From the Latin orare (to pray), the term “oratorio” has its origins in a “prayer house” or “oratory.” The roots of the genre are, however, complex and span many languages and settings. Smither suggests taking the definition of oratorio from its Baroque roots when he writes, “the oratorio is nearly always a sacred, unstaged work with a text that is either dramatic or narrative-dramatic. In the dramatic type of text, the plot unfolds entirely through dialogue among the personages; in the narrative-dramatic type the plot is revealed partially by a narrator and partially through dramatic dialogue” (1997, Vol. 1, pp. 3–4). The point about oratorio being unstaged seems to be something that pretty much all oratorios have in common, but otherwise there always seem to be exceptions to the above rules. There are secular oratorios as well as sacred ones (e.g., Handel’s Semele and Hercules, which have at times been called oratorios), although the large predominance is based on biblical texts (sometimes closely, sometimes loosely). While some are mainly dramatic, they also contain small patches of narrative, and the narrative-dramatic types, too, are more dramatic than narrative. There is also a reflective type of oratorio with less characterization that seems to have developed alongside these other two types, especially in German and English oratorio.

Early Roots in Italy, France, and Germany.

Oratorio seems to have varied from country to country. It has its roots alongside opera in Italy, and by the 1660s “oratorio” was a known genre: a musical setting of a sacred, narrative dramatic text, usually adapted, usually in poetic form (although some early Latin oratorios are in prose) from the Bible, but sometimes from the lives of saints, and usually in Italian or Latin. The closeness of this genre to opera should not be underestimated—it is from opera that it gets its arias, recitatives, and chorus lines and its dramatic quality. Thus, oratorio and opera feature the same stylization of “affections” or emotional states in their poetry and music. The demands of an opera-loving society tended to dictate the way oratorio developed. Its style became increasingly operatic and more structured; its context moved from oratory to concert hall. The da capo aria become particularly popular as it gave opportunity for dramatic reiterations and character exits. In Italy, against the trend elsewhere, the use of the chorus in opera and oratorio lessened over time. The length of Italian oratorios varied from as short as 12 minutes to two hours. In the early days oratorios were not always called such, and other terms such as “dialogue” or “cantata” were used. In a letter written in 1640 by the Roman musical amateur Pietro della Valle, he calls one of his short unstaged sacred dialogues an oratorio—probably the first reference we have to the term. These shorter oratorios (for One Part Oratorios, 8–26 minutes, and for Two Part Oratorios, 17–64 minutes) proliferated, a famous example being Carissimi’s Jephte (again not called an oratorio by the composer). It is not clear in early times whether it was the performance in an oratory that made it an oratorio or whether it had to be of a particular musical genre—with these earlier works, the function of its performance is possibly primary. The first Oratory where such performances were held was the Congregation of the Oratory founded by St. Philip Neri in Rome in the sixteenth century. Unstaged dramatic dialogues were subsequently performed in oratories, for example, Giovanni Francesco Anerio’s Teatro armonico spirituale di madrigali (Harmonic Spiritual Theater of Madrigals; Rome, 1619), which consisted of spiritual madrigals composed for use in oratories, some of which were termed “dialogo.” Some Italian oratorios were heard at court—they were theatrical in style and tended not to use choruses.

In seventeenth-century France we find the same phenomenon of oratorios developing without actually being called such. Marc-Antoine Charpentier, for example, wrote sacred dramatic works that were not labelled oratorio but were called historia, motet, canticum, dialogue, or meditation, but which were closely modelled on the Latin oratorios of Carissimi, with whom Charpentier studied in Rome. In Roman Catholic France there was not the appetite for such works outside church, and so these works were sung during Mass in churches. In Vienna oratorio flourished alongside opera but tended to be performed privately for royalty alone.

It was a similar situation in Protestant Germany, where the term was not used until the early eighteenth century. A lost composition by Nicolaus Adam Strungk on The Resurrection, performed in Dresden in the late seventeenth century, is said to be the first German piece called an “oratorium.” A closely related genre, “historia,” featured strict quotation of a biblical story set to music, for example, compositions by Heinrich Schutz, and these were popular from the time of Luther onward. There are, furthermore, early German “oratorios” that are similar to Italian ones, for example, Andreas Fromm’s Actus musicus de Divite et Lazaro (1649) and Dietrich Buxtehude’s Die Hochzeit des Lammas (1678), but neither was performed in oratories. In Germany, oratorio did not become a recognized genre until the early eighteenth century in Hamburg, where the first public Opera House outside Italy was built in 1678. Oratorio took its place alongside opera there and even found its way into cathedrals after a few years, used for important festivals. The genre was particularly influenced by Lutheran traditions of the chorale and Passion. In German oratorios, chorale texts and tunes were included to reflect the feelings of the Christian congregation, the origin perhaps of the more reflective type of oratorio. The chorus is more important in these oratorios, as is the use of a narrator, as in the Passion tradition, and indeed these became known as “oratorio Passions.” The earliest known oratorio Passion is that of Thomas Selle, Passion secundum Johanneum cum intermediis (1643). Reflective interpolations to the Passion story were added from biblical texts (in Selle’s case from Isaiah and the Psalms) other than the Gospels, or from chorales, or indeed from increasingly freely composed spiritual poetry. The use of modern recitative and concertato styles characterize this form of the genre. It reaches its culmination in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Bach wrote Christmas, Easter, and Ascension oratorios (1735), but these are not in fact oratorios; only the Easter oratorio comes close to the genre in its dramatic structure. Handel’s English oratorios reflect this same greater emphasis on the chorus, also influenced by the English choral tradition and French classical tragedy, and he did not indulge in the da capo aria as the Italians did. Another influence on the formation of German oratorio was concertato dialogues known in the Lutheran church from the 1620s—i.e., dialogues between God and a faithful soul, such as that of Andreas Hammerschmidt, Dialogi oder Gespräch zwischen Gott und einer gläubigen Seele auss den biblischen Texten zusammen gezogen … erster Theil. These contained narrative and dramatic elements presenting Gospel stories as motets, some containing nonbiblical interpolations too. Influences also came from biblical poetry, plays, and opera. A definition of “oratorio” from the period is provided by Johann Adolph Scheibe in an article in Der Critische Musicus on 26 November 1737. He defines oratorio as a spiritual dramatic work and writes that oratorio texts consist of “biblical passages, arias, cavatas, recitatives and chorales or short verses from psalms and songs of praise.” He speaks of two types—one purely poetic and the other a mixture of poetry and prose. He notes that some fictitious characters are permissible and that allegorical personification of countries or virtues (e.g., Daughter of Zion, Bride of Christ, Devotion) is common. Scheibe argues that a work must conform to nature and reason and so voices disapproval when drinking songs or love songs are incorporated in the genre.

English Oratorio from Early Antecedents to Handel.

English antecedents to oratorio include the dramatic dialogue often used for secular texts but with some biblical examples. John Hilton (1599–1657) wrote The Dialogue of King Solomon and the Two Harlots and The Dialogue of Job, God, Satan, Job’s Wife and the Messengers (1616). Audiences were unfamiliar with the oratorio until it was introduced to England by Handel. The English oratorio is then essentially Handel’s creation. His was a synthesis of elements from Italian opera seria, German oratorio, French classical drama, and English masque and choral music—this was the melting pot that generated the apogee of the oratorio genre in the work of George Frideric Handel.

By the early eighteenth century the genre was becoming more widespread and more recognized. Oratorios were still unstaged and sacred. They were also largely dramatic compositions and increasingly ambitious in scale and scope, some lasting for three hours. However, some of Handel’s oratorios were not dramatic and were more reflective (e.g., Israel in Egypt, Messiah, and the Occasional Oratorio the first two of which were based on biblical texts, the third not). It was Handel who brought the oratorio to England. In the 1720s and 1730s Handel wrote Italian operas in England, but public interest waned and so he decided to move in the direction of oratorio, largely basing them on Old Testament stories. People of the time were familiar with their Bibles and could identify with the Israelite nation, its heroes and kings, as well as with accompanying religious themes. England, as Israel, was preserving the Protestant faith against “the Catholic infidel.”

Handel’s first oratorio for an English audience was in 1732 when his Esther was performed in public. It had earlier been performed in private as a “little opera” (and on Handel’s birthday), and again the key aspect was that it was unstaged. Dramatic, biblically based plots written in English, but with the structural and musical conventions of Italian “opera seria,” were a heady combination that led to instant success. Recitatives consisted of spoken dialogue sung to a simple melody either unaccompanied or accompanied, and they generally functioned to move the plot along. Arias, on the other hand, were an opportunity to pause in the narrative and for characters to express their feelings at unfolding situations. Esther was followed by Deborah (1733) and Athalia (1733); Saul (1738), Messiah (1742), Samson (1743), Joseph and His Brethren (1744), Belshazzar (1744), Judas Maccabeus (1747), Solomon (1749), Susanna (1749), Theodora (1750), and Jephtha (1751), all based on biblical or apocryphal texts. As Rooke (2012) points out, relevance to the time was never far away. The topics included “the nature of monarchy (Saul, Belshazzar), legitimate and illegitimate rulers (Athalia, Solomon), true and false religion (Deborah, Samson), proper interpretation of scripture (Joseph, Jephtha) and British national identity (Esther, Judas Maccabeus). Morality (Susanna), social order (Deborah) and the nature of religious devotion (Theodora, Jephtha) also featured as key themes” (pp. 227–228).

There was considerable license taken with the biblical text. Handel’s Esther is a good example. It was not based on the Hebrew text as found in the Old Testament and preserved in Jewish tradition at Purim but was based on a play by Racine called Esther. Rather than being interpreted in the context of a woman winning over against foreigners in Diaspora or seen as being full of comic reversals of fortune (as celebrated at Purim), the context changes to the final years of the Babylonian exile, following the opinion of the time that Ahasuerus, the king, was to be identified with Darius I. For Racine, themes of divine punishment and the hope of restoration dominate over ethnicity questions as in the original. Exile represents captivity and estrangement from a desolate promised land, with no hope of a promised messiah in view. This is a story of freedom and restoration to the homeland. Esther—known to be a beauty from the Hebrew text—becomes more pious than beautiful, a devout worshipper of God and prepared to sacrifice herself for the greater good of her people. Handel makes the exilic situation more positive than Racine—despite being in Exile, the people sing for joy when Esther becomes queen. As the plot moves on, there is shock and despair at the situation, but this soon becomes hopeful again once Esther successfully gets the king to come to her feast. The main characterization is the chorus of Israelites, with Esther taking a more minor role. Her piety and prayerfulness are stressed—the libretto features Esther’s prayer to become a sacrifice rather than the people. The religious dimension is clear—God preserves his chosen people from their enemies by elevating to queen a God-fearing woman to counteract hostile forces. The parallels with Protestant deliverance from Roman Catholicism is clear (e.g., the Gunpowder plot of 1605). Handel revised this oratorio and drew out the character of Esther and stressed her beauty, and he also expanded the role of Ahasuerus, perhaps with the current royal family (George and Caroline) in mind. He added two of his Coronation Anthems at this stage.

Rooke (2012) argues that as Handel’s oratorio writing matured, his interest moved away from the more political scenarios, as evidenced in Esther, and toward interest in key personages. One oratorio that marks this change is his Solomon. While all his oratorios were affected by the political circumstances of his day, Solomon combines this interest with a focus on the individual king that matches Handel’s desire to flatter George II, who was king at the time of writing. This oratorio was first performed in 1749 shortly after the Jacobite rebellion, and so it acts as a justification for that defeat and praise of the status quo. Solomon is the royal king par excellence with matching wisdom. Three aspects of Solomon’s reign are brought out—his happy marriage to his adoring Egyptian queen, the daughter of the pharaoh of Egypt; his juridical wisdom in judging between the right of two harlots to a baby; and his foreign relations with the queen of Sheba, another woman, admiring of the king both as a man and as a wise king. Part I of the oratorio focuses on Solomon’s relationship with his queen, much expanded from the biblical account. After Solomon’s temple building has been validated by fire from heaven, he and his queen converse amorously in airs, recitatives, and one duet using sentiments taken from the Song of Songs (traditionally ascribed to Solomon). There is a strong element of adoration from the queen, which serves to verbalize praise of Solomon, which is reciprocated by Solomon in references to her beauty and desirability.

Part II opens with a justification of the killings that Solomon made on his way to the throne, including that of his half-brother Adonijah. Rather than being the result of unbridled ambition, the action is seen as just and divinely legitimated in the triumph of good over evil, although regrettable to Solomon. In this context the two harlots appear, and Solomon again shows the impartiality of his judgment. Although it is obvious from the different stances of the women—one a grieving mother, the other a defiant and abrupt woman—who is the guilty party, Solomon still goes through the charade of threatening a sword to slice the child in half. Of course the brash woman shows no remorse at the idea, but the real mother offers to sacrifice the child to the other woman to save his life. Solomon’s judgment is shown to be fair, as with his killing of Adonijah.

Part III introduces the Queen of Sheba, who is depicted in a similar way to Solomon’s queen—again she is a foil for emphasizing Solomon’s greatness. In an opening recitative she makes it clear that she has come to Solomon to learn from him (not a feature of the biblical account), and, on meeting him, she is overwhelmed by his splendor. Solomon responds with various musical renditions that express his riches and wisdom and accepts her gift while she responds admiringly. She compares herself in her final recitative and air to a flower brought into bloom by Solomon’s spring rain. Whereas in 1 Kings 1–8 there is criticism of Solomon later in life, this is totally absent from this oratorio. The aim seems to be to boost the description of this great king through the medium of these interactions with women so as to reflect well on the monarchy of Handel’s own day.

Undoubtedly Handel’s most famous, popular, and enduring oratorio is Messiah. It is interesting that this is of the more contemplative type of oratorio, which Handel himself developed. Messiah was composed in just 24 days, between 22 August and 14 September 1741. It was first performed in Dublin in a music hall in Fishamble Street. It was later performed in London, slightly controversially in Covent Garden, a theater. It was at the first London performance that the king reputedly stood up during the Hallelujah chorus, which started a tradition that is still practiced today. It was repeatedly performed for charity in the chapel of the Foundling Hospital after that, a practice that may have led to the (false) impression that the piece was in fact church music. It was admired from the start. The first review stated that: “Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestic and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear … ” (Dublin Journal [Faulkner], 17 April 1742). The early performances of Messiah featured a moderate-sized orchestra and choir of up to 25 singers, all male.

The libretto of Messiah is made up entirely of biblical quotations, most of which are from the Old Testament, notably the book of Isaiah (especially chs. 40–55). The clear application of the words of the Old Testament prophet directly to the person of Jesus reflects the Christian focus of the piece (and is not, in my view, anti-Jewish [contra Marissen, 2014]). Prophets (e.g., Haggai and Malachi) and Psalms feature alongside the Gospels, Epistles of Paul, and the Revelation of St. John. Charles Jennens was the librettist. Unlike Handel’s other oratorios, this work is not driven by characters or engaging narrative, rather it is narrative of a reflective type. One’s definition might be decisive in choosing whether one wants to classify Messiah as an oratorio at all. A contemporary, John Brown (1763), argued that Messiah’s lack of drama and “collection of Hymns and Anthems drawn from the Sacred Scripture” rendered it in “another Class of Composition,” (p. 218) although he did not specify precisely what that might be.

Messiah has three parts—Part 1 contains prophecy foretelling the Christ event and the Incarnation itself; Part 2 presents the Passion, the Resurrection, and the first Gospel witness; Part 3 reflects on the Christian triumph over death and is indebted to the Burial Service in the Anglican church for many of its sentiments. There is considerable use of the chorus in this piece, balanced with solo items—and sometimes the two are elided together, with choruses emerging out of solos or duets. Each part contains as many choruses as arias, linked by recitatives—in fact, the sequence “recitative, aria, chorus” is a frequent one. The character of some choruses is ceremonial, such as the Hallelujah chorus, but others are more passionate with their slow tempo and dotted rhythms (e.g., “Behold the Lamb of God”). Others have a lighter dance style (e.g., “And the glory of the Lord,” thought to have been influenced by the “Siciliano” style often used to express pastoral moods, e.g., “He shall feed his flock”). Some choruses use fugues, while others are strictly chordal. Handel often reused material; for example, in “For unto us a child is born” he used two sections of an Italian secular duet, “No di voi non vo fidarmi.” He rejected the Italian da capo tradition, however, in this oratorio. The martial rage of choruses such as “Why do the nations?” was to catch on in later dramatic oratorios.

Handel’s Legacy in England and Europe.

Some of Handel’s contemporaries were writing in a similar vein, but he dominated the scene in England both during his lifetime and after his death. His contemporaries include Willem de Fesch (Judith, 1733, for which only the libretto survives, and Joseph, 1745), Maurice Greene (Jephtha, 1737), Thomas Arne (Abel, 1744), and John Stanley (Jephtha, 1757). Indeed, 216 oratorios were written in England between 1800 and 1915, and over half were based on Old Testament subjects, some containing biblical quotations, some newly written but based on biblical topics.

Oratorio continued to be popular in Europe throughout the eighteenth century. In Italy its character remained different from German and British examples. Until late in the century the libretto of an oratorio had a two-part structure, alternations of recitative and aria as in opera seria and very few choruses. The biblical or hagiographic subject matter remained constant. A popular librettist, Pietro Metastasio, was particularly favoured and then copied by later poets. Later in the century changes were made in the oratorio libretto to include more choruses and ensembles and fewer simple recitatives. Italian composers and librettists often worked on both opera and oratorio, and oratorios were increasingly “staged,” like operas, in theaters (e.g., Naples during Lent, 1780–1820s). This meant that there was little difference between oratorio and “opera sacra,” which was always staged.

Even after Handel died in 1759, in England his legacy remained, and most oratorios that were performed were Handelian and copied his style. Oratorios were put on in Lent on Wednesdays and Fridays, and, although often performed in theaters, they remained unstaged. The subjects of the oratorios were usually biblical, but a few nonbiblical topics crept in, for example, in Acis and Galatea and Alexander’s Feast, both of which Handel did not regard as oratorios. Indeed, the very definition of oratorio was changing—Handel himself used the term for a concert of miscellaneous works, and in the late eighteenth century “oratorio” was often a concert of sacred music during Lent using a selection of music from various oratorios. “Oratorio” was sometimes used as a synonym for “festival.” Grand selections of Handel’s music became popular, with Messiah usually at the end, and this gradually displaced the performance of entire oratorios. Music festivals grew up in cathedral cities such as Salisbury and Winchester and even in churches. In the 1760s in Oxford and Cambridge, two-day festivals celebrated the close of the academic year. Oratorio choruses got larger, often supplemented from chapel or church choirs, and, as forces of singers became larger in the 1770s, women started to sing in the choruses. On 27 February 1773 the Public Advertiser mentions the performance of Thomas Arne’s Judith in Covent Garden, which featured a larger orchestra and chorus than usual and “received a most pleasing Addition from the Female Singers then first introduced” (p. 3). For the Handel commemoration in 1791 there were 275 singers—60 sopranos (47 boys and 12 women), one castrato, 48 countertenors, 83 tenors, and 84 basses plus soloists, three conductors, and direction from the organ. This was performed in Westminster Abbey to great applause. This formula was then repeated, and choruses got even larger and the occasions increasingly grand. This led to more monumental performances abroad: for example, Messiah was performed in an Italian translation in the Berlin Cathedral in 1786.

Oratorio as a Changing Genre.

Although oratorios were performed well into the nineteenth century, toward the end of the eighteenth they were increasingly unfashionable. A few new oratorios were composed late in the century in England (e.g., John Christopher Smith’s Paradise Lost), but most followed Handelian styles. One exception is Thomas Arne’s Judith, which was performed in 1761 at a Lenten concert that combined traditional and newer styles, traditional da capo airs combining with Baroque dance styles and quick harmonic rhythm. Concerts of ancient music also began in this period and became increasingly popular after the 1780s.

In Germany, as in England, oratorio had developed a greater emphasis on the chorus, but a distinctive aspect was the inclusion of chorale texts as featured in church cantatas. Indeed, the distinction between these two genres became slight. New Testament subjects were more popular than Old Testament ones in Germany. This led to the emergence of the “lyric oratorio,” used largely for edification and to emphasize religious feelings and used in church at major feasts during the church year. Instead of focusing on narration of stories (which it was assumed were largely known), the emphasis was more on a contemporary lyric drama with unnamed personages and “idealized” figures who express their sentiments about events. The emphasis falls more on the readers/listeners and the shaping of their religious life. An example is Carl Heinrich Graun’s Der Tod Jesu (1754), a two-hour work similar to both cantata and oratorio, the librettist for which was Karl Wilhelm Ramler.

Haydn’s The Creation.

Haydn’s The Creation was performed in London in 1800 and claimed considerable attention. Haydn had attended the Handel commemoration in London in 1791 and heard his oratorios in Vienna, and this inspired his two oratorios, The Creation (1795) and The Seasons (1801). The Creation was labelled an oratorio by Haydn and had more popular reception and appeal. The Seasons was based on a nature poem with a strong element of deism. The first performance of The Creation on 30 April 1798, at the Palais Schwarzenberg in Vienna was sponsored by Baron Gottfried van Swieten of that city. Viennese patronage of oratorio had become important and performance of oratorios popular in Vienna. The first edition of The Creation appeared in 1800, its title page in German and English and including a bilingual text underlay so that the oratorio could be performed in either language. This shows the increasingly cross-cultural nature of the genre as it travelled across Europe and the world. The libretto is a mystery. It was an old English text compiled from three sources—the book of Genesis, book 7 of Milton’s Paradise Lost, and some Psalms, which are paraphrased. The libretto is said to be by a Lidley, but no one of that name is known, and so the suggestion has been made that it is possibly Thomas Linley (1733–1795). Although the text was originally in English, Haydn arguably worked with a German text, which was then translated into English by van Swieten, although it has been argued that van Swieten formed the text as it is and that the German is secondary. Van Swieten seems to have supplied a text to Haydn, which was full of suggestions for musical setting, many of which Haydn followed. There is a large orchestration. The climactic moment of the creation of light is in C major, tutti and fortissimo.

This libretto is of the narrative-reflective type. Four days of creation are described in Part 1, days five and six in Part 2, and then Part 3 focuses on Adam and Eve in Paradise, consisting of lyric and idyllic texts. The solo parts in parts 1 and 2 are given to the archangels Gabriel (soprano), Uriel (tenor), and Raphael (bass), who sing the narrative and most of the commentary and participate with the chorus in songs of praise. The chorus usually represents the angels of the Heavenly Host. In Part 3 the main personages are Adam (bass) and Eve (soprano). Uriel sings brief introductory recitatives, and the chorus participates in one of Adam and Eve’s duets and sings with four unnamed soloists in the final movement. Five numbers are arias without chorus, but most are joined to a chorus. Four numbers are for ensemble and chorus, three for ensembles alone. The Genesis texts chosen are mainly of praise (large sections of the hymn in Genesis 1) and have that tone, but the love duet of Adam and Eve is adagio leading to a dance. The only drama in the work is the recitative of Adam and Eve before their love song.

Oratorio in Germany in the Nineteenth Century.

In nineteenth-century Germany oratorio writing boomed. Haydn’s The Creation was the most popular oratorio in Germany. Handel’s influence was felt in the development of the two types of oratorio—the more dramatic and the more contemplative. Beethoven wrote only one oratorio, Christus am Olberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives, 1803), which falls mainly into the dramatic type. Beethoven studied with Haydn in Vienna and was influenced by Graun’s Der Tod Jesu. The librettist for Christus was Franz Xaver Huber (1755–1814), a Viennese satirist, diarist, and librettist. It has only one part with six numbers within it. Each number has a recitative followed by an aria, ensemble, and chorus or combination of chorus and soloists. It is a short dramatic work (50 minutes) with three soloists—Jesus (tenor), a Seraph (soprano), and Peter (bass), plus a chorus of soldiers (tenor, tenor, bass), disciples (tenor, tenor), and angels (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). A role for Jesus was more common in German oratorio than elsewhere. The entire oratorio takes place on the Mount of Olives. It is mainly dramatic, but with some “feeling,” especially at the beginning. It is heroic, with themes of Jesus’s innocent suffering and heroic self-sacrifice in the foreground. Jesus under the threat of a painful death is resigned to the will of God. A long and somber instrumental prelude in the minor key depicts the lone figure’s plight. The seraph and Jesus duet, together with off-beat rhythms, indicate Jesus’s anxiety and terror.

A number of oratorios were written in the nineteenth century. From Germany came, most famously, Mendelssohn’s Elijah (1846) and Paulus (1836), Liszt’s Die Legende von der heiligen Elisabeth (1857–1862) and Christus (1862–1868), Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri (1843), and Schneider’s Das Weltgericht (1819). In the German context, the definition of an “oratorio” gradually came to depend more on the libretto than on the style of the music itself—the key element was the religious topic, even if gradually librettos departed from being strictly biblical. Types of oratorio ranged from narrative-dialogic to narrative-reflective to dialogic-reflective. There were usually parts for both soloists and chorus. Most were long works, many of which had a religious subject matter from the Judeo-Christian tradition and were composed of verse and/or biblical prose. There was a mixture of piety and churchiness about oratorio, especially when encompassing themes of human greatness and seriousness and relationship to God combined with an operatic element that dealt more with the senses and passions. They were performed in church, concert hall, or music festival, and occasionally dramatic oratorios were given in theaters in the style of an opera.

Mendelssohn’s Elijah.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah stands as one of the great oratorios of the nineteenth century. Mendelssohn chose the Lutheran Bible in German for his oratorio, basing the narrative on 1 Kings (1 Kgs 18—2 Kgs 2), with wider sentiments being drawn from different texts. This mixing of texts seems to have become more common in this period, thus enabling the narrative to be interspersed with more reflective/moral/spiritual texts, often from the Psalms. Nearly all the citations are from the Old Testament except two from Matthew’s Gospel. The context, as with many oratorios, is defined broadly—as the Oxford History of Music puts it, “Thus his choral works of this description must be considered as concert music of a serious kind—touched, it is true, with the spirit of devotion but by no means ecclesiastical” (1905, p. 156). Mendelssohn wrote Elijah specifically for use by choral societies and performance at musical festivals. The libretto was written in German by Mendelssohn himself following the Lutheran Bible. The piece was, however, commissioned for a Birmingham premiere in Britain (in 1846), and so work had to be done to translate it into English. There is therefore a sense, as with Haydn’s work, of two languages being equally “in play” in the performance of this oratorio.

Oratorio in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Beyond.

In nineteenth-century Britain oratorio continued to be very important, and Handel dominated the scene along with Old Testament themes. Oratorios (or selections from them) tended to be performed in Lent, and when in the 1830s a few oratorios were staged, this development was quickly censored by church leaders. Oratorios were seen as religious, not secular. There was some overlap between oratorio and cantata, although the latter were generally shorter. The English were taunted by other Europeans for having no home-grown composers—even Handel was born German! Somehow this taunt seemed to provoke a renaissance in English oratorio in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. In 1876 the Purcell society was founded to “rediscover” English music and Purcell in particular. This led to the encouragement of home-grown talent that spawned works by Cowen, Mackenzie, Stanford, Parry, and Elgar. Influenced by Mendelssohn, a new romanticism grew up in Britain, which reached its epitome in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius (1900). This represented a kind of romantic nostalgia for the distant past, which used chromatic harmonic language, reminiscence motifs, a continuous scene structure rather than discrete numbers and a flexible form. This romantic development also took place in Germany.

Oratorios were seen in Britain as primarily religious pieces, and many saw cathedrals as the spiritual home of the genre. Some churches and cathedrals would not charge admission when oratorios were performed there. Others still did not like these works performed in churches. Applause was prohibited. There were by the mid-nineteenth century many more choruses, and it was seen as good for one’s personal spirituality and morality to sing in an oratorio. All classes of society came to be involved in this “educational” enterprise. The music festival evolved in both Germany and England, and between 1840 and 1900 there was a great increase in the number of choral societies in the provinces. London lagged behind. The Sacred Harmonic Society (1836–1880) regularly performed Handel and Mendelssohn in Exeter Hall. The Royal Choral Society was formed in 1871. In London Lenten concerts were popular, often containing excerpts from various oratorios, and they were often performed in theaters, sometimes accompanied by secular music. The Oxford movement influenced the gaining popularity of choral music in church, and oratorios or parts of them were included in this. The sight-singing movement also influenced the growing number of choirs and choral groups. There was a rush of new oratorios between the 1850s and 1870s (20–30 per decade). This reached its peak in the 1880s (50), but during the 1890s and 1900s the number declined as interest started to wane. Some good works did, however, appear during this period, including three on Job by Russell, Chipp, and Parry (see Dell, 2013b). Libretti were sometimes patched together from the Bible—Chipp on Job is a good example of a score that takes the story from Job but uses lament sentiments from the Psalms with which the audience would have been familiar to explore the more edifying aspect of the story.

Handel’s oratorios also caught on in America and Canada, a burgeoning new scene for classical music. Oratorio found its way across the Atlantic in two varieties—traditional oratorios and “easy oratorios” (or “light oratorios”). The latter were works for less able choruses or volunteer church choirs and were used in schools. Absalom (1850) and Abraham and Ishmael (1854), by I. B. Woodbury, were printed in books of hymn tunes. In France the concert oratorio, known as the “concert spirituel,” became popular, with its heyday from 1774 to 1790. The French Revolution inflicted a blow on religious music from which French oratorio never recovered. The French were less influenced by Handel and so developed their own style: some examples are Massenet, La Terre Promise (1897–1899); Gounod, La rédemption (1882); and Debussy, Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, mystère (1911).

Oratorio in the Twentieth Century and Beyond.

Oratorio waned first in Italy in the early nineteenth century, and gradually other countries followed. By the twentieth century the term was rather more ambiguously applied. It tended to refer to long concert pieces with narrative or dramatic texts at their heart, set to music for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. A religious subject was usual but not a criterion for its definition. Oratorios tend to be religious or ethical, but in the twentieth century more had secular themes. They are still not staged in general, but there are more exceptions to that rule. Sometimes opera and oratorio genres are fused (e.g., in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, opera-oratorio, 1927). The choral movement also declined—no longer was there a significant market for new oratorio writing. There was more interest in continuing to perform older oratorios. Twentieth-century examples of oratorio include Olivier Messiaen’s Transfiguration (1965–1969) and Michael Tippett’s The Mask of Time (1982). Twentieth-century oratorios have librettos on different subjects such as nonreligious political, patriotic, or nationalistic themes and subjects based on literary works, mythology or legend, historical events, and texts expressing philosophical or religious ideas that are broadly humanistic. Some were still composed on traditional religious subjects (e.g., Honegger’s Le roi David, 1923, and Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, 1931). Oratorios also appeared about medieval saints (e.g., Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, 1935). Quite a few were by American composers; Thomas Beversdorf’s The Rock (1958) has a text from T. S. Eliot.

Tippett’s The Mask of Time (1982), on people’s relationship with time and their place in the universe, shows how wider philosophical, historical, and religious themes come into play. His A Child of Our Time (1941) concerns the atrocities of  World War II, drawing out the universal significance of the tragic events of the Holocaust. The genre was even cultivated in Soviet states to praise the revolution and stimulate patriotic feeling; Prokofiev’s Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution (1937) was called a cantata but was closer to an oratorio—it was too long and large choral forces were required. Some similar oratorios were composed in Germany in the 1930s (e.g., Hans Eisler’s Die Maßnahme, 1930). Other famous oratorios of this period include Vaughan Williams, Sancta Civitas (1925); Hindemith, Das Unaufhörliche (1931); and Schmidt, Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln (1937). The more conventional has made way for the more avant-garde and adventurous. Musically, too, there is now much more flexibility in terms of expanded tonality, dissonance, chromaticism, and so on. The genre of oratorio is firmly established in the twenty-first century as an option for composers and librettists, even though its style, tone, and format have developed considerably from its earliest roots.



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Katharine J. Dell