Oratorio

Oratorio in Italy after Carissimi.—After the beginning made by Carissimi, the next work of importance in Oratorio is that of Alessandro Scarlatti, who established the Aria form as explained in the study of the Opera. The composers of the Italian school of the last part of the 17th and the early part of the 18th century used practically the same methods in Opera and Oratorio, the difference being mainly in the character of the text, and in the earnestness or religious feeling of the composer. Scarlatti is also signalized by his improvements in the Recitative, which resulted in several forms made use of by his successors, Recitativo Secco and Accompanied Recitative. He wrote ten oratorios. Con-temporaries whose work should be mentioned are Antonio Caldara (1678-1763) and Leonardo Leo (1694-1746), a pupil of Scarlatti, who wrote nearly a hundred works for the church, the chief one being the oratorio, Santa Elena al Calvario and a Miserere for a double choir. He was strong in his writing for chorus, making splendid use of the fugal style. Another contemporary of the first rank was Alessandro Stradella (1645-1681), whose oratorio, San Giovanni Battista (St. John the Baptist) is a most beautiful work. It contains a free treatment of the accompanying instruments, the arias are clear and well-designed, the chorus writing for five parts is effective as well as ingenious, and the work as a whole shows considerable power of dramatic expression, forming a sort of transition between Scarlatti and Handel. Stradella is said to have been a pupil of Carissimi.

Oratorio in Germany. — In Oratorio as in Opera, the style spread to other countries, there, in the case of the Oratorio, ultimately to find a more congenial home ; for the Oratorio, in Italy after the time of Stradella, seemed to lose hold on composers and public. The latter did not grasp the fact that the Oratorio had within it one element, the chorus, to give to it a definite individuality. They submitted to the public’s preference for solo singing and made up their oratorios largely of conventional arias-thus inviting comparison with the Opera, and reserved their writing in choral form for their works for the Church service, such as psalms, manificats, masses and motets. In Germany, the attitude of the people toward religious music, doubtless owing to the Reformation as well as to the serious nature of the people, was much more favorable than in Italy. This temperament is shown by the fact that when German composers cast about for themes for their oratorios they seemed to choose the story of the Passion. The oldest example of the German Oratorio is “The Resurrection of Christ,” writ-ten by Heinrich Schuetz (1585-1672), a pupil of Giovanni Gabrieli, which was produced at Dresden in 1623. The narrative portions were committed almost entirely to the chorus. We mention also a setting of the Passion, by Johann Sebastiani, published in 1672, which contains interspersed chorales, sung as arias by one voice with violin accompaniment, and by Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739).

Use of the Chorale.—A step in advance was taken when German composers began to use the chorale of the German Protestant Church as the subject for contrapuntal elaboration, a tendency shown in the work of Sebastiani referred to in the preceding paragraph. The Chorale had absorbed into itself the spirit of the Volkslied, and its use supplied the medium for the public to enter fully into the spirit of the oratorio. Two composers who developed the “Passion Music” idea to its height, Karl Heinrich Graun (1701-1759) and Johann Sebastian Bach, made the Chorale an integral part of their works. The greatest work in oratorio form written by Graun was called Der Tod Jesu (The Death of Jesus), which was first produced in the Cathedral at Berlin in 1755. This work consists of reci tatives, airs and choruses, the fugal treatment of the latter being admirable in point of clearness of design and breadth of form. Graun used in this oratorio six chorales. Der Tod Jesu, owing to a bequest, is still given in Berlin.

Bach.—The greatest of all the settings of the Passion are those by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-175o). The first work in this style by Bach was the one according to “St. John,” in 1723, first performed on Good Friday, 1724, at Leipzig. This work, fine as it is, must yield to the second setting, according to “St. Matthew,” first produced on Good Friday, 1729, afterward revised and given again in 1740. A few notes on the “Passion according to St. Matthew” will serve for both works. The characters introduced are Jesus, Judas, Peter, Pilate, the Apostles and the People. Certain reflections on the narrative are interpreted by a chorus. The text which furnishes the narrative is assigned to the principal tenor. Fifteen chorales of the Lutheran Church are introduced, and in the singing of these the general congregation was expected to join. The choruses contain powerful and dramatic vocal effects, and though not strictly fugal are intricate in their part-writing. A double chorus is used, each chorus having a separate orchestra and organ accompaniment. The performance of this work (St. Matthew Passion) was restricted to Leipzig in the 18th century, and was discontinued altogether in the 19th until Mendelssohn revived it in 1829. It is given very frequently at the present day during the Lenten season, in part or in full. The “Christmas Oratorio” (1734) is really a series of cantatas for each of the first days of the Christmas week, and contains no new ideas so far as form is concerned.

Stabat Mater.—In connection with the “Passion” reference should be made to the Latin hymn, “Stabat Mater,” which has been made the subject of treatment in oratorio form, by Palestrina, Giovanni Battista Pergolcsi (1710-1736) for soprano and contralto accompanied by strings and organ, Emanuele d’Astorga (1681-1736) for four voices with instrumental accompaniment, the more modern work, in large form, by Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868), most beautiful as music if partaking t00 much, as critics say, of the sensuous, and the magnificent setting of Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904). This work has been placed, by musicians and the public, in the category of the world’s masterpieces of choral writing.

George Friedrich Handel (1685-1759) .—We now come to Bach’s contemporary, the greatest name in the history of the Oratorio, to the composer who brought to his work a musical learning equal to that of Bach, German earnestness and mastery of contrapuntal science, tempered by knowledge of and experience in Italian vocal methods, producing simple, clear melody supported by rich, firm harmonies, a complete mastery of the orchestra of the day, a clear under-standing of the value of the chorus in working out dramatic effects; and this combination was offered a congenial field for labor in England, one of the great Protestant countries of Europe, with a deep reverence for religion and for the narratives of the Bible and the truths and lessons they en-force. This latter point is strikingly present in the texts of Handel’s oratorios ; the symbolic meaning of the narrative is clearly indicated and made the central thought of the work, producing a remarkable effect of Unity. As a writer has said: “Handel preaches through the voices of his chorus.” The orchestra for which Handel wrote was smaller than the full orchestra to which we are accustomed today. The proportion of string players to the whole number of players was smaller, but on the other side, more than two oboes and bassoons were used; flutes were most frequently used as solo instruments or to double the part of the oboes ; the clarinet Handel never used, doubtless be-cause of its imperfections, which were not remedied until later ; the brass instruments used were’ trumpets with kettle drums for their natural bass, horns and the three trombones, alto, tenor and bass ; other instruments of a soft-voiced quality, like the harp, viola da gamba, were occasionally used for obligato accompaniments. The organ was always used, the part being written according to the figured bass system, and the harpsichord was used by the conductor. The reader who is able to analyze one of Handel’s oratorio scores will be surprised to note the superb effects he makes with comparatively small resources. Compared with the polyphonic writing of his predecessors and his great con-temporary, Bach, his fugues seem light and simple, but that very thing gives them their admirable clearness and purity ; compared with later works, his diatonic progress-ions and harmonies based on common chords seem colorless, especially so in contrast with the kaleidoscopic chromatic figures and strongly dissonant harmonies of the newer school; yet in this point is the strength of Handel’s works with the public; simplicity is valued more highly than complexity, naturalness rather than the indications of science.

Handel wrote seventeen works that can be classed as oratorios. The first of these was “Esther,” in 1720, revised and brought out anew in 1732. In 1733 “Deborah,” perhaps best-known for a powerful double chorus, was offered to the public; “Athaliah” in the same year. In 1739 came “Saul” and “Israel in Egypt,” the former best-known today for its famous “Dead March,” the latter for the music descriptive of the plagues. In 1741, he wrote his greatest oratorio “The Messiah,” which was first performed publicly, April 13, 1742, in Dublin. In this we find a certain reflective character which recalls the Passion music of the German school. The only other oratorio which is still given in anything like entirety is “Judas Maccabus” (1747) ; other works from which certain portions are still in use are “Samson” (1743), “Solomon” (1749), “Theodora” (1750), a work which Handel considered his best, and “Jephtha” (1752). Great as was Handel’s fame in England, the character of his works and the forms he used made little or no impression upon German and Italian composers. Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783), Niccolo Porpora (1686-1767), Antonio Sacchini (1734-1786), Giovanni Paisiello (1741-1816), Niccolo Jommelli (1714-1774) and Pietro Guglielmi (1727-1804) wrote in the Italian style, and their works are, properly speaking, concert oratorios. scarcely distinguishable from the opera save by the text.

Franz Joseph Haydn.—The next name of importance is that of Haydn (1732-1899), who wrote “The Creation” and “The Seasons” toward the end of a long life, after his work as a composer had given him a command of musical re-sources excelled only by Beethoven, who did not equal him in skill in writing effectively and suitably for voices. It was in 1798 that “The Creation” was first given in Vienna. The score abounds in effective writing for the solo voices, in the florid style and in the conventional aria form, and in brilliant choruses which, however, cannot compare in dignity and breadth with those of Handel. The orchestral accompaniments are much more elaborate than those used by Handel, as can naturally be expected from a composer who had given his greatest efforts to the development of instrumental music. “The Seasons” was first performed in Vienna in 1801. It proved as successful as “The Creation.” Haydn’s simple, genial nature is apparent in this beautiful work, really too light to bear the name of oratorio, which has such close association with works of a deep, religious character.

Mozart and Beethoven.—As the orchestra developed under the masters of tone and dramatic effects, Mozart, Gluck and Beethoven, so the works in oratorio form took on a different texture. In the earlier periods, the accompaniments were subordinate, the interest was centred in the voices. But as composers realized the possibilities of the constantly-improving orchestra and the opportunities for effective combinations of voices and instruments, the tendency became more and more marked to elaborate the instrumental parts and to create an ensemble more complicated and gorgeous, based upon the orchestra and its tone-color scheme rather than on pure vocal effects. Mozart’s “Requiem” (1791), written just before the composer’s death, brings into use the most powerful dramatic resources of orchestra and voices to portray the spirit of the “mass for the dead.” In oratorio, as in opera, Beethoven wrote but one work, “The Mount of Olives” (18o3). The style is Aorid and operatic, somewhat in the style of the Italian composers ; the resources of the orchestra are drawn upon more extensively than marked the methods of Haydn. The chorus is freely used, the “Hallelujah” being the strongest movement. The choral movements in the Ninth Symphony suggest what Beethoven might have done had he set him-self to writing an oratorio in greater submission to the capacity of the human voice.

Spohr.—From now on, oratorio composition is associated with the masters of instrumental music, the orchestra is drawn upon for its richest and most powerful resources to work out the emotional and dramatic qualities of the texts; it is now no longer a mere accompanying instrument ; it is in the highest degree essential to the effects designed by the composer. Ludwig Spohr (1784-1859), a great violinist, wrote his first oratorio, “Dos Jungste Gericht” (The Last Judgment), when he was but twenty-eight years old. A later work produced in 1826, goes by the English name “The Last Judgment,” although that is not the literal translation of the German title Die Letzten Dinge. In this work we find the romantic idea clearly in evidence. The composer’s style had been developed and individualized by his long experience as player and conductor ; he was a master of the resources of instrumentation, conversant both as composer and conductor with the limitations of voices—he wrote a number of operas—so that he was prepared for the creation of a work which has a character of its own. A striking feature of this oratorio is the frequent use of chromatic progressions, which is indeed a characteristic of Spohr’s writing.

Mendelssohn.—The next great composer in Oratorio was a German ; like him also his works had their greatest reception in England, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847). His first work, “St. Paul,” was given at Düsseldorf in 1836. His greatest oratorio, one that ranks with Handel’s “Messiah” in public favor, is “Elijah,” which was written for the Birmingham, England, Festival. It was first produced in 1846. As a diligent and enthusiastic student of Bach, it seems natural that Mendelssohn should have adopted the great master’s methods. In style “St. Paul” and “Elijah” show leanings toward Bach and the German oratorio rather than toward Handel. Mendelssohn, who produced Bach’s “Passion according to St. Matthew” in Berlin, in 1827, was thoroughly familiar with the plan of the German oratorio, a mingling of narrative, dramatic and meditative or reflective elements, and especially the Chorale to represent the Church, the chorus being, properly speaking, a part of the dramatis personae, representing masses of people who share in the action, while the congregation represents the reflective element. He uses a fugal style quite freely in his choruses, but a strict fugue, in the style of Handel, is rare, as the composer’s feeling for emotional effects demands a freer style ; the accompaniments are elaborate, partaking of the dramatic element and drawing upon the fullest re-sources of the orchestra. Mendelssohn had started the composition of another oratorio, “Christus,” on the lines of the “Passion” music of Bach, but died before the work was completed. His “Hymn of Praise” (184o), a large choral work that is occasionally sung, well represents Mendelssohn’s skill in combining vocal and orchestral effect. Riemann calls it a symphony-cantata, Parry says it “combines the qualities of a symphony and of an oratorio.”

REFERENCES.

Grove.—Dictionary of Music and Musicians, articles on Oratorio and on composers named in this lesson.

Parry.—Evolution of the Art of Music, Chapters VII and XIII.