What is an… Oratorio?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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An oratorio is a large work for chorus and orchestra based on a religious theme.

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The rise of opera in the late 16th and early 17th centuries was roundly condemned in some Catholic and Protestant quarters: frankly erotic stories, clothed in sensually beguiling music – surely this was the antithesis of pure Christian spirituality?

For others, though, it presented an invigorating challenge: could some form of musical theatrical offering improve the Church’s engagement with ordinary people?

The controversy that ensued was rather like the debates in the 1960s about the role of pop music in worship and missionary work. In both cases the secularisers won – up to a point.

The hero of the Catholic ‘Counter-Reformation’, Filippo Neri, founded what he called an ‘oratory’ (from the Latin for ‘prayer’), in which music and semi-dramatic dialogue played a part in telling sacred stories to the laity – the word ‘oratorio’ clearly derives from this, even though the meaning has shifted continually since then.

By 1600, a follower of Neri, Emilio de Cavalieri, had created what amounts to a fully-fledged ‘sacred opera’, Rappresentatione di anima et di corpo – lavishly staged, with dancing, it had a lot in common with medieval mystery plays.

But for many, it seems, this was a stage too far. From then on, although both Catholic and Protestant authorities embraced the concept of ‘oratorio’, there was unease about how theatrical the end product should be.

Some of Handel’s oratorios contain stage directions – but to what extent these works were ‘enacted’ remains a matter of debate.

One factor that marked off Baroque oratorio from opera was the role of the chorus, to whom not only hymns of praise and massed prayers, but other forms of meditation or story-telling were entrusted.

This could draw in the congregation as participants, as in the chorales in Bach’s Passions. But in turn, this fed back into opera in the 19th century: the crucial choral contributions in Verdi’s Don Carlos, Wagner’s Parsifal and Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov owe a great deal to the oratorio tradition.

It fell to Stravinsky to show the distinction between opera and oratorio was in essence false, reconnecting both forms with their roots in Ancient Greek tragedy in his ‘opera-oratorio’ Oedipus Rex.

Accordingly, the modern phenomenon of the secular oratorio – such as Tippett’s Child of Our Time – thus begins to look less ‘modern’, more archetypal.

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This article was first published in the October 2012 issue of BBC Music Magazine