* 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.
- 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 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:
- It was in English and
- 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.
** 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
- Um... Thank you for stopping by. Come back soon. Nice whether we're having...
Gotta go! Bye!