin.


Rozenov, E. K. Ocherk istorii oratorii. Moscow, 1910.
Khokhlovkina, A. Sovetskaia oratoriia i kantata. Moscow, 1955.
Shirinian, R. Oratoriia i kantata. Moscow, 1960.
Schering, A. Geschichte des Oratoriums. Leipzig, 1911.
Blanchi, L. I grandi dell’ oratoria. Milan, 1964.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


a dramatic but unstaged musical composition for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, based on a religious theme
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
1) Six oratorios (Sanct Petrus, Sanct Franciscus, Das letzte Abendmahl, Der Tod des Herrn, Die sieben letzten Worte Christi am Kreuze, Te Deum).
By now everyone knows that Handel composed the oratorio in a 24-day frenzy of artistic inspiration and feverish writing.
Opera & Oratorio Premieres (http://operadata.stanford.edu/), a cross-index of data for over 38,000 opera and oratorio premieres.
He created the 'oratorio' Messiah for concert performance in sacred buildings.
After the first 100 pages the book becomes more worthwhile, at least for the reader who is interested in the oratorios German reception, though the inclusion of Andrea Ammendola's minute account of the reworkings by Fortunato Santini is explicable only as local piety: Santini's fabulous library of musical MSS was acquired by Munster.
Now 34, Duncan is one of Canada's busiest singers, adept at oratorio and recital and with opera coming on apace.
Writing for music lovers, Finane, an arts writer and editor, amateur pianist, and baritone, presents a descriptive analysis of Handel's Messiah that begins with a brief biography and then discusses each of Handel's English oratorios, followed by descriptions of the libretto, revisions, recordings, and each section of the Messiah.
Cantatas are essentially short oratorios, but they can be based on secular or sacred subjects, and sacred cantatas were significant in Johann Sebastian Bach's repertoire.
When she was doing the bookkeeping, scheduling transportation, writing liner notes for recordings, making hotel reservations, writing publicity, lyrics for my songs and texts for my sacred music, oratorios etc., we often referred to her as "central intelligence" ...
Although Handel had written many biblical oratorios, he had never tackled the creation story.
As we approach the glorious celebration of Christmas, no music will fill the air as often as George Frederic Handel's oratorio, Messiah.