oratorio (ôrətôrˈēō) [key], 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 Neri. 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 Carissimi. 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 Schütz and of Handel. After Carissimi the only outstanding Italian oratorios are those of his pupil Alessandro Scarlatti, of which 14 are known. Scarlatti included recitative with developed arias in works that greatly resembled opera. Pietro Metastasio 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).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.